Setting up the history of any subject as a novel carries various risks with it. Will the reader looking for history be turned off by the storytelling? Will those looking for a good narrative be disappointed by the way facts shape the story? Depicting this history in comic form adds to the difficulty. But maybe, just maybe, comics will make the material more accessible to people who wouldn’t read a history of science fiction in the first place. That is certainly the hope and desire of Xavier Dollo and Djibril Morissette-Phan as they try to tell The History of Science Fiction as a graphic novel.
The authors tell the story of science fiction in three parts. The overall story conceit is that in the future a few famous robots happen upon a museum of speculative fiction in all its forms and the museum host relays to them how science fiction developed as a genre up through the 19th century. This origin tale is the first section of this book and it is the best part. Each literary reference has its own picture that depicts either the author’s struggle or an image from the work, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Frankenstein to Conan the Barbarian. From there, Jules Verne and HG Wells get many pages devoted to their contributions as the images from their texts come to life in Morissette-Phan’s drawings. Edgar Rice Burroughs and HP Lovecraft follow suit. Other authors and the development of pulp magazines drive speculative storytelling ahead while the term “science fiction” is coined in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback. The reader gets a real feel for the creativity and ingenuity on display in early science fiction writing through the first part of this book.
It is at this point that we enter the golden age of science fiction and this history takes a troublesome turn. The robot narrators are nowhere to be seen. Instead, a conversation between famous authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon, among others, begins. We see these authors as young men and then as elder statesmen of the genre talking around a dinner table. Gone are the comics depicting their stories. For the most part, we see comics of men talking about science fiction.
Once the golden age wraps up, we go back to our robot narrators and the “crossroads of sci-fi” in the final section of the book. From here, we get one long list of important sci-fi writers including a few women, but far too few POC or Black writers. A Tardis shows up to transport a new set of authors around as they talk about modern and British sci-fi before we land back with the robots for a quick wrap up.
While the history is interesting for a fan of the genre, and I discovered many stories that I would like to read (“Who Goes There” and “To Serve Man” among them), the authors give up the great advantage that sequential art affords them. The first third of this book effectively depicts what happens in a variety of stories with vibrant pictures and action. The author and artist know they could draw all the amazing images from the books, but they abandoned this style for an endless stream of talking heads in parts 2 and 3. All but one of the talking heads are white men, which only serves to highlight how badly this genre needed to change. The fact that they chose to mostly ignore the great advances women and people of color have made in science fiction recently is perplexing (N.K. Jemisin is barely mentioned). The artist does depict the various historical figures accurately and the color palette regularly changes which helps the pacing of the narrative.
Public libraries with adult graphic novel collections, particularly ones with a lot of nonfiction, will want to purchase this title as it is informative, despite its flaws. College libraries might take a look at it, too. That being said, I can’t help but think that an opportunity was squandered here.
The History of Science Fiction
By Xavier Dollo
Art by Djibril Morissette-Phan
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)