Two New Books Examine the Lost History of Speculative Fiction

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are genres with a long history behind them, and historians and writers have spilled plenty of ink covering the authors, events, franchises, and works that form their bedrock. Recently, two books have hit stores that are well worth picking up if you’re a fan of genre history: Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction, by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, and Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Desirina Boskovich. Both offer excellent examinations of the genres while shedding a bit of light on parts of their history that aren’t often illuminated.

In the broadest sense, the history of science fiction proceeded as follows: Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein in 1818, a work that influenced and was followed up by the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. In 1926, Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories, kicking off the so-called Golden Age of the genre, inspiring authors like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury; enshrined writing legends like Robert Heinlein and editors like John W. Campbell Jr. helped spearhead the genre as it advanced through the atomic age of the 1950s and beyond. Indeed, there are a number of excellent books that delve into this popular view of the genre’s history; consider as Alec Nevala-Lee’s wonderful Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, as well as Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.

As a thumbnail, this is a view of history that generally works, in that it recognizes some of the genre’s biggest names and movements. But as anyone who’s studied history knows, the generally accepted view of the past often leaves out a wealth of information. This particularly slice of the history of the genre—while certainly significant and well worth digging in to—also elides the contributions of hundreds of hundred of other authors to the ever-present movement that is science fiction.

That’s where books like Monster, She Wrote and Lost Transmissions prove invaluable: they add to and expand that conversation. In the introduction to Monster, She Wrote, its authors point to the transgressive act that was writing science fiction for authors like Margaret Cavendish and others. “The writers you’ll meet in [this book] are all rule breakers. Here’s the funny thing: society doesn’t always pay attention to what’s happening over there on the edges.” From there, the two travel through speculative fiction’s long history of female writers who broke ground and laid the groundwork for the genre as we know and love it today.

The book contains entries highlighting the work of authors like Cavendish (The Description of the New World, Called The Blazing World), Ann Radcliffe (The Mystery of Udolpho, The Italian), Margaret St. Claire (Sign of the Labrys), C.L. Moore (Northwest of Earth), Tanith Lee (White as Snow), Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire), Shirley Jackson (Haunting of Hill House), and dozens of others. Each gets her own section, which provides a quick rundown of their careers, notable works, and influence on the genre. With these entries, Kröger and Anderson provide an essential guide to the women that helped build the genre—many of them unjustly forgotten or often overlooked.

Like Monster, She Wrote, Lost Transmissions operates from a similar viewpoint, tabulating a list of influential people and vital works that are often ignored in generalized histories of science fiction and fantasy. This book casts a wider net, enlisting the help of authors like Christie Yant, Nick Mamatas, Paul Tremblay, Charlie Jane Anders, and others, sometimes pulling in forwards, introductions, or appreciations from people like Neil Gaiman, and William Gibson, and covering a wide range of topics, from books, television, and film, to the unexpected places that science fiction’s influence is evidenced, from fashion, to music, to design.

The result is a  far-reaching history that captures moments from the genre’s past that aren’t often discussed. There are entries on a lost book by Jules Verne, Harlan Ellison’s never-completed anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, George Lucas’s debut film THX-1138, the many alternate versions of David Fincher’s Alien³ (one of which—a screenplay by William Gibson—was recently adapted into a comic), and the varying ways fashion has been imagined in utopian futures.

The book can feel a bit scattered at times, hopping from interviews to fresh commentary to pre-existing essays, but at its best, it feels like a revelation; a curtain pulled back on parts of the genre that a reader might have never heard about. For years, I wrote a column on the history of science fiction for Kirkus Reviews, yet I still came away from Lost Transmissions with a renewed sense of discovery. Turn over a rock, and there’s another fantastic author or work that I’ve never heard of.

Both of these books are designed to correct a failure on the part of genre historians, accounting for the authors and books that have been left behind by fans and writers alike. Largely successful in their aims, these are essential reads for fans interested in delving into the history of the imagined worlds they love.

Monster, She Wrote and Lost Transmissions are available now.

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