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Podcast script 30: The Science Fiction Handbook, by Booker and Thomas


mySF Project podcast, number 30



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Representative authors
Individual texts
Background to the authors
Use at secondary level
Using the Handbook for a study of Wells
Forster's The Machine Stops
The Handbook Glossary
Resource list




Podcast 30 reviews and recommends a new SciFi text, The Science Fiction Handbook by M Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas (2009). It also recommends a study plan using the Handbook with Wells' novellas The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898).


There are always a few bookshops that are traps. The Paperchain in Manuka is one of these. It is not a very big bookstore but it always has something I feel I need. The Science Fiction and Fantasy section is only a few metres wide and does not even come up to shoulder height, but there you go ... Always something great emerges. One afternoon in late 2009 I walked out with The Science Fiction Handbook.  I paid just under thirty-eight Australian dollars for it but Amazon charges twenty US dollars and there is a Kindle edition for a couple of dollars less.


The book is twenty-three centimetres tall, fifteen wide and two centimetres thick, or about three hundred and fifty pages of a neat serif font that is easy to scan or photocopy. It has a cool blue-grey colour with a front cover by Colin Anderson called 'Artificial intelligence', looking like a cross between the hovering telepresence faces as seen in Johnny Mnemonic (Longo, 1995) and Virtuosity (Leonard, 1995). The book looks and feels good, even in paperback.





Jumping to reviews, DeNardo (2009) says the Science Fiction Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) is a "fascinating reference work that puts science fiction subgenres into historical perspective while offering more detailed analyses of representative corresponding novels".


Whitehouse (2009) argues that the Handbook succeeds in summarising the important force of Science Fiction in literature, doing so "in a manner that is both understandable to the lay reader and even at times entertaining" (Whitehouse, 2009).


The review that convinced me to pull out my wallet was by Wegner, who stated unequivocally, "This book represents an extremely useful pedagogical tool, that will find a home in both research libraries and undergraduate classrooms" (Wegner, 2009).

It is this reviewer's belief that the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) is also entirely suitable for upper secondary studies but it could be used down to lower secondary levels given careful support from the teacher, but more on that, later.




The Introduction to The Science Fiction Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) avoids long discussions of the definition of Science Fiction found so often elsewhere and instead defines SF as "fiction set in an imagined world that is different from our own in ways that are rationally explicable (often because of scientific advances) and that tend to produce cognitive estrangement in the reader" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p. 4). The Glossary at the end of the Handbook describes 'cognitive estrangement' as the "process through which certain works of literature, by imaginatively placing readers in an unaccustomed situation or environment, cause those readers to ponder the differences between this environment and their own" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p. 323). This derives from Darko Suvin's 'estrangement effect' that can make SF a genre "with particularly strong political potential".


Right from the Handbook's introductory section I was convinced by the authors, mostly because I found so many similarities to the approach used in the mySF Project, (and it is easy to agree with those who agree with you) although I prefer to use the term 'alterity' (Roberts, 2000) instead of 'cognitive estrangement'. 'Alterity' can be equated with encounters with altered realities or Otherness (Roberts, 2000, p. 25) ... and 'alterity' is a cooler word for my students. 


As with several other texts on Science Fiction, the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) uses a thematic approach, dividing texts into rough sections whilst admitting omissions and overlaps. This is seen also in the interactive CD-ROM Grolier’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Nicholls 1995), in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Mann 2001), the DVD A Century of Science Fiction (Newsom 2003), and the introduction of The MUP Encyclopedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy (Collins 1998). These categorizing themes can also be found in several collections of SF short stories for secondary schools, like Science Fact/Fiction (Farrell, Cage, Pfordresher and Rodrigues, 1974).





These thematic areas are seen as subgenres in the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) and they include:


  1. Time travel

  2. Alien invasion

  3. Space opera

  4. Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic fiction

  5. Dystopian science fiction

  6. Utopian fiction

  7. Feminism, Science Fiction and Gender

  8. Science Fiction and Satire

  9. Cyberpunk & Posthuman Science Fiction, and

  10. Multicultural Science Fiction

At the end of each thematic chapter is a section for 'Suggested Further Reading', 'Notable Fiction' and 'Notable Films' and these will be welcomed by teachers.


The Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) is an orderly text. Each subgenre runs for about thirteen pages; except for ten pages each for the Utopian and Dystopian themes. This intense interest in Utopian studies is found almost everywhere in tertiary education but, for my use in secondary education, I wrap these themes in with visions of the far future, including Posthuman themes and Space Opera texts. The latter are always popular with male students for their imperialist narratives, perhaps echoing World of Warcraft and other large-scale strategy games.  


Representative Authors


The third part of the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) covers representative authors, with about two pages per author for nineteen authors. The same two page focus is given to Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as equally to Margaret Atwood and George Orwell, who the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) authors describe as 'literary'. The authors are arranged alphabetically, ending with HG Wells.


The two page entries for the authors are just right for a secondary audience and they end with a brief note on the best critiques of the authors, with full citations in the Selected Bibliography section.


Individual texts discussed


Part Four of the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) deals with selected individual texts. As noted by several reviewers, these discussions address the themes covered in the first part and include much more depth, especially in terms of the political and social criticism discovered in the texts.


The novels of thirteen male writers and six female writers are discussed with excellent essays on Pohl and Kormbluth's The Space Merchants, Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Delaney's Trouble on Triton, Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, and Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Mars' trilogy. Perhaps as a result of Robinson's interest in social and political alternatives this essay has seven pages. The essay on Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is eight pages while Nicola Griffith's Ammonite is seven pages, even though it is seen as an Utopian novel with a groundbreaking exploration of gender.


Reviewers of the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) agreed that this section discussing individual texts led them to order new books from Amazon and tonight, across on my study bookshelf, are four new titles and one second-hand from Gaslight books. It is my suspicion that reviewers particularly enjoyed the subgenre discussions of feminist and multicultural SF writings with the corresponding book analyses, as for Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time that "paints Utopia as a possibility that depends on the struggle of oppressed people, those for whom dystopia is a natural state." The authors note that, "It is not enough simply to dream of utopia; we must act. Piercy suggests making a clear choice between Utopia and Dystopia. To accept dystopia is the true madness" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p. 249).


There is a new and surprising slant on Delaney's Trouble on Triton in the individual texts section where the authors note criticism of this novel, arguing that Delaney's emphasis on individuality is another guise for capitalism. Also surprising was the praise for China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Ian Macdonald's River of Gods, with Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber seen as multicultural SF.


The discussions of individual texts relate to the authors teaching of graduate courses in SF, mostly throwing genre texts and themes into a spotlight lit from the left. There is some criticism from reviewers that the authors' comments can be too intrusive and perhaps too doctrinaire, but for this teacher the historical and political contexts of the texts offer opportunities for valuable discussions, links between subject areas in the secondary curriculum and ... yes certainly, further research.


An example of this was the special importance given to dystopian texts that critique real world situations by "placing them within the defamiliarizing context of an extreme fictional society" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p. 65). The Handbook gives Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as the leading example in this subgenre, saying the text "responds to the Reaganite 1980s with a horrifying account of a near future dystopian regime ruled by right-wing religious fundamentalists, much to the detriment of women, who often find themselves employed essentially as sexual slaves for breeding purposes" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p. 67). The article goes on to argue that,


"Dystopian narratives, especially if read as cautionary satires that critique the current order (rather than lurid fantasies that make the current order appear preferable in comparison), also remain one of the most potentially useful forms of SF. This potential is best fulfilled, however, when the dystopian critique of the possible negative consequences of current technological, social, and political trends is accompanied by suggestions of the possibility of viable preferable alternatives. In this sense, it is clear that dystopian fiction is not the opposite of utopian fiction but a kind of supplement to it" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p. 72).


The article also claims that, "The Reagan-Thatcher neo-conservative retrenchment of the 1980s was also accompanied by a waning in the production of utopian fictions" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p. 82). The Anthology authors claimed links between social and political context and published writings. These are bold claims that will be challenging to secondary students. However, they lead with a dreadful fascination to an analysis of the students' own social and political contexts compared with the SF texts produced - perhaps asking the students to find political criticism and elements of en eventual Utopia in recent films like 2012 (Emmirch, 2009) and The Road (Hillcoat, 2010).


As discussed in Podcast 29 dealing with Kelleher's Taronga (1986) as a Post-Apocalyptic novel, sometimes students need to be prodded to see the purpose of a text, its didactic message, rather than just its surface themes or events. The Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) will certainly assist with this as the authors are well acquainted with the use of SF for political critique.


Background to the authors


Handbook author Dr Anne-Marie Thomas is a Professor of English working as the Honours Program Coordinator at Austin Community College. Her doctorate dissertation was called 'It came from outer space: the virus, cultural anxiety, and Speculative Fiction' and it can be found on the web. A good deal of the dissertation deals with the X-Files, described by the Handbook as "clearly the most important alien invasion television series of the 1990s, and probably of all time". The Handbook adds, "this paranoid conspiracy thriller introduced a number of new high-tech concepts to the alien invasion television subgenre. It is, however, distinguished more by its air of paranoid suspicion toward shadowy forces within the US government than by its fear of sinister aliens" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p. 35). Thomas also focuses in her dissertation on Stephenson's Snow Crash, a novel I have taught at upper secondary level, and while the seven page analysis in the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) is excellent, some of the concepts introduced would need a great deal of further support for most secondary students.


The other Handbook author is M Keith Booker, now a Professor at the University of Arkansas. His teaching interests include SF, of course, but also Postcolonial Literature, Literature of the Left and Modern British Literature. Of note in those teaching specialties, apart from the social and political slant, is the rare focus on the 'British Boom' writers seen in the Handbook. Every reviewer noted the discussion of British and multicultural writers with appreciation. It was a shame, then, that little was made of Australian author Greg Egan, certainly the most important SF writer in the Posthuman and Utopian subgenres found in the Handbook. M Keith Booker has published extensively including Science Fiction Television (2004) and this text may well eclipse Johnson-Smith's American Science Fiction TV (2005) and Roger Fulton's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction TV  on my shelf, when it arrives from Amazon.


Talking earlier about reviews of the Handbook  (Booker & Thomas, 2009) I noted how influential was Wegner's review saying it was "an extremely useful pedagogical tool" (Wegner, 2009). As it turns out this favourable notice is from a Professor at Duke University who also teaches Utopian fiction, Marxism, cultural studies, contemporary film and science fiction. Clearly, SF texts, particularly those offering Utopia/Dystopias, can serve many purposes for tertiary students, and also for secondary students interested in current and historic social issues.



Use at secondary level


Of the nineteen texts discussed in the Handbook, twelve are often taught at the secondary level. Amongst these are, of course, Wells' The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Space Merchants, The Dispossessed, Neuromancer, The Handmaid's Tale and Snow Crash. The Handbook offers some fine and valuable points for Starship Troopers by Heinlein (treated fairly by the authors, against the tide of current opinion) as well as for I, Robot and The Space Merchants, all of which can be taught down to middle secondary. It would be wonderful to teach others, such as Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, or the 'Mars' trilogy, but the content could be problematic and the length of the texts difficult.


Using the Handbook for a study of Wells


An immediate use for the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) teaching to an upper secondary class is for working with either or both of the short novels by HG Wells, The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). For the more ambitious students, into this mix is thrown a short story or novella, EM Forster's The Machine Stops (1964).


Many secondary schools have multiple copies of the Wells' novels and most school libraries keep Wells on their shelves due to his importance, and his accessibility across audiences. For those without the novels the full-text of both novellas can be downloaded from Project Guttenburg  at no cost to the school and distributed on thumbdrive, or placed for download on the school intranet. The Amazon company Audible  has the texts read aloud in mp3 format for under seven dollars American each and these could also be made available on the intranet or played aloud to the class. The Forster story, The Machine Stops is available from Audible as a 50 minute dramatization for under six dollars.


The first discussions of The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) and The War of the Worlds (Wells, 1898)  would probably aim at discovering what the students already know about Wells and  these very famous works, now so often known through bland copies that sacrifice ideas to further special effects.


Class is given the text, then the Handbook biography


After the class has been issued their copies of The Time Machine  (Wells, 1895) or The War of the Worlds (Wells, 1898) there might be a short period of immersion in the text, stopping to talk about the style and the unusual role of the narrator in both novels. In the second or third class on the novel the two page short biography might be copied and given to the students, or scanned through OCR for the intranet.


Particular attention might be given to an important comment from the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) where the authors note, "Indeed, all of Wells' science fiction is intensely engaged with the social and political issues of its day, demonstrating early on the potential of science fiction as a mode of commentary on such issues" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p.175).


Questions about modern versions of the same texts, or using the same ideas


What can the students see of the political and social issues of the day in the novel? As they probably remember recent time travel narrative films or the most recent remake of The War of the Worlds (Spielberg, 2005) they may have some difficulty with this task. If there are few or vague social issues from past incarnations of the texts, why are they missing? Have contemporary adaptations of SF texts consciously avoided social criticisms found in the original?


After book reports, give out the Wells' analysis from the Handbook


After some time working with the novel, perhaps through groups giving chapter reports, talks on style and discussing characters and ideas, the relevant chapter from the Handbook would be given out in photocopy or made available online. In Australia this would be allowed under the ten percent rule for the use of the text for academic purposes.


The British Empire as invading Martians


The Handbook  asserts that the cognitive estrangement of the War of the Worlds (Wells, 1898) serves a definite political purpose. Here Wells "establishes a reversal of perspectives of the kind that is often central to satire, asking his scientifically-minded Victorian audience to imagine a situation in which they themselves become the objects of study by a superior scientific intelligence". This reversal relates to Wells' contemporary science of anthropology that asks readers to,


"imagine themselves in the position of the "primitive" peoples of Africa and other parts of the burgeoning British Empire, at the time the objects of intense scrutiny by British scientists whose work was largely designed to describe the ways in which British civilization was superior to those of Britain's conquered colonial subjects" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p.178)


The cold intelligence of the Martians drawing up their plans to subjugate Earth are directly akin to British colonialism, arriving in countries like Australia to conquer and cultivate. The blood that the weak but intellectually superior Martians drink can then be seen as the blood of all oppressed people under Imperial conquest.


The Handbook notes that The War of the Worlds (Wells, 1898) remains fresh because it addresses, lamentably, current political concerns. After all, it is argued, 

"the postcolonial world has maintained a state of unequal development in which some parts of the globe are vastly richer and more technologically advanced than others. In some ways, in fact, Wells's central story of mismatched combat between a technologically advanced superpower and less advanced states that lack the firepower adequately to defend themselves is more relevant now than ever" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p.189)

Perhaps the Handbook even draws a subtle link to the Western world's current battle against terrorism when it notes that, in the end, the superior power succumbs, just as the "Martians [were] completely dependent on technology - and completely vulnerable to Earthly disease" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p.189).


The Time Machine and views of evolution, class struggle, and Social Darwinism


For students studying The Time Machine (1895) the same process of discovering extant knowledge, book reports and general discussions would be followed.


The article from the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) on The Time Machine (1895) would be given out after several classes of work. Students and the teacher would focus on Wells' themes of evolution, also drawing attention to the contemporary and growing gap between rich and poor that characterised Wells' England.


The division between the weak, helpless elite and the actual workers who toil with machines underground to feed the rich is made a potent analogy. Wells' socialist background predicts some sympathy for the depiction of the Morlocks, leaving the plight of the Eloi as a just revenge for countless aeons of injustice. However, as the Handbook points out, the depiction of the Morlocks is certainly unfavourable and it is clear the


"Time Traveller's own sympathies clearly lie more with the innocent and simple-minded Eloi than with the much more sinister Morlocks, so that the book potentially becomes not a critique of capitalism so much as an expression of fear of communism — and of the growing threat posed by the lower classes in general" (Booker & Thomas, 2009, p.183).


Comparisons with Forster's The Machine Stops as an individual learning program


There is a great deal that can be done with The Time Machine in the secondary classroom and for a stronger class or some amongst a class, two ideas complementary to Wells' novel might be introduced: euchronianism, and Social Darwinism. It is said that EM Forster's story The Machine Stops (1964), written before the First World War, was a response to Wells' Utopian notions of an enlightened, scientific future based in positivist leanings to the Religion of Humanity.




The concept of euchronianism - that the future will be better - is relevant for The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) and a comparison of this text and The Machine Stops (Forster, 1964) would be useful. For both, students could research and discuss the notion of Social Darwinism, where principles of Darwin's evolutionary theory can be applied to human social interactions.


Discussion questions related to Social Darwinism


Are the Eloi weak and brainless, mere fodder for the workers, because they are less fit to succeed? Will they be driven to extinction by the more organised Morlocks, just as were so many other species that do not inhabit the future world? Do the final chapters of Wells' The Time Machine (1895) depict a more or less evolved world? Is the final evolution of humans to a sort of head moving about on tendrils, feeding on moss as the Sun dies - all mind and no need for else in the Last Days?



Comparisons with The Machine Stops


For stronger students, comparisons informed by the Decker paper


Forster's The Machine Stops (1964) is a worthy comparison for the strongest students, especially if Mark Decker's 'Politicized Dystopia and Biomedical Imaginaries: The Case of 'The Machine Stops' (Decker, 2008) is combined, from the collection New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction (Hassler & Wilcox, 2008).

The Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009) leads secondary students to question many of their scientific and cultural notions.  The suggested readings and links allow many opportunities for web-based research, such as through the dozens of articles on 'Wells and Social Darwinism' in the database at Science Fiction Studies

Possible, challenging essay or report questions


A major essay or creative response to either The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) or The War of the Worlds (Wells, 1898) after reading the Handbook commentaries would seem worthwhile, perhaps focusing directly on the political purpose of the novellas with questions like,

  • 'How successful is HG Wells' The Time Machine (1895) in depicting a better future, in balance with the environment and human nature?'


  • 'Does HG Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898) confront the reader with the human need to dominate and feed from the toil of others, or is it just a story of bad aliens defeated by Nature?'


The Handbook Glossary


As part of students' research there is a twelve page Glossary just before the index at the back of the Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009). This is an important section that would be excellent as an electronic document for searching. The definitions and explanations are available elsewhere in longer form but the Handbook Glossary is succinct and clear, linking straight back into the text itself. It would be more valuable, the more the Handbook is used.





Booker and Thomas' The Science Fiction Handbook (2009) is a useful pedagogical tool, recommended for enthusiasts, undergraduate libraries, but also secondary school libraries. For teachers it must be secured in desk drawers, otherwise it will surely disappear. If the school can buy online it will save $20 but even at its high Australian bookshop price it will prove scarce funds well spent.


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Resource list

Booker, MK. (2004) Science Fiction Television. Westport, CT: Praeger.


Booker, MK & Thomas A-M. (2009). The Science Fiction Handbook. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.


Collins, P., Ed. (1998). The MUP Encyclopedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.


Decker, M. (2008). 'Politicized Dystopia and Biomedical Imaginaries: The Case of 'The Machine Stops'. In New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Edited by Hassler and Wilcox. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.


DeNardo, J. (2009). 'REVIEW: The Science Fiction Handbook by M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas'. From SF Signal. Accessed 27 January, 2010, from


Emmerich, R. (Director). (2009). 2012. Written by Roland Emmerich and Herald Kloser. Columbia Pictures.


Farrell, EJ, Gage, TE, Pfordresher, J & Rodrigues, RJ. (Editors) (1974). Science Fact/ Fiction. Glenview, Illinois: Scott Foresman and Company.


Forster, EM. (1964). The Collected Tales of EM Forster. 1947. New York: Knopf.

Fulton, R. (1990) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction TV. Surrey, UK: TV Times.

Harland, R. (2009). World Shaker. Crows Nest, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.


Hassler, DM & Wilcox, C. (Editors). (2008) New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.


Hillcoat, J. (Director). (2010). The Road. Written by Cormack McCarthy, adaptation by John Penhall. Dimension Films.


Johnson-Smith, J. (2005). American Science Fiction TV. London, UK: IB Tauris & Co.


Kelleher, V. (1986). Taronga. Sydney: Puffin Books.


Leonard, B. (Director). (1995). Vituosity. Written by Eric Bernt. Universal Pictures DVD, 1999.


Longo, R. (Director) (1995). Johnny Mnemonic. Written by William Gibson. Paramount Pictures DVD, 1998.


Mann, G., Ed. (2001). The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York, Carroll and Graf.


Newsom, T. (2003). A Century of Science Fiction. Directed by T. Newsom. (DVD). Sony Music Entertainment. 1996.


Nicholls, P., and Clute, J., Ed. (1995). Grolier Science Fiction: the multimedia encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Danbury, Grolier Electronic Publishing.


Otomo, K. (Director). (2004). Steam Boy. Sony Pictures DVD.


Roberts, A. (2000). Science Fiction: the new critical idiom. London: Routledge.


Spielberg, S. (Director). (2005). The War of the Worlds. Written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp. Paramount DVD, 2007.


Wegner, P. (2009). Review of The Science Fiction Handbook. Quoted by in the Reviews section for the text. Accessed 12 Januray, 2009 from


Wells, HG (1895). The Time Machine. London: Penguin, 2005.


Wells, HG (1898). The War of the Worlds. New York: Tor, 1988.


Whitehouse, G. (2009) 'M. Keith Booker and Anne-Marie Thomas, The Science Fiction Handbook (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)'. From Accessed 27 January, 2010 from



Michael Sisley


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