Two British academics explore the interplay of science and science fiction.
Brake (Science Communication/Univ. of Glamorgan) and Hook (Science Fiction/Univ. of Glamorgan) begin with the late Renaissance, “the age of discovery” and probably the first period in history when the term science fiction meant anything useful. Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, which smuggled a heretical Copernican viewpoint into the story of a lunar voyage, may be the first scientifically informed piece of fiction. The authors follow the genre through several eras of science, looking in each chapter at a handful of works that reveal the period’s common themes. For example, Mary Shelley was “the first great skeptic” of “the mechanical age,” warning in Frankenstein that science can overreach, while the works of Jules Verne, “its chief positivist,” exemplify the period’s faith in the truths of science. H.G. Wells, a student of Darwin’s champion T.H. Huxley, brings evolutionary themes to such books as The War of the Worlds. Some of the authors’ choices are provocative: French, German and Russian writers and filmmakers are the primary focus of their chapters on “the astounding age,” the first half of the 20th century. American fans may find this focus odd, but it recognizes the genre’s international scope. More surprising is the omission, in the discussion of “the atomic age” (1945–60), of some of its most popular writers: Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. On the other hand, the titles Brake and Hook choose to characterize the era—1984, Cat’s Cradle, A Canticle for Leibowitz and Earth Abides—are all first-rate and worthy of the attention they receive. The book is at its best in the last two chapters, which examine the works of William Gibson, Vernor Vinge and China Miéville, plus films like Blade Runner and Terminator 2, as illustrations of the unease aroused by computers and genetic engineering.
Sheds interesting new light on some familiar authors.