A Coffee Table Book that Traces the Earliest History of Science Fiction

Science fiction scholar Mike Ashley provides a textual accompaniment to the British Library's exhibition Out of This World Science Fiction: but not as you know it with his large full-color coffee table book that traces various themes within science fiction history.

"Science fiction," says Ashley in his introduction, "is that speculation about the impact of science, technology, and socio-political change on us…" It is a literature of otherness, born of a multiplicity of cultures that has "examples which can be found in all major countries of the world." Using six primary themes: Alien Worlds, Time and Parallel Worlds, Virtual Worlds, Future Worlds, The End of the World, and The Perfect World, (each then broken into further subsections) Ashley traces each from its earliest appearance in written literature to the present day. Primary focus of each chapter stays with the theme's progenitors, Ashley zeroing in on the aspect of speculation that makes this theme important for literature.

Out of This World sticks primarily to SF literature (some movies make the cut), as one would expect from a publication of the British Library, and contains a large number of full-color illustrations, photos, and reproductions of art from the history of science fiction. From elderly frontispieces and covers of Analog from the 60s, to book covers and photos of actual space travel, these images provide both entertaining and illuminating accompaniment to Ashley's informative text. A caption for each image gives names, dates and relevant information for better enjoying the piece included.

Asides, in boxes beside the main text, provide short mini-biographies of some of the great writers in the field of science fiction. Jonathan Swift, H. G. Wells, William Gibson, Olaf Stapledon, Philip K. Dick, China Meiville and many others are each given these special biographical asides to better elucidate their particular significant contributions to science fiction literature.

"Just Imagine" – small interjections on some pages within the book invite the reader to participate in the wonderment of science fiction conjecture by providing a thinking prompt that could be used by writers or as heady daydreams for the casual reader.

A chronology included at the end of the book allows the reader to se how works placed within theme sections fit into the larger arena of history and a give clearer understanding of the evolution of science fiction over time. Also included is an index that may be useful to researchers looking for comments on a particular author, work, or concept or for those readers wanting to see what Ashley said about their favorite author and his/her place in the genre. An included "Further Reading" guide is a bibliography of particular use to researchers working in the field of science fiction.

Through his significant research, Ashley shows that assumptions about the origins and canon of SF may be misdirected. For instance, did you know that a Spanish writer named Enrique Gaspar envisioned a time machine before H. G. Wells? Or that Charlotte Gilman, writing in 1915 (though not published till 1979) wrote a utopia of an all-female community? Ashley looks outside of the Anglo-centric and male-centric SF canon for works by non-English speakers and women to show their significant contributions to the field of SF. This aspect of the book, in particular, is what makes it a unique addition to the field of science fiction studies, as there are many pleasant and illuminating surprises. (Though it is certainly incomplete in its coverage of non-Anglophone and feminine literature, Out of This World opens up new avenues of inquiry for the literary critic.)

Out of This World is appealing to anyone interested in an overview of the history of science fiction that will leave them with a lengthy list of to-be-read books. Ashley also helps clarify and define a genre that likes to defy definition by placing books and stories within a thematic framework and connecting science fiction's past with its future. For anyone who enjoys reading literature about science fiction, Out of This World is a good addition to the collection for its easy reading and informative text. Researchers may also want to use this book as a jumping off point for more directed research in particular area, whether at the British Library or elsewhere in the field of science fiction. Just looking through the various images of far futures, alien civilizations, and technological progress is a joy in itself, even without the textual information.

Out of This World contains a wealth of information, clearly written and accompanied by exceptional visual aides and useful asides that make this a highly recommended work of SF nonfiction for both the researcher and casual reader.

This post by John Ottinger III originally appeared at Grasping for the Wind