Modern Science Fiction

This summer’s project seems to be James Gunn.

I’m only going to do a brief review of this book. Following a pattern similar to what I did with Brian Stableford’s book of critical essays on science fiction, Opening Minds, I’ll have some thoughts on individual chapters and do separate blog posts on them.

I’ll also be looking at some Gunn short stories and will comment on how they relate to Gunn’s theories.

Review: Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis, James Gunn and edited and annotated by Michael R. Page, 2018.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Anybody interested in science fiction criticism will want to pick this one up. It’s the first real critical study of contemporary science fiction.

Its only predecessors are J. O. Bailey’s Pilgrims Through Space and Time (a doctoral dissertation from 1933 and published in 1947) and Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Voyages to the Moon from 1948. But Bailey, a Victorian scholar, concentrated on works from that period and barely looked at pulp magazines. Nicolson’s work was only about a certain type of science fiction.

Gunn’s thesis is from 1951 and addresses what he terms science fiction in the realistic mode and definitely looks at contemporary works.

His sample drew from the pulps and also from five reprint anthologies.

What is peculiar to Gunn’s work is his emphasis on plot types, and he gives a schematic classifying them all. In the foreword, science fiction scholar Gary K. Wolfe, who was put on his lifetime vocation by encountering parts of Gunn’s thesis when it was reprinted in Dynamic Science Fiction, remarks that this reflects Gunn’s work as a writer. A science fiction writer could use this thesis to think about story generation, and Gunn gives his advice on which plots are and are not worth pursuing.

His criteria, heavily influenced by John W. Campbell (not an editor that published much Gunn), is his belief, that science fiction can usefully and practically illuminate human nature and humanity’s growing pains as technology and science progress and offer hypothetical solutions: “Saving the World Through Science Fiction” as Gunn still says.

The works Gunn talks about will mostly be familiar to readers of Gunn’s critical and historical six-volume anthology series The Road to Science Fiction. But, as Wolfe notes, other stories are obscure today. Page, in his annotations, notes that odd omissions of certain works that would fit into the plot type Gunn is discussing can probably be attributed to them not being reprinted and Gunn not seeing them, due to his military service, when they were first published.

On the other hand, as Wolfe notes, Gunn has a good idea for the stories that would be considered classics. This is particularly true of his discussion of Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”. It was only published six months before Gunn completed his thesis.

Gunn even mentions work by Edwin James – Gunn’s early pen name.

Gunn’s style is lucid with occasional passages of near poetry. He tells us he wants science fiction’s unique virtues combined with literary symbolism and imagery. It’s time, he says, for science fiction to put away the pure entertainment of adventure tales. (Though, in a recent interview, he hints that science fiction may have gone too far in the other direction these days.) Thus, as a writer of science fiction, his thesis is both descriptive (his plot synopses are done quite well) and prescriptive.

Page’s editorial notes and annotations are also quite useful. As always happens when I read books like this, I come away with another list of fiction and criticism I want to read. Both Page and Gunn avoid critical jargon.

I read this in the kindle edition, and McFarland does a nice job formatting their non-fiction works with easy to use footnotes.

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26 thoughts on “Modern Science Fiction

    1. I’ll be looking at that in more detail in future posts — including my disagreements and how successful other authors were in using plots Gunn didn’t think had much value.

      His big division was plots of circumstance and plots of creation. He refers to stories where the characters just have problems thrust on them and stories where the protagonist creates the problem.

      There’s a lot of subdivisions of those two main categories.

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