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Critical and Historical Works About SF

Entry updated 28 July 2021. Tagged: Theme.

This entry restricts itself to works which generalize about sf, and only in passing mentions books or articles about specific authors or themes (for which see relevant entries).

The range and sophistication of sf studies have expanded greatly. Before 1970 very little useful material was available, but since then, and especially during the 1980s, the publication of secondary materials on sf has become an industry. Dorothy Scarborough's thesis The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) concludes with a pioneering treatment of sf as a subset of the supernatural, here termed "scientific supernaturalism". The first work of criticism devoted to US sf is Hammer and Tongs (coll 1937 chap) by Clyde F Beck, which collects still-readable essays from a fanzine, The Science Fiction Critic; the first important study, Pilgrims through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction (1947), by J O Bailey, is historical and thematic, dealing mostly with work published decades previously; value judgments are almost absent, and trivia are discussed alongside works of lasting interest. Despite its limitations, this was a valuable pioneering work. The Pilgrim Award for excellence in sf studies was named after it.

Bailey was an academic, but for the next several decades most books about sf were written by fans rather than academic critics. While this meant that their scholarly and critical procedures were often eccentric, and sometimes of indifferent quality, it also introduced considerable vigour into the early days of debate about sf, along with a willingness to plunge into areas of research (ephemeral publications – magazines and Fanzines – as well as books, along with the recording of reminiscences by authors, editors and publishers) avoided by academia; such knowledge of the History of SF as is now available to us is very much a product of their initial work. Research is still shallow in many areas of sf's past, and no consensus history yet exists.

The next serious study after Bailey's was New Maps of Hell (1960) by Kingsley Amis, a celebrated novelist with an academic background but, so far as sf was concerned, a fan. Brief and unscholarly, it is nevertheless witty, critical and suggestive; Amis regarded the essential aspects of modern sf as satirical and dystopian (see Dystopias; Satire). Unlike Bailey, he took most of his examples from contemporary Genre SF. Less literary in their approach, and more sober though passionate in their way, were the historical studies of sf by Sam Moskowitz, which, while adopting simplistic critical criteria and not always accurate in detail, were nevertheless important in the huge amount of research they codified for the first time, especially regarding sf in early magazines, but going well beyond that. Three collections of his essays which are often taken to be models of fan scholarship are Explorers of the Infinite (coll 1963), Seekers of Tomorrow (coll 1966) and Strange Horizons (coll 1976); also of note are his Science Fiction by Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines 1891-1911 (anth 1968) and Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of "The Scientific Romance" in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920 (anth 1970), with their long, informative introductions.

Two well-known writers of sf, Damon Knight and James Blish, often took time out to write shrewd, well-informed criticism, the latter under the pseudonym William Atheling Jr. Much of Knight's critical work was collected in In Search of Wonder (coll 1956; exp 1967; exp 1996) and of Atheling's in The Issue at Hand (coll 1964) and More Issues at Hand (coll 1970). These books were published by Advent: Publishers, a Small Press specifically set up to publish books about sf by fan scholars. It was with Knight and Blish that some sort of critical consensus began to emerge about what constituted sf and who were its most influential writers. The first of three critical symposia edited by Reginald Bretnor, also featuring the critical views of sf writers themselves, appeared very early: Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and its Future (anth 1953; rev 1979). It was followed by his Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow (anth 1974) and The Craft of Science Fiction (anth 1976). From outside fandom, the first book-length study of sf regarded in the light of Mythology and Christian Religion was The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning (1970) by Lois and Stephen Rose.

The cautious interest being shown in sf by the US academic world bore its first fruits in 1959, in the shape of the critical journal Extrapolation. For many years this was stencilled, not printed, which suggested that the financial support it was receiving from academia at large was small; nevertheless it lived on. Two further academic magazines about sf followed, both (in different ways) a little livelier: Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction in the UK from 1972, and Science Fiction Studies in the USA from 1973. The former – as much fannish as academic – emphasized reviews and critical and sociological studies of contemporary and post-World War Two sf; the latter – more strictly academic – concentrated on writers of sf's past plus only the more academically acceptable of the present, with good coverage of European sf and some interesting and, to many, unexpected Marxist criticism. A relative newcomer has been Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, published since 1988.

Some of the best critical writing about sf has appeared in these journals, and also in a great many Fanzines. Unfortunately, fanzines of the pre-Internet era tended to be produced cheaply (and as a result often disintegrate rapidly) and to have low circulations; back issue are usually therefore extremely difficult to obtain. Some of the more interesting critical fanzines and Semiprozines since the 1940s were (and in several cases still are) Algol, Australian SF Review and Australian Science Fiction Review: Second Series, Delap's F & SF Review, Fantasy Commentator, Fantasy Newsletter, Fantasy Review, Janus/Aurora, Locus, Luna Monthly, New York Review of Science Fiction, Quarber Merkur, Riverside Quarterly, Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review, SF Commentary, Science Fiction Eye, Science Fiction Review, The Science Fiction Review (Monthly), Science Fiction Times (see Fantasy Times), SFRA Newsletter, Speculation, Thrust, Vector and Warhoon. The professional sf magazines, too, have regularly published sf criticism, that of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in particular often being of a high quality, as has been (beginning much later) that of Interzone. Algis Budrys's above-cited Benchmarks: Galaxy Bookshelf (coll 1985) assembles his columns for Galaxy.

By the 1970s a large body of sf criticism had been built up, though much of it was and is difficult to get hold of. The earlier notion that sf should be judged by criteria different from those normally applied to conventional literature began steadily to lose ground in the 1970s to the view that sf is strong enough to be gauged by the same standards that prevail elsewhere in literary criticism. Very naturally, however, the literary analysis of sf tends to this day to be argued thematically and structurally, and to eschew a criticism grounded in concepts of psychological realism on the one hand or metaphorical power on the other. Although this is inevitable, mimetic realism and good characterization being qualities somewhat marginalized by the very nature of sf, it does help explain why even now sf criticism has not generally developed a vocabulary enabling judgmental distinctions to be well made; that is, when explaining why some books and stories are worse than others (an explanation that sf criticism feels called upon to make more seldom than is healthy), it does not usually do the job with much conviction.

The trickle of sf criticism in book form became a small spate around the mid-1970s and something of a torrent later on, but already by 1974 a number of new books had appeared, including studies by Sam J Lundwall and Donald A Wollheim in the USA. A major tributary joined the river with Billion Year Spree (1973) by Brian W Aldiss; Aldiss later revised and updated this work with David Wingrove as Trillion Year Spree (1986), a version that won them both a Hugo. The book is idiosyncratic in some respects, with genuine scholarship of an autodidact kind, although not remotely academic. Many reviewers observed that, in the earlier version of the book, Aldiss's account of the post-World War Two period was hurried and not very informative, but this remains an important book, especially in the literary and cultural context it gives for sf ever since the days of Mary Shelley, who is Aldiss's candidate for the position of the first bona fide sf writer. His cheerful, informal raconteur's tone enlivens without cheapening his many serious points, and comes as a relief after the ponderousness of some previous studies of sf and the defensive fannish enthusiasm of others.

The next important book on sf for the general reader was also by a professional writer from the genre: James E Gunn's Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction (1975), a balanced and intelligent survey (although coverage of later writers tends to be confined to long lists) which strongly emphasizes the Campbellian tradition of magazine sf in the USA. This book was part of a sudden rush of handsome, illustrated books about sf, some of which are listed under Illustration.

A collection of essays by Alexei and Cory Panshin, SF in Dimension (coll 1976), argued a coherent if controversial viewpoint. Alexei Panshin had earlier published an interesting study of Robert A Heinlein, and he and his wife would later publish The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (1989), a long book full of incidental insights but whose overall thesis is open to argument. It elicited a devastating review from John Clute, always a pungent critic of sf, in New York Review of Science Fiction (July 1991), which in turn prompted a correspondence whose overall implication may be that the US-centred, magazine-centred, somewhat inbred and sentimental view of the development of the genre which had dominated sf historians for decades was now being rejected by a new generation of sf critics and scholars. Clute's own first book of sf criticism, Strokes: Essays and Reviews 1966-1986 (coll 1988), was an example of the development of a wider perspective on sf, dealing as it does with sf's concerns in terms of their metaphoric resonance – their subtexts – as well as their literal meaning. A sometimes thuddingly literal-minded reading of sf themes, from Robots to the Colonization of Other Worlds, had characterized many of the books and articles published on sf prior to the 1980s. Several further critical collections by Clute are listed in his entry.

Numerous sf writers apart from those already mentioned have also written well-informed and lively sf criticism and essays in sf scholarship; some of these, like Gardner Dozois, Robert Silverberg and Ian Watson, have not yet had their critical pieces collected in book form. Among those who have are: Algis Budrys, with Benchmarks: Galaxy Bookshelf (coll 1985) and posthumous successor volumes assembling his review columns from F&SF; Samuel R Delany, with The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977) and Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (coll 1984), whose structuralist and sometimes Postmodernist criticism is dense and difficult, irritating and interesting; Thomas M Disch, with The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (coll 1998) and On SF (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, coll 2005); David Langford, with Up Through an Empty House of Stars (coll 2003) and others; Ursula K Le Guin, with The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (coll 1979; rev 1989); Barry N Malzberg, whose The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties (1982) may not have had the attention it deserves; Joanna Russ, with The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (coll 2007), containing much sharp Feminist insight; Norman Spinrad, with Science Fiction in the Real World (coll 1990), which collects many of his critical columns from Asimov's Science Fiction; and Brian M Stableford, whose several well-researched books on the subject, including Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985), have done much to dispel the view that sf was primarily a product of Pulp magazines and specialist SF Magazines.

A phenomenon which became significant in the 1980s was the production of large, multi-author reference works containing critical assessments of sf, of which one of the earliest was the first edition of this encyclopedia (1979). The first edition of Neil Barron's Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction (1976; rev 1981; rev 1987) was earlier still, and the book remains one of the best and most accessible critical guides. Others include: the desperately uneven five-volume Survey of Science Fiction Literature (anth 1979) edited by Frank N Magill, though the actual editing and organization was largely the work of associate editor Keith Neilson; the largely excellent Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day (anth 1982) edited by E F Bleiler; the two-volume Twentieth-Century American Science-Fiction Writers (anth 1981) edited by David Cowart and Thomas L Wymer; and Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers (anth 1981; rev 1986; rev 1991) first two editions edited by Curtis C Smith, with its useful essays badly compromised by poor presentation of bibliographical data. Further examples from the 1990s are St James Guide to Fantasy Writers (anth 1996) edited by David Pringle, with the usual sf overlap; the second edition of this encyclopedia (1993); The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; and Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day (anth 1999) edited by Richard Bleiler, which recasts the above-cited work by Everett F Bleiler. Most of these books are reference works from specialist publishers at prices that may deter lay sf readers, but they are readily located in academic libraries.

None of these volumes is purely academic in its authorship, but in most of them many of the essays are by academic specialists – for honourable reasons but also, naturally enough, because the publish-or-perish syndrome will always ensure academic contributors willing to work for little or nothing – and it is in the field of academic books on sf that the largest expansion of book publishing on sf has taken place, especially in the 1980s. Long before that there were, aside from Bailey's, two other important early works of academic sf scholarship: The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction: A History of its Criticism and a Guide for its Study, with an Annotated Check List of 215 Imaginary Voyages from 1700 to 1800 (1941) by Philip Babcock Gove, and Voyages to the Moon (1948) by Marjorie Hope Nicolson. After a long gap, the next academic works of importance (apart from studies of single authors such as of H G Wells and Aldous Huxley) were Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984 (1966; rev 1992) by I F Clarke, who followed this work with other studies of sf, and Yesterday's Tomorrows (1968) by W H G Armytage. Running concurrently with all these publications, and beginning much earlier, have been the many books on literary Utopias.

Next in the academic line came Into the Unknown: The Evolution of Science Fiction from Francis Godwin to H.G. Wells (1970) by Robert M Philmus. In the 1970s Darko Suvin came to the fore as an influential academic critic of sf, his earliest full-scale book being first published in French: Pour une poétique de la science-fiction (1977; exp in English as Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre 1979). Two important later books by Suvin are Victorian Science Fiction in the U.K.: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power (1983) and Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (coll 1988).

After 1974 the pace of academic publishing increased. The most important studies of the mid-1970s were New Worlds for Old (1974) by David Ketterer, Visions of Tomorrow (coll 1975) by David Samuelson and Structural Fabulation (1975) by Robert Scholes. Scholes went on to collaborate with Eric S Rabkin on Science Fiction: History · Science · Vision (1977), one of the best semi-popular accounts of the genre. Rabkin has since published widely in the field.

Scholes's work was much influenced by Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970; trans as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre 1973) by Tzvetan Todorov, a work which has aroused controversy and much interest. Sf criticism, primarily Marxist, structuralist or both, is flourishing in Europe. Other notable European critics are Michel Butor, Boris Eizykman (1949-    ), Vladimir Gakov, Jörg Hienger (1927-    ), John-Henri Holmberg, Julius Kagarlitski, Gérard Klein, Stanisław Lem, Carlo Pagetti, Franz Rottensteiner, Martin Schwonke (1923-    ), Jacques van Herp (1923-2004) and Pierre Versins. Rottensteiner, who also publishes in English, is one of the most renowned European critics; unfortunately, his best-known book in English, The Science Fiction Book: An Illustrated History (1975), is not quite up to his own usually high standard. Some exceptionally controversial criticism by Stanisław Lem has been published in English, although his much-discussed Fantastyka i futurologia (1970 Poland), a full-length study of sf, has yet to be translated in full; a small part appeared, with other work, in Microworlds (coll trans 1985).

Back in the USA, the appearance in the 1970s of many academic courses about sf (see SF in the Classroom) had repercussions in the publication of anthologies of critical essays. A pioneer editor in this field was Thomas D Clareson with SF: The Other Side of Realism (anth 1971), Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers Vol. 1 (anth 1976) and its two sequels, and Many Futures, Many Worlds: Theme and Form in Science Fiction (anth 1977). Clareson has also published books of his own, his most important work being on the early History of SF, as in Some Kind of Paradise: The Emergence of American Science Fiction (1985), which is more a historical and thematic survey than a critical study. Two critical anthologies about sf aimed at the general reader rather than at the student or teacher are Science Fiction at Large (anth 1976; vt Explorations of the Marvellous 1978) edited by Peter Nicholls and Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction (anth 1977) edited by Damon Knight. The former book contains several essays which, in their readiness to see shortcomings in sf, may be a particular example of a general lessening of the rather tedious boosterism in many earlier books about the field. Another good, academic critical anthology of the 1970s was Science Fiction: A Critical Guide (anth 1979) edited by Patrick Parrinder.

In the 1980s a great many critical anthologies about sf were published, often choosing their contents from the proceedings of academic conferences or from academic-track programming at sf Conventions. A number of these are listed in the entries of such individual editors as Martin H Greenberg, Donald Hassler, Eric S Rabkin and George E Slusser. Many of the academics who have edited such books have also written studies of their own. Among them are perhaps the two most stimulating US academic theoreticians about sf to have risen to prominence in the 1980s: Mark Rose and Gary K Wolfe. Rose is the author of Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction (1981), which in its discussion of what he sees as the central paradigms in sf breaks new ground, if controversially. Wolfe is the author of many articles and several books, including The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (1979), perhaps the major sf study of its day, and comes as close as any critic ever has to defining, in useful and quite rigorous theoretical terms, the Sense of Wonder that fans so often use to describe what they seek for and find in sf. Unlike many of his academic colleagues, Wolfe writes with clarity, grace and wit, and avoids the jargon that makes so much recent academic analysis of sf so inaccessible to the ordinary reader – and so boring, sometimes, to even the academically trained reader.

The books of two other academic critics of considerable interest have been more narrowly focused than most of the above: H Bruce Franklin and W Warren Wagar. Both write well. Franklin has written, from a Marxist perspective unusual in US criticism, Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction (1980) and War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (1988). Wagar is the author of a book which is as much a contribution to the history of ideas as it is an analysis of sf specifically: Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things (1982).

Further collections by notable critics already cited above are listed in detail in their individual entries, such as that for John Clute, with Look at the Evidence (coll 1996) and others; and Gary K Wolfe, with Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996 (coll 2005) and further assemblies of his Locus review columns. More recently emerging non-academic critics include Paul Kincaid, with What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (coll 2008).

Among further broad-scope works published in the present century are The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (anth 2003) edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders (2005 3vols) edited by Gary Westfahl, assembling entries by many hands on sf/fantasy themes and selected books; and The History of Science Fiction (2006) by Adam Roberts. The present online edition of this encyclopedia was launched in October 2011.

In the early 1970s anybody interested in the history and criticism of sf could have found very little to read on the subject. Now there is far too much to cope with, and the difficulty is in locating what might be available and interesting. The "interesting" criterion remains a lottery, but the "availability" criterion can be helped considerably. Here the Science Fiction and Fantasy Reference Indexes of Hal W Hall were historically very useful, as was The Year's Scholarship in Science Fiction and Fantasy series compiled by Marshall B Tymn and Roger C Schlobin (see their entries for details). An earlier reference is Science Fiction Criticism: An Annotated Checklist (1972) compiled by Clareson. The Hall indexes have been subsumed into and superseded by the online Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database [see links below].

Further discussion of secondary materials for the sf researcher will be found in Bibliographies, Cinema, Definitions of SF and Postmodernism and SF, and in selected author and theme entries throughout. [PN/DRL]


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