A Companion

by Jack Fennell (Volume editor)
©2019 Others VIII, 240 Pages


What is Sci-Fi?
Science fiction is a non-realist genre that foregrounds a sense of material plausibility, insisting that despite seeming outlandish, it is consonant with history and the laws of nature. By turns subtle and bombastic, sci-fi revels in discovery and revelation, whether through human ingenuity or world-altering paradigm shifts. The same impulse informs both the idealism of Star Trek and the existential terror of Frankenstein.
Each chapter of this book examines a specific trope or theme through a different critical lens – including eco-criticism, feminism and historicism – while also providing a historical overview of the genre, from its disputed origins to the pulp era, the New Wave, and the exponential growth of Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurisms. Revered masters such as Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler and Iain M. Banks are considered alongside newer talents, including Rebecca Roanhorse and N. K. Jemisin. Other chapters provide overviews of different media, from television (Doctor Who, Westworld) to comics/manga (2000AD, Métal Hurlant), video games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) and theatre (Alistair McDowall’s X).
Sci-Fi: A Companion not only provides an accessible introduction to sci-fi for general readers and researchers alike, but also illuminates new approaches to a familiar genre.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: The Fetish of Origin (Jack Fennell)
  • Part I: Antecedents and History
  • Science Fiction and the Gothic (1770–1912) (José Manuel Correoso-Rodenas)
  • H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ (1936) – Weird Fiction (Juan L. Pérez-de-Luque)
  • Starships and Space Opera (1928–present) (Val Nolan)
  • New Worlds and Jerry Cornelius (1964–1976) – The New Wave (Tom Dillon)
  • Part II: Figures, Tropes and Themes
  • Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series (1987–2012) – Aliens (Sara Martín)
  • Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series (1939–1985) and Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010) – Robots (Nathan Emmerich)
  • Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Westworld (2016–present) – Virtual Life (Matteo Barbagallo)
  • Square Enix’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) – Posthumanism (Lars Schmeink)
  • Joreid McFate’s The Demon Plague (2004) – Time Travel (Marta María Gutiérrez Rodríguez)
  • Alternate Histories (Jack Fennell)
  • Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) – Science Fiction Vampires (Simon Bacon)
  • Part III: Issues and Critical Perspectives
  • Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) – Afrofuturism (Isiah Lavender III)
  • Indigenous Futurisms (Amy H. Sturgis)
  • George Miller’s Mad Max (1979–2015) and Ryan Griffen’s Cleverman (2016–2017) – Australian Science Fiction (Christopher B. Menadue)
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–present) – Women’s Dystopian Science Fiction (Raffaella Baccolini)
  • The Thirteenth Doctor, Doctor Who (2017–present) – Gender Roles and Sexism (Alec Charles)
  • Disability in Science Fiction (Thomas Connolly)
  • Science Fiction and Climate Change (Andrew Milner)
  • Science Fiction and the Anthropocene (Mark Bould)
  • Animals in Science Fiction (Chris Pak)
  • Science Fiction Archives (Jeremy Brett)
  • Part IV: Science Fiction Media
  • Science Fiction Comics (Dan Byrne-Smith)
  • Science Fiction Metafiction (Mariano Martín Rodríguez)
  • Alistair McDowall’s X (2016) – Science Fiction Theatre (Ian Farnell)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

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Jack Fennell

The Fetish of Origin

To the newcomer, science fiction (SF) and genre criticism can be confusing and even somewhat off-putting. The differences from mainstream fiction are numerous: the reader must figure out a narrative world that the characters take for granted; background detail sometimes seems more important than foreground action, and the language involved – often consisting of neologisms with no real-life referent – can seem like re-purposed verbiage at best, or meaningless gibberish at worst. One recurring criticism I hear from non-fan students when I teach SF is that the texts seem to demand that the reader do two different things at the same time: follow a narrative, and solve an interconnected series of logic problems. This is not to be misunderstood as a complaint about the workload, for it is rather a response to what they see as a category violation – to them, SF seems like a mish-mash of contradictory things that they could not respond to as ‘literature’. With this in mind, my intention is for this companion to serve as a ‘way in’ for interested non-initiates, as well as more experienced SF scholars; the aim is to combine informative writing with a somewhat informal tone, the better to provide a warm welcome. Some contributors have elected to give overviews of their topics, while others have focused their work through particular texts to give a ‘keyhole’ analysis.

Popular culture is becoming ever more science fictional. Beyond prose literature, SF permeates all kinds of media: in this book, for example, Dan Smith focuses on SF in comics, Ian Farnell accounts for SF theatre, and almost every chapter makes reference to SF films and TV series; in fact, SF very often draws attention to its medium by masquerading as factual reportage, as outlined by Mariano Martín Rodríguez in his examination of ‘fictional non-fiction’ in the genre. Self-aware and apparently unconstrained by form, difficult to grapple with as prose but almost omnipresent in its visual incarnations, SF can seem contradictory and difficult; this difficulty is also apparent in the debates concerning its history and definition. ← 1 | 2 →

Much can be inferred about the genre from the sometimes-strained arguments regarding its origins. First, how old is it? Is it ancient or modern? There is Lucian’s A True Story (second century ce), which tells of a fantastic voyage to the moon, followed by an interstellar war; another suggestive text is ‘The City of Brass’ from the One Thousand and One Nights (ninth/tenth century ce), which features robots and other kinds of automata, and serves as the basis for a novel of the same name by S. A. Chakraborty (2017). Another very notable ‘progenitor text’ favoured by SF critics is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), in which the titular character is a physician making use of science to achieve something that would previously have been depicted as the result of dark magic. More recent again is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, who incorporated new technologies into his stories and wrote a number of science fictional pastiches, such as ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall’ (1835) and ‘Some Words With a Mummy’ (1845). Others might point to the Voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne (1863–1905), or classic H. G. Wells novels such as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) or War of the Worlds (1898).

Others still would credit the pulp-fiction editor Hugo Gernsback (1884–1967) with the creation of the genre – because, after all, he was the one who came up with the term ‘science fiction’ in the first place, and the majority of the genre’s most identifiable tropes acquired their cultural currency through pulp magazines. The breezy, exciting ‘space opera’ subgenre – think Star Trek and Star Wars – originated during this time, and several chapters of this book deal directly with that pulp-fostered legacy: for example, Sara Martín examines the multiplicity of sapient alien races in space opera, while Val Nolan focuses on ‘starship stories.’

All these standpoints are convincing and justified in their own right; thus, it seems that despite vexed differences of opinion, there is ‘no wrong answer’ to this particular question – which, of course, inevitably leads to further differences of opinion. This is the main reason why this companion eschews a ‘comprehensive’ history of the genre in favour of a thematic look at some key stages in its development, with relevant historical detail woven into the individual chapters as needed.

The second bone of contention in the definition debate relates to the term itself: is it about the ‘science’ or the ‘fiction’? ← 2 | 3 →

There is a perceived division between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ SF, with the former relying more heavily than the latter on currently accepted physics, chemistry and biology, striving for scientific plausibility and prioritizing problem-solving. Over the latter half of the twentieth century and the early decades of the twenty-first, this kind of exacting scientific detail acquired a moral dimension as humanity’s destructive impact on terrestrial ecosystems became horrifyingly apparent. In this book, Mark Bould looks at SF dealing with the ‘Anthropocene’ and Andrew Milner provides a succinct introduction to climate change fiction; on a related theme, Chris Pak approaches SF from an animal-studies perspective and highlights fiction dealing with extant non-human intelligences here on Earth.

Soft SF tends to focus more on characterization, but the ‘soft’ appellation is also applied to SF that centres on social research or philosophy rather than the material sciences. As is the case with most genre subdivisions, the boundaries are porous and the continued relevance of the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ SF is debatable. However, it is useful insofar as it highlights differences of opinion as to how the genre should be defined. Alternate histories, for example, are understood to be intrinsically science fictional by some SF readers, but not by others. In this book, my own chapter on alternate histories is placed side-by-side with Marta María Gutiérrez Rodríguez’s contribution on the intersections between time-travel stories, historical fiction and fantasy; the comparisons and contrasts between the two will hopefully illustrate one of the genre’s many blurry edges.

Even in works that strive for scientific verisimilitude, there is a threshold beyond which exposition ceases to be useful. Faster-than-light travel, for example, is impossible according to our current understanding of the laws of nature, but most SF texts that feature it operate on the assumption that some kind of unseen ‘work-around’ has been developed or discovered prior to the story’s setting; once the author demonstrates that he or she is conscientiously thorough when it comes to accepted science, more exotic or implausible inclusions can be hand-waved away (usually by invoking technologically advanced aliens). A large portion of recent SF foregrounds the limits of human cognition and makes them a central theme of the story, rather than a handy means to avoid exposition: for example, there is no guarantee that an alien being would be intelligible to us at all, and a number of SF classics tackle this problem of ← 3 | 4 → inter-species contact. As human scientific and medical knowledge develops, we are also increasingly faced with the prospect that future generations of humans will be equally unintelligible to us; Lars Schmeink addresses this unnerving possibility in his chapter on posthumanism, while Nathan Emmerich’s chapter on robots considers depictions of a humanity placed in a difficult philosophical position by the emergence of artificial intelligences.

The hard/soft divide is not a dichotomy, however, for there are other strands that privilege the fictive aspect over scientific detail or strictly defined genre boundaries: Weird fiction, discussed in the present volume by Juan L. Pérez-de-Luque, foregrounds the unfathomable immensity of deep time and astronomical distance to prompt a sense of existential unease. ‘Slipstream’ fiction, meanwhile, consciously mixes and matches SF elements with fantasy, horror and other genres in order to capitalize on their shared literary heritage, demonstrated here in Simon Bacon’s chapter on science fictional vampires.

Even if we take scientific faithfulness as a defining aspect of the genre, an intrinsic subjectivity remains when it comes to the author’s cultural perspective. If the author regards their belief-system as having an empirical real-world existence, it will necessarily inform their understanding of the universe, and thus, their writing. Few critics would advocate that C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra trilogy be disqualified from the genre on the grounds of its Christian mysticism, and the conflict between science and religion informs several well-regarded SF works. There are also a great many SF texts in which entirely new realities with divergent natural laws are created or accessed, be it through virtual reality, scientific expedition or even drug use.

Such considerations bring us to the issue of non-Western, postcolonial or ‘subaltern’ SF. In postcolonial cultures, where the reclamation of indigenous traditions and worldviews is a vital part of the decolonization process, SF is remade with distinctive textures and capabilities that do not conform to the Euro-American, techno-scientific worldview that is often taken for granted in the genre. Moreover, indigenous SF literatures reveal the unconscious biases embedded in the supposedly neutral assumptions and values of Western scientism. Old-fashioned adventure tales of heroic Anglo-Saxon spacemen are increasingly comparable to software that proves unable to detect dark skin or ← 4 | 5 → recognize black faces – fundamentally flawed in their blinkered focus on the creators’ own social bubbles.1

Thus, an important aspect of this companion is the emphasis it places on non-white, non-Western, and marginalized SF literatures: Isiah Lavender III gives an edifying and comprehensive outline of Afrofuturism, complemented by Amy H. Sturgis’s similarly thorough overview of North American Indigenous futurisms, and Christopher B. Menadue sheds light on Australian Aboriginal SF, contrasting it with the works of white Australian creators. More broadly, this focus on SF from minority perspectives dovetails into several enlightening contributions regarding groups who have traditionally been excluded from, or marginalized within, mainstream SF: Raffaella Baccolini’s chapter concerns women’s dystopian SF, while Alec Charles looks at the treatment of gender in popular SF TV franchises, with a particular focus on the attitudes of SF fandom communities.


VIII, 240
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (September)
Jack Fennell SF sci-fi introduction science fiction critical theory
: Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. VIII, 240 pp., 53 fig. col

Biographical notes

Jack Fennell (Volume editor)

Jack Fennell is a science fiction researcher, author and translator based in Limerick, Ireland. He is the author of the critical study Irish Science Fiction (2014) and the editor of the Irish sci-fi anthology A Brilliant Void (2018).


Title: Sci-Fi
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