Thursday, February 21, 2008

Review - "Trillion Year Spree" and "Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction"

Trillion Year Spree
by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction Book

Criticism is the theme of the day and one of the biggest books around is Aldiss's and Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree which covers the history of the genre in its entirety. Unlike some others who link science fiction back to any fantasy with a foot in the real world Aldiss traces science fiction back to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein which he calls the first book to solidify the themes and structure of science fiction. He then goes back to cover the proto-science fiction novels before charging into the key figures and major movements in science fiction.

Trillion Year Spree is at its best when it covers the big picture of movements. The shifts that occurred when Astounding started pushing new material or when science fiction became mainstream. The best chapter, in my opinion, traces the waning years of seven of the biggest science fiction authors and how they've been impacted by the market forces.

The worst is when Aldiss and Wingrove simply run through a list of authors and titles with minor comments on each. I don't get any feeling for the author or their place in the history of science fiction when they choose to do this.

I like the fact that the authors are typically unwilling to just forgive poor writing. Too often I see fans of a genre willing to gloss over some poor quality swill for the sake of some narrow fetish (see the vast majority of current fantasy epics). Their commentary attacks just about anything that moves which takes it a bit further than I like to go but they dismiss a lot of popular works out of hand.

Unfortunately the book is also host of editorial problems. Repeatedly the topic changes mid-paragraph and then goes on to describe the new title or author for several paragraphs before telling the reader what they're talking about. Even when they remember to let the reader in on the discussion the text drunkenly lurches from subject with very few transitions to be found. I can't count how often I had to double back just to make sure I didn't miss something when the topic suddenly changes. Often these sudden shifts result in some very contradictory concepts turning up in the book.

I think a perfect example of the contradictions in Trillion Year Spree is how it deals with Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell. Gernsback gets two pages while Campbell get a chapter. Gernsback is attacked for claims that he popularized the term "science fiction" due to a single reference in a book from 1851 that by their admission had not been opened in over a century when they looked up the reference. Campbell is credited with most of the major creative decisions in science fiction during the 1940's. Gernsback is derided for publishing childish fiction while Campbell's narrow view of acceptable science fiction is glossed over. In short, they're brutally unforgiving to Gernsback going so far as to attack him for things that aren't really a problem while being very forgiving of Campbell's faults.

Another major problem I have with the book is that they put a lot of stock in the concept that everything has a subtle metaphoric meaning to be explored. Sometimes there can be but in my experience the symbols chosen reveal more about the critic than they do about the author. It's hard to deny that there's plenty of sexual imagery in Shelly's Frankenstein but they felt the need to credit one passage with the imagery based on wording that picked up cultural significance in the mid-twentieth century. Then there's the Ring in The Lord of the Rings as sexual metaphor (so what does it mean that when you do penetrate it you vanish and get stabbed?). They see support for American imperialism in the anti-war science fiction novels of the 1980's (apparently Ender's Game is pro-America conquering the world and not an indictment of a military that chews up children).

And that's another issue: I'm uncertain about his partner but Aldiss is British and the book shows a serious European inferiority complex (that unfortunate disease that affects Europeans who then feel the need to spout loudly to Americans how much better they are at everything than Americans). I appreciate them pointing out some obscure science fiction works and magazines hidden in Europe in the early twentieth century but denigrating science fiction being written in the United States by comparing to non-science fiction by Kafka (and trying to claim the works as science fiction when they fall well outside even his broad definition) is a real stretch. They dismiss Ellison's Dangerous Visions because Moorcock was pushing the same kind of material in the UK magazine New Worlds but it was the anthology and not the magazine that caused the shift in the publishing industry. (As I stated in the past, the revolution was inevitable since so many authors from around the world were pushing that way; Dangerous Visions was a catalyst.) Telling science fiction fans in the United States that they're bad fans because they don't learn Swedish and get a novel that had a small printing in 1935 is just going overboard.

When they stick to history Trillion Year Spree is pretty good but too often they run off on odd tangents and the criticism even when I agree with the conclusions left me annoyed at their poor reasons for those conclusions. In the end I can't recommend Trillion Year Spree.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction
by James Gunn
1983 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction Book

Gunn's focus was much tighter with this book on Asimov and while he doesn't have the problems that Aldiss and Wingrove have he also doesn't have any of their good points. The book contains some minor biographical information but it was published just a year or two after Asimov's first autobiographies so that is downplayed for a description of his science fiction works up to around 1980.

Gunn's book is slight; he provides detailed synopsis for every story and novel but the commentary on them is rather thin. There's nothing on the shifting perspectives or how Asimov attempted to push his previous material further through exploring the same ideas. You won't find much actually criticism in this book.

Gunn is also very forgiving in his biographical material. Asimov's notorious womanizing is a playful quirk to Gunn, his sleazy legal maneuvering in his divorce is somehow transformed to a strong moral stance. I suspect that Gunn is simply too close to his source in this case. I enjoy Asimov's fiction but I can't share the rose-tinted glasses that Gunn views him through.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction provides a nice overview of Asimov's works but because Gunn provides complete synopsis I can't recommend it to someone looking for information on what he wrote. And since Gunn's commentary on the books is so weak I can't recommend it to someone looking for that. And finally since the biographical information is so tainted and there are many other sources for it I can't recommend the book for that either. It simply was not worth my time.