Science Fiction Studies


#100 = Volume 33, Part 3 = November 2006

Roundtable on SF Criticism

To mark the journal’s 100th issue, the editorial consultants of SFS were invited to submit brief essays on "the current state and future promise of sf criticism." We were not seeking celebrations of the journal, but rather reflections on the most significant developments within the field over the past three decades (since SFS debuted in 1973) and/or projections of coming trends in the scholarly study of sf. Not all of our consultants were able to contribute, but we are very grateful to those who were. SFS would never have survived for 100 issues without the unstinting assistance and support of this generous cohort of critics and scholars.—Eds.

The clarity of exposition has greatly improved. The future seems to have contracted; both the US and the UK are trapped in the Iraq situation, which foreshortens everything, including many lives. The overall effect is to drive many of your critics to innocuous subjects. No one with any scientific knowledge is likely to be excited by the prevalence of wizards and magic. You might think of a new department where characteristics of dead writers are analyzed; it cannot be only economic necessity that drives authors to tangle with futurity. I notice for instance that English writers of the past, from Mary Shelley onwards, have tended towards a melancholic disposition.

I would like to see discussion of how sf is slowly being born or reborn in the component parts of what was Yugoslavia. I would like to write it myself but do not know enough. Let’s hope that does not deter others!—Brian Aldiss, Oxford

Sf criticism surfs all the New Waves. We apply arcane theories to texts, analyze social contexts, and discuss women, minorities, gender issues, and neglected writers. Comparative approaches highlight non-Anglophone sf. We benefit from efforts to bring classics back into print such as the University of Nebraska Press Frontiers of Imagination series and the Wesleyan University Press Early Classics of Science Fiction series. All this has produced a tasty smorgasbord of revisionist sf histories. Also prominent though less reassuring are nervous attempts to cope with the ways printed matter is endangered as television, movies, and the internet threaten to gobble up all signs of sentient life on our planet. An encouraging phenomenon outside academic criticism is the bookstore migration of work by some sf writers from "SF/Fantasy/Horror" shelves to "Fiction and Literature" shelves where it is ok for adults to browse. There is increasing understanding that we live in a world that looks a lot like sf, and where accordingly it is legitimate to read and even study it (in moderation). This new respectability is reflected in a bonanza of university courses on sf, university press books on sf, and academic articles on sf even in journals not devoted to the topic. We live in a Golden Age of sf studies, right?

Wrong. Despite the abundance of sf scholarship, it is hard for a new PhD specializing in sf to get a tenure track position. Young scholars are well advised to disguise themselves as cultural studies, feminist, or minority lit gurus, a move that may lead to survival in the Darwinian halls of academe but also deflect focus from sf. Though the demand for sf criticism is now high, the supply of sf critics is not assured. Other trends also threaten to transmute our Golden Age into lead: the dwindling of hard sf; the scarcity of even imaginary science in current sf; elephantiasis of books to mind-numbing length likely to attract criticism only from brain-dead critics (or induce brain-death); proliferation of dreary sequels; and above all (far worse than the ravenous movie-TV-internet Monster) displacement of sf by outright fantasy. (Wait. Don’t argue yet. First look again at the ads and reviews in your current issue of Locus.). There is nothing wrong with fantasy. If it prevails we can still have good stories and good criticism. But there won’t be sf criticism any more, Toto, because there won’t be any sf worth speaking of. Will that happen? Unfortunately, my crystal ball and my time machine are both in for repair (at different shops). Replacement parts are out of stock.—Paul K. Alkon, University of Southern California

If the past three decades have any predictive power for the future, then one can confidently project the continued increase in published criticism on non-English-language sf, paralleled by and responding to—and here I can only speak knowledgably of sf written in Spanish and Portuguese—the sustained rise in the quality, quantity, and global availability of that body of literature.

A scan of the MLA database shows that the overwhelming majority of books and articles about sf from Latin America and Spain dates from the 1970s, at times growing out of the academy’s interest in the literary fantastic and magical realism, but also indicating a serious interest in how these texts add to the discussion on genre, gender roles, political ideologies, literary influences, social mores, and other intellectual and aesthetic concerns. Although much of the scholarship has been published in the US, the critical attention is helping to break down resistance to the genre in more traditional academies in Spain and Latin America, opening doors for future generations of scholars. Furthermore, the commentaries, histories, and other contributions to the understanding and appreciation of regional sf—long the domain of independent scholars and fans and shared through non-academic forums such as gatherings (encuentros) and fanzines—have become more rigorous and informed, and offer essential perspectives to the critical dialogue.

One long-term characteristic of Spanish- and Portuguese-language sf has been its intermingling of genres (sf with horror or detective fiction, for example), and recently it has grown more staunchly latino in flavor. I believe that both these features will figure in future critical inquiries and look forward to studies on the existence and distinctive features of national or regional sf schools (something that until recently could best be claimed for Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba). Finally, to the extent that global communication and mobility grow ever easier, I expect the interaction among readers, writers and scholars to become even more inclusive of the developing world.—Andrea Bell, Hamline University

Science fiction’s emergence was made possible by the widespread intellectual acceptance of two theses, one cosmic, one historical. First, we inhabit an incomprehensibly vast universe whose origins lie deep in time. Our beginnings as a species are temporally remote, and our final destiny is unknown: perhaps shockingly imminent, perhaps separated from the present by an enormous gulf of years. Second, all known social and cultural forms, and specifically those we have experienced in our individual lifetimes, are significantly mutable. Even the near future may be very strange.

Individual sf narratives may seem to ignore, or even resist, these theses, but without them the genre would be incomprehensible. Good critics of science fiction know this in their bones, and their work elaborates, or clearly presupposes, it. Good sf criticism engages sympathetically with an overarching mega-narrative that explores the salience, for beings like us, of vast space, deep time, and radical change. Some of the best criticism of the past few decades has focused close attention on a canon of exemplary texts, including the novels of Delany, Le Guin, Russ, and Gibson, that, in turn, depict human possibilities in worlds well-described by the two theses. A weakness in much sf criticism has been its willingness to treat science fiction as merely one field of popular culture, more or less interchangeable with others.

A less widely-accepted thesis than the two already mentioned is that we, as individuals or as a species, are technologically alterable, and may even be superseded by our posthuman mind-children. Many sf writers assume, explore, advocate, or resist this idea, and there are no signs that the trend is passing. To continue to identify and illuminate exemplary narratives, and to develop their discipline as one with a theoretical core, sf’s scholarly critics will need to refine their approach to such work, finding ways to address it on something like its own philosophical ground.—Russell Blackford, Monash University

Back in 1973, the US had been involved for several years in the imperialist occupation of a sovereign nation (although that was all about Communist dominoes rather than terrorist networks), whose escalation was built on lying to the American people (the Tonkin Gulf incident, etc., rather than WMDs); and the US was instrumental in the removal of a democratically-elected Latin American head of state and the installation of a military dictatorship (Hugo Chavez has already lasted much longer than Allende, despite a US-backed coup attempt and calls for his assassination). The gap between rich and poor was still closing, but that changed in the next three or four years, and has been expanding ever since. In the first issue of SFS, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972) that "we are forced … to think about ourselves: our moral assumptions, our ideas of heroism, our desires to lead or be led, our righteous wars. What Spinrad is trying to tell us is that it is happening here."

It would be churlish to blame SFS for the world having changed so very little in the last 33 years. It has, after all, had only a hundred issues. And those hundred issues have played a vital role elsewhere—in stabilizing and professionalizing the study of sf, setting the benchmark for literary and theoretical criticism in the field and, at times, in any field. (And, personally, as an undergraduate and postgraduate, it was an absolute lifeline for me.) But while that professionalization and stabilization brought much of value to us all, this mainstreaming of the study of sf inevitably brought it into the purview of an increasingly marketized and blandly complicit educational system. Thanks to the very high standards SFS set—and has maintained—it has generally done a pretty good job of resisting these pressures, of at least criticizing the world if not always exactly burning with a passion to change it. Sometimes, in darker days, keeping critique alive is the most tenable cultural goal possible—but every so often I wonder, what is the point of doing what we do if not to show that it is happening here—and to stop it?—Mark Bould, University of the West of England

I have a gross of mixed metaphors to offer—big fish in small ponds, small fish in big oceans, deltas, airport lounges, decapitated tiara-clad princesses (my specialty, apparently, but then I’m no royalist). In the end my choice of metaphor is of the evolving academic. I feel that sf crit has managed to progress from a gawky, awkward adolescent to ... well, a gawky awkward junior lecturer in his or her first full-time job.

So we’ve learned to use the long words like ontological and apotropaic, because somehow we feel we need Big Words to show we can compete with the Big Boys who play with Proper Literature like what Shakespeare wrote. We’ve hitched our wagons to the horses of theory to prove that what we’ve done is worth a look. Now, postdoctoral, we’re talking to bored undergrads who have enough difficulties with the word epoch, let alone epistemological, and we’re not so sure those big words are quite enough, nor have we yet found fresh horses that do not appear exhausted. We keep an eye out, mind, and rightly so.

Do we deal with the same old stuff as our professors did before us, who formed one canon while escaping from another—Le Guin, Dick, Delany, Russ, Gibson one more time? After all, the rest of the department hardly figures that it’s time to give Austen or Dickens a rest for a couple of articles or semesters. There’s always more mileage in the madness of Hamlet. But perhaps we should test out some new names, seek new movements, Booms, and new weirdnesses, find new curricula where no critic has gone before. And what about film, TV, plays, radio, comics, music, the internet, advertising, and a thousand other modes that seem to offer something like sf but would challenge our institutional boundaries? The physicists, philosophers, geographers, lawyers, and anthropologists who want to talk about this obscure neat novel about someone named Case—there’s just too much left to do in sf, and there’s more than a career’s worth in just a tiny part of it.

Fifteen years ago I remember explaining to people that there were actually some academic journals that specialize in sf, but I think we now do a better job of talking to each other. I wonder if we don’t now need to look outwards to the general journals, to offer them a more nuanced article than that by the professor who has only read Vonnegut or that obscure neat novel. We no longer have a monopoly on what sf academia is, but that’s no reason to stop trying to have the conversation about what it should be, and taking it to other people.—Andrew M. Butler, Canterbury Christ Church University

When SFS put out its first issue in 1973, I was reading Heinlein, Blish, and Dick. I could not imagine I’d soon be opting almost entirely for women’s sf. True, in 1968, Kate Wilhelm and Anne McCaffrey had been the first women to win Nebula Awards and McCaffrey the first woman to win a Hugo. In 1975 Pamela Sargent published a collection of women’s short sf, Women of Wonder. But I was behind the times.

By the late 1970s, I had caught up, reading Bradley, Gottlieb, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Norton, Russ, etc. But I also enjoyed Tiptree’s work. In 1982 I found out Tiptree had come out as Alice Sheldon in 1975. By then, the first essay on women and sf, Beverly Friends’ "Women and Sex in Science Fiction," had been published in Extrapolation in 1972. In 1978, SFS published its first essay on women and sf, "New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction" by Pamela J. Annas. Entire issues on women writers followed: in 1975 Extrapolation published one on Le Guin; and in 1980, SFS one on women’s sf, including classic essays by Russ on the battle of the sexes, and by Susan Gubar on C.L. Moore. Throughout this period, both Le Guin and Russ were regular and equal participants in the critical conversation on sf in general.

I remember the thrill of the first book on women’s sf. I ordered Natalie Rosinsky’s Feminist Futures: Contemporary Women’s Speculative Fiction (1984), and it arrived in a brown paper wrapper! I found Marleen Barr’s edited collection of essays, Future Females (1981), in my own university library, and xeroxed large portions. Some of this early criticism on women’s sf was over-enthusiastic, grounded in formalist principles, concentrating on analyses of imagery and the history of ideas, drawing firm lines between men’s and women’s work but assuming women similarly suffered patriarchal oppression. If we look at the essays on women’s sf in the 2005 and 2006 issues of SFS and the WiscCon issues of Extrapolation, a few similiarities remain: historical approaches to women’s sf are still important, and new studies of 1950s housewife sf by Lisa Yaszek and Robin Roberts’ biography of McCaffrey are expected soon. Women writers continue to be part of the conversation—Carol Emshwiller and Eleanor Arnason, for example, have recently published esssays. But the central conception of what it means to be a woman and to write as a woman in our culture has changed dramatically. Today, men as well as women are writing essays on gender and women’s sf, and such studies generally view subjectivity as a matrix of identities and affiliations that divide women more often than uniting them. The field of feminist sf criticism is large enough to have debates within itself—centrally, on whether talking about women’s sf as a separate category is even useful. I look forward to continuing this rich conversation for many years.—Jane Donawerth, University of Maryland

In the last 33 years, a lot has happened. Here are two notable changes: the greater generic heterogeneity within sf generally (fiction, film, TV, and other media, such as video games and advertising and design), and a similar greater heterogeneity within the academy. Both changes seem crucial, and complementary. Within the academy specifically and belles-lettres generally, we can name some of the specific shifts, such as the rise of postmodernism and literary theory; of feminist and multicultural attacks on the canon; and of the spectacular decline in respect for the study of literature that manifests itself most clearly in shrinking enrollments and shrinking faculties in the humanities. Two consequences are that the literary academy is now much more open to previously neglected and/or new genres and texts, and it has to some extent sought to bolster its declining importance by aggressively seeking to engage with more popular and less conventionally literary genres. Unlike 33 years ago, sf criticism is now both possible and permitted.

Consequently, academic criticism of sf has become increasingly nuanced, specialized and, not to put too fine a point on it, academic. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s become any better (though, as recently as ten years ago, many academic conference papers—and occasionally published essays—were really little more than plot summary; the quantity of such embarrassments has diminished sharply). As sf criticism has become more more accepted, there has been a notable waning of legitimation anxiety, which while still quite pervasive in the discourse about the fiction’s canonicity seems to have evaporated in the discourse of the scholarship. I offer two concrete examples: the new book by N. Katherine Hayles (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) that, while discussing Dick, Tiptree, Egan, Stephenson, and others, does not actually use the phrase "science fiction," much less attempt to define the genre or legitimate its importance. A second example is the special Spring 2005 issue of New Literary History, "Probing the Boundaries of the Human in Science and Science Fiction," whose essays do use the term and try to define the genre, though without any sense that either the genre or its study needs any special legitimation.

Yet despite this change, any responsible academic should still be wary of recommending that students craft their dissertations and their budding careers entirely on sf, for while the scholarship has changed, the job market hasn’t. Think of the 2004 special issue of PMLA that did reveal the tensions between us and those departments and colleagues and deans still wrapped up in the prejudices and latent codes of an elite canon. But remember that the university is a fundamentally conservative institution: even if sf were to disappear tomorrow, the literary academy would continue to open to sf as it accrues more of a past. So I think the future looks quite bright for the academic discussion of sf.—Neil Easterbrook, Texas Christian University

The best thing that can be said for the state of sf criticism today is that today there is no obviously urgent reason to be talking about the state of sf criticism. Typically, you’re concerned about your health when you’re feeling odd in some disturbing way—not when you’re feeling fine, or at least normal. Sf criticism today feels pretty normal. It is, more or less, a professional field like any other, with a fair amount of activity, with its own journals and conferences, with various competing points of view, and with avid practitioners who range in age from their twenties to (at least) their eighties. In terms of quality, some of it is excellent, a great deal is pretty good, and entirely too high a percentage of it is bad—just as is the case with Chaucer criticism or criticism of the eighteenth-century novel.

On the other hand, the worst thing that can be said about sf criticism today is that it is, precisely, a normal field like Chaucer criticism or criticism of the eighteenth-century novel. Between its pre-professional era of fan writing and positivistic literary history, and its current Veralltäglichung (or "routinization," as Max Weber would say), sf criticism enjoyed a genuinely heroic moment—sparked most obviously by the publication of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel Delany in 1977 and Metamorphoses of Science Fiction by Darko Suvin in 1979—when it not only became as rigorous and intellectually exciting as any other branch of professional literary studies, but also constituted a privileged home for an energetic social radicalism, notably for Marxist and feminist work. Radicalism survives in the field, but mainly as tolerated by the usual smug academic pluralism that is dominated by liberal and "postmodernist" ideologies. This running-down of energy was perhaps inevitable and was certainly caused by more distinct factors than can be discussed or even named here. But the trajectory is worth noticing as the 100th issue of this journal goes to press.—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University

When SFS began publication in Spring 1973, a reader could plausibly lay claim to having read every published critical work on sf in English. Today it may no longer be possible and certainly few of us would make the attempt. We rely on reviews in SFS and elsewhere to winnow the field and assume that all the really important secondary publications will be reviewed. It is unfortunate, then, that one of the best and most provocative critical studies of sf of recent years, Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets (2001), has not been reviewed in SFS. The explanation would seem to be that, for whatever reason, Harvard University Press did not send review copies to the various academic journals that focus on sf, which were apparently not the book’s target market.

Nelson’s book focuses "on the way the larger mainstream, via works of imagination instead of official creeds, subscribes to a nonrational, supernatural, quasi-religious view of the universe: pervasively but behind our own backs." Sf, like other forms of the fantastic, is "one way that we as nonbelievers allow ourselves unconsciously to believe." The claim that sf amounts to a displaced or secular form of religion is, of course, a traditional aspect of sf scholarship. Nelson’s innovation is to place that view in a history of ideas context. She maintains, for example, that the "inherent Platonism of cybertheory has given an added boost to a recent gradual transformation of mainstream culture in which ancient themes are being actively revived in aesthetics and philosophy." Thus it is that we "can locate our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways that human simulacra—puppets, cyborgs and robots—carry on their role as direct descendants of graven images in contemporary science fiction stories and films." This is a rather different "Manifesto for Cyborgs" than the one we have become used to.

Nelson’s argument about the "reemergence of the benign supernatural from the shadow of the demonic grotesque," which includes "the divinization of the human" (xi), is compellingly supported by analyses of representative stories, novels, and films. I was intrigued, in particular, by the case she makes for the British writer Will Self as an example of the post-1990 "new wave of secular allegorizing reinforced by Platonizing cybertheory." (Self has this year published his first sf novel, The Book of Dave.) Nelson’s argument parallels in certain respects James Blish’s late Spenglerian theorizing about the limiting synthetic nature of sf. Perhaps the future of sf critical theory lies down the path that Blish and now Nelson have pioneered. If so, it will amount to a very new direction for SFS. In its first issue and in all subsequent issues until very recently readers were advised (a little tendentiously?) on its masthead that "except for purposes of comparison and contrast," SFS did not publish articles on "supernatural or mythological fantasy." A reader persuaded by Nelson’s book, as I am, will likely ironically conclude that supernatural fantasy is, alternatively, at the heart of sf, at the heart of a significant branch of sf, or a significant sf tendency.—David Ketterer, University of Liverpool

To the question posed by the title of his essay in the March/April 1978 issue of Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, "Will Academe Kill Science Fiction?" Jack Williamson’s answer was a somewhat restrained "I don’t think so." Nearly thirty years after Williamson found himself musing on the relationship between the academy and sf (he suggested that already in 1978 "teachers of science fiction are probably earning more out of it than the writers do"), and over thirty years since the appearance of SFS, we can be considerably more confident in answering that question with a resounding "NO" or possibly even "HELL, NO!"

And yet it may be worth noting that a good bit of the best sf scholarship in recent years privileges questions drawn from well-codified critical discourses over questions more endemic to science fiction considered as an epistemology or attitude toward the world, much less as a genre. One happy result of this is that sf has itself gained a more privileged status among literary and cultural and film/TV/electronic scholars than it has ever had.

One possibly less happy result is that most of the best sf scholarship now, either overtly or implicitly, approaches sf more in terms of what it has in common with other literatures and other media than in terms of what it offers or claims to offer as unique or even as essential. We’re much more likely to encounter in current scholarship interrogation of issues identified in postcolonial studies, queer studies, or cultural studies rather than of issues associated with the concept of the novum, much less the "sense of wonder"—no matter how fraught we now know those chestnut concepts to be. Of course, in most respects that’s a very good thing, but it does to some extent divert our critical attention from the possibility, if not the fact, that science fiction might be a truly different way of constructing and interrogating our lives.—Brooks Landon, University of Iowa

The vision it took to launch SFS: one shouldn’t forget that. My institutional memory only stretches back into the mid-1980s, but literature departments then seemed defined in their very essence by a high/low divide that simply rendered sf invisible, while Cultural Studies was a common-room joke, done by vulgar people in peripheral institutions. On my corridor, colleagues now do Mervyn Peake, the Modernist obsession with Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse, Walter Benjamin’s urbanism and psycho-geography, Victorian fairy-hunters and taxidermists, the new museology—all this within a fairly traditionally organized "English" department and allowed to thrive without a single disapproving glance. Most importantly, promotion panels and funding councils don’t seem to mind either, and that has been a major breakthrough.

It seems to me that SFS has had two main phases, and hovers on the edge of a third. In the 1970s, a structuralist-Marxist axis gave the genre definition, political function, and therefore legitimation. Darko Suvin brilliantly encapsulated this move in his vital definitional work. Yet it also, problematically, set up a proscriptive set of boundaries that discarded much of the work written within sf, while ignoring the overlapping fields of fantasy and horror. Sf criticism frequently hovered around a small set of approved authors, amenable to a very particular take on utopianism. It proffered a vision of what the genre ought to be doing. The second wave came with the next generation, the postmoderns. By the late 1980s, the surf was up for a science-fictionalized contemporary that rendered sf a central cultural node, less a genre than a mode of apprehension. Jameson, Baudrillard, and Haraway almost seemed legitimated by sf, not the other way around. This, too, developed its own set of favored authors and texts (step forward Alien, Blade Runner, and William Gibson, with Philip K Dick surviving from the first wave too), and venerated a very specific style.

Since the mid-1990s, as postmodernism was sucked back out to sea, there’s been no new dominant paradigm, and this in itself is significant. As the academy seems to require less legitimation for the study of popular cultures, so the sense in which sf criticism has to shape itself to a particular form of cultural currency seems to have waned. With this has come not an empty pluralism, but a recognition of the complexity of a genre that always was a hybridized and bastard form, just as often grotesquely disordered by Gothic and fantasy elements as rationally controlled, social-scientific critique. In the future, SFS might have to do less obsessive sorting, ordering, and hierarchizing, and will not need to import the latest theoretical language to legitimate its work. Critical apprehensions of the genre should be encouraged to spread rhizomatically, without a central command structure, feeding off the manic energy of the genre itself.—Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck College

"The current state and future promise of sf criticism": it is tempting to reply in Oedipal fashion to this version of the Sphinx’s riddle. With 100 issues of SFS on the shelves, might it be a case of four legs bad, two legs good, three legs equals incipient senile decay? But criticism would be better conceived as a Wellsian Fighting Machine liable to topple over without three healthy supports—the Critical Tripos of history, theory, and creative practice.

No one can doubt the vigor of sf history, whether the history of texts and textual production, of their social and intellectual contexts, or of their wider relations among narrative forms. History is currently sf criticism’s strongest leg. Theory, by contrast, lags behind. Until the sudden spurt of March 2006’s special issue on Technoculture, one could count the original contributions to theory published in SFS in recent years on one set of toes. (I omit review-articles.) Theory explains and defines the necessary distinctiveness of sf, which history then illustrates in all its idiosyncrasy; but the stage of confident theory-construction in the field is long over. Structuralist, historicist, and postmodernist theories remain generally current even though their inadequacies are widely acknowledged. But maybe this is a leg that always proceeds by fits and starts.

One might think that for much of its life SFS has got along rather successfully as a biped, but this would be wrong. The third leg, creative practice, is seldom in direct view since the journal rightly leaves reviewing and commentary on new fiction to others. Nevertheless, SFS’s history is strongly marked by the critical stances it has taken up, some very deliberately, others less so. Skepticism towards the claims of "cyberpunk" and the "New Wave"; support for feminist sf; assertion and constant reinforcement of the canonical status of contemporaries such as Dick, Le Guin, Gibson, Robinson; and a steadfast insistence on sf as an international genre with a long history. These are, as much as anything, what the journal has stood for, but the current position is less certain. We have to go back to November 2003 for the last issue of SFS devoted to a new movement (the "British sf boom"), and to July 2004 for the last interview with an individual writer—inevitably (if a little belatedly) Kim Stanley Robinson. Very little discussion of twenty-first century fiction has as yet appeared in the journal, so we need to remember that the future promise of sf criticism depends, as much as anything, on the energy and propulsion it derives from criticism’s third leg.—Patrick Parrinder, University of Reading

Surely, science fiction criticism and scholarship has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Extrapolation, SFS, and elsewhere—there are worlds between the early issues and the current ones. Since I am not a professor of literature, but primarily a collector and an editor who has always seen it as his main purpose to make worthwhile sf available, I may be permitted to put in a few dissenting words. Sf scholarship has become a whole industry, and now there must be more books and magazines on science fiction and fantasy every year than there were original sf books in the early fifties. Now scholars have read their Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, and countless other more or less fashionable critics and philosophers, and they manage to tell you everything about some poor victim of a story (or politically correct text) that never crossed the author’s mind, except the simple fact that the story may be not worth reading. Parallel to Secondary Universes of fiction has been erected a Tertiary Universe of Criticism that is highly sophisticated, an artful construct surely to be envied, but that has only the most incidental connection to what it purports to relate to. And it is probably read only by those working on exactly the same subject.

It’s like much of modern science fiction: a lot of apparatus, but little content, and that quite an old-fashioned one. But there is perhaps a good reason for this: for if the scholars admitted that the object of their study is not all that good, they might be rightly asked why they devote so much time and effort to it. Does sf really warrant so much more attention than, say, the mystery novel? I personally prefer rather the no-nonsense approach of an E.F. Bleiler or a R.D. Mullen. But still, it must be said that in a genre of popular literature, where the most celebrated and read authors are usually very mediocre writers, there are always surprises of excellence, especially among the short stories that you would think couldn’t get published in so commercial a field as science fiction.

In the future, much as in sf itself, we may expect in criticism and scholarship more of the same, perhaps somewhat more sophisticated and complicated; but there are still wide realms of sf that haven’t been touched yet, especially in foreign countries where not even all texts have been identified.—Franz Rottensteiner, Vienna

Our field is divided between sf and sci-fi studies. The former, an arm of "English," aims to deepen the understanding of canonical texts, illuminate biographical and cultural contexts, recover unjustly neglected works, evaluate new ones. The latter, a branch of cultural studies, interprets the popular-cultural phenomenon known since Star Wars as sci-fi. Each of these fields demands a different set of interpretive skills, and both suffered in different ways during the theory boom. New literary theories are useful chiefly to enable new approaches to over-familiar canonical texts; but good literary sf, like its mainstream equivalent, first demands rigorous close reading. Meanwhile, cultural studies’ engagement with sci-fi remains hampered by the assumption that cultish popularity equals aesthetic excellence, so The Matrix must be a great film rather than merely a significant one at a particular cultural moment. To construct an argument on such a premise practically begs an impenetrably defensive theoretical approach.

My own prejudices are literary-historical, so I consider much recent sf criticism to be sadly mired in the elaboration of genres and theoretical positions at the expense of exegesis and evaluation. I understand sf as an unprecedented literature emerging from the Darwinian revolution, and expect the good stuff to grapple with the predicament of the human species in a scientifically conceived universe. I find the best Golden Age sf to be fully conscious of its evolutionary lineage—q.v., almost every story in Silverberg’s SF Hall of Fame anthology. I see the glimmerings of an acknowledgement of this truth inside the sf field (though less outside: the standard critical work on evolutionary narrative nowhere mentions H.G. Wells). Perhaps the most hopeful development in sf studies today is that we are now getting fully contextualized readings of post-Darwinian, pre-Gernsbackian sf classics (translated when necessary) in scholarly editions edited by sf specialists.—Nicholas Ruddick, University of Regina

As might be expected, my focus is on sf film criticism. On the one hand, since the late 1970s—and particularly after Blade Runner and Alien attracted a large number of film scholars to a genre most had previously ignored—there has been an increasing body of critical work both on the genre as a whole and on specific films (most obviously, if not notably, The Matrix). Where once there were very few serious volumes dedicated to sf film, now there are many—vying, in most cases, for preeminence as university texts. Indeed, sf film criticism has been "mainstreamed" and, whether explicitly or implicitly, recognized as the genre that most effectively figured the trauma of life in the technologically-transfigured world of late and multinational capitalism. On the other hand, however, such recognition occurred at a moment when sf film was losing much of its cultural and poetic power to the reinvigorated film genre of fantasy with its hobbits, superheroes, and easy wish fulfillment. Hollywood cinema no longer showcases its own advances and special effects as "technological" or feels the need to narratively explain these to a public that is both technologically savvy and technologically bored.

The challenge, then, to sf film criticism is two-fold: first, to describe and interpret this historical and cultural shift away from sf and toward sheer fantasy; and second, to turn toward television, which has produced (primarily on cable) some of the most interesting recent sf. Here, the series format allows for greater depth and development than that of most theatrical releases. Certainly, Taken, Battlestar Galactica (the current version), the cancelled Invasion, and The 4400 are all worthy of discussion—particularly since they actually deal with social relations and issues of difference in unstable worlds much like our own and thus are charged with an energy and relevance I find sorely lacking in most recent sf I see in the theater.—Vivian Sobchack, UCLA

The boom of science fiction in Japan was triggered by Sakyo Komatsu’s million-selling novel Nippon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) in 1973, which coincided with the genesis of SFS, and George Lucas’s film Star Wars in 1977, which helped inaugurate around 1980 a variety of professional sf magazines including the Japanese edition of Starlog and a couple of sf criticism journals. Therefore, it was very natural for me to get interested in the coincidence around 1980 between the rise of poststructuralist criticism and the reappraisal of speculative fictionists such as Dick, Ballard, and Lem.

The year 2006 saw another coincidence between the 100th issue of this journal and the revival of Komatsu’s Japan Sinks, which involved not only Koshu Tani’s publication of the sequel to the novel but also Shinji Higuchi’s ambitious remake of the film version. While the original Japan Sinks made us aware of the diaspora of the Japanese as a reflection of the internationalist, or even cosmopolitan, fate of Japan during the High Growth period in the mid-1970s, the radical reinterpretations in the twenty-first century of the novel foreground the techno-political negotiations between Japan and great powers in the Globalist age.

However, what matters most for sf critics now is Yasutaka Tsutsui’s black humorous short story "Nippon Igai Zenbu Chinbotsu" (Everyone Other Than Japan Sinks) published in 1973 as a parody of Japan Sinks, whose film version has also been completed by Minoru Kawasaki in the summer of 2006. Tsutsui’s parody ironically narrates the diaspora of non-Japanese people and the fate of their immigration into the Japanese Archipelago. Fully understanding the author’s sense of humor, Kawasaki visualizes the way it becomes more and more difficult for non-Japanese people to survive the diaspora unless they decide to go native in Japan. Yes, this is one of the radical critiques of western science fiction as well as one of the latest representations of what I termed "Japanoid" in my book Full Metal Apache: Transactions between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America (2006). This is why I would not consider all the coincidences only trifling.—Takayuki Tatsumi, Keio University

In 1973, Anglophone humanities departments embarked upon "the linguistic turn." No longer dominated by New Criticism and the canon, literary studies were transformed by structuralism and poststructuralism, a view of language as constructing rather than representing reality, emphasis on the importance of context for reading text, and a consequent expansion of texts deemed appropriate for academic study with the erosion of the high/low cultural boundary. Early academic study of science fiction in Extrapolation (1959), SFRA conferences (1970), the Science Fiction Foundation (1970), and SFS (1973) struggled for legitimacy within the academy. Now, most North American and UK universities offer courses on science fiction (and other popular media).

I came to sf via critical theory within the transformed academy, finding a literature that helped me think about subjectivity, the shifting nature of reality, and the ambiguities of gender and other power structures. Sf was central to critical works vital to my developing thinking about feminism and technology, such as Teresa de Lauretis’s Technologies of Gender (1987), Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women (1991), Anne Balsamo’s Technologies of the Gendered Body (1996), and N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999). Since 1973, the academic study of sf has expanded, perhaps flourished. More of anything can also mean more mediocrity, but on the whole sf scholarship remains strong. Credit is due to those who established and maintained the research organizations and journals, as their work meant that science fiction was already engaged in an ongoing academic conversation when universities embraced cultural studies.

SFS and other journals ensure that the field continues to renew itself: infusing sf scholarship with new theoretical developments (with special issues on Critical Approaches, Postmodernism, Sociology, and Technoculture), expanding our "canon" of science fiction (with special issues on French sf, Japanese sf, Soviet sf, and Global sf), and reflecting on the relationship between sf and social change (with special issues on women and sf, nuclear war, and a planned special issue on Afro-futurism). Entering the academy can be deadly. What was once a passionate and politically-informed body of work may become merely another performance of cleverness for its own sake, as some have suggested has happened to feminism or Marxist cultural studies. Sf scholarship is not free of examples warning of a similar complacency, but the varieties of new approaches and texts evident over 100 issues of SFS reassure me, a relative newcomer to the field, that passionate and committed work remains possible. The best sf scholarship—like the best sf—continually seeks what is new and aims to change the world rather than to accept what is given. I hope the next 100 issues of SFS will continue to emphasize what is best about the field and save us from the dangers of ivory-towered solipsism.—Sherryl Vint, St. Francis Xavier University

At a time when there are widespread and increasingly vocal concerns that the very existence of science fiction as a genre may now be in peril, it is paradoxical to report that, by all appearances, the state of science-fiction criticism has never been better. Along with increasing attention to science fiction in scholarly journals and monographs, one notes in particular the recent proliferation of major reference books from esteemed university presses. Every year seems to bring news of yet another significant contribution, and my limited access to the grapevine indicates that more of them are in the works.

Still, to anyone with even a modicum of access to behind-the-scenes information, there remain reasons to be pessimistic about the future of science fiction criticism. This is the current situation as I perceive it. University presses are informed, or somehow get the impression, that books about science fiction are the academic equivalent of a license to print money. Contracts are eagerly issued, and the academic equivalent of bags of gold may even be lavished upon such projects. Then, when the sales of the completed books inevitably fail to live up to the presses’ extravagant expectations, the scholars who produced them discover that their once-supportive editors are no longer answering their e-mails or expressing any interest in new proposals. At this point, enterprising science fiction scholars are forced to search for other university presses that might still believe that books about science fiction represent sure-fire successes. But manifestly, this is not a game that can go on indefinitely. For obvious reasons, I choose not to discuss specific examples of this process at work, but in private conversations with me or other science fiction scholars, the relevant sad stories can be provided.

As to why the sales of books on science fiction are invariably so disappointing, it may simply be that, due to the changing economics of academic publishing, there are no longer any sorts of publications that are reliably profitable, forcing university presses to constantly search for the nonexistent Holy Grail of a field that generates consistent revenue, with science fiction briefly serving for many of them as one promising candidate. However, to return to the point that launched this discussion, it may also be that the genre of science fiction, after decades of gloomy predictions that never came true, is finally and actually losing its audience, resulting in the plummeting sales of science fiction novels and anthologies which are distressing writers and publishers and, as one side effect, the plummeting sales of books about science fiction. As to why the field may be facing this crisis, I have some ideas, but a brief comment about the current state of science fiction criticism is not the place to air them. Besides, if I do decide to explore the reasons for science fiction’s apparent decline, I would seek to publish the results on a website that, however minimally, pays its contributors. For, if scholarly presses are increasingly unwilling to provide bags of gold for works of science fiction criticism, enterprising science fiction scholars are obliged to seek extra income in whatever ways they can.—Gary Westfahl, University of California at Riverside

Let’s start with some numbers. In 1972, the year before SFS began, Thomas Clareson was able to track down no more than 27 book-length studies or essay collections about sf for his Science Fiction Criticism: An Annotated Checklist. Five years later, Marshall Tymn, Roger Schlobin, and L.W. Currey, in A Research Guide to Science Fiction Studies, more than doubled this figure to 58. After another ten years, in the third edition of Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder, the figure more than doubled again, to 119. By 2004, the fifth edition of AOW listed 251 titles, nearly ten times the number Clareson had found in that first bibliography 32 years earlier—and the number could easily have exceeded 300, had the chapter author (me) not found it necessary to be far more selective than in the past.

None of this will come as news to anyone who’s been involved in sf criticism and scholarship during this period, but it’s interesting to note how the venues have shifted. Clareson’s bibliography included exactly one title from a university press; in 2004, I found myself annotating dozens. Conversely, the amateur and fan presses that used to show up regularly in these bibliographies are far less visible today. Among scholarly journals before 1973, Extrapolation (founded way back in 1959) was the only game; now it’s been joined by Foundation (1972), SFS (1973), and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (1988), and even more staid traditional journals like PMLA have cast the occasional grudging glance at sf. Meanwhile, many of the critically-inclined fanzines from the 1960s have either migrated to the Web or disappeared, leaving much of the discourse on sf in the hands of academics. From the point of view of many fans and some writers, the doctors have taken over the asylum.

But I’m not interested in another brief about how poor some academic sf scholarship can be; every journal editor can share stories about clueless, research-free submissions on Le Guin, Dick, or (more recently) Miéville or Gaiman. What does concern me is the potential balkanization of sf studies, with academics listening only to other academics, writers to other writers, fans to other fans. The oldest continuing critical journal in the field, for example, isn’t Extrapolation but the British Science Fiction Association’s Vector, which began in 1958 and yet remains barely on the horizon of American scholars. Conversely, all four major academic journals are only slightly on the horizon of most sf writers and readers interested in critical theory. It’s not that there aren’t opportunities for dialogue: the World SF Convention has had an academic track for some two decades, annual meetings such as the IAFA or SFRA mix writers and editors with academics, and more literary cons such as Readercon attain an impressive level of critical discourse.

So my hope for sf scholarship is that its future will be one of convergence rather than divergence, that a bit of its Bughouse-square history can be preserved, that the doctors and the inmates recognize what they have to learn from each other. Much of SFS might prove fascinating to the makers and readers of sf, and many websites like Emerald City or magazines like Interzone or Locus might prove valuable to the scholar. Or, put another way, the scholarship of science fiction is not owned, but droppeth as the gentle rain from websites—as well as from journals, books, conventions, and magazines. To scholars who confine their studies to the work of fellow academics, or to readers and writers who just as narrowly disdain all formal scholarship, my plea is the same: get out in the rain.—Gary K. Wolfe, Roosevelt University

Back to Home