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Reading Science Fiction
edited by James Gunn, Marleen S. Barr & Matthew Candelaria
Palgrave Macmillan, 265 pages

Reading Science Fiction
James Gunn
Born in 1923 in Kansas City, MO, James Gunn received a degree in journalism and an M.A. in English following three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He is now professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, specializing in the teaching of fiction writing and SF and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 1971-72, James Gunn was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He won a Hugo Award in 1983 for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. He is the author of at least 19 books and the editor of seven more.

James Gunn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars, The Immortals and The Listeners
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Review: The Immortals
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Interview: James Gunn
SF Site Review: The Road To SF 5: The British Way

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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What are we teaching our children?

Science fiction is increasingly featured on the curriculum of universities and even schools, but what sort of science fiction? How is the genre being presented? What purpose can it serve in the classroom? Reading Science Fiction appears to be an attempt to answer those questions. It is a collection of essays that clearly aspires to be an undergraduate or high school textbook. Unfortunately, the approach to science fiction taken in the book is, literally, incoherent; that is, neither the approach to the subject nor the approach to the project coheres throughout the book.

Most of the essays appear to be aimed at the student, but some ("Reading Science Fiction's Interdisciplinary Conversation with Science and Technology Studies" by R. Doug Davis and Lisa Yaszek, "Physics Through Science Fiction" by Gregory Benford) are unequivocally aimed at the tutor. Some ("There is No Such Thing as Science Fiction" by Sherryl Vint and Mark Bould, the best essay in the collection) challenge our notions of science fiction, but most fall back on an unquestioning and traditional view of the genre. Some attempt to address the theories and ideas raised by science fiction ("Marxism and Science Fiction" by Carl Freedman), but many, too many, fall back on a simple list of titles.

And if you consider, as I do, that science fiction is a dynamic genre, in a constant process of mutation, then this is perhaps not the book for you.

There are, for instance, separate chapters on such topics as science fiction movies, television, sf and computers, and even science fiction and games; but these are separated out from the main body of the book and it is a rare essay that will address not only the literature but also films, comics, art or other forms, even though such an integrated approach to the genre has become the norm in contemporary sf criticism. Though contemporary is not really a charge that would be laid at much of this book. The brief reading list that concludes "Science Fiction Movies: the Feud of Eye and Idea" by George Zebrowski, for instance, references no work more recent than 1985 (and that is a book about a 1967 film). The huge body of important work on science fiction film that has developed over the last 20 years and more is thus effectively ignored. The chapter on sf on television, "The Feedback Loop" by Michael Cassutt, is a fairly decent though not particularly informative list of American television programmes from Captain Video and his Video Rangers (which finished in 1955, and so is unlikely to have been seen by any of the intended audience for this book) up to Surface, Invasion and Threshold, all from the 2005-6 season. In all of this, only one British television programme is even mentioned: not Doctor Who, not Quatermass or Blake's 7 or The Avengers or The Survivors or Star Cops or Thunderbirds or Space 1999 or any of the other major works of sf that have appeared in the UK, but Max Headroom.

That said, there is an attempt in the book to present science fiction as a world literature. There is an informative chapter on "Encountering International Science Fiction through a Latin American Lens" by Roberto de Sousa Causo, the only chapter in the book that mentions any non-Anglophone science fiction; and there is a chapter on "Reading Science Fiction with Postcolonial Theory" by Matthew Candelaria, which very usefully addresses the way that basic ideas in post-colonialism can be applied to the genre. Curiously, John Rieder's recent highly praised book on Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction appears in the reading list of Vint and Bould's essay, but not in the reading list for the post-colonialism chapter.

But then, the suggestions for further reading that close each chapter are a topic for discussion all on their own. Fewer than one in four of the works listed were published within the last decade (and Carl Freedman's Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000) is listed at least three times); in fact there are more works from the 70s and the 80s than there are from this century. This doesn't so much represent an avoidance of the considerable significant critical work now being done on science fiction as it represents the default approach to science fiction of the majority of the contributors. This is still a science fiction in which Neuromancer is the latest acceptable challenge to the orthodoxy. But science fiction, if it is anything, is constantly challenging orthodoxy, and such a sense of challenge and reinvention is largely absent from this book.

Largely, but not totally. What makes Sherryl Vint's and Mark Bould's chapter, "There is no such thing as Science Fiction," the best thing here is the fact that it is entirely devoted to challenging our knee-jerk assumptions about the genre. It does this by analysing one of the classic texts of hard sf, "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin. This is, of course, one of the most analysed and most controversial stories in the entire history of the genre, and by looking at the assumptions implicit in the story and the failures of imagination and what they imply about, say, our attitudes towards gender or the way the future might work, Vint and Bould make us look again at what we imagine science fiction to be and what it tells us about our own social and cultural milieu. This challenging sense of the immediacy of the genre is what I read science fiction for, it is why it offers so many possibilities in the classroom, and if the whole book had reflected such an attitude it would have been a triumph. Unfortunately, for too many of the contributors science fiction needs to be approached in a safe and often staid manner that is more likely to damage the genre than it is to enlighten and enthuse the student.

Having said that, I want to make clear that there are 20 chapters by 22 different contributors, and none of them take exactly the same approach to the genre. Some of them, indeed, are enlightening. I would particularly single out Carl Freedman's chapter on "Marxism and Science Fiction" which does not take the expected course of considering Marxism as an analytical tool for examining the genre, but rather looks at the way the very nature of sf deals with issues such as history and production in a way that is congruent with Marxist thinking. Brooks Landon, in his chapter on "Computers in Science Fiction," comes close to the list mode but avoids its worst excesses by using computers as a touchstone for considering how sf deals with its contemporary knowledge technology. And James Gunn himself, in "Reading Science Fiction as Science Fiction," employs close reading of another classic short story, "Sail On! Sail On!" by Philip José Farmer, to examine the crucial question of how to read a science fiction story.

These examples aside, however, it has to be said that this is a pretty dismal collection that I would keep out of the hands of most undergraduates until they had already learned more about the genre than this book could teach them. And it ends with an extract from the Reading Science Fiction blog, which tries to anchor modern technology to the services of the textbook, though all I can say is that it seems to have been put together by someone who has never actually read a blog. There is so much potential in this idea, and it seems to come to so little.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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