Review of Publishing the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance 

Review of Publishing the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance

James Allard

Adam Roberts. Publishing the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance. Cambridge Elements: Elements in Publishing and Book Culture Series, edited by Samantha Rayner and Rebecca Lyons. Cambridge University Press, 2018. Paperback, 82 pages, ISBN 9781108708890.

Adam Roberts delivers exactly what his title promises: he uses the genre of scientific romance to explore canon formation in general and the development of the SF canon in particular, claiming that this “one iteration of SF’s protean variety, known to critics as the ‘scientific romance’, is as much an artefact of a shift in the underlying logic of commercial publication at the very end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, as it is anything else” (8). His core claim is deceptively straightforward: “the material conditions of production of what is called ‘scientific romance’ determined key aspects of the form going forward, and therefore shaped important aspects of contemporary SF” (1). Roberts explores those conditions, from major changes in the production of texts to equally momentous changes in the contexts in which those texts were consumed, linking those conditions to the emergence and cultural impact of scientific romance, and then, ultimately, connecting that impact to the shape and scope of later SF, from the pulps to film. The result is a lucid, engaging, and provocative study of a crucial moment in the history of popular culture that manifestly, but never defensively, demonstrates the value of greater critical attention to the texts and contexts of popular cultures.

Roberts is at his best when interrogating the material conditions of canon formation. SF provides an important point of access to any consideration of canonicity: he notes that in “the case of science fiction there are distinct levels by which specifically SF texts fit into this larger critical narrative,” since “SF has developed its own canon, both in the top-down university syllabus sense [. . .] and in the bottom-up sense of an active and engaged fandom” (12). At the same time, the historical moment when scientific romance was dominant—“after the older dominance of circulating libraries had become obsolete but before the newer commercial restrictions of the Net Book Agreement had come into force” (8), or “the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth” (14)—sees a collision of emerging modernism and its aesthetic, philosophical, and political concerns together with shifts in print culture and the business of publishing:

It is from the 1880s, and especially the 1890s, that we can date the expansion of SF, its shift from being a niche form of cultural production, with small print runs, limited readerships and a marginal place in publishing, through a rapid commercial expansion based around cheaper books, and (especially) magazines—“Pulps”—into cinema and TV and, finally, to our present state of affairs, in which SF and Fantasy, especially in “Young Adult” (YA) writing and superhero modes, has a greater cultural penetration, and flat outsell other forms of cultural production. The period under consideration here, in other words, figures as a hinge point in the larger narratives of genre.


But more than locating the conditions that led to the emergence of a canon, Roberts stresses that this “state of affairs is not a coincidence” and “that the form of this type of SF actually directly expresses that underlying cultural-economic substrate,” that “this window, shaped by a set of particular exigencies to do with the manufacture and sale of fiction, generated the ‘scientific romance’ as we now understand it” (8).

Roberts points to two key factors that had the most profound effects on the creation and circulation of scientific romance, and thus on the SF canon more broadly: first, substantial changes in publishing that saw the marketplace flooded with cheap texts of all sorts, displacing the circulating library as the primary source for reading material, and, second, the advent of easy rail travel. In terms of the former, Roberts demonstrates that a “combination of reduction in unit costs, greatly increased literacy in the general population, and relaxation of government controls produced a boom in publishing that in turn fed a new literary culture in which [. . .] some SF writers enjoyed success on a scale that launched the genre as a popular cultural mode” (29-30). But it’s with the latter point that Roberts’s book is most likely to make its most significant impact, and where it may provoke controversy, as he seems well aware. He notes that more than just “facilitating [. . .] movement,” “railways were machines that generated new tranches of leisure” (37)—including, of course, leisure reading. But the real key is in recognizing how “iterations of the age-old science-fictional fascination with exploration” (43) that dominate scientific romance—from often luxurious “Verneian voyages extraordinaires” (43) to the Wellsian tendency that “keeps his protagonist in one place and moves the world around him, or makes the exotic commute into the protagonist’s world” (43)—“become increasingly figured [. . .] in terms of the sorts of convenience and comfort a commuter might expect” (43) from rail travel at the turn of the twentieth century. Roberts is, however, careful to state that “This is not to argue for a facile mapping of rail travel onto space travel, but it is to suggest that the determining logic of a new reading public, a public often literally in motion, and carried by the most advanced technology of the day, tended to revert back upon the material context out of which it was being disseminated” (39). Thus, if the railway both symbolizes and incarnates a new kind of mobility, demonstrating that “social mobility is not only about physical travel [. . .] [but also] about access to resources” (51), then scientific romance, in both form and content, as a set of generic conventions and a point of access into something bigger than itself, made it clear that “cultural resources” (51), like those supplied by the simple act of reading what many others were also reading, were as vital to survival as anything else.

Readers looking for a sustained treatment of the influences, themes, and politics of scientific romance may not find as much to chew on here as they might like—though those things are certainly discussed and in interesting and generative ways. But readers looking for a nuanced exploration of canons and canonization, especially the vexed relationship between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ cultures, will find this book immensely rewarding. It makes bigger claims than we might expect from a slim volume of just over eighty pages (standard, of course, for the Elements series), but it also has the potential to make a much bigger impact than we might expect from a slim book, maybe especially one on some aspect of SF, and deserves serious attention from a great many readers, and not just those interested in early SF.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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