- American Science Fiction and Contemporary Criticism
As a feminist critic of science fiction, I have watched the field flourish over the past three decades. When I wrote my dissertation prospectus in the 1980s, the first version was returned because of my use of the word "alien." My dissertation director felt it necessary to remind me periodically that, "you know, none of this is real, Robin." In the twenty-first century, academic criticism of science fiction is now respectable, and the word alien no longer problematic.
Yet, not unexpectedly perhaps, science fiction criticism's growth has led also to its fragmentation. Early science fiction criticism had a singular purpose: to champion science fiction's status as literature. Similarly, early feminist science fiction had to demonstrate first that there was a feminist literary tradition, and second, again, to present this tradition's literary merit. This phase was necessary, but limiting. Now, critics of science fiction have as many approaches and concerns as critics of other genres of literature. Since Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing and renowned writers such as Margaret Atwood and P. D. James, among many other luminaries, have published acclaimed works of science fiction, it is difficult for anyone but a prejudiced critic to dismiss science fiction as unworthy of study.
Four new books, published by a variety of university presses and one commercial press, demonstrate the complexity and development of science fiction criticism. The breadth of approaches points to the continuing interest in and the depth of science fiction as a literary genre, and an acknowledgment that science fiction offers unique generic properties especially suitable for social analysis and literary study. These four books, though, provide readers with very different views of science fiction and literary [End Page 207] criticism. In reviewing these books, I could discuss them chronologically, beginning with Rieder's analysis of emergent science fiction from the 1870s and concluding with DeGraw's analysis of the contemporary writer, Samuel Delany. Yet a linear discussion would not present an accurate picture of science fiction and its criticism. Its history is anything but linear; many writers now considered science fiction writers wrote before the genre was defined, and there are still many diverse opinions and definitions of science fiction. Therefore, I present these works in order of the genre's literary development. Magazines are acknowledged as being central to the twentieth-century development of the genre, so although it covers the late-twentieth-century magazines, Mike Ashley's Gateways to Forever: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970–1980 (2007) begins this essay. Following Ashley's book, I consider John Rieder's discussion of colonialism in early, or as he calls it, "emergent science fiction," published before the term or identity of the genre was firmly established. Sharon DeGraw and Lisa Yaszek both expand the list of writers who should be considered in the science fiction field, and their books ask the most trenchant questions about science fiction. What writers belong, or do not, to this genre is one of the sparks that animates all four works of criticism. In the range of texts considered, from pulp magazines to critically acclaimed and abstruse novels, these critical volumes present a variety of literary and methodological approaches.
All four critics write for a general literary audience, though Ashley and Rieder more than Yaszek and DeGraw reveal a fan focus. Ashley's and Rieder's immersion in the science fiction world is both a strength and a weakness of their critical approaches. The detail and in-depth focus that both have on science fiction assumes a reader passionately interested in these writers and in the early development of the genre of science fiction. For a reader like me, also immersed in and passionate about science fiction, Ashley and Rieder have struck the right tone. For those not as well versed...