Book review: ‘Out of This World’ by Mike Ashley


The purpose of science fiction, at least for legendary pulp editor Hugo Gernsback, who coined the phrase in 1929, was to show people how science might change our lives.

He defined it, explains Mike Ashley in the introduction to “Out of This World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It,” as a “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Today, science fiction still accomplishes Gernsback’s goal, but some of the genre’s best practitioners also have taken it into realms of pure fantasy that involve that dreaded e-word — escapism.

“Out of This World” explores both roads taken — and serves as a splendid companion book to an exhibition with the same title staged by the British Library (it started in May and runs until the end of September). Among the treasures in this book (and the exhibition) is a 1928 cover of Amazing Stories, edited by Gernsback, that bears the earlier, clunkier-sounding term “scientifiction.”


Readers are given a broad, engrossing survey that quickly reminds them that, even though we ask, “What is out there?” and look up at the night sky, centuries ago people asked the same question looking at the horizon. By this logic, then, “Gulliver’s Travels” (which is discussed in this book) can be treated as an early forerunner of science fiction. The same is true of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the adventures of Baron Münchhausen and works by Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Closer to our present, the book includes Arthur C. Clarke’s 1945 notes for satellite communication and Jack Williamson’s coining of “terraforming” to describe the method that would make Mars inhabitable for humans. We see the opening pages in a 1952 issue of Collier’s of “A Sound of Thunder,” Ray Bradbury’s tale of a company that, for $10,000, takes customers on a time-travel safari back to the age of the dinosaurs. “Does this safari guarantee I come back alive?” one customer asks. “We guarantee nothing,” said the official, “except the dinosaurs.” Terraforming and dinosaur safaris — two roads indeed.

There’s a momentum here that will carry you along as smoothly as a nanorobot sailing through a person’s bloodstream. The book touches on all the important developments of “skiffy” fiction, such as virtual worlds and multiverses, and the genre’s most important voices, including Isaac Asimov, William Gibson and Ursula K. Le Guin.

The book ends, fittingly, with utopian visions — most of them failing horribly on the large and small scale, including George Orwell’s “1984” and the happy, sunlit American suburbs of the Stepford wives. It’s a smart way to end this book, forcing the reader to think of the future: Some of the genre’s finest writers never stop imagining what is awaiting us a century from now or just around the corner. Certainly, that old question “What is out there?” still applies today, but, as you finish this book, you realize there’s another similar question to ask: “What next?”


Out of This World

Science Fiction: But Not As You Know It

Mike Ashley

British Library/University of Chicago Press: 144 pp., $29.95 paper