Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
The New Critical Idiom: Science Fiction
Adam Roberts
Routledge, 224 pages

The New Critical Idiom: Science Fiction
Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is in the English Department of Royal Holloway, one of the 8 larger colleges of the University of London. He received his MA from Aberdeen University and his PhD from Cambridge University. Salt was his first science fiction novel.

Adam Roberts Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Park Polar
SF Site Review: On
SF Site Review: Salt

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

Adam Roberts is a prolific new writer who was shortlisted for the 2001 Arthur C Clarke Award for his first novel, Salt. He is also a lecturer in English at Royal Holloway, University of London. This makes him ideally qualified to write this book, part of Routledge's New Critical Idiom series which includes books on topics such as parody, gender and narrative.

Though the book is aimed at academics, it is also of interest to the general SF reader and it is from this perspective that I will review it. Of course there is a large swathe of SF readers for whom the phrase 'literary criticism' is an invitation to reach for their revolvers. However, for those of us who find the approach illuminating, there is much here to admire.

The book starts with an examination of the definition of science fiction. This is a perennial topic within the field and often a tedious and thankless one. Roberts takes a typically tough-minded approach, rejecting immediately the famous, self-referential definitions of people such as Damon Knight. Instead he takes three serious definitions by other SF critics as a starting point to explore the fundamental qualities of SF. This does not produce a T-shirt slogan definition but he does make a persuasive case that the concepts of 'alterity' (otherness, difference) and 'novum' (the point of difference) are those most integral to science fiction. As he later concludes: "The SF obsession with alien encounter... is the key trope", where he uses 'alien' in the broad sense.

This section is followed by an overview of the history of science fiction. Inevitable this section (the longest in the book) is too short. He is good on proto-SF and pre-War SF but everything afterwards is sketchy. The subject needs its own book and in fact Roberts is in the process of writing just such a book, the Palgrave History of Science Fiction. To be fair though, some additional historical overview is provided in the rest of the book.

These introductory chapters are followed by three chapters on themes within science fiction; gender, race and technology -- "the questions that have defined the age we live in." These themes fit in with his emphasis on alterity. Each of these chapters (as well as the preceding two) closes with a case study, for example Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand Of Darkness for gender. These are perhaps the best part of the book, with one exception I will mention later.

After placing feminist science fiction in a historical context Roberts moves on to an examination of such texts, mostly written by women but including an overview of gender in the Alien films.

He then attempts the same for race but with less success. At the beginning of the chapter, Roberts states that race in science fiction is "more than a simple matter of coding 'the alien' as black, although it sometimes is." The problem is the qualifier at the end of that sentence. For example, he then goes on to say of Alien:

"It doesn't take much cultural decoding to see this as an expression of white middle-class fear at the potential for distrust of an alienated black urban underclass."
To this viewer, at least, this conclusion is highly dubious. Likewise his case study of Men In Black at the end of the chapter is unconvincing. He concedes the possibility he is making a "category error" in his reading of the film and it seems this is the least of which he is guilty.

However, between these two bookends, when he keeps to a more complex notion of difference there is much good analysis on, for example, race in Star Trek and the work of black SF writers like Delany and Butler. He is on shakier ground with his presentation of alien abduction as a metaphor for historical slavery, though.

The chapter on technology casts its net wide, embracing spaceships, robots and cyberspace. Its clear though that real interest here is in artificial intelligence in all its forms. The title of the chapter, "Technology and Metaphor", is not really appropriate until his case study of Neuromancer.

The main problem with this book is that it is caught between two stools. This is principally because, as well as introducing the genre, Roberts pursues his own thesis and there is often a sense of him jumping through hoops to do so. This means that as an introduction its rather scattershot.

The themes he picks for his headings seem to be informed by conclusions he has already drawn. This means there is no time for an examination of, say, identity or reality to name two themes which are arguably more strongly identified with the genre than some of those he selects. It also informs his decision to devote no specific chapter to aliens but combine this analysis with the other alterities of race and gender. As I have noted above, this leads to some problems.

However, Science Fiction remains full of astute criticism and is a worthwhile addition to the libraries of those interested in the genre itself.

Copyright © 2002 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in South London; he is originally from Bradford, UK. He writes book reviews for The Telegraph And Argus.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide