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The Alienated Critic
by D. Douglas Fratz

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other The Alienated Critic columns.

Wherein One Critic is Introduced (with Theory Expounded)
and Another is Bid a Fond Farewell

I have been reading science fiction for almost fifty years, and writing about it for more than forty. Since discovering the Tom Swift novels and the Heinlein juveniles in the early 1960s, it has been a primary and continuous source of reading pleasure. After discovering comics fandom in the mid-1960s and SF fandom shortly thereafter, I have been reviewing books and writing commentary on science fiction and fantasy fiction since 1969, and spend slightly more than two decades (1973-1993) editing and publishing the SF review magazine, Thrust Science Fiction & Fantasy Review (in its later years Quantum Science Fiction & Fantasy Review), which garnered for me five Hugo Award nominations.

Thrust Science Fiction & Fantasy Review Thrust Science Fiction & Fantasy Review Thrust Science Fiction & Fantasy Review Quantum Science Fiction & Fantasy Review

Since that frenetic period, I have continued to write book reviews and articles for other venues, starting with magazines actually printed on paper (remember those?) such as Fantasy Review, Science Fiction Eye, Science Fiction Age, and New York Review of Science Fiction. I also wrote numerous articles on various SF books and authors for various weighty academic volumes published primarily for sale to academic libraries. Since the turn of the century, virtually all of my writing has been for on-line publications such as the Sci-Fi Channel's Science Fiction Weekly, SciFi Wire, and Blastr. In the past few years, my book reviews and occasional author interviews have appeared primarily here at SF Site.

In real life, I am a scientist with expertise in chemistry and environmental science, serving as Vice President, Scientific & Technical Affairs, for a major Washington-based trade association. I have therefore spent most of my time over the past 35 years managing chemical health, safety and environmental issues, and negotiating regulations with government agencies, limiting the time I could spend writing, but I have probably written the equivalent of several books of SF reviews commentary. I decided to become a scientist after my teenage exposure to Tom Swift books and the Jonny Quest television series led me to believe scientists traveled the world solving mysteries. Over almost forty years as a scientist, I have found that that was only somewhat true.

The title for this column, The Alienated Critic, is the one I have used on numerous occasions in the 1970s and 1980s for commentary written for my own magazine. Most of my writing in the past two decades has been in the format of formal book reviews. I asked editor Rodger Turner for the opportunity to revive and transform it here -- much appreciation to Rodger for agreeing! -- to allow me more flexibility in format and subject.

When one is a scientist involved in an artistic pursuit such as literary criticism, one cannot help but develop theories. A few years ago, I began teaching a workshop for book reviewers at a local science fiction convention, and was inspired to formalize what I think I have been doing all of these years. I entitled the result (with tongue firmly in cheek) "The Fratz Theory of Literature" and proceeded to encouraged would-be book reviewers to use it in analyzing works of science fiction.

The Fratz Theory of Literature
A.   All literature is composed of five basic elements:
 •  1   Characters
 •  2   Setting
 •  3   Plot
 •  4   Themes
 •  5   Style
B.   Although all five elements interact, each also can be assessed individually for effectiveness.
C.   Each literary work can be characterized according to the quantity and quality of each element.

That is my simple (striving for elegant) formula for deconstructing and analyzing fiction. Themes in this theory include ideas, which are more important (I believe) in science fiction than any other literary genre. I believe that all works can be assessed using this simple formula. After reading a truly comprehensive book review or work of literary criticism -- although the two are very different -- the reader should have some idea of how successful the work of fiction was in these five areas.

Maybe in the future I will write about my theory of literary genres, each of which has their own characteristic set of tropes and conventions. (I bet you just can't wait!)

Science Fiction Review #12 Science Fiction Review #36 Science Fiction Review #37 Science Fiction Review #39 Science Fiction Review #40

A Fond Farewell to Richard E. Geis (1927-2013)

After starting writing this column, I belatedly learned that science fiction fan, editor and writer Richard E. Geis passed away early last month. He was 85 years old. Geis was a seminal influence on me as a science fiction reader, publisher, editor and commentator, as he was to many who entered the field in the 1950s through the 1970s. His fanzine Science Fiction Review (which also had other titles periodically over the decades) and his writing therein was my primary influence when I began my own review magazine. I indeed created the column title The Alienated Critic in homage to his fanzine title (one of the early 1970s alternatives to SFR) The Alien Critic. (I also wrote the editorial in one of my 1960s comics fanzines completely in dialogue in imitation of REG's discussions with his "Alter Ego" in SFR.)

Geis was 25 years my senior, and began publishing his fanzine (under the other alternative title, Psychotic) not long after I was born. When he revived Psychotic/Alien Critic/Science Fiction Review in the late 1960s, it was one of the first science fiction fanzines that I read. (Unlike the comics fandom and the comics fanzines that I published and wrote for as a teenager in the 1960s, SF fandom seemed populated almost solely by "adults" whom I could only hope in the future to emulate.) His 50+ page micro-type issues were filled with commentary formal and informal by the giants of the field and those who would soon be giants -- heady stuff for a young comics and SF fan. To fully understand the science fiction field of that important era, reading the fanzines of Richard E. Geis is essential.

Geis in that period was the archetypical every-fan. His commentary on the field was pithy, insightful, always entertaining, and never pretentious. He was nominated for the Hugo Award as a writer or editor thirty times between 1968 and 1983, winning eight times. He knew every book and every author in the field, but only through his magazine -- he was a recluse who spent almost all of his life in Portland, Oregon, with a few years in Venice, California.

I met him in person only once, a few years after he "retired" from publishing his magazine. It was the early 1990s, and I was in Portland on business, and asked to meet one afternoon. I visited him at his long-time home, and spent a pleasant few hours talking about our lives in science fiction fandom. It was the closest thing to a pilgrimage that I have ever done.

Interestingly, Geis was also a prolific fiction writer, but almost solely of soft pornographic novels, mostly with no fantastic component. He self-published one short SF novel, One Immortal Man, serialized in SFR in 1978, and also self-published three erotic SF novels around 1980 -- Canned Heat, Star Whores and The Corporation Strikes Back -- which I found to be excellent SF, although of a style and subject matter unsuitable for professional book publishers of the day. These novels (except for Canned Heat) can be downloaded from efanzines.com, and I highly recommend readers do so. (That site also has numerous other Geis post-retirement writing, mostly a series of personal fanzines appropriately called Taboo Opinions, and I wish I could recommend perusal of those as well, but I regret to say that REG became a bit curmudgeonly in his later years.)

Rest in peace, REG -- for many decades you gave the field a forum and wrote commentary and fiction that entertained and enlightened.

The Alien Critic #6 The Alien Critic #8 The Alien Critic #9 The Alien Critic #10 The Alien Critic #11

A Look to the Future

In future columns I will primarily focus on reviewing current science fiction books, as well as the occasional general commentary on the science fiction field. Focus for next column will be catching up with many of the books I have read in recent months but for which I have not found time to write full reviews.

Copyright © 2013 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.


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