Science Fiction Studies

#78 = Volume 26, Part 2 = July 1999




Arthur B. Evans

The Origins of Science Fiction Criticism: From Kepler to Wells

Abstract.-- From Johannes Kepler's 1634 notes on his Somnium to essays by and on H.G. Wells in the early twentieth century, there have been many critical explorations of the literature we now call science fiction. The commentaries of these (often forgotten) early critics are of value principally because they first expressed many--if not most--of those concerns that would later become central to the sf criticism of the twentieth century: the impact of science and technology on human values, the logistics of space travel, the shifting boundaries between the real and the imagined, the portrayal of the alien "other," and the possible futures of our world. Further, they consistently raised key questions about the defining features of the genre itself as it continued to evolve: its preferred themes, its social purpose, its scientific and moral didacticism, its perceived level of verisimilitude, and its place in the Western literary canon. Finally, as the new millennium dawns, it seems appropriate that we look to our distant past to rediscover what these early commentators had to say about the many science fictional works of their times: doing so serves to deepen our understanding of the historical continuity of the ongoing sf debate and to make us aware of both how much and how little has changed over the centuries.

Gary Westfahl

The Popular Tradition of Science Fiction Criticism, 1926-1980

Abstract.-- The extensive commentaries produced by members of the science fiction community, called here the popular tradition of science fiction criticism, were launched by the editorial pronouncements and theories of Hugo Gernsback, beginning in 1926 with the first issue of Amazing Stories. In the 1930s, new editorial voices added little to Gernsback's ideas, though writers for the growing numbers of amateur magazines, called fanzines, were offering some distinctive contributions. In the 1940s, editor John W. Campbell, Jr. significantly expanded and deepened Gernsback's theories to articulate a satisfying, mature vision of science fiction. In the decades that followed, many important new commentators emerged: new magazine editors, book reviewers, anthologists, and editors and authors of books about science fiction. In the 1960s, Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison led a major effort to reform the genre, the New Wave movement. Though academic critics often outshone their untrained counterparts in examinations of particular works, the thoroughness, sense of focus, and dedication of the popular commentaries ensured that they would remain valuable resources for science fiction scholars, then and now.

Donald M. Hassler

The Academic Pioneers of Science Fiction Criticism, 1940-1980

Abstract.--.This is my version of the story of the beginnings of modern academic work on sf from the 1930s until 1980. This work in the academy began with isolated bibliographic efforts and ended with full-blown critical work. A major turning point in the work came with a 1958 seminar at the MLA and the year following, when Extrapolation was founded as the fledgling academic journal and when Kingsley Amis spoke on sf. Another key turning point came with the abundance of criticism in the 1970s. A main element in the story, however, is the suggested link here between the early academics and some of the escapist, "idealist," even fascist values in some sf.

Veronica Hollinger

Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999

Abstract.-- This overview of sf criticism from 1980 to 1999 is divided into three sections: 1) "Mapping the Field," which recommends some histories, genre studies, media sf studies, and reference guides; 2) "Sf Writers on Sf," which calls attention to a number of non-fiction and critical works by sf authors, as well as to some author interviews; 3) and "When It Changed," which discusses a variety of both feminist and postmodern studies of sf. While this overview does not claim to be a complete listing of every significant study which has appeared in the past twenty years, it does aim to develop the sense of a scholarly field in the middle of an unprecedented expansion, and to indicate some of the ways in which sf, itself an arena of cultural production undergoing various unexpected metamorphoses, is currently being appropriated by other scholarly disciplines for whom it provides a source of important cultural material. Sf studies itself has branched out into many new directions, been influenced by many complex political and theoretical perspectives, and achieved some legitimacy within academia, due in part to the postmodern turn away from high culture/popular culture distinctions. A review of the critical work published over the last twenty years suggests that sf studies is flourishing as never before, even as efforts to define what sf is/is becoming are being challenged as never before.

David Ketterer

"Vivisection": Schoolboy "John Wyndham's" First Publication?

Abstract.-- In November 1919, four months after his sixteenth birthday, John [Wyndham Parkes Lucas] Beynon Harris published the first part of a story entitled "Vivisection" in the second issue of The Bee, a short-lived journal "Produced by Members of Bedales School." The following year, the complete eight issues of The Bee were published as a single volume by Morland Press, London. "Vivisection," which is clearly inspired by H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, would seem to be both Harris's and, effectively, "John Wyndham's" first publication. It was as a science fiction writer in the Wellsian mode that John Wyndham received international acclaim and made a significant impact on the development of British and world sf. His schoolboy publication "Vivisection"--here reproduced for the first time--is important because it points directly to the successful second phase of Harris's career, a phase arrived at (five years after World War II) following a pre- and post-war "American" phase (which can now be understood as an instructive detour) as "John Beynon [Harris]," the sole British writer during the 1930s to establish a reputation in such American sf pulp magazines as Wonder Stories.

R.D. Mullen

Two Early Works By Ray Cummings: "The Fire People" and "Around the Universe"

Abstract.-- Ray Cummings (1897-1957), American pulp sf writer once dubbed the "American H.G. Wells," can probably be ranked as the third most popular sf author of the 1920s and 30s, behind Edgar Rice Burroughs and Abraham Merritt. His 1919 masterpiece "The Girl in the Golden Atom" was arguably one of the most well-known sf novelettes published in the Munsey magazines, and many of his sf works were reprinted as paperback books during the 1950s and 60s. Two of Cummings' magazine stories, however, were never reprinted as books: "The Fire People" (1922) and "Around the Universe" (1923). This article is both a general introduction to the early science fiction of Ray Cummings and a discussion of these two largely forgotten sf narratives.

Martin T. Willis

Edison as Time Traveler: H.G. Wells's Inspiration for his First Scientific Character

Abstract.-- Interpretations of H.G. Wells's Time Traveler have varied considerably. One school of thought views him as the quintessential Victorian hero, another as the classic scientist figure prevalent in many sf narratives. Yet another calls the Time Traveler an Everyman of the later nineteenth century. In fact, H.G. Wells had a historical figure firmly in mind when constructing the character and personality of the Time Traveler: the American inventor Thomas Edison. Using each version of The Time Machine, from the early short story "The Chronic Argonauts" to the published novel of May 1895, this article reveals the genesis of the Time Traveler in a constant process of trial and error, as Wells sought to identify the characteristics of Thomas Edison most suitable for his own needs. This essay refers to the life and achievements of Thomas Edison in order to illuminate successive changes in the various versions of The Time Machine. The heterogeneity of these narratives--especially their protagonists' respective character traits--speaks to paradoxical qualities in Edison himself, both as a man and as a popular myth.

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