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25 - Frontiers: Science Fiction and the British Marketplace

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2016

Paul March-Russell
University of Kent
Dominic Head
University of Nottingham
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In his pioneering survey, New Maps of Hell (1960), Kingsley Amis observed that science fiction (sf) is preoccupied with ‘the idea as hero’ rather than subtle uses of language, narrative or characterization. Martin Scofield subsequently adapted Amis's definition of sf to his analysis of the American short story ‘in which the overall idea, rather than character, plot or “themes” in the usual sense, dominates the conception of the work and gives it its unity or deliberate disunity’. Unlike Amis, who tended to prefer his sf to be either escapist adventures or satirical exercises, Scofield's adaptation allows him to define the short story in self-reflexive terms: ‘a work that is dominated by a single guiding idea or mood and achieves a perceptible overall artistic coherence’ (p. 5). Symptomatic of the taxonomic problems that underwrite both sf- and short story criticism, ‘the idea as hero’ can paradoxically refer to a story that is thematic and plot-driven, atmospheric and impressionistic. Not only does the short story lie at the intersection between high and low culture, between the little magazine and the mass-market periodical, as Tim Armstrong has observed, but so too does science fiction. As Farah Mendlesohn has argued, ‘whatever else it is, sf literature is not popular’; it exists ‘at variance from the standards and demands of both the literary establishment and the mass market’. Sf and the short story complement each other not only formally but also culturally: their liminal position questions the assumptions by which critics have often discriminated between what is or is not literary. Yet, as Nicola Humble has noted, ‘there is something wrong with the way in which we have mapped the literary field of the first half of the twentieth century’. This ‘something wrong’ is accentuated when we attempt to re-map not only the short story but also sf as part of literary production since the 1890s.

The Scientific Romance

The genealogy of science fiction is a notoriously tangled family tree. Critics have variously traced its origins to ancient and classical texts, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Lucian's ‘A True History’; to the intellectual and religious convulsions between Protestantism and Catholicism in the seventeenth century; and to the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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Butler, Andrew M., ‘The British Science Fiction Story’, in The Cambridge Companion to the English Short Story, ed. Einhaus, Ann-Marie (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Elkins, Charles, ‘E. M. Forster's “The Machine Stops”: Liberal-Humanist Hostility to Technology’, in Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in Science Fiction, ed., Erlich, Richard D. and Dunn, Thomas P. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983), pp. 47–61.
Hammond, J. R., H. G. Wells and the Short Story (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992).
Latham, Rob, ‘The New Wave’, in A Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Seed, David (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp. 202–16.
Lewis, Mitchell R., ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy after 1945: Beyond Pulp Fiction’, in A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story, ed. Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander and Malcolm, David (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), pp. 372–83.
Mendlesohn, Farah, ‘Science Fiction Stories’, in The Edinburgh Companion to the Short Story in English, ed., Delaney, Paul and Hunter, Adrian (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming).

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