Edited by Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn

University of Cambridge Press


295 pp/16.99/2004

Cover by Jim Burns

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn's The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction is an excellent introduction to science fiction for people who believe that the genre is comprised of space ships whizzing through space and bug-eyed monsters attacking women in bronze spacesuits.  This book, which is a collection of twenty essays, provides the historical context for science fiction (including the bug-eyed monsters) and explanations of the broad range of subgenres which currently make of the field.

The contributors to the volume include a heavy-hitting line up of authors and academics, including Brian Stableford, John Clute, and Damien Broderick.  All of them have credentials as critical reviewers of the field, with their works published as essays and monographs.  The writing in all cases is interesting and informative without resorting to the sort of academic jargon which would hinder the reader's enjoyment and comprehension of the material.

The first six essays deal with science fiction from its pre-Gernsbackian inception through the rise and dominance of the magazines to the present.  In addition, an essay by Mark Bould covers science fiction in film and television, perhaps the genre's widest and most accessible format.  The historical section is rounded out by Gary K. Wolfe's discussion of science fiction editors.  Once this basic framework has been established, the editors can include essays which discuss science fiction in more specific terms.

As if to demonstrate that there is a serious side to science fiction, that it isn't all escapism, there are four essays detailing literary criticism and science fiction.  The genre is held up to Marxist, feminist, postmodern, and homosexual theory.  Literary criticism aside, these essays demonstrate the elasticity of the genre in that it can address a wide variety of social issues against the technological background which so many associate with science fiction.

The manner of dealing with these issues varies, as is demonstrated by the essays which make up the final section of the book.  These divide the genre into subgenres, from the popular space opera to politics and alternate history.  These essays give a flavor for the types of issues science fiction deals with.  While mostly accurate, there are a few minor inaccuracies in this section, although none of them are great enough to undermine either the usefulness of the book or the strength of the arguments put forward by the essays.

Although the book is primarily aimed at those who don't have a deep knowledge of science fiction, it works not only as an introduction to the field (and, in effect, a reading guide), but also serves as a guide for those who have been reading science fiction for a long time.  It gives insight into the stories written by authors as diverse as Harry Harrison and Sheila Finch, allowing the reader to see their works in a new light.

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