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  • Strange Invaders:An Essay-Review
  • Gary K. Wolfe (bio)

In the subworld of science fiction (and, to a lesser extent, in the neighboring subworlds of fantasy and horror fiction), Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes is very nearly already realized. Seldom has a literature so assiduously set itself up as a "subculture"; seldom have writers, readers, editors, publishers, critics, academics, and even artists mingled and exchanged ideas as readily as in the science fiction world, and it is indeed possible to gain fame in this world, however fleeting, by simply being at the right place at the right time. When we think of a famous Western fan, such as Ronald Reagan, we think of someone famous who happens to read Westerns; but a famous science fiction fan, such as Forrest Ackerman, is famous for being a science fiction fan. One such fan, Dena Benatan, gained a kind of immortality over a decade ago by scrawling on the blackboard at a convention, "Let's get Science Fiction back in the gutter where it belongs!" (or words to that effect; the story is recounted in David Hartwell's Age of Wonders, discussed below). Benatan was responding to the academic turn some of the discussions were beginning to take, and in so doing she created a rallying cry for a sizable chunk of random that would just as soon see the critics and scholars stay safely in the world that science fiction people call "mundane." Needless to say, she might have received unsolicited [End Page 133] support from a great many senior faculty in English departments, had they known what she was up to.

Nevertheless, despite the often vocal apprehension of fans, traditional literary scholars, and many writers themselves, the criticism and scholarship of fantastic literature has grown into a minor industry in the past several years, and ironically this is due to no small part to the efforts of these very groups. The earliest critiques of modern science fiction (by which for the sake of this discussion alone I mean the post-World War One period) appeared in the letter columns of the pulp magazines and in the hectographed "fanzines" of the Thirties and Forties. Such often informed but resolutely informal commentary—now inaccessible to all but the most determined scholars—gave rise to a tradition of populist criticism that undoubtedly helped shape certain aspects of the genre and that still informs much that is written about it. A few of the most enthusiastic of these fan-scholars, such as Sam Moskowitz, later organized their commentary into books, and many young readers of science fiction in the Sixties found almost the only source of information on their favorite authors in volumes like Moskowitz's Explorers of the Infinite (1963) and Seekers of Tomorrow (1966). Even some of today's most prominent academic scholars of the genre, such as Thomas D. Clareson, began in fandom.

Related to, but not entirely congruent with, this fan tradition is the tradition of professional writers sharing trade secrets and commenting on the state of the art and their fellow practitioners. Often appearing side-by-side with fan commentary in the same magazines, this kind of commentary often took the form of offering tips to aspiring writers (what may have been the first book about modern science fiction, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's 1947 "symposium" Of Other Worlds, consisted mostly of a variety of authors doing just that), but this commentary took on a new dimension of sophistication in the early 1950s when James Blish and Damon Knight began seeking to establish critical standards in their periodical pieces. (Blish's essays were later collected in The Issue at Hand [1964] and More Issues at Hand [1970], Knight's in In Search of Wonder [2nd ed. 1967].) This more "writerly" tradition—because carried on and extended by Algis Budrys (about whom more in a moment)—added to the fannish discourse a concern with craft and techniques, as well as with market forces and editorial policies that are arguably crucial to any discussion of a popular fiction.

Still a third tradition of discourse came into play as academically trained critics—and the occasional commentator from...


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