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For a literary species that in any real sense did not even exist in book form until after World War Two, modern science fiction has come a long way, with something over 1,100 titles issued last year in the United States alone. Although an industrious and unusually well-organized fan community has for decades provided bibliographies, indexes, and an occasional perceptive critique, formal academic scholarship did not begin to address this confusing and sometimes appalling body of work until the 1960s, and the first study of science fiction bearing a university press imprint did not appear until 1970 (Robert M. Philmus' Into the Unknown). But the last decade has seen a dramatic growth in such scholarship, ranging from expensive bibliographies of even minor writers to the ubiquitous collections of critical essays (half of them, it seems, about the work of Ursula K. Le Guin). Whether this is due, as some science fiction writers have complained, to younger scholars seeking an easy route to tenure in a field [End Page 458] lacking clear standards for scholarship or, as the scholars themselves often protest, to an honest attempt to acknowledge an important new genre too long ignored by "mainstream" criticism, is an almost irrelevant debate; both charges are partially true. Science fiction scholarship, like science fiction and like scholarship, produces more chaff than wheat, and sometimes buries kernels in the chaff.
What is clear is that, for all its abundance, such scholarship has not yet gained a clear footing or established coherent and widely accepted methodologies. Much of it is still apologetic in tone and self-conscious in its attempts to defend science fiction on its own terms while trying craftily to establish its pedigree in terms of conventional literary traditions. Donald M. Hassler's Comic Tones in Science Fiction, for example, focuses largely on the work of popular writers such as Hal Clement, Theodore Sturgeon, and Frederik Pohl, but ranges widely from Wordsworth and Austen to Hume and Freud to find precursors of the techniques of irony and narrative indeterminacy that he says go to make up these comic tones. (Despite what his title might suggest, he is not concerned with comic or satirical science fiction, but with a general pattern of "comic effects" that derive from a tension between "prelapsarian simplicity" and "deconstructive indeterminacy.")
Hassler is current president of the Science Fiction Research Association and is acutely aware of the debates that go on among scholars interested in this field. He is also widely read and sympathetic with modern science fiction as worthy of scholarly attention. But although he claims as a major purpose "to witness the ultimate importance of certain science fiction writings," he organizes his study rather loosely around three disparate traditions: the development a "comic" response to change and uncertainty in the late Enlightenment and early Romantic periods, the evolving methodologies of poststructuralism and deconstructionism, and popular science fiction since the 1940s. The links he forges between these traditions are at best tentative and often unclear; there may indeed be parallels between the view of nature developed by Buffon and Hume and the view that evolved in the work of Clement or Asimov, but parallels do not in themselves make a convincing historical or theoretical argument. Hassler is at his best in readings of individual stories by Hal Clement and Theodore Sturgeon—he displays a genuine affection for and sensitivity to these writers—his broader attempts to place them in the context of post-Enlightenment natural philosophy require...