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Science Fiction - Sherryl Vint **

Many science fiction fans enjoy also reading books about science fiction (me included), so this addition to the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series is of interest - particularly as Sherryl Vint tells us that she isn't taking the usual route of a history or describing key works, but rather focussing on what 'science fiction can do, how it has been described by a variety of constituencies in distinct ways for multiple ends.' 

Vint does recognise that science fiction is many things to many people - but rather than embrace this diversity, she seems determined to force it into a particular image (that you are only likely to appreciate if you can cope with somebody using ‘imaginary’ as a noun rather than an adjective). We are told SF is about change - but I'm not convinced that's accurate. It is about storytelling (which is hardly mentioned here) that asks 'What if?' - so it's not so much about change as things being different. The obsession with change produces an overemphasis on dystopias or reflecting particular groups’ challenges where these often make dull or worthy fiction. Vint just doesn't seem to get the point the reason many of us read SF is not to deeply consider important concepts - it's for enjoyment. To have fun. There's very little fun in this book.

This comes through, for example, in the description of the science journal Nature's decision to have a short SF story in each issue. Vint comments 'Acknowledging that imaginative speculations have their place in scientific histories and in discussions regarding policy making, the preeminent science journal Nature began to publish short original works of SF in 1999, initially as a project to reflect the turn of the millennium, but adopted as a regular feature, Nature’s “Futures” beginning in 2005...' I've contributed several stories to this series: when I asked someone at Nature about the reasoning, they found Vint's justification very amusing, saying that it was done because they could, and they wanted to have some fun.

Leaving aside the strange take on the nature of SF, there were one or two smaller issues. History of science (as opposed to science fiction) is clearly a problem, as we read about 'the widespread cultural interest provoked by Galileo's invention of the telescope.' We're also told that Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics 'have become a starting point for conversations about robotic design and the ethics of a world in which we increasingly interact with them.' Yet almost every book I've read about robot and AI ethics, if it mentions the three laws at all, it does so to quickly point out they are meaningless in practice and to move on.

It doesn't help that we sometimes get a heavy dose of indigestible academic English. So, for example, we read this remarkable single sentence: 'Design choices are the real-world equivalent of what the sf community call worldbuilding, that is, the coproduction of the social and its technology from existing cultural assumptions that create a set of constraints that shape future possibilities: how work and family structures intersect, what kinds of people are considered valuable and why, what is made easy and what is difficult to achieve and the like.'

In the end, this feels like a vegan telling you what a hamburger tastes like, based primarily on what a bunch of other people who don't eat hamburgers have guessed its chemical constituents to be. It's a curious, but ultimately unfulfilling experience. 

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Review by Brian Clegg

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