From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction Literature
By Michael D. C. Drout
Modern Scholar, 2006
Though I've been focusing on printed literature about science fiction in previous columns, there are other forms of nonfiction about speculative fiction. More specifically, in the past decades there has been, forgive the pun, a quiet explosion in audio formats: books on tape or CD, and more recently, podcasting, as well as audio versions of individual stories or interviews available as sound files on the web. I might consider what these alternative formats mean for science fiction at some time in the future; for now I'd like to focus on From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction Literature by Michael Drout.
Produced by The Modern Scholar, this is a literary history of science fiction presented as a series of 14 linked lectures. Each lecture is roughly 30 minutes long. The Modern Scholar offers courses on subjects ranging from economics to literature. I've listened to other lecture series from The Modern Scholar (most recently, Timothy B. Shutt's lecture series on C. S. Lewis). I also review books on CD regularly, and have served as a judge for the Audies, an audio books award. I mention these last points to put my experience in context. With print media we can often forget the font or the layout on the page; even the nasty feel of some magazines can be forgotten as the story works its magic.
The same is not true for audio productions. An irritating voice, a bad tracking decision, technical glitches, all of these and more can jerk you out of the listening experience, just as, more simply, a droning delivery can put you to sleep. I am happy to report that The Modern Scholar's claims about their products are true; listening to their professors really is like listening to a fine professor giving a great lecture. I don't know how they select their scholars, but as a group, I have found them informed, enthusiastic, and skilled at lecturing. (If that sounds like a blurb for them, it is. I think they're doing good work—but then, I think that about their more established competitor, The Teaching Company, and The Teaching Company offers an even wider array of courses.)
Michael D. C. Drout is no exception. He clearly knows a lot about science fiction, and about speculative fiction in general. His scholarly interests include Anglo-Saxon. He's edited a collection and an encyclopedia about Tolkien, and published academic essays about Susan Cooper and Ursula K. Leguin. What's more, he quickly reveals that this is far more than an academic interest, something he consciously chose to study as an adult; scattered through the lecture series Drout shares countless asides about the first time he encountered writer X, or what writer Z meant to him when he was twelve.
Drout wouldn't have had to share those stories to communicate his love for the genre, however. It comes through in his surging enthusiasm. He sounds like he's got so much to say, and he's so excited, and it's all so important that he can barely finish this sentence before he leaps to the next development, and the next, and, and...In short, he sounds like he still loves these works so much that it is flat out endearing. What's more, he doesn't just love the big ideas of science fiction. He loves the sand worms and the flying dragons and the crystals that you have to sing to and, and, and...
His affection for the genre also communicates itself with the care he takes to classify some stories or authors, and the respect that resonates in his voice when he finds it necessary to disagree with past critical judgments or to suggest that some science fiction writers aren't as great as their reputations in the field or with the fans would lead you to believe. Actually, that's not fully accurate. When Drout suggests that Harlan Ellison or Bruce Sterling aren't as important as writers as they were as manifesto writers for movements (New Wave and cyberpunk, respectively), he seems respectful. When he indicates that Piers Anthony isn't as important as his sales might lead people to believe, there's something close to glee in his voice.
Delivery and asides aside, what does Drout do in these lectures? A lot, most of it good and useful. He opens with a lecture defining science fiction, sketching its importance in the culture, some of its defining characteristics, and some of its defining trends in style and focus. Lecture 2, "The Roots of Science Fiction," addresses the nineteenth century history, primarily Shelley, Verne, and Wells. The next two lectures cover the 1930s and 1940s, respectively. The fifth lecture is devoted to Robert Heinlein—one of three writers who gets his own lecture. (The other two are Frank Herbert, in Lecture 8, and Neil Stephenson, in Lecture 11.)
The sixth and seventh lectures return to the decade by decade history, addressing the 1950s and then the 1960s and 1970s together. After the lecture on Herbert, the first of several thematically grouped lectures is delivered. Titled "The Surrealists: Ballard and Bradbury," it focuses on those two writers and their imagery. Lecture 10 addresses cyberpunk, and 11 addresses a writer Drout sees as "Post-Punk"—and the best working today: Neil Stephenson. The final three lectures again cluster writers, at times oddly. Lecture 12 is titled "Women and Gender"; it mentions Tiptree briefly, but otherwise focuses completely on Leguin and Butler. Lecture 13, "The Satirists," clusters all the writers who use techniques drawn from the field for purposes of social critique and/or entertainment: Anthony Burgess, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Douglas Adams. Drout closes the series by looking at what's happening now in science fiction, tapping primarily James Patrick Kelly, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Greg Egan as the top writers working now.
Clearly, this organizational pattern is a hybrid. It is one third history—a decade by decade review of primary American science fiction—one third critical appraisal of major authors, and one third thematic review. I don't begrudge Drout his hybrid approach; there have always been more factors intersecting to produce science fiction than are easy to summarize, and while seven hours is a long stretch to listen to, a written text of the lectures would produce only a very short book. In fact, the course comes with a study guide. Adding in an extensive bibliography and an array of fun, striking illustrations, this glossy little book is only 88 pages long. It is therefore not fair to judge Drout badly for not including as much detail as, say, Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree.
That said, one can take issue with the selection process involved, and with some of the specific historical interpretations. Maybe Drout could justify not giving Poe much attention in Lecture 2 due to lack of space—but the connections between the gothic and science fiction run deep and needed to be addressed more fully (as do other influences, like military fiction and utopian literature). Other choices are equally suspect or more so. Yes, this is an "exploration of science fiction literature," not culture, but given the way that fandom birthed so many writers, not paying more attention to it shorts the social context that produced science fiction. Heinlein certainly deserves a lecture all his own, and as a fan of Stephenson, I enjoyed that extended treatment, even if I don't rate Stephenson as highly as Drout does. However, does Stephenson deserve an entire lecture when the following authors are either not mentioned at all, or mentioned for a few seconds then never again: Anderson, Blish, Brin, Bujold, Card, Chiang, Kress, Niven, Norton, Pohl, Simmons, Vinge, Wolfe, Zelazny.
This list of lacunae leads to another observation. The themes Drout traced have definitely influenced science fiction. What's more, he pulls out some themes that I hadn't paid attention to and does a great job of tracing them. One example is the theme of training the next generation that connects writers so otherwise distinct as Heinlein, Leguin, and Stephenson. There are other similar observations, such as the ambivalent relationship between science fiction authors and authority, or the male authors' issues with women and power; all shed new or useful light on SF's history and meaning, and all show listeners how to connect works within the genre.
However...some enduring themes, schools, and issues are simply not given the treatment they deserve. This isn't a matter of what I like, or what Drout likes, but rather being accurate about what has shaped the field. While I think the emphasis on space travel in science fiction was shorted (and that some major women got left out), the most obvious example of a tradition not being treated fully is the treatment of hard science fiction. The hard/soft science fiction split is mentioned in the first lecture, and returned to in Drout's discussion of how some female authors are dismissed. He also addressed "hard-boiled" science fiction, and closes by focusing on Robinson and Egan, who are both hard SF writers. That said, it's like Drout tracks the rebellion and the new hard SF folks without looking at the core of that tradition. Even if you want to dismiss folks like Hal Clement or Larry Niven, you must address them to explain their popularity and their influence on the field.
Drout does not. He is also surprisingly quiet on something at the other end of the thematic spectrum, namely religion. He does mention how seldom Golden Age SF addressed the question, but he discusses both Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Herbert's God Emperor of Dune without addressing just how often science fiction writers have wrestled with the transcendent, with religion, or with the divine. (The lack of attention paid to this theme fits with some of the writers neglected as well.)
My objections articulated, what do Drout and this course do well? Drout gives a great sense of the scope and importance of science fiction. He makes sweeping claims for its influence, but also for its artistic importance. He does this by making some factual observations about the connections between written science fiction and other cultural activities, such as movies or comics, and through connecting it to its larger surrounding culture. However, he also does this through his close and appreciative readings of the books and authors addressed. He has a fine eye for details that show cultural connection and emotional resonance; Drout can explain how the works discussed function as art. His discussions of LeGuin, Butler, and Gibson are sensitive, careful, and convincing.
Drout is also both willing and able to show connections between authors or among groups of authors that are surprising. The most obvious example here comes from Lecture 9. I would never have thought to link J. G. Ballard with Ray Bradbury; the emotional tone of their works seem so different that it never occurred to me. However, Drout reviews how their emphasis on images showed that yes, you could consider both of them surrealists. (Actually, the bigger surprise was linking Anne McCaffrey to such a tradition via her images.)
Finally, Drout is willing to be bold in his claims about specific works, authors, and traditions. I don't always agree with him— Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild" as one of the top three science fiction short stories ever? Really? I love Butler, but what about...ahem—but Drout's boldness, combined with his passionate delivery had me shouting back at him while I was driving. I don't recommend such actions...but I admit them. Now, the lecture series is a bit pricey to pick up casually, but my library carries a number of lectures on CD, and takes requests. Maybe yours does too? If so, I suggest you give From Here to Infinity a listen. You'll learn, you'll enjoy, you'll shout...