The History of Science Fiction: Graphic Novel Review

I have, in the past, gotten into my appreciation of works discussing and examining works that examine the history of technology, art, and fandom, and the intersection thereof – and there is no place where those three intersect more than in Science Fiction as a genre. So, when I learned in a passing mention on the Sword & Laser Podcast about the graphic novel The History of Science Fiction by Xavier Dollo and Djibril Morissette-Phan, I knew that I needed to check it out. It is lacking in some significant ways, but they’re also ways that can be rectified in a second volume, if the creators are up for it.

The graphic novel is broken down into various chunks by era of science fiction, going from Renaissance and pre-industrial satirists (if not earlier), going to almost the present day, with each chapter (which are probably where the issue breaks would fall), covering the relevant era, interspersed with some recommended readings throughout. Our guides through these eras are a pair of robots seeking to learn more about science fiction, along with talking heads based on various science fiction writers and editors throughout history – H.G. Welles, Isaac Asimov, Judith Merill, Michael Moorcock, and others.

As someone who has hung out at science fiction conventions and gone to room parties to listen to writers and older fans talk about the genre’s history (and in some cases drop names harder than Madonna in “Vogue”), some of this is old-hat to me. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it means that the authors did their research. It gives the book a vibe almost (but not quite) like Hip-Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor.

The “but not quite” part comes in because the book isn’t willing to be critical in the same ways that Hip Hop Family Tree was. Beef is part of the hip-hop game, not just in terms of artistic rivalries, but also in professional and personal disagreements, so consequently by discussing those disagreements, you are by necessity viewing the people in the field with a critical eye. Dollo and Morissette-Phan, on the other hand, are very reverential about the people they discuss.

For example, John Campbell’s racism, sexism, and support of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology are barely covered in the chapter where he’s featured (there’s a brief section about the start of Scientology), and instead are mentioned in a couple lines of dialog in the following chapter. The problems on the industry side with inclusion of BIPOC voices are also underrepresented. The last chapter of the book puts a lot of time into covering inclusion of BIPOC, women, and LGBT voices… but it’s shoving all of those into one chapter, so nobody really gets much time outside of some name checks. And even there it runs into issues of a lack of critical examination – Marion Zimmer Bradley is checked for mentoring women writers, but there’s no space to mention that she covered for (and in some cases took part in) her husband Walter Breen’s sexual predation during science fiction conventions.

Additionally, the perspective of speculative fiction history in this book is exclusively Anglo-European and primarily White and Male. Authors of color from the ’60s and ’70s, like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, are name-checked, but their profiles are nowhere near as extensive as those of their Caucasian counterparts. Those profiles name-check Afrofuturism but don’t explain what that is (something they do for Cyberpunk). They don’t discuss works of speculative fiction from outside of Western Europe and North America, outside of name-checking various works of anime and manga in sidebars, without discussing differences of the medium.

There is enough that is hinted at, but not explored – if not overlooked entirely (like Eastern European and Chinese science fiction and fantasy), that it feels like what this book needs is a second volume. There’s a real sense by the end that it feels like the authors realize they are running out of space, and have to replace deeper explorations of eras, authors, and themes with throwing out names and terms like they’re writing the SF version of “We Didn’t Start The Fire”.

I still like the book, but it would be better if this were the beginning of a longer series (even with just one or two more volumes of equivalent length). As it stands, the voices that were underrepresented before are still underrepresented within this book. It’s worth reading, but with that asterisk, but an asterisk that could fade if we get subsequent volumes.

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