Summary from the inside cover:
Science Fiction has proved notoriously difficult to define, but has emerged as one of the most popular genres of our times; not only in literature, but also in drama, poetry, and film. David Seed explores this often unconventional genre in relation to themes such as science and technology, space, aliens, utopias, gender, and its relation to time past, present, and future.
Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction by David Seed is part of the extensive Very Short Introductions collection published by Oxford University Press, containing nearly 400 volumes on a wide array of different subjects. This volume — 271 — discusses the science fiction genre, focusing on its key trappings, such as voyages into space, technology, and alien encounters.
While I had a good understanding of the genre going in, the question of what or how something qualifies as science fiction is one I often think about, so I approached this book from a desire to have a clearer understanding. For the most part this book succeeded in doing that. Each chapter covers a different core concept of the genre, outlining its history, its common tropes and motifs, and how it has evolved over time. It was surprising for me to learn, for example, how old fiction involving space travel actually is, the earliest example provided having been written in 1657.
I found the most value in this book as a resource to discover more novels to read. Each chapter provides extensive examples of authors and their works, which I intend to continually refer to as I expand my science fiction library. These examples tie in well enough to the discussion in the text too, though they are sometimes so numerous I would lose track of which Seed was talking about.
Something that left the book a little wanting for me was how little depth he actually went into with each book as well as each subject. It sometimes felt as if Seed was more concerned with providing examples than delving any deeper into the subject. I have mixed feelings about my disappointment with this, however, because this is precisely what the book aims to be. It is not meant to be a complete overview of the genre, but rather a starting point for someone who wants to get a better understanding of it. I do still feel some of this “very short introduction” could have been better executed, but I don’t feel it’s fair for me to criticize it for being exactly what it advertises itself to be.
There is even a rather handy section in the back, “Further Reading,” that provides examples of many other books that write about science fiction, divided by each chapter. While it could be argued there could be more to this book without it outgrowing its own premise — especially since I don’t recall seeing hide or hair of science fiction in comic books being discussed — I do applaud its ability to whet my interest. It does cover a lot of bases for the genre that are easy jumping off points into further study.
While I cut the book a little slack above, there were some glaring errors I discovered that left me puzzled as to how they could ever have been made. Specifically, in Chapter 2 while discussing the Alien series of films Seed blatantly gets many details wrong, saying that Aliens takes place on the creatures’ “homeworld” and that Alien 3 is about how “[…] an alien egg is unwittingly brought to Earth in a spacecraft which crashes […].” He also refers to Margaret Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx and Crake as a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’m quite certain is false.
While the Alien references seem more like asides than tied closely to a critical point he’s making, these are all rather troubling examples of poor research. His analysis throughout seemed sound and was interesting to read, but I found myself having trouble trusting all of the examples he used. This book was published in 2011. It would take all of five minutes to find fact-check all of these errors. Ultimately, I remain optimistic that these are isolated mistakes, but it does leave a bit of a stain on the book.
For its price and the time investment, I still think Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction was nonetheless worth the read. I can understand how the errors brought up may deter anyone interested, and I can hardly blame you, but I did still found value in what he had to say about the genre, its history, and the rudimentary ins and outs of what makes it what it is. It’s also a great resource for discovering further reading, whether it’s more science fiction novels, authors, or books about the genre.