From Speculations on Speculation
edited by James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria

Cover image

Introduction by James Gunn

Defining science fiction is like measuring the properties of an electron: you may think you're measuring a solid object, but its really a wispy cloud. Even its name leads to disputes. Jules Verne called what he wrote voyages extraordinaires, and H. G. Wells called it scientific romance. When Hugo Gernsback created the first true science-fiction magazine in 1926, he called what he intended to publish scientifiction, and he came up with the phrase science fiction only after he lost control of Amazing Stories in 1929 and created Science Wonder Stories. Robert A. Heinlein suggested that speculative fiction was a more appropriate designation. Abbreviations such as sci-fi (liked by the media but not by most fans, who use it to describe bad science-fiction movies) and SF (preferred by most readers) further complicate the issue. SFs beginnings in the pulp magazines added to the confusion. While readers understood what the magazines offered, some of them put out a different mixture, combining SF with fantasy or science-fantasy or horror. And its origins in the pulp magazines made the issue seem petty, except to fans. Academic scrutiny was slow in developing, even though some scholars and teachers recognized that some science fiction was written with skill and intelligence and even, occasionally, grace. But what were writers writing, what were publishers publishing, and what were readers reading?

Some students of the genre, such as Samuel R. Delany, insist that, like poetry, science fiction is impossible to define. Others have pointed out that genre titles are booksellers conveniences, telling them where to put books when they arrive and equally, of course, book buyers conveniences, telling them where to look for the books they want when they go shopping. But what are they looking for when they look for science fiction? My short definition: the literature of change. Brian W. Aldiss: hubris clobbered by nemesis. John W. Campbell: science fiction is what science-fiction editors publish. The fall-back position, epitomized by Damon Knight when he said, Science fiction is what we mean when we point at it, is that we know it when we see it. And even if we cant define it to everyone's satisfaction, the effort helps us clarify our thinking about the genre. In lieu of a definition that everyone or even a majority can agree upon, this volume attempts to bring together a variety of views about science fiction by influential scholars and writers that will allow readers and students to think about the question and maybe come to their own conclusions.

The attempt to define science fiction, moreover, is like the attempt to measure electrons in another way: you can determine the location but you cant also determine the momentum every attempt changes one or the other. From the evidence gathered in this volume, what is and isn't science fiction and the way in which the consensus view has changed over the years has been a fertile topic. As readers we make those distinctions, preferring one kind of narrative over another science fiction over fantasy, for instance, and both over what fans call mundane fictionand identify what we prefer by title and cover art or blurb, or, if necessary, by reading a few paragraphs, or, preferably, by having a publisher whose judgments we respect do the job for us by putting a label on the book. Sometimes when we aren't sure of our identification of the genre, we seek more books by an author we have enjoyed and move on tentatively to other authors and titles, and even genres until we at last recognize that we are fans of a particular kind of narrative. Amazon.com has tried to systematize this process by its listing of other titles under the heading: Readers who purchase titles by this author also purchased titles by these authors. . . . Computers may eventually do the job for us.

The difficulty with identifying science fiction and proceeding from that to definition is that science fiction isn't just one thing. It has no recognizable action, like the murder mystery, or recognizable milieu, like the western, or recognizable relationship, like the romance. It is about the future except when it is about the past or the present. It can incorporate all the other genres: one can have a science-fiction detective story, a science-fiction western, a science-fiction romance, and, most commonly, a science-fiction adventure story. It is best characterized, as I point out in The World View of Science Fiction, by an attitude, and even that is hard to define. It is the literature of change, the literature of anticipation, the literature of the human species, the literature of speculation, and more. And because it is the literature of change it is continually changing; if it remained constant, it would no longer be science fiction. For that reason some of the essays that follow are like snapshots. That's what science fiction looked like at that moment.

All that, of course, is what makes science fiction fascinating to read and to discuss. And because the people who have speculated about it are interesting and even special thinkers, they have written entertainingly about their speculations. I have tried these speculations out in two graduate seminars and I can testify to the fact that they produced vigorous discussion as well as disagreement. That's okay. Uncertainty is a way of life.

Before We Begin: Some Notes on Early SF Criticism
by Matthew Candelaria

No anthology could hope to present all that has been meaningfully said about any given subject, let alone one as broad, controversial, and diverse as science fiction. However, this anthology assembles many of the most important voices of mature science fiction criticism and, therefore, needs only the smallest of caveats.

What do I mean by mature science fiction criticism? I do not mean to suggest a contrast with immature or childish criticism, and perhaps my point would be clearer if I called it ripe science fiction criticism, which I would do, were it not for the fact that it sounds odd and carries a few unpleasant connotations. Nonetheless, if you will indulge the vegetable metaphor, I hope to make my meaning clear.

In order for a plant to produce fruit, it must go through a number of stages. First, there must be a seed, which sprouts into a seedling, and this seedling grows, producing a stem and leaves, perhaps even secondary growth, before producing a flower that then (in most plants) needs to be fertilized before the seed-bearing fruit can grow and ripen.

Science-fiction criticism has been around for almost as long as science fiction, and it has gone through a great deal of growth before finally producing its mature, ripe fruit. I wont belabor my metaphor by talking about which works were the seed and which the stem, leaves, etc., and which authors the busy little bees. Some people would find such a metaphorical flight to be amusing and illuminating (actually, I must confess to being one of them), and for them I reserve the pleasure of speculating at their leisure, but for most people it would seem silly and unnecessarily controversial. For us, the only thing that matters is the ripe fruit and what it says about the slight caveat needed for this anthology.

What represents ripeness in a genre? I submit that a genre is ripe when its practitioners rightly or wrongly cease to believe themselves isolated artists exploring heretofore unimagined ideas and begin believing that they are part of a coherent, continuous, and significant tradition of thought. Most people will believe that this happened for the genre of science fiction with the advent of Gernsback's Amazing Stories. Gernsback not only provided a forum for writers and fans interested in the newborn genre of scientifiction, he also put the genre in context with its literary antecedents and gave it a canon of recognizable founding masters. Through Amazing Stories, the genre became a ripe, if at times sour, fruit. The ripeness of a genre is a crucial concern, because it is only in a ripe genre that tropes, such as faster-than-light travel or galactic civilizations, can become conventions, building blocks toward more complex ideas. It is only in a ripe genre that ideological debates can take place. Unlike fruit, a genre does not begin to decay once it has grown ripe.

But when did this happen for the genre of science-fiction criticism? A comparison between two anthologies of essays will serve to demonstrate when this occurred. In 1953, Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, edited by Reginald Bretnor, clearly presented itself as an originary text. Bretnor says the criticism that preceded his volume is too widely scattered to be generally available, and too unorganized to present a comprehensive picture. Besides, much of it now is either obsolete or obsolescent (ix). Therefore, he says, it seemed better to me to start afresh (x). He acknowledges that his is not the first book to deal with science fiction, and cites Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's Of Worlds Beyond, and J. O. Baileys Pilgrims Through Space and Time, but he still claims to be the first general survey of science fiction against the background of the world today (x). Furthermore, Bretnor takes care to stress that all the essays contained in his volume (with one exception and a fraction), are original. Bretnor saw no coherent body of science fiction criticism from which to draw, and therefore sought to create one.

In contrast, editor Thomas D. Clareson begins the introduction to his 1971 anthology, SF: The Other Side of Realism, by citing the comments of Fred Pohl at the 1968 Modern Language Associations (MLA) Forum on Science Fiction. In fact, his entire introduction is dedicated to placing his volume in context with the criticism that had preceded it. And Clareson was in a great position to do that since he was at the time the editor of Extrapolation, the first journal devoted exclusively to science fiction criticism. This placing of The Other Side of Realism signals that sometime during the interval from 1953 to 1971, science fiction criticism ripened, and the caveat necessary for this anthology is that, for a number of reasons, we are not reproducing any of the key texts that helped this ripening take place.

Damon Knights In Search of Wonder (1956) represents an important stage in the fruition of criticism. A collection of Knights book reviews written from 1952 to 1955, this book may seem of dubious value for modern students of the genre since so much of the commentary is on very forgettable novels of the period, but in them Knight is making steps toward the first in-depth critical study of modern science fiction. The first essay of the collection puts forward the four critical principles under which Knight will operate throughout. His first principle is that science fiction is a misnomer, but, despite the existence of better labels, it is the one that he will use, and, rather than attempt to define the term precisely, simply take it to mean what he points to when he says it (1). This practical solution is much referenced, but few accept it as the final word in defining the genre. His second principle is that criticism should not be written to promote books, which is the job of the publishers jacket blurb (1). His third principle is that science fiction is a field of literature worth taking seriously and that ordinary critical standards can be meaningfully applied to it (1). As will be evident in the essays that follow, this is a controversial principle among science fiction critics who often believe that science fiction should have either entirely or at least partially different standards from other literary fields. His fourth principle is that negative reviews are far less detrimental to science fiction than the bad books about which they are written. By tearing apart the bad books, Knight sees himself as doing a service to the field, trying to make it live up to its complete potential. These are merely the introductory principles, and scattered throughout the reviews in this collection are a number of explicitly and implicitly stated opinions about the nature, function, and form of good science fiction. James Blish's The Issue at Hand (1964) and More Issues at Hand (1970) are also compilations of reviews that made a large impact at the time.

As in the formation of the genre proper, science fiction criticisms maturation was aided tremendously by the appearance of a periodical forum. Extrapolation was founded in 1959, originally printing papers presented at MLAs seminar on science fiction. In 1973, it also partnered itself with the Science Fiction Research Association. It continues to this day to print articles of serious criticism about science fiction. One of the greatest values of this critical organ is its lack of stringent editorial guidelines about subject matter, critical techniques, or approaches. Thus, it brings together a wide diversity of essays on many texts and from many different perspectives, making it distinct from the later Science Fiction Studies (1973), which publishes primarily scholarly texts and in its early days was criticized for taking a naively Marxist approach to the genre. Also during this time, the British journal Foundation (1972) appeared and remains to this day a unique critical voice, closer in form to SFS but in content more like Extrapolation.

Kingsley Amis New Maps of Hell (1960) derives from a series of lectures he delivered at Princeton in the summer of 1959, and it retains from the lectures a charming conversational tone that makes it an entertaining read. Amis positions himself wisely, trying to appeal to people both within and without the science fiction field. Through the story of his first encounter with science fiction at age twelve, he shows that he is not that peculiarly irritating kind of person, the intellectual who takes a slumming holiday (7) to discuss science fiction. He also assures his reader that he is not a member of the field proper that makes him free from its discreditable provincialism of thought and . . . nervous or complacent reluctance to invoke ordinary critical standards (8). In these lectures, Amis provides a brief history of the genre and some in-depth analysis of texts and themes as well as one of the clunkiest definitions of the genre ever forwarded: Science fiction presents with verisimilitude the human effects of spectacular changes in our environment, changes either deliberately willed or involuntarily suffered (20). Amis never hesitates to invoke critical standards, never failing to let us know his attitude toward the texts under discussion and heaping a bit more scorn than praise. If we take the enduring nature of judgments to be a measure of their accuracy, then a great many of his evaluations are very good, such as, for example, his critical appraisal of Wells's work, dividing the earlier, more imaginative, and more successful work from the later utopias which he says give a soporific whiff of left-wing crankiness, although he, unlike some critics, would not exclude them from the science-fiction canon altogether. With its attention to the unconscious and sexuality, New Maps of Hell serves as an introduction to the 1960s as well as an introduction to science fiction, and it approaches the genre with a decidedly new wave slant.

H. Bruce Franklins Future Perfect (1966) makes an interesting play to create science fiction as a significant category of literary production. His gambit has two main components: arguing for the special capacities of science fiction for representing some parts of the modern human experience, and arguing against the genrefication of science fiction. First, Franklin points out the co-development of science fiction and industrial society, and he claims that science fiction is uniquely suited to discussing the perils, problems, and promise that science and technology offer humanity. This part of Franklins argument is almost universally accepted among science fiction critics, but his second part is not. Franklin argues that since it was not considered a separate category of literary production during the first century of its existence, and that most nineteenth-century writers wrote both science fiction and what is remembered as mainstream fiction, science fiction is not inherently a separate category of literary production. As part of this argument, Franklin reproduces and discusses the science fiction production of a number of authors who are considered to be mainstream literary figures, including Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain. His basic argument is that all fiction presumably seeks to represent some part of reality. . . . One may think of realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy as theoretically distinct strategies for describing what is real (3). In this schema, science fiction aims to represent what is real in terms of a credible hypothetical invention . . . extrapolated from . . . present reality (3). This definition foretells schema like Darko Suvin's cognitive estrangement that seek to put science fiction in close relation to realistic fiction for purposes of making it equally worthy of serious consideration.

One final text worth noting here, which just barely squeaks in under the wire because its first chapter was published separately in 1971, is David Ketterer's New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (1974). This study makes two significant statements about the genre. Ketterer, like many critics, is unsatisfied with the inadequate label science fiction, and though he continues to use the term, he subsumes the genre under the larger category of apocalyptic literature. According to his definition, Apocalyptic literature is concerned with the creation of other worlds which exist, on the literal level, in a credible relationship (whether on the basis of rational extrapolation and analogy or of religious belief) with the real world, thereby causing a metaphorical destruction of that real world in the readers head. Ketterer shows the spiritual dimensions of science fiction, exploring the development of science fiction within the Christian tradition. Ketterer stresses that the New World of science fiction seeks to supplant the current world, a statement very much in line with others in this anthology about the inherently subversive nature of science fiction. Ketterer's second major conclusion is that science fiction is one of, if not the central mode of American literature, and, at variance with critics like Delany and Gunn, he freely makes comparisons between science fiction and non-science fiction texts.

With the publication of these crucial texts, science fiction criticism flourished from scattered pieces of unconnected notes, often repeating and restating one another, into a mature genre, and it is not coincidental that the Science Fiction Research Association was founded in 1970. It is the sad truth, however, that even this caveat needs a caveat. I have here highlighted what I believe to be the most important texts of modern science fiction criticism during this period, but there are a few marginal texts that had I but world enough and time, I might also have included. First, there are the two pioneering books on the writing of science fiction: Eshbach's already-mentioned Of Worlds Beyond and L. Sprague de Camps Science Fiction Handbook. Numerous surveys of fantastic voyages and utopias further reinforce the canon that some say anticipates modern science fiction, but in my opinion they are the last remnants of the flower, still hanging on, not the mature fruit of science fiction criticism. A couple of single-author studies are worth noting as well. Bernard Bergonzi's The Early H. G. Wells (1961) is a valuable study of Wells contribution to the origins of science fiction and is evidence of the genres continued movement toward maturity, but I cannot help but feel that it and the spate of other Wells studies appearing at about the same time are also part of the clinging flower. However, Alexei Panshin's Heinlein in Dimension (1968) is a huge leap forward. Not only is it the first single-author study of a modern science fiction writer, one whose craft flourished after the advent of the mature genre but it approaches Heinlein's work with no more apology than anyone writing about a living, contemporary author would put forward. Panshin is not putting Heinlein's work on a pedestal, but through careful consideration and criticism of it, he proves that it, and comparable texts by other authors, rewards study and deserves attention.

Finally, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention the works of Sam Moskowitz during this period. The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom (1954), Explorers of the Infinite (1963), and Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (1966) are all valuable texts in their way. As the first text in the series suggests, these books are all written from the perspective of the science fiction fan, and as such they are a little on the disorganized side, and, although they contain valuable information and insight, they lack the cohesion and seriousness of thought that characterizes the more mature works of SF criticism. Seekers of Tomorrow, for example, is primarily a collection of brief biographies and loose bibliographies of the major practitioners of the field from the 1930s to the 1960s interspersed with generous praise and occasional light criticism. In some ways, these texts, especially The Immortal Storm, come close to what Barry Malzberg called the true unwritten history of science fiction, but for obvious reasons they fail to achieve that status.

The caveats all being made, let us sit in the shadow of the ripe fruit of science fiction criticism and begin our speculations on speculation.


    Below is the table of contents for Speculations on Speculation:

Introduction, James Gunn
Before We Begin, Matthew Candelaria

    Part I: Identification
Chapter 1 Toward a Definition of Science Fiction, James Gunn
Chapter 2 Coming to Terms, Gary K. Wolfe
Chapter 3 Estrangement and Cognition, Darko Suvin
Chapter 4 The Number of the Beast, Barry N. Malzberg
Chapter 5 On the Origins of Genre, Paul Kincaid

    Part II: Location
Chapter 6 SF and the Genological Jungle, Darko Suvin
Chapter 7 The Readers of Hard Science Fiction, James Gunn
Chapter 8 Science Fiction and Literature or The Conscience of the King, Samuel R. Delany
Chapter 9 Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown, Ursula K. Le Guin
Chapter 10 I Could Have Been a Contender. . . .  Barry N. Malzberg

    Part III: Derivations
Chapter 11 Introduction to Trillion Year Spree, Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove
Chapter 12 On the Origin of Species: Mary Shelley, Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove
Chapter 13 The Roots of Science Fiction, Robert Scholes
Chapter 14 Science Fiction and the Dimension of Myth, Alexei and Cory Panshin

    Part IV: Excavation
Chapter 15 Some Notes toward the True and the Terrible, Barry N. Malzberg
Chapter 16 Wrong Rabbit, Barry N. Malzberg
Chapter 17 The Field and the Wave: The History of New Worlds, Colin Greenland
Chapter 18 Space Opera Redefined, David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

    Part V: Infatuation
Chapter 19 The Golden Age of Science Fiction Is Twelve, David Hartwell
Chapter 20 Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction, Samuel R. Delany
Chapter 21 Touchstones, James Gunn

    Part VI: Anticipation
Chapter 22 A Users Guide to the Postmoderns, Michael Swanwick
Chapter 23 Science Fiction without the Future, Judith Berman
Chapter 24 Slipstream, James Patrick Kelly

updated 9/24/2014

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