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Paul K. Alkon, Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology, (New York & London: Routledge, 2002) 208 pp. Pbk. ISBN: 0415938872 £12.99

Reviewed by Debra Benita Shaw

The task of defining sf is legendary and too much sf criticism founders on the rock of its own definitions. Paul K Alkon’s Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology is, to my mind, the first introduction to the genre that takes seriously the need to understand it in terms of its engagement with science and technology while acknowledging the influence of texts that, while only marginally extrapolative, nevertheless set precedents in terms of certain formal characteristics. In fact, Alkon’s well balanced and informative introduction is the best I have read in terms of its wide ranging overview of generic antecedents, brought into sharp focus by comparisons with more recent examples. As Alkon comments “[a]s we retreat from Enlightenment certainties, our genres too lose their clarity”, so the Gothic from which sf borrows its early fascination with worlds beyond, reappears in “the voodoo and godlike entities that haunt the cyberspace of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive” (p.6). Alkon thus makes a good case for expanding the parameters of the genre while cautioning that while, for instance, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is not sf, it is nevertheless important for understanding how extrapolative literature often derives its tension from engaging with the psychology of alienation and defamiliarisation. Desert islands, other worlds and the uncharted spaces of our own can equally function to examine the human mind cast adrift from the culturally familiar. While it is true that others have suggested such works as antecedents, Alkon’s particular achievement is to demonstrate how the genre is consolidated by their continuing relevance, rather than by their exclusion from a later delimited ‘true sf’.

The three chapters following the introduction take a tour through England, France and America, stopping to examine in detail Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the works of Jules Verne and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But what I found most fascinating was Alkon’s discussion of French 18th and 19th century ‘Aliens, Androids and Icons’ (p.82), in particular Albert Robida’s Le Vingtième siècle (1883), an illustrated satire of 19th century life or, as Alkon describes it, “comedy with a satiric punch’, which is ‘uncomfortably like our own all to absurd reality” (p.97). For instance, in Robida’s imagined world of the 1950s,”Italy has been purchased by entrepreneurs for transformation into a European park (a giant proto-Disneyland) featuring a reconstruction of Pompeii”, “advertisements are everywhere” and “[m]usic, drama, entertaining shows, and an endless stream of horrifying news items are always available on television [téléphonoscope]” (p.98). As Alkon points out, sf criticism has always insisted that the genre cannot be usefully understood in terms of futurecasting but “there is no reason why [it] cannot sometimes be literally as well as metaphorically true” (p.100). Indeed, I would suggest that, in including a discussion of Robida’s novel, Alkon is offering an irresistible invitation to any critic who requires a text which lends itself to a retrospective analysis of the cultural trajectory leading to what Guy Debord would later (1967) refer to as “the society of the spectacle”.

Also impressive is Alkon’s establishment of Edgar Allan Poe as a generic precursor, a fact of which I had previously been unconvinced, despite the best efforts of eg., Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their otherwise excellent Trillion Year Spree. What I find persuasive is Alkon’s comment that, in some of Poe’s stories, “[t]he technology […] is so old-fashioned that on a casual first reading it hardly registers as technology, serving instead to create an unconscious aversion by association with its misapplication” (p.102). I was reminded here of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that, like Poe’s work, has teetered on the brink between sf and horror but which achieves its status as an sf text by a similar technique of estrangement, playing on the horror of the misapplication of technology with which we are now all too familiar (television).

The chapter on American technophobia is, however, probably the weakest of the three. While Alkon does a good job of justifying his inclusion of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee, as a precursor of time travel stories and the critical opportunities offered by the juxtaposition of past, present and future, he often seems unconvinced by his own argument that the novel is sf rather than fantasy. In particular, his suggestion that Henry Morgan’s method of transport into the past (being bashed over the head with a crowbar), is as scientifically valid as H G Wells’ device in The Time Machine, somewhat contradicts his earlier assertion that “the time machine deserves high praise […] because it is presented as a machine, not some kind of […] enchantment, keep[ing] the tale and its readers within the cognitive boundaries of science” (p.49). Whether such machines as Wells’ were, or ever will be possible, is not the point. What Alkon calls the genre’s ‘grand paradox’, that “while a scientific premise is important, belief in its possibility is not” (p.6) is what distinguishes it from fantasy.

Finally, Alkon’s excellent discussion of Frankenstein which, more than any that I have previously read, establishes its continuing status as the founding text of the genre and a considerable achievement in terms of its originality and depth. As he rightly confirms “[t]he social criticism that is one hallmark of science fiction at its best is a prominent feature of Frankenstein” and he justifies his assertion that it is “remarkable […] for its highly original narrative of oppression viewed from the perspective of the oppressed” (p.33) with an insightful analysis which expresses all the wonder that the novel still evokes, even after several readings. Alkon’s particular strength is his obviously considerable knowledge of the genre as a whole, so that he is able to recommend that “[t]he best way to appreciate the potentialities for science fiction of what Shelley so richly accomplishes with the landscapes of Frankenstein is to read Ursula K Le Guin’s beautiful account in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) of Genly Ai’s trip with Estraven across the planet Gethen’s icefields” (p32).

The introduction to this book would, alone, serve as an excellent set text for students new to studying the genre and I would strongly recommend it as an enjoyable and concise overview of the beginnings of a genre which, more than any other, has come to define the contemporary milieu.

Debra Benita Shaw teaches Cultural Studies at the University of East London. She is the author of Women, Science & Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance (Palgrave, 2000), has published papers on science fiction and feminism and science fiction film and is a contributor to Mute magazine.

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