Brooks Landon,
Science Fiction After 1900:
From the Steam Man to the Stars

(Twayne, 1997)

As the title suggests, this book explores the history of the science fiction (SF) genre. It covers the period from 1900 to the present, a time which witnessed the explosion of this genre to the point of its virtual ubiquity on today's cultural landscape (think of cinema, TV, video games, music video, computers, comics). This diversity in its manifestation means that SF's history lends itself to many viewpoints, which are the subject of Brooks Landon's scholarly study of the genre.

Landon, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, concentrates mainly but not exclusively on the literature of SF, and while his approach might best be described as "academic," in this case be assured that the adjectives "dull" or "dry" are unwarranted.

Science Fiction After 1900 is a component volume (No.12) of a Studies in Literary Themes and Genres series, and as befits such a work the core chapters are bracketed on one side by a preface which outlines the territory to be covered, followed by a chronological list of significant SF works, and on the other by extensive chapter notes and references, a bibliographic essay (pointing you to further SF sources), a recommended title list (each with short plot/critique), and finally a comprehensive index.

Even such an information-rich format as this (there are no illustrations in the book) when confined to a single volume is inadequate to an in-depth historical analysis of SF. Science Fiction After 1900 has no such pretensions, the author admitting that what he offers must by necessity be a personal survey. While personal certainly, there is never any sense that it is idiosyncratic. For example, in the first of the book's five chapters, three very different twentieth-century SF stories (dating from 1909, 1934 and 1967) are chosen in order to illustrate the terms and concepts which preoccupy discussions of the genre. That these are recognized as seminal works of SF is shown by the extensive body of criticism they have engendered, work which Landon cites, quotes and elaborates on extensively in an attempt to convey the complex gestalt that is modern SF.

This initial focus on just three works (one British, the others American), later broadens so that in following chapters a wide range of SF writing is sampled including that from the United States, England, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The emphasis throughout is on works written explicitly for SF readers and markets, and a complete chapter is devoted to its development in America. However, SF outside this classification (in the European and Russian traditions) is by no means neglected. Additionally, the collision of SF with the literary mainstream is examined along with the ensuing ambiguities of classification and definition; the final chapter identifies and discusses some newer trends in the genre.

In all of these analyses the mode of exposition is similar to that taken in chapter one, that is existing works of criticism are heavily drawn upon and developed by the author by way of opinion, explanation and/or emphasis. In this manner many disparate threads of a complex story are drawn together so that overall you gain some conceptual insight into the ever changing, ever mutating and evolving thing that is SF.

The field of historical SF criticism is one that does not lie fallow for long, and this work is one of a long line. Comparing them (I'm thinking principally of Aldiss and Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree and Thomas M. Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of), I would say that this book, while certainly not short of personal opinion and preference, is less opinionated than comparable works, making as it does such excellent use of other diverse sources of criticism. The result is a balanced and insightful historical overview suited to fans and students of the genre alike.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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