If you want to build up a reference library on science fiction, the first thing you need is context. In other words, there are certain very basic things you need to be able to find out. When did A happen? Did B occur before C, or after it? How does D relate to E? What else was going on at the same time as F? And so on. In other words, you need to know the history.
The good news is that there are an awful lot of histories of science fiction out there.
The bad news is that none of them agree with each other.
I mean that literally. You’d think, for instance, that there’d be some sort of common agreement about when science fiction started, at least to within a handful of years. That would be common sense, wouldn’t it? Nope! For Adam Roberts, science fiction starts with the execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600; for Brian Aldiss, it starts with the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818; for Gary Westfahl, it starts with the appearance of Amazing Stories in 1926.
That’s a range of over 300 years, and that’s not the full story. Other candidates for the beginning of science fiction include Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634), Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638), or H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), or any of a dozen other points in between. There are even those who trace it back to Lucian’s True History (2nd century AD), or Homer, or the Epic of Gilgamesh.
This is hardly surprising, given that none of us can even agree on a definition of “science fiction”, but it doesn’t give us anything like a coherent story. Every different starting point is based on a different view of what constitutes science fiction, and consequently they are all very different histories. Your best bet, therefore, is not to rely on one history of science fiction; get two or three so you can compare them and arrive at your own view. These are some of the books we’d suggest as a starting point.
The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts
This is probably the best general history of sf available at the moment, and it has just been revised to bring it right up to date. What is particularly interesting about it is that Roberts does not confine himself to the history of the literature, he also looks at film and television, art, comics and just about every other manifestation of sf in popular culture.
Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss with David Wingrove
The first popular history of science fiction was Billion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss. Ten years later he updated and expanded the book as Trillion Year Spree. Even this updated version is now 30 years old, and science fiction has changed a huge amount in the interim. It’s also a book that is carefully constructed to support Aldiss’s pet theory that Frankenstein was the first sf novel; but that theory, and therefore this book, have been incredibly influential. You’ll still find people today accepting that theory without question, so it’s worth reading just for that.
The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin
This is, without doubt, the most eccentric history of science fiction you’ll find. The subtitle, “Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence”, says it all really. The Panshin’s believe that sf is a form of mythology, and that really does give a very strange colour to their version of history. However, this book is interesting from another point of view. Histories of science fiction seem to be largely British affairs, but this is one of the rare American versions. It is strange, for instance, that Aldiss and Ballard are completely absent from the story, but many lesser-known American writers are featured.
Science Fiction in the 20th Century by Edward James
We can, and probably will, argue until we’re blue in the face about the origin of science fiction, but one thing we’ll probably all agree on is that it is primarily a 20th century phenomenon. This was when science fiction became inescapable, when it achieved the forms (space opera, hard sf, new wave, cyberpunk) that we still recognise today, when the writers we most readily identify with sf, from Asimov to Zelazny, all emerged and did their best work. And this work confines its attention just t that part of the history of sf with which we are most familiar.
The Mechanics of Wonder by Gary Westfahl
This isn’t exactly a history, or rather it is much more limited in scope than the other histories we’ve included here. It’s a study of the emergence of magazine sf in America between Gernsback and Campbell, that is between the 1920s and the 1950s. It is very American in scope, and it argues that science fiction as a recognisable literature did not (indeed, could not) exist before it had a name. There’s lots of good stuff in here, but there’s also lots of idiosyncracies, but as a book about when and how sf took on the form with which we are all most familiar, it is invaluable.
New Atlantis by Brian Stableford
2016 has turned out to be a rich year for sf histories, not only have we seen the revised edition of Adam Roberts’s history, but we’ve also got this four-volume work (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3, volume 4) by Brian Stableford, and also his equally detailed history of French science fiction, The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds. Back in the 1980s, Stableford produced Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, which up to now has been the definitive account of the subject. New Atlantis is a huge expansion of that original work, and in expanding the original book he has turned it into a history of British science fiction that takes us from the Renaissance right up to the 1950s. It is idiosyncratic, and questionable in places, but as a genre history it really deserves a place on your reference shelf.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.