This anthology, Where Rockets Burn Through, houses some familiar names along with a small host of rising names, all of whom make good strong poems. It has to be said, though, that on the whole the poems are parasitic on sci-fi, rather than symbionts of that genre. Strangely, the collection can even offer Malene Engelund’s “Owls”, which is if anything a kind of nature poem, and not recognisable as sci-fi. The anthology’s subtitle is “Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK”; but the book doesn’t do what it says on the tin. The closest it comes to sci-fi poetry is in such pieces as Matthew Francis’ “The Man in the Moon”, or Chris McCabe’s “The White Star Hotel”, or James McGonigal’s “inflight memories”.
There are two introductory essays by Alasdair Gray and Steve Sneyd, which seek to locate science fiction poetry in a tradition going back to antiquity, aligning it with the marvellous in ancient, medieval and early modern texts. The marvellous in those older writings was of course preternatural and/or supernatural. In modern science fiction it is for the most part secular, and at times mystical. For us, the marvellous tends to be technical, a discovery of material knowledge and possibilities – potentially exciting great wonder, certainly, albeit not, as before, a specifically religious awe.
This is worth saying, because it helps explain why the collection is a case of parasitism rather than of full-on symbiosis. One thinks here of Whitman’s fault, alleged by Carlyle: “He thought he was a big man because he lived in a big country”. We live in a bigger universe than any previous generation has been able to conceive. But it doesn’t follow that we’re quite up to this new sublime. A marked number of poems in this anthology are bathetic, rueful, jokey, ironic; although others are meditative and contemplative. The frequent need to ironise, even to comicalise, betrays an embarrassment. Where honest-to-God sci-fi might immerse itself in the sheer strangeness of the known (and also the unknown), here we have a great deal of awkward feeling disguised as a form of knowingness, if not knowledge.
There is a range of response in the book both to the universe as currently known and problematised, and to what our pop culture has made of it. Yet to write even a good poem about our place in the cosmos, is not the same thing as to write a science fiction poem. Poets have been writing about our place in the grand scheme for millennia. Too many pieces in this anthology appear to think that to do so amounts, in itself, to writing sci-fi.
What can be said of the poems? Many are anodyne, instantly forgettable, consistently resorting to slyly handled abstractions and concepts. For the most part, the language is unsensuous, as in this extract from Aiko Harman’s “In Mobius”:
By the ‘40s, there was nothing. Those who cared
for the planet, bore the brunt of the post-war front:
growing environmental concern and an ever-increasing
post-Boom generation of elderly left most hopeless.
Some poems take interesting formal risks (Jon Stone’s “Torn Page from a Chapter on Ray Guns”, for instance), yet one can’t but notice all the biddable, obedient pentameters. The thinking can be clichéd and tired. The more memorably spiky poems tend to the jocular. One wouldn’t necessarily gather from them, fine though they are, that sci-fi is a mature genre capable of serious metaphysical speculation (as in the hands of, say, Ursula le Guin and others).
It doesn’t have to be this way. Ian McLachlan’s quietly weird miniature, “Kid Alien”, inhabits an already realised otherworld from the outset:
I was disinfecting the sores
of a cat that had found its way
up nine floors to my window
when they called. They say
we all run.
The kid escapes with an
on the tiles, first thing,
the bubble of eggs, laughter.
A few deft strokes are all it took to evoke this estrangement. The same cannot be said of the larger part of this volume.