- Japanese Science Fiction: A View of a Changing Society, and: Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Strategies in the Classic American Science Fiction Short Story
There is an uncanny similarity between these two studies of science fiction, and between them they represent interesting errors of methodology at opposite ends of a spectrum. One would wish literary work somewhere in the middle. But the relatively new field of science fiction studies has yet to discover its best way, and both Robert Matthew and John Huntington have much to teach us even in their errors. The common ground they share derives, apparently, from the popular roots of science fiction itself—both in Japan at the end of the last century and in America just before and during the Great Depression. (A wonderful discovery in the Matthew book is that pulp magazines flourished in Japan at about the same time that Amazing Stories and Astounding were evolving here.) Both studies, then, are dedicated to finding a way to analyze this popular literature as an expression of society and, most particularly in Huntington's work, as a political force.
Because little has yet been written about Japanese science fiction, Matthew has found a true science-fictional subject matter. Almost like an imaginary voyage itself, the origins and the themes associated with what Matthew calls "the only technology-conscious, forward-looking, and future-oriented literature that stands outside the western framework" mirror many of their counterparts in our culture. For example, adventure story telling for the Japanese was traditionally considered [End Page 313] "base and humble" according to Matthew's research, what we would call Grub Street work. His goal, then, is to go to these base roots for significant messages about Japanese society. He does this by summarizing over 170 fictions arranged by theme. The reader can identify and follow important writers by using the index and by reading carefully; but the vast amount of summary material on individual stories might have been arranged more efficiently as a reference book, much like E. F. Bleiler's summaries of supernatural and fantasy fictions. In addition to this summary material of fictions that few in the West have read, Matthew's other contribution of labeling and discussing the sociological knowledge we can glean from the literature is most valuable. I am not sure the two objectives meld well, but the sociological conclusions are fascinating if brief, given the amount of space devoted to summary.
Also writing with the jargon of the social scientist and even the futurologist (his earlier fine book on H. G. Wells foreshadows his "politics of prediction" here), Huntington expends even more effort to suggest a methodology of proper sampling and hence "scientific" validity. Although his rationale becomes too tortured to describe briefly, he ends up with the twenty-six stories in Volume I of Robert Silverberg's Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1971) as his sample; and then, rather than summarize as Matthew does with his much larger sample, Huntington executes a New Critical close reading of the short stories in order to generalize about the hidden agendas of the literature represented by this anthology that ranges from the early thirties to Silverberg's final statement in the collection itself. So Huntington's method is at the other extreme from Matthew's summaries. Further, Huntington much more than Matthew seems to want not only to draw sociological conclusions from the literature about what he labels our "technocracy" but also to insist on the need for an overt discussion in the literature of what he calls "politics." Oddly, then, although the strength of Huntington is his close readings, the bias towards "politics" in his work seems to hobble the attention to the literature itself. Again, the bias seems to grow out of the starting assumption that this is a popular literature and so must speak efficiently to the people about their concerns or politics. The...