12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 12 February 2013
The Cambridge Guide to Science Fiction is a laudable and largely successful attempt to give an overview of the genre which is both academically rigorous but also accessible to non-academic readers. I say "largely" successful because it's divided into three sections. The first and last (devoted, respectively, to the history of the genre and an analysis of its key themes) are largely excellent, but the middle chunk, which looks at SF from the perspective of critical theory, stinks the place out (with one notable exception). In other words, it's a bit of a s*** sandwich. Thankfully, the bread is substantial, tasty and nourishing, and there's not much of that rather iffy filling.
Let's get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. The "critical theory" section purports to examine SF from the perspectives of Marxist, feminist, queer and postmodernist theory. The essays are, as you'd probably expect, jargon-heavy (though by the usual standards of this stuff, they're relatively transparent), and, as you'd also probably expect, they seem to feel that the core SF canon consists of three books (and if you're guessing they're "The Dispossessed", "The Female Man" and "Triton", you're guessing correctly), which of course match the authors' own cultural agendas. Those are significant novels, to be sure, but it's an insult to readers and writers to dismiss the rest of the genre because it doesn't match the political views of the academics. I actually have a reasonably high tolerance for academic abstraction, and my politics are left of centre, but these essays do nothing to counter the view that arts faculties are disappearing up their own neutron stars under the influence of incomprehensible jargon, political agendas and general irrelevance to the wider population. Thankfully, this section is redeemed by Andrew Butler's wry, sceptical view of postmodernist perspectives on SF. The postmodernist canon is even narrower than the one cited above - it begins with "Blade Runner" in 1982 and ends with "Neuromancer" in 1984 - but Butler eloquently points out that the postmodernists have been left stranded by changing academic fashion and, more pertinently, developments in both SF and the wider world.
Now for the good stuff. The opening chapters, on the history of SF, are little miracles of miniaturisation, conveying vast amounts of information and insight within modest word counts. The ever-reliable Damien Broderick does the best job of not just describing but contextualising the New Wave I've ever read, while John Clute's chapter on post-New Wave SF displays his usual combination of exquisite high style, devastating wit and genuine insight. Also good: Gary Wolfe on the importance of editors in SF. Mark Bould's discussion of TV and film unfortunately falls prey to "and then... and then..." infodump syndrome, but with just 17 pages to cover a century of material, that's probably unavoidable, and may well have been the brief that was put to him.
The final section, on key themes in SF, is largely made up with contributions by practicing SF writers and this probably explains the consistently high quality of the essays. Ken McLeod's smart discussion of politics (he's an SF writer who's actually been involved in politics, rather than the usual pontificating blowhard) and Gwyneth Jones' witty overview of SF icons are the best bits, but these chapters are all perceptive, informative and eloquent.
In conclusion, this is recommended for anyone looking for a historical and conceptual framework for their SF reading (which of course means it's not going to interest the vast majority of casual SF readers, but 'twas ever thus), and there's much stimulation and enjoyment to be had from it, but make sure you've got clothes pegs to put on your nose when you grapple with the middle section.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 17 April 2009
For a Cambridge Companion, this is surprisingly shallow. The other reviewer pinpointed one of the faults of the book; but the chapter about Religion and SF by Mendlesohn is also quite poor. A discussion about religion in SF in a book printed by such a prestigious press which does not mention James Blish's A Case of Coscience? I can't believe it. It's like a book on Renaissance Revenge Tragedy which doesn't mention Hamlet. But what might be even more disappointing is the absence of Philip K. Dick. Of course the author of the chapter is allowed to devote more time to what authors she thinks are more important, but since this is a book that should help students to understand what is sf and what are its most important works and issues, the fact that such novels as VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are not mentioned in the context of a discussion of sf and religion is bewildering.
All in all, my very personal opinion is that some parts are quite good (McLeod's chapter on politics, but also Butler's on sf & postmodernism and Wolfe's on sf editors), but some are awfully poor and poorly researched. And this should make us ask why did the editors chose those authors for those chapters, which is a question that directly leads to another, why haven't some very important scholars been involved (no, I won't drop names, but anybody who's knowledgeable with sf criticism knows what people I mean). Once again, the editors are free to choose, but then they're responsible for their choices, which are puzzling at best.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 24 November 2011
'The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction', does it need an explanation? I do not think so kind sir, or madam, it speaks for itself, not literally though.
If you are studying science fiction this is a great book to help you understand the context sf has been written in. If you are not studying sf it is still a good book to help you go that step forward into understanding sf rather than just reading the story superficially.