UGs – questions

This page is intended for undergraduates conducting sf research on the side on their own. If you decide to continue on to graduate school, a good methodologies course will address most of the issues below.

Research as an Undergraduate: Questions I Wish I’d Considered During Phase One

Because I engaged in research as an undergraduate while at a university without mentors familiar with SF Studies, there wasn’t much advice offered in terms of sf-specific methodologies or resources, and I wasted quite a bit of time during the initial stages of my “off the books” side research into sf.   Although I figured out much of this on my own before writing my Master’s, below is a list of questions I wish I’d been asked (or asked myself) before I began my research as an undergraduate.

I hope it’s of use to undergraduates who find themselves in the same position I was once in.

If you’ve already been through this process, I’d be grateful for any suggestions you might have as to other questions that should be added to this list.


Here are a few questions that might influence your initial research, depending on your agenda.

Are there reference books or bibliographies tailored to my area of focus within sf? 

General reference books of all types are available, of course.  For example, see The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and a number of older, hardcover encyclopedias. 

As for more specific reference materials, sf is a genre in which fan labor has created a network of invisible, highly specific resources.  Endless bibliographies and checklists exist to help you chart a path through various time periods, authors’ works, and areas of interest.  Some of these are available on Amazon, some are available through fan-run historical research associations, and others are referenced or available online on professional sites (see the Locus Online website, for example).

In addition to bibliographies, fans and scholars have compiled extensive repositories of story synopses.  For example, when reviewing the pulps, you may find Everett Bleiler’s The Gernsback Years, a compendium of nearly 1,800 pulp story descriptions, very helpful.  See also Bleiler’s The Early Years and Science Fiction Writers.

Also see the site Galactic Central, which provides bibliographies and resources related to pulp magazines.

Other interesting examples include Women of the Future: The Female Main Character in Science Fiction by Betty King (1985); A Checklist of Science Fiction Anthologies (1974) by Walter R. Cole.; and Urania’s Daughters: A Checklist of Women Science Fiction Writers, 1692-1982 by Roger C. Schlobin (1983).

Scholars have also produced indices to past criticism, such as Science Fiction Criticism: An Annotated Checklist by Thomas Clareson (1972); The Year’s Scholarship in Science Fiction and Fantasy series by Tymn and Schlobin; and The International Science Fiction Yearbook by Colin Lester (1978).

They’ve also generated a number of indices to sf authors, such as Contemporary Science Fiction Authors by R. Reginald (1974); Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers by Curtis C. Smith (1981);  Dictionary of Literary Biography’s Volume 8: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers (1981); and The Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server (2002).  See also Robin Ann Reid’s two-volume survey: Women of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2008).

In my case, sf librarians at various universities and genre veterans in the Dealers’ Room at certain conventions (Worldcon, Wiscon, Readercon) were able to refer me to a number of indispensable resources.  The proprietors of local science fiction bookstores also provided a number of leads; some also had fan-produced chapbooks and fanzines in stock that contained research-related resources.

Should you have a definition of sf already in mind?  Because the definition of sf–and, therefore, its origins and founder(s)–is contested, you will need to think about definition before picking a start date.

You might begin with Hugo Gernsback’s definition in the mid-20’s in Amazing Stories, in which he defined the perfect science fiction story as “75% literature interwoven with 25% science.” (Wikipedia)

Or John W. Campbell, Jr.’s definition in Astounding (see also his 1959 essay, “What Do You Mean…Human?”).

You might then consider Horace L. Gold’s reaction to Campbell’s editorial preferences and what he sought to promote at Galaxy: “With Galaxy Gold created a different kind of science fiction magazine by focusing less on technology, hardware and pulp adventures. Instead, he introduced themes leaning toward sociology, psychology and satire” (Wikipedia).  You might also consider Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas’s views on sf when they founded The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1949.

Then again, Brian Aldiss argued in Billion Year Spree that science fiction begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Others have argued that sf begins with the ancient satires/imaginative journeys, with Poe, or with Wells.

Every sf anthology, in fact, begins with an introduction that either explicitly or implicitly takes a stand on this issue.  Compare James Gunn’s definition in The Road to Science Fiction, for example, with Damon Knight’s in A Century of Science Fiction.  Gunn begins his history of science fiction with Gilgamesh, while Knight takes issue with this practice, insisting that sf emerged after the Enlightenment.

Scholarly articles in Science Fiction Studies , Paradoxa, Science Fiction Film and Television, and Extrapolation on this topic will also be useful.

What about the literary roots of sf?  Should you explore the genre’s alleged connections to satire, utopia, myth, fairy tale, and folklore? Should you review the proto-sf of the 1800’s, the stories of Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, and Fitz James O’Brien? In that case, what about Verne and Wells?  Or the slicks of the 1890’s and beyond?

To answer these questions, I suggest reading James Gunn’s series, The Road to Science Fiction.

What about the established literary authors who wrote texts we could easily classify as sf?  Or the modernist or French avant-garde authors, such as Guillaume Apollinaire? (See Apollinaire’s “Remote Projection,” for example.)  To explore such questions, read Paul March Russell’s Modernism and SF (2015).

How can I get up to speech quickly?  If your focus is 20th century novels and there is no obvious starting point for your foray into the novel form, you might start with the Hugo or Nebula winners.  You might also consider David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels 1949-1984 (1985) and Damien Broderick and Paul di Filippo’s Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 (2012).  The following are additional and competing “top 100” lists:

This Recording’s Top 100 SF Novels

Wikpedia’s Top 100 SF Novels

Are you familiar with the genre’s use of reflexivity and intertextuality?  Are you reading a satirical text as if it were sincere?  What do you need to know to appreciate a science fiction pastiche, satire, or parody, or even to recognize one?  How do you know when one author is referencing, satirizing, or imitating another?

What about detective fiction, horror, mystery, romance, or early fantasy?  Can you recognize when a crossover is occurring in an early sf text–e.g., something that would have offended purists in both genres at the time?

What other kinds of ephemera and comparative material should you consult?  For example, anthology introductions often double as essays rife with contemporaneous commentary and context.  Do you pass them by in the interest of time or do you take them into account?

What about different national traditions?  If you’re concentrating on Anglophone sf, what about the rich traditions outside the U.S., such as  Japanese, French, Russian, or Latin American sf?  What were their definitions of sf at different points in their history?  How were Anglophone authors influenced by these traditions and vice versa?

What do you need to know about sf audiences and fan culture?  For example, in order to use “reader response” theory with sf, what would you need to know about the composition, expectations, and development of sf audiences?

If gender is your focus, what were the expectations and aesthetic pleasures of the female audiences of various decades? How best can such questions be answered?  Are accounts provided by sf historians enough to get a sense of an audience, or should you yourself read contemporaneous letters to the editor, analyze polls by editors (such as Campbell’s readership polls), or memoirs by fans?

Do sf conventions, fanzines, and other aspects of fan culture play a role in what is desired or produced?

What about distribution and marketing?  How did WW I affect the international distribution of sf?  What effect did the paper shortages of WW II have on the marketing and distribution of sf? What is the role of cover art in pulps, novels, and fanzines and how was it produced and purchased?  Did cover art affect a text’s commercial success or value as a collectible?

How has sf criticism affected the development of the genre and its texts?  Do literary critics and cultural theorists “create” audiences?  For example,  what effect did the writings of sf critics such as Ursula K. LeGuin, Brian AldissJoanna Russ, Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and others have on the creation of certain aesthetic preferences, ideological viewpoints, or “cults of the author”?