Monday, November 23, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss



Brian Aldiss is one of science fiction’s most versatile participants.  Active in a wide variety of areas, from novel-length fiction to shorter works, editor to columnist, playwright to poet, he is even a painter.  His most active years as a novelist in the 60s and 70s, in 1973 he became a scholar, publishing Billion Year Spree a history of science fiction.  Thirteen years later, the development of sf having continued apace, he recruited author David Wingrove and together they revised the volume, updating content for the writers and novels that appeared in the meantime.  The title was also extended; Trillion Year Spree appeared in 1986. 

Starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and ending with the arrival of cyberpunk, Trillion Year Spree is an attempt to outline the history of science fiction, or, in the author’s words, “to provide a countour map without surveying every tree.  Organized ever-so-roughly in chronological order, Aldiss and Wingrove take the reader through the development of the field the past three centuries.  All major and some lesser known writers are covered, most often with brief discussions on their major works, as well as commentary on their place in the larger context of the genre.

If the sheer number of awards (i.e. what is actually, really, truly, honestly, the best) is any indication, then it’s fair to say opinion in the science fiction community is split amongst a large number of views and groups.  This is the long way of saying Aldiss and Wingrove’s definition of science fiction as a literary mode (as opposed to genre) will not be to every reader’s satisfaction, but can nevertheless not fail to cast light on the concept given the stable foundation they build their argument from. 

Championing works that fall into the classically-veined style of literature (i.e. examinations of the human condition) and criticizing the lighter, escapist side of genre, Trillion Year Spree does not withhold its opinion stick, either.  Bashing admiration and abhorrence left and right, the book cuts a wide swath through science fiction, relegating many beloved texts to the pulp pile while elevating more ambitious texts to the heights of acclaim.  Edgar Rice Burroughs and Hugo Gernsback are identified as the writers primarily responsible for taking sf to the gutter, and Asimov and Heinlein are taken to task for the writing of shoddy and pulpit-banging fiction (respectively) that failed to evolve the field as a whole.  (There is a great quote from an Asimov’s reader in the 60s who laments the magazine’s decision to include more literary pieces and requests more escapist material.)  Meanwhile, writers like Olaf Stapledon, Thomas Disch, H.G. Wells, Ursula Le Guin, Keith Roberts, and others are praised for staying the course Shelley initially set the genre on. 

The criticism of science fiction’s less ambitious entries is well warranted and often backed with textual or contextual evidence.  But for a history of the genre that seems to strongly desire advocating the literary side of sf, an imbalance appears.  While the imbalance seems natural when looking at the spectrum of sf (certainly the majority of the material published is more commercial than literary in nature), Aldiss and Wingrove nevertheless do not go out of their way to examine the nooks and crannies of sf and promote the truly literary texts.  Certainly some titles few mainstream sf readers will know are discussed (e.g. Anna Kavan’s Ice), but by and large the majority of the discussion is focused on mainstream, well-known authors, regardless of their literary bent.  In this they cater to core genre readers rather than the broader reading audience, and perhaps do not take advantage of an opportunity to better represent the literary side of the field.

Trillion Year Spree is not against digression.  When the larger cultural or social context seems to require, particularly as the authors build their argument regarding the initial evolution of sf, sidebars are granted.  Edgar Allen Poe, despite writing only a handful of short stories nominally considered sf, is given significant page time regarding his mode of writing and how it served to spurn and influence later writers who wrote stories more recognizably sf.  J.R.R. Tolkien, despite writing what nobody would consider sf, is also woven into the fabric of the genre in contextual fashion.  To be fair, Aldiss and Wingrove state at the outset they are not sticking to any limited or narrow definition of science fiction, but the quantity of content clearly related to fantasy wadded onto the text sometimes seems more spurious than warranted.

While I will not get into the argument regarding how much text Wingrove supplied for Trillion after contributing none to Billion, the narrative backbone indicates a firm grasp on the evolution of sf.  Perhaps the strongest aspect of Trillion Year Spree is its linking of authors to their predecessors.  Perhaps the biggest reason for some of the early, digressive material, the ideological and stylistic paths of modern writers are traced back to earlier practitioners.  William Gibson following upon Philip K. Dick following upon A.E. van Vogt, for example.  Moreover, the pair capture the larger social and cultural context in which sf was being written.  The American pulps, which did much to cheapen what Shelley, Verne, and Wells had accomplished, were largely intended for a juvenile audience, not to mention were the product of publishing technology, it being easier and cheaper to produce the magazines than novels.  The emergence of more literary writers in the 1950s is presented as not only a response to the juvenile nature of earlier genre, but also possibilities due to advances in printing technology.

One of the interesting ideas in the latter chapters of Trillion Year Spree is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the volume of sf titles available.  At one point, the authors state that it is impossible to read enough sf books in one year to remain up to date on the field.  That was the mid-80s, and accordingly they correctly predict the wider development of the genre.  Another correct prediction is the manner in which literary and mainstream texts would bleed into sf, and vice versa.  Looking at the field today, we see a near complete merging of the two.  It’s quite often impossible in the 21 st century to clearly differentiate what is and isn’t sf, indicating Aldiss and Wingrove had their noses to the wind more than three decades ago. 

In the end, Trillion Year Spree is a quality attempt at quantifying the history of science fiction.  Giving relatively blanket coverage to the titles and authors appearing over the years, the authors are nevertheless not shy about offering opinion—an informed opinion in the least—about said titles and authors.  As Gary K. Wolfe writes, many later histories of the genre were written in response to Billion/Trillion Year Spree.  A benchmark, of sorts, it certainly is material that cannot fail to educate, as well as rile opinion when readers’ favorite works are backed or berated.  Popularity, after all, does not automatically equal quality, and Aldiss and Wingrove attempt to keep the bar high looking back. 

2 comments:

  1. I am interested in how they view Arthur C. Clarke's fiction. Clarke always seemed to me to be a writer smack bang in the middle of pulp and literary merit. He genuinely eschewed adventure "tales" within the stories, but the stories themselves seemed firmly placed within genre lines, while the writing itself could be poetic, thoughtful, and quite touching... sometimes.

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    1. Funny you should mention that. While reading Trillion Year Spree I asked myself the same question. The interesting thing is, it seems neither did the authors know how to address him. Clarke receives much less page time than I thought he would, and the comments that are made are more objective than qualitative. For example, Childhood's End is looked at more for its place in genre rather than content...

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