This is a considerably updated version of The Billion Year Spree, adding material covering the significant science fiction published between the time of that book's publication in 1973 and this one in 1986. The current edition also has a very short addendum that brings the book up to 2001.
The book is an attempt to be a fairly comprehensive over-view of the history of science fiction, from its roots and beginnings through the pulps to today's movies. Aldiss starts by examining what he considers to be the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, along with its earlier progenitors which he categorizes as `scientific romances'. For this section of the book, Aldiss is quite insightful, and offers a good breakdown of the not just the main elements of Frankenstein, but some of the overriding themes and tropes that permeated the 18th and 19th century novels. Within this section he references quite a few very early works that most sf fans have probably never heard of, and makes a good case that at least some of them should be put on the completist's reading list.
Much of his commentary on later 19th century works, mainly those by Poe, Verne and Wells, continue in this excellent manner, where he often spends two or three pages breaking down the pluses and minuses of an individual work, along with giving an overall assessment of not just the state of the field, but what major themes were of prime importance to the writers of that era. In fact, this identification of the various waves of ideas, styles, and the major practitioners of the field through various points in history is perhaps the best part of this work.
However, by the time he reaches the John W. Campbell era (about 1938), the general tone and approach changes somewhat. This is partially due to the sheer size of his subject matter; rather than three or four authors and twenty or so works to cover, he was now faced with covering the explosion in published sf, with hundreds of authors and thousands of works. The closer he gets to the present, the worse this problem becomes, and unfortunately his method of dealing with it is to all too often list an author and/or work and dismiss it with a one line comment (such as his description of Spider and Jeanne Robinson's Stardance, which he writes off as a `light confection'). Worse, his analysis of some the major authors of the field, such as Asimov and Heinlein, are fractured into different sections of the book, with the divisions set by time, rather than look at each author's entire output as a whole and what contributions they have made to the field.
Aldiss also clearly has some favorites and some he thinks are dogs, but he does not do a good job of analyzing why these authors are either worthy of attention or not. Again, space limitations are part of the reason for this, but I found that especially for Heinlein, his lack of insightful analysis of his major works was a major minus, not even trying to analyze The Moon is Harsh Mistress, though that book's prose style fits perfectly with a point Aldiss is making about the `New Wave' of the sixties, and not even mentioning some of his other major works, though he did point out some flaws that typically mar some of Heinlein's writing. I felt his analysis of Samuel Delany and Roger Zelanzy to be superficial, with his assessment of these authors as `style without substance', and without any detailed look at Delany's Dhalgren or Zelazny's Amber series. He does have a long section on Frank Herbert's Dune and its sequels that is good, if somewhat lacking in figuring out precisely why Herbert's combination of some very stock SF elements works so well. And he is much kinder to Edgar Rice Burroughs than I would have been.
One item that becomes quite noticeable is Aldiss' use of long excerpts from the works he is discussing. I found that unless I was already familiar with the work in question, most of the time these excerpts were either incomprehensible due to lack of context or did little to illustrate whatever point Aldiss was making.
Aldiss is remarkably comprehensive in the authors and works he does mention, considering just how many there are, though there are a few conspicuous absences, most notably Piers Anthony. For American readers, his listing of various British authors is quite useful, as many of them have received little publication space in America, and clearly some of them deserve a wider audience. He is not quite as successful in covering the SF output of Eastern Europe, but there is still more than enough mentioned to keep your need-to-be-read list filled to overflowing.
Approach this book with caution. There is good information to be gleaned from its pages, most especially about the early days and works of sf, but you just might find your favorite author pilloried with a biting one-liner - which is probably true of just about any critical work of this scope, as it is impossible for anyone be totally objective about such a subjective thing as the relative worth of any piece of literature.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)