Ask a dozen people at random to describe what science fiction is and you will probably get a dozen different answers. Start a discussion with those 12 people about what, if anything, science fiction says about our society and you may well need, depending on the company, to send out for pizza some hours later.
In such a rich, diverse field of literature, it is often useful to start with an initial premise and use that as a basis for discussion.
In their preface, the series editors of the Marxism and ... titles are at pains to point out their rationale for this collection of books - that of "investigating Marxism as a method for understanding culture". This plays well as the basis for a collection of essays from interested, and interesting, academics - representing Marxism as a codex for some of the great science-fiction works of the last century.
The essays are loosely grouped into three sections, whose titles give nods to some of those classic works: "Things to Come", "When Worlds Collide" and "Back to the Future". I say "loosely", because there is significant crossover between themes and coverage throughout - so that a number of science-fiction works, perhaps inevitably, get repeated attention.
It is hardly surprising, I suppose, that films such as Fritz Lang's epic Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and the fiction of Karel Zapek, get multiple mentions in the context of Marxist critique. But I was slightly bemused by some of the omissions. The Soviet novel and film Solaris gets only a name check in the introduction; while James Blish's Cities in Flight novels and Isaac Asimov's galaxy-wide Foundation series - which I would have thought hugely relevant - don't get a mention at all.
The pieces are sufficiently diverse in style and coverage to hold the reader's interest, while retaining a sense of common endeavour - which helps to give the volume the feeling of a collection of conference papers. In fact, at several points in the book I felt an urgent desire to round up the protagonists, put them in a bar and set them loose on a live debate of some of the common ground, which I'm sure would be both highly enjoyable and productive.
Having said that, the introduction and afterword by its editors Mark Bould and China Mieville respectively provide good, effective syntheses of several key themes and are very valuable papers in their own right, but I still think a weekend conference - if it hasn't happened already - would be an interesting addition to the debate.
Red Planets finishes with a useful set of appendices that offer an unusually eclectic set of suggestions for other science fiction works - both text-based and visual - with which to further explore the field. Each entry comes with a thumbnail sketch from the editors to give you a flavour of the piece - and this could be, in itself, a source of much excited debate in a suitably licensed hostelry with a group of fellow aficionados. Ridley Scott's stylish epic Alien, for example, is described (or rather dismissed) as "hokum", which may well cause some dissent - possibly irate, nostril-flaring, finger-pointing, beer-spilling dissent - among the more general science-fiction community.
Despite its apparently niche nature, this collection is a very readable and welcome addition to the critical literature that surrounds science fiction and its interaction with society. Everyone with more than a passing interest in the subject will find much to interest, and intrigue, them.
Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction
Edited by Mark Bould and China Mieville. Pluto Press 288pp, £65.00 and £19.99. ISBN 97807453310 and 303. Published 14 September 2009