Review of Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy
Raymond K. Rugg
Desirina Boskovich. Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Abrams Image, 2019. Hardcover. 304 pg. $29.99. ISBN 9781419734656.
Fans of speculative fiction are, by definition, those who enjoy the unknown, the hidden and the what-if. Science fiction and fantasy stories present fresh perspectives on what we think we know about the world and new realities for us to explore and contemplate. So when a book makes the tantalizing claim that it contains the secret history of the genre, it’s practically an irresistible temptation to anyone interested in the origins, growth, and development of SF. Despite its subtitle, however, Lost Transmissions is less a cohesive historical overview than it is a compilation of individual insights into little-known episodes in science fiction and fantasy that have taken place throughout the years. The book comprises articles, interviews, and guest essays on speculative fiction projects in a range of categories, such as literature, film and television, music, fashion, and more. This is not to say that readers won’t find interesting and engaging historical information in this book. In fact, there is plenty of that. It’s just that the history is delivered in independent presentations, rather than as a continuing and connected historical narrative. The fact that the subtitle may be somewhat misleading is recognized by both the author and by Jeff VanderMeer, the award-winning writer and editor, who provides the foreword. Although they both use the phrase “secret history” when describing the collection, VanderMeer refers to the collection variously as an introduction, a catalogue, and a jumping-off point for exploring SF, while Boskovich notes, with her emphasis, that “above all, this is not the secret history, but a secret history” (xi).
That being said, the presentation of Lost Transmissions delivers its material in a nice, semi-chronological order within categories. The first nearly hundred pages are devoted to literature, a perfectly reasonable starting point given that this is how most readers are likely to have become enthusiasts of the genre. Following a quick nod to Mary Shelley, there are entries on other lesser-known contributions to science fiction and fantasy writings, from the 1500s through to the twenty-first century. When the articles discuss writers who are perhaps more recognizable and better-known to the mainstream, such as C.S. Lewis, Harlan Ellison, and Philip K. Dick, it is in order to reveal backstories and information that, in all honesty and deference to the name of the book, could very well be considered to be secret histories. They are stories that are most likely unknown to anyone who is not at least a moderately serious reader of these writers. The section on film and television is not quite as robust, with entries ranging from Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and Metropolis (1927), through Star Wars (1977), Dune (1984), and Aliens (1986). One feels that there must be many more unknown or abandoned speculative fiction projects in Tinseltown than what we are presented with here, but the stories that are included are interesting behind-the-scenes tales of the film industry. The categories of architecture, art and design, music, and fashion are all smaller sections, while the final category, fandom and pop culture, is nearly as large as the section on film and television, perhaps because it is somewhat of an umbrella term, encompassing comics, role-playing games, computer gaming, and more.
As noted previously, these are individual glimpses into and untold stories of the genre, not a comprehensive, linear discussion of the development of speculative fiction. For example, David Barr Kirtley’s essay on Robert Asprin’s Myth series is less about the books themselves than the influence they had on Kirtley’s life and career. Boskovich’s article on the art of Michael Whelan briefly touches on his role in the growing popularity of realism for fantasy and science fiction book covers in the 1970s and ‘80s, but misses the opportunity to discuss his work in context with his contemporaries, such as Darrell K. Sweet. But this sort of criticism is practically unavoidable in an endeavor such as Lost Transmissions. The more any reader knows about any given subject, the harder it is for the book to deliver fresh, new, “secret” knowledge. In his foreword, Vandermeer openly acknowledges that some readers are likely to feel that their own particular favorites have been overlooked or under-represented.
This is why one of Lost Transmissions’ strengths is its wide range of scope. Boskovich’s articles, nearly four dozen of them, vary in length from just two paragraphs to several pages. All are interesting and most contain information that will be new to the average reader. Another nearly three dozen guest essays are provided by contributors including well-known names and award-winning personalities, such as Charlie Jane Anders, William Gibson, Lev Grossman, Annalee Newitz, and Neil Gaiman, and they range in tone and content from academically informative to personally reminiscent. Four interviews with genre writers are all thoughtful and interesting glimpses into the lives of the authors. New or casual fans will find this book to be, as VanderMeer puts it, “an utter revelation,” (ix), while even the most scholarly of readers will be able to use the information here (including sources, credits, and a comprehensive index) as a resource to spark new avenues of inquiry. In the unlikely event that a reader finds no new or hidden knowledge, it is still fascinating to read what people like Gibson and Gaiman have to say about the genre in their own words. All in all, any quibble with the subtitle is ultimately a minor issue, and Lost Transmissions is a worthwhile addition to the collection of anyone who has more than a passing interest in science fiction and fantasy.
A non-Native native of the American West and a recent transplant to New England, Raymond K. Rugg works in Speculative Fiction, Speculative Nonfiction and Speculative Poetry. He presents regularly as an independent scholar at regional and national academic conferences and his writing has appeared or is upcoming in publications including Abyss & Apex, Asimov’s and Foundation, The International Review of Science Fiction. More information at RaymondKRugg.com.