Science Fiction Studies


#78 = Volume 26, Part 2 = July 1999

Editorial Introduction

Towards a History of Science Fiction Criticism

Any scholarly discipline, in the course of its maturation, must develop a sense of its own history: key figures and significant events must be identified, eras and phases delineated, and notable trends traced through time. As a product of interpretation as well as research, such a history will always be provisional, subject to argument and revision. But as a basis for common discourse and continuing debate, the field requires some understanding and a rough consensus about the nature of its past.

In the field of science fiction scholarship, this historical impulse has chiefly expressed itself in efforts to improve our knowledge of sf's ancestry: virtually all commentators have looked back to earlier authors, and many studies of sf have taken the form of historical surveys. Today, after decades of such retrospective inquiry and analysis, most would probably accept the late R.D. Mullen's position, stated in 1994, that "The history of sf is now pretty well understood, though of course scholars will continue to add details and write revisions from various points of view" ("A Few Words about Science Fiction Criticism," Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction 60 [Spring, 1994]: 9).

In sharp contrast, however, the history of science fiction criticism is less well documented or understood. The few available resources on the subject tend to be incomplete, inchoate, cursory, or polemical. There is no consensus as to when and where sf criticism originated, who its major figures were, or what they were talking about. Contemporary sf critics, after paying brief homage to a few iconic predecessors, may proceed as if unaware that the issues they are discussing were first raised in the introduction to a nineteenth-century novel, debated at length in the letter columns of certain 1930s' sf magazines, or intensely analyzed in a 1970s' critical essay. And emerging scholars of science fiction are not always aware that they are joining a long and distinguished tradition of scholarship in the field.

The following historical survey of science fiction criticism thus serves several purposes: it not only enables scholars to orient themselves within a rich tradition of previous critical commentary on the genre, but also provides them with a broad range of secondary resources which they may find useful for their own future research on sf.

This collaborative project to outline the history of science fiction criticism began a few years ago when Gary Westfahl was consulting Hazard Adams's massive anthology of literary criticism, Critical Theory since Plato (1971), and surmised that a similar volume, one which offered selections from the works of sf commentators, would be a valuable reference for scholars of science fiction. He then recruited Arthur B. Evans, Donald M. Hassler, and Veronica Hollinger as collaborators in the enterprise; we divided up the territory, discussed problematic issues, and created lists of possible critical works to include in such an anthology. When prospective publishers did not seem enthusiastic about producing such a large and expensive volume, Art Evans suggested that we redirect our energies to presenting an abridged version of our work in SFS--a series of four critical essays surveying the field, supplemented by a chronological bibliography.

While the following articles were entirely written by the credited authors, we must emphasize that throughout the process of research and writing, we have exchanged texts, offered suggestions, and reviewed each other's drafts, so that this has always been a collective enterprise. During the last month of this project, the other editors of SFS--Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk--also provided substantive editorial input as the essays and bibliography took final form.

The results of our labors are presented here with no confidence that they are either definitive or ideal, and we invite feedback about how our treatment of the subject might have been better or more comprehensive. We may still publish an anthology of the sort we originally envisioned, but a more immediate priority will be to select from these early sf commentaries potential "Documents in the History of Science Fiction" for future issues of SFS--and we also invite suggestions about which critical texts might be most welcome in this series. Finally, we hope that our colleagues will gain from our work a heightened awareness of the rich, complex, and variegated tradition of which they are a part, and that they will discover in these critical discussions a valuable resource to help them in their ongoing efforts to understand science fiction.--Gary Westfahl, Arthur B. Evans, Donald M. Hassler, and Veronica Hollinger

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