Trillion Year Spree: History of Science Fiction Paperback – 1 Oct 1986
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Britain's most illustrious SF writer, Brian Aldiss, provides a witty and perceptive history of this extraordinary phenomenon, set in its social and literary context. Crammed with fascinating insights, this generous spree takes us through decades of treats for the imagination: escape to other dimensions, flights to other planets, lost worlds, utopias, mechanical creatures and intelligent aliens. Amusing, intelligent and authoritative, it takes us on a tour through that zone where literature and science engage in an eternal flirtation. Examining the great writers SF has produced, and the images that have become the cultural wallpaper of the present day, this comprehensive expedition is for buffs and tenderfoots alike. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The book is an attempt to be a fairly comprehensive over-view of the history of science fiction, from its roots and beginnings through the pulps to today's movies. Aldiss starts by examining what he considers to be the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, along with its earlier progenitors which he categorizes as `scientific romances'. For this section of the book, Aldiss is quite insightful, and offers a good breakdown of the not just the main elements of Frankenstein, but some of the overriding themes and tropes that permeated the 18th and 19th century novels. Within this section he references quite a few very early works that most sf fans have probably never heard of, and makes a good case that at least some of them should be put on the completist's reading list.
Much of his commentary on later 19th century works, mainly those by Poe, Verne and Wells, continue in this excellent manner, where he often spends two or three pages breaking down the pluses and minuses of an individual work, along with giving an overall assessment of not just the state of the field, but what major themes were of prime importance to the writers of that era. In fact, this identification of the various waves of ideas, styles, and the major practitioners of the field through various points in history is perhaps the best part of this work.
However, by the time he reaches the John W. Campbell era (about 1938), the general tone and approach changes somewhat. This is partially due to the sheer size of his subject matter; rather than three or four authors and twenty or so works to cover, he was now faced with covering the explosion in published sf, with hundreds of authors and thousands of works. The closer he gets to the present, the worse this problem becomes, and unfortunately his method of dealing with it is to all too often list an author and/or work and dismiss it with a one line comment (such as his description of Spider and Jeanne Robinson's Stardance, which he writes off as a `light confection'). Worse, his analysis of some the major authors of the field, such as Asimov and Heinlein, are fractured into different sections of the book, with the divisions set by time, rather than look at each author's entire output as a whole and what contributions they have made to the field.
Aldiss also clearly has some favorites and some he thinks are dogs, but he does not do a good job of analyzing why these authors are either worthy of attention or not. Again, space limitations are part of the reason for this, but I found that especially for Heinlein, his lack of insightful analysis of his major works was a major minus, not even trying to analyze The Moon is Harsh Mistress, though that book's prose style fits perfectly with a point Aldiss is making about the `New Wave' of the sixties, and not even mentioning some of his other major works, though he did point out some flaws that typically mar some of Heinlein's writing. I felt his analysis of Samuel Delany and Roger Zelanzy to be superficial, with his assessment of these authors as `style without substance', and without any detailed look at Delany's Dhalgren or Zelazny's Amber series. He does have a long section on Frank Herbert's Dune and its sequels that is good, if somewhat lacking in figuring out precisely why Herbert's combination of some very stock SF elements works so well. And he is much kinder to Edgar Rice Burroughs than I would have been.
One item that becomes quite noticeable is Aldiss' use of long excerpts from the works he is discussing. I found that unless I was already familiar with the work in question, most of the time these excerpts were either incomprehensible due to lack of context or did little to illustrate whatever point Aldiss was making.
Aldiss is remarkably comprehensive in the authors and works he does mention, considering just how many there are, though there are a few conspicuous absences, most notably Piers Anthony. For American readers, his listing of various British authors is quite useful, as many of them have received little publication space in America, and clearly some of them deserve a wider audience. He is not quite as successful in covering the SF output of Eastern Europe, but there is still more than enough mentioned to keep your need-to-be-read list filled to overflowing.
Approach this book with caution. There is good information to be gleaned from its pages, most especially about the early days and works of sf, but you just might find your favorite author pilloried with a biting one-liner - which is probably true of just about any critical work of this scope, as it is impossible for anyone be totally objective about such a subjective thing as the relative worth of any piece of literature.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
I was pleased, as the second hand copy that I bought through Amazon turned out to be signed by both Aldis and Wingrove, one of the nicer bargains have had when buying second hand books on here.
Brian Aldiss is a prolific British Sci Fi writer who, as you might expect, cares very much about his genre, and in particular believes it to have been unfairly maligned bypeople such as my wife.
While that's probably true, it adversely colours this book in two ways: Firstly, Aldiss writes far too intellectually and "worthily", meaning he comes across as pretentious and (what is worse) dull; secondly, he tends to relegate of material which he thinks isn't "serious" science fiction (but which is generally more entertaining and popular) to other cateogories such as "fantasy" which, to his mind, don't seem to count. I think this is a mistake: Science Fiction at its heart is a poular, pulp sort of genre, no amount of post facto rationalisation will alter the fact that it is Lucas and Spielberg who are the backbone of (cinematic) Science Fiction, not Kubrick and Tarkovsky.
It's a very heavy (physically as well as textually), long winded book. Having completed the first three or four chapters (in which Edgar Allen Poe gets a somewhat surprisingly extended mention) I have given up on the project of reading Trillion Year Spree from cover to cover, and now intendto use to dip into from time to time instead. Or, at any rate, just to stick on the bookshelf, comforted in the knowledge that it's there and I *can* dip into it from time to time, if I feel like it.
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That said, I'll give over the rest of this review to a sampling of some of those opinions:
About the love readers often have for authors they first read in their youth:
"Konrad Lorenz has shown how young ducklings become imprinted by their mother's image at a certain tender age (when even a false mother will do the trick), after which they can accept no substitutes for her. The same effect is observed in many species, not excluding our own. Tastes in the arts may be formed in this way. It is hard to understand otherwise the furore that greeted the early works of Abe Merritt, Lovecraft, and Otis Adelbert Kline."
"[H.G.] Wells is teaching us to think. [Edgar Rice] Burroughs and his lesser imitators are teaching us not to think.
"Of course, Burroughs is teaching us to wonder. The sense of wonder is in essence a religious state, blanketing out criticism."
"Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) created a brawny bone-headed hero called Conan, whose barbarian antics are set in the imaginary Hyborian Age, back in pre-history when almost all women and almost no clauses were subordinate."
On Olaf Stapledon:
"Reading his books is like standing on the top of a high mountain. One can see a lot of planet and much of the sprawling uncertain works of man, but little actual human activity; from such an altitude, all sense of the individual is lost."
"It is easy to argue that Hugo Gernsback (1894-1967) was one of the worst disasters ever to hit the science fiction field.
"Gernsback's segregation of what he liked to call 'scientifiction' into magazines designed to contain nothing else, ghetto-fashion, guaranteed the setting up of various narrow orthodoxies inimical to any thriving literature."
(As Aldiss notes, this opinion "aroused fury" when Billion Year Spree (the predecessor to Trillion) was released.)
On science fiction magazine editors:
"A few of them have been very good, many have been competent, and a lot have brought to their craft the creativity of a toad and the intelligence of a flatworm. John [Campbell] stands above them all."
"Ray Bradbury was the first to take all the props of SF and employ them as highly individual tools of expression for his own somewhat Teddy-bearish view of the universe."
About Asimov's Foundation novels and "psychohistory":
"This highly mechanistic sociological reductionism -- a kind of quantum physics applied to human beings -- has been developed with one aim only: to prevent a ten-thousand-year Dark Age wherein the Galaxy might fall into technological barbarism.
"Neither of these ideas bears moderately serious investigation.
"Very often Asimov didn't even bother with the grand visual aids -- his is a non-sensual universe. We see little of it. We can't touch it. His principal actors talk much more than they act, and notice very little of their surroundings."
On Robert Heinlein:
"More nonsense has been written about Heinlein than about any other SF writer. He is not a particularly good storyteller and his characters are often indistinguishable. There is always a mouthpiece in his later work. His style is banal, highly colloquialized, and has not changed in its essence in the forty-odd years he has been writing."
On the British vs. the U.S. versions of "New Wave" SF:
"for all the mumblings and grumblings of the 'Golden Age' writers, Ellison's mock revolution [the Dangerous Visions anthology] was accepted without too much fuss, while most of what [the UK magazine] New Worlds attempted was -- at least in immediate terms -- rejected out of hand. Put it all down to showbiz razzamatazz, perhaps, but the emergent fact was clear: experiments with style were fine, perhaps even fun. Experiments with a style that reflected content matter was ... well, it was different, unacceptable to most of the traditional readership."
On the shortcomings of fantasy vis-a-vis SF:
"And, because such fantasies are always unsatisfying, it is also the reason why publishers need to keep up the supply of the drug, month by month. The Gor novels are for addicts, not adults."
On Stanislav Lem:
"There is a coldness of intent, a weakness in characterization, and an overall inability to engage the whole of what we are, which makes Lem's writing much less significant than it ought to be. Lem's intellect may be vast. It is also cool and unsympathetic."
From there the history progresses, sometimes jerkily, through to end up in the mid 1980s (when The Billion Year Spree was revised and reprinted under the new title).
I found the tone to be sometimes overly condescending, and that Aldiss was too smug about his own work. There was some clear indications of sniping in print at other critics, sometimes extremely rudely. Since I only got to see one side of this presumed exchange of disrespect I can't really comment as to the whys and wherefores.
The writing is, of course, couched in an academic voice rather than a popular writer's one, which can convey a tone of condescension if one is not aware of the difference. Even so, I found Aldiss layering it on with a trowel in places.
As a work of critical examination of the field, I doubt there is anything still in print that attempts such a wide sweep, such an ambitious task.
One useful way of using this volume is as an indicator of worthwhile works still to be read by the reader, though that isn't what this book is trying to do. In order to get better value from the critical aspect of the work one should be prepared to hunt down other referenced critics' works, notably those of Damon Knight, J.G. Ballard, Joanna Russ and Samuel R Delany. The Delany works (Port Wine, The Jewel Hinged Jaw) will also have their own reading lists from my personal experience.
Of course, The Trillion Year Spree is now a quarter of a century out of date. The trends identified at the books end sometimes ended up being passing fads and the book missed the birth of the World Wide Web by 10 years. References to "fiction today" and "modern trends" are apt to be seen to be quaint in that light.
My copy was obviously from a library (as I expected) and had been underlined in pencil by a student apparently taking some sort of course in SF history. Only the first and last chapters seemed to have such underlinings, and the passages called out were fairly simple statements that lacking context would not represent what Aldiss was saying most of the time.
I smiled at this as I had recently purchased a copy of a famous Unix system V internals textbook, and that had been given the same freshman treatment. The meat of both works was of no use to these two students.
If you can pick up a copy for a reasonable price (and only you can say what that price is) you should have many thought provoking hours ahead of you if you want to study classic SF from a critical standpoint. You can also get involved in the fundamental questions of "what constitutes SF, good SF and worthwhile SF" on a more informed basis. If that floats your grav-platform.
Cover to cover, for the non-student and non-critic, it's a bit of a dry read. Grab a pencil and some post-its and be prepared to mark up your copy so you can find the bits that pique your interest. I'm going to re-read in this way and I *never* mark-up books. This is the first time I've been intrigued and motivated enough to contemplate such vandalism.
New Maps of Hell - Kinglsey Amis' review of SF from an Anglocentric point of view at the end of the 1950s. An interesting read, if dated, and Amis was not perhaps firing on all cylinders stylistically. I also found his "wish list" to be self defeating vis-a-vis SF as a genre. YMMV.
Hell's Cartographers - Aldiss and Harrison present six essays from major authors forging the SF of the 1970s.
The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction - Samuel R Delany's seminal work attempts to develop a critical mode that "works" for all types of literature. Challenging but recommended especially for the cutting-edge reading list (for it's day) and in-depth analysis of the works referenced.
Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction - Delany extends and expands upon his thesis. I found this more accessible than The Jewel Hinged Jaw.
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