I began this blog in March 2012 as the final phase of a two-year review of science fiction anthologies in preparation for the selection of a Master’s thesis topic.
I currently live and work in Minnesota. I have a BA in English Language and Literature from The University of Chicago and a Master’s in Liberal Arts from Washington University in St. Louis. I’m currently working on a PhD in English at The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Some of the FAQ’s and Disclaimers for this project:
To reinforce the idea that these summaries are subjective, that they represent a segment of the genre as seen from my point of view.
Is this “advice?”
Not in the formal sense. Simply put: This is information I had to seek out on my own in order to begin researching. Perhaps you find yourself at institutions (as I did) without courses which specifically address the history of science fiction or suggest a research methodology addressed to that history. At such institutions, each new sf researcher is somewhat on their own, stranded at square one, just as any sf-curious academic from another field might be. Here, I’m attempting to share my experiences with you, to help you get off to a running start.
What do you get from doing this?
A great deal of pleasure from reading and recalling these texts, and a deeper understanding of the genre and its criticism. An online database which is much easier to use and search than an index. An opportunity to collect my thoughts on certain subjects and pull together thematic threads into short essays.
It may be wishful thinking, but I would also hope that blogs such as this are of some assistance to aspiring sf authors, in the sense that new authors might use them to gain a sense of what has been done, reacted to, and re-done again. .
There is also the more serious prospect of possibly “matching” curious academics to useful texts that they might not have discovered otherwise. I would appreciate hearing from you, if that’s the case.
Finally, for at least twenty years, the sf community–from fans to authors to scholars–has generously answered every question I’ve ever put to it. To give something back, however little, just seems appropriate.
The most uncomfortable questions
If you seek more personal information about my interest in the genre, the answers to a few frequently-asked questions are listed below.
When I’ve attempted to introduce sf-wary academics from other fields to sf, they inevitably ask me at least one of these questions. Why? Some are simply curious as to how and why other scholars select their objects of study. Others, I think, seek to examine their own notion of the “ideal reader” of sf and to test that notion against my personal story.
In that spirit, here are the answers to the most uncomfortable sf-related questions I’ve been asked to date. I don’t mind answering them. (Most) every conversation in which I have been frank and patient in the face of curiosity has resulted in the inquisitor taking my recommendations and finding delight in at least one text in the genre.
Why don’t you spend your time on “serious” literature?
As an English major at The University of Chicago, I used to get this question quite a bit. (In fact, at Chicon 7, there was a panel devoted exclusively to the sf fan/scholar’s experience at U of C, and I was able to commiserate with those who had a similar experience.)
I do spend my time on serious literature, both inside and outside the literary canon. I’ve always regarded certain texts within the genre as the most “serious” (philosophical, provocative, activist, disorienting) literature available. Thus, despite my appreciation for the canon, I read sf in search of different perspectives, to get out of my intellectual comfort zone, to exercise my imagination, even to examine my politics. The two bodies of literature aren’t mutually exclusive.
What were your gateway texts?
My gateway texts were part of the mainstream curriculum. The children’s section of the public library in my neighborhood pushed Greek mythology, Aesop, folklore, and the like, all of which primed me for an appreciation of short stories. In middle school, exposure to Twain, Poe, O’Henry, Swift, and Dickens whetted my appetite for vivid tales of the fantastic–the more compact, the more political and satirical, the better. Around this time, I began reading my father’s science fiction collection (mostly Frank Herbert) and the deal was sealed.
At that age, to me, sf was wonderfully analytical, yet also full of pathos and psychedelic imagery. I liked the form. I liked the content, particularly when it dealt with politics, the environment, gender roles, and censorship. My brain was perpetually disturbed by sf–in a good way, I think, but some of my grade school English/writing teachers might disagree–and I even began writing my own science fiction and fantasy shorts. Although my stories were crude and naive, they were heartfelt. Most of these texts–at least, the ones I can recall–dealt with power. Although I was too young to be able to articulate it, I was fascinated by the type of psychological and physical power that sf’s “bad guys” were able to achieve.
In retrospect, this doesn’t surprise me. If science fiction is capable of doing anything, it has the ability to command the attention of those who are already interested in various mechanisms of power–language, custom, history, media, science, bodies, concepts, logic–and to spur reflection on the ethical use of such power. If you want to test the validity of this claim, try writing a dystopia. The first questions you’ll ask yourself will concern the use of power–who has it, what do they want to do with it, how is this power used to maintain the illusion of normality (for the characters) in what the reader knows to be a radically altered world… Try it.
Sf courses aren’t required for an English degree and there are no Departments of SF Studies or even minors available. Doesn’t that say something about whether or not SF is worth studying?
No, it says something about the myopia of some universities and their faculty. In reality, however, SF Studies exists in fragmented form in various departments (American Culture, Media & Moving Images, English, various area studies). Although it is becoming increasingly clear–to me, at least–that minds are becoming more open to the idea of coordinating these studies into a formal discipline, at the same time this is an inopportune moment to push for such a major investment.
Universities, in general, do not seem eager to invest in the Humanities at this time. STEM fields are receiving priority, for example. Given that science fiction creates a bridge between the arts and sciences, one would think that this might generate more interest in using science fiction to excite interest in both areas, and it may be used for this purpose in the future. At this time, however, I am not aware of any wide-ranging efforts to institutionalize or invest in SF Studies.
Was pursuing an interest in sf at university frustrating, given that there were no sf courses available?
This is not true at all universities, but it was true at U of C at the time I attended. My short answer is: Not at all. My early interest in the mechanisms of power translated well in my college courses dealing with culture and Gender Studies. When Gender Studies instructors questioned male authors’ representations of the female mind and experience, they did so in a manner that seemed almost science-fictional, meaning, they used the rhetorical devices of science fiction to counter conventional logic and assumptions. (Thought experiments and “what if” questions abound in Gender Studies…) When I finally discovered the branch of sf known as “feminist sf,” I accepted the rightness of that phenomenon instantly. Of course feminists would be drawn to the genre…
For the same reason, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the genre is intimately bound up with certain branches of theory. What is theory but the study of power and the cultural and ideological structures that enable power to perpetuate itself? That’s science fiction’s sandbox.
It’s not really about rocket ships-?
When asked this question, I try to explain that the genre comprises much more variety, complexity, and discord than than the casual observer usually assumes. Written sf is a vastly different animal than the filmed and televised sf, which is usually where this question is coming from–early memories of televised or filmic SF.
As for the iconic rocket ship, it’s associated with the pulps and the film/television of the 1950s, and certainly the genre continued to riff on that image in later decades (J. G. Ballard’s “abandoned astronaut” motif being one example that comes to mind) and still does, but it is not a unifying symbol for the genre, and it represents only one thematic thread (i.e., the space adventure) among many.
If you’ve read one sf novel, haven’t you read them all?
This is sometimes difficult for the casual observer to accept, but the genre is neither mono-thematic nor mono-iconic. It is not univocal or even directed to one audience. With the exception, perhaps, of the 30s, at no point in time can it be neatly defined, and even then there were inchoate aesthetic and artistic battles rumbling beneath the surface, waiting to erupt in the 40s.
Therefore, one cannot–as one colleague suggested to me–simply take a representative sample from the most commercially successful magazine of each decade in order to “catch up” or get a sense, even, of the scope of a decade, or even a particular year. The magazines themselves were sometimes adversarial, with certain magazines being founded in response to others as a means to change or reject the thematic focus, writing style, politics, or audience of others. Within those magazines, there could be disagreement. A story written on a particular subject in a particular manner might have raised the ire of another writer, prompting them to respond a few months later with a story on the same theme but with a different style or politics. (As an example, Fritz Leiber’s 1951 short story, “Poor Superman,” is a blatant attempt to mock the typical hero preferred by his former editor, John Campbell, Jr. at Astounding, as well as a satire of Campbell’s interest in L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics.)
Unfortunately, historians from outside the genre will sometimes attempt to periodize sf in a reductive manner that, to those familiar with the genre, denies all particularity and difference within all areas of the genre’s production, reception, and distribution across various media, sometimes even equating written sf with televised/filmic sf (or sf in gaming or comics), without regard for the medium and its history.
Those inside SF Studies realize that defining sf–its periods, readership, and other features–is a much more complex task. Respected sf historians have debated the existence of “dominant” themes for each decade, as well as tried to hypothesize “typical” readers, authors, editors for those decades. They’ve argued over sf’s founders and origins, and also over the definition of sf and, thus, the proper concerns and methods to bring to the analysis of its various forms of texts. You will find even their assessments contradictory. (And, perhaps, wonderfully so.)
What can you possibly get out of sf, intellectually speaking, that you can’t get from non-genre stories?
There is something terribly seductive to me about the cerebral nature of sf, paired as it is with the boundless curiosity, creativity, and the spirit of play inherent in its texts…
Beyond the subject matter–and the unforgettable imagery that usually accompanies a good sf story–there was the method and practice, which you might view as combining puzzle-solving with endless variations on endless themes.
And then there are the mental gymnastics required to leave the mode of realistic literature and make sense of sf’s unique narrative puzzles.
At least, this is how it is for me.
Are sf stories any “good?” Which ones are the best?
There are no easy answers to these questions because the answer is so subjective. Tastes vary, quality varies. What I think is exceptional, my friend may think is unreadable, and vice versa. I demand that my sf be thought-provoking; my friend’s only requirement is that it be “fun.” And so on. But I believe there is so much variety that there is a “good” science fiction story out there for every reader. There must be.
In my opinion, genre fiction pushed the short story form to new heights during the twentieth century, and one cannot possibly understand the literature of the twentieth century without taking at least one course in this field. Those who are familiar with the form will perhaps understand when I say that it is a truly unique delivery device. Aching, outraged, daring, wry, hopeful, radically imaginative–sometimes wonderfully subversive–and filled to the brim with philosophy, imagery, concepts, metaphors, and linguistic play…and, once the genre’s ability to speak caught up with its ability to dream–a point that, for me personally, occurs in the literature of the 40s–a level of craftsmanship capable of inspiring deep admiration.