Review of Science Fiction
Dan Byrne-Smith, ed. Science Fiction. MIT Press, 2020. Documents of Contemporary Art. Paperback, 240 pp., $24.95, ISBN 978-0-262-53885-5.
This odd and eclectic anthology is part of a series called “Documents of Contemporary Art” co-published, since 2006, by MIT Press and London’s Whitechapel Gallery; aside from a volume on The Gothic, it is the only entry devoted to an aesthetic—mainly literary—genre, as opposed to a concept (Time, Memory, Sexuality), a practice (Craft, Translation, Exhibition), or an institution (The Studio, The Market, The Archive). The format is simple: a brief introduction laying out the terrain is followed by a handful of thematic sections (here, four, called “chapters” by the editor) that sort several dozen individual pieces (here, 48). Given the brevity of the volumes, these pieces are necessarily short, usually abridged from longer works (the shortest entry here is half a page, the longest 12 pages); these works take a variety of forms—theoretical essays, critical reviews, interviews, and manifestoes—and cover some substantial temporal span (the earliest piece here is from 1962, though the vast majority, 42, hail from the past two decades). The goal of the series is to provide, in each volume, a “source book” to “a specific body of writing that has been of key influence in contemporary art generally,” featuring “a plurality of voices and perspectives defining a significant theme or tendency” (5).
It’s a peculiar remit but of a piece with a number of recent series, such as Reaktion Books’ “Focus on Contemporary Issues” and Columbia UP’s “No Limits”, that pursue selected issues or concepts. The difference here is the purported “source book” function: rather than wandering topical essays that cohere around a central idea, the MIT/Whitechapel volumes propose to gather cohesive “bod[ies] of writing” tracing “key influence[s] in contemporary art”—which presumably means representative samplings of material that make some pretense to comprehensiveness. But that is not exactly what Science Fiction is either, since the temporal span, as noted, is rather too constrained: only three items from the ’60s and ’70s, a period when New Wave SF was engaged in potent dialogue with avant-garde trends in the arts. The problem isn’t that editor Dan Byrne-Smith, a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art Theory at Chelsea College of Arts in London, doesn’t know this history, since he summarizes it efficiently in his introduction: the aesthetic appeal of Surrealism and Pop Art for J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss, and their reciprocal influence on major conceptual artists like Robert Smithson (12-13). Yet that important moment is represented here solely by a three-page excerpt from a 1971 interview in Studio International magazine featuring Ballard and Italian Surrealist Eduardo Paolozzi. The dialogue is fascinating, like most of the public utterances of those charming provocateurs, but it’s so clipped and condensed that it barely captures the excitement of the genre’s conversation with contemporary art in the New Wave era.
Perhaps the problem is with my use of the terms “genre” and “contemporary.” As Byrne-Smith says in his introduction, “science fiction” can be conceived as much more than an aesthetic genre. Rather, the term can refer, variously, to “forms of practice, complex networks, or a set of sensibilities”; to a certain “field, a space of metaphor, or a methodology”; or to the dominance of specific ideas, such as technological and social change (12). The reader gets the sense that the volume purports to cover all this ground in differing measure, though Byrne-Smith never says this precisely. What is clear is that he wants to abandon the limitations of a genre conspectus, especially the knotty issues of definition such overviews entail.
Though he inevitably includes a brief excerpt from Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) postulating the genre as a mode of cognitive estrangement, he ultimately plumps for Sherryl Vint’s later (2014) revisionist view that SF refers not to “an inherent or fixed set of properties” but rather a “network of linked elements” (14). Such an anti-essentialist “definition” potentially frees the editor up from the constraints of a standard overview since what “science fiction” means shifts depending on its use within specific historical, social, and institutional contexts. A focus on the broader artistic influences exerted by the SF genre is, then, only one of many possible configurations, and there is certainly some, but not much, of that sort of coverage here: e.g., a Ted Chiang story that was produced as the textual accompaniment to a 2014 video installation; a text written for a 2018 London exhibition that riffed on the dystopian future E.M. Forster envisioned in his 1909 story “The Machine Stops.”
The term “contemporary” may also be up for grabs, given the volume’s chronological bias towards work produced since the turn of the millennium. The editor himself says as much: “This volume responds to intensifications in engagement between art and science fiction in the early decades of the twenty-first century,” as SF has emerged as a global form capable of confronting pressing issues (12). From such a viewpoint, previous engagements, such as the New Wave’s with Pop Art and Surrealism, count as “historical precedents” (12) rather than currently vital debates. This is fair enough, I suppose; certainly, the issues the volume canvasses have emerged, over the past two decades, as compelling multidisciplinary points of focus for writers and artists. While the third and fourth sections, on “Posthumanism” and “Ecologies,” begin with brief excerpts from important “precursors” (e.g., Donna Haraway, Rachel Carson), they are dominated by more recent voices (addressing, e.g., body modification, climate change). Even the earlier, seemingly more traditional sections, on “Cognitive Estrangement” and “Futures,” are driven by postmillennial interests and concerns, especially the supercession of white Western models of futurity by “a broader range of perspectives, struggles and traditions,” such as Afrofuturism (15-16).
Within its self-imposed constraints of subject matter and chronology, I do think this is a provocative and potentially useful volume, especially in undergraduate classes (e.g., on SF and visual culture), where the bite-sized chunks of theory can be washed down with audiovisual supplements (the book, alas, has no images). Given how very small these chunks are, however, I don’t think it’s reasonable to call this an anthology; a mosaic of fragments is more apt, or, better yet, a critical montage. The individual pieces tend to blur together: it’s hard to meaningfully discriminate among so many different voices (more than 50 overall, since several items are coauthored) when they all are speaking so briefly on the same set of subjects. This isn’t helped by the fact that the introduction, itself so short (barely eight pages), is the only editorial apparatus to speak of: there are no section headers, much less headnotes to the individual pieces. It thus really helps if one has some prior acquaintance with the relevant issues and debates, which of course rather vitiates the book’s utility as a survey for undergrads, unless instructors can provide the missing context via lectures. But more serious researchers in the field (whether SF studies or art history) would likely prefer to access the arguments in undiluted form.
Jack Durant is a long-time reviewer of SF literature and criticism. He was a stalwart of the late Fantasy Review magazine and published a number of reviews in The Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review Annual.