James Gunn’s Inside Science Fiction

It’s interesting to see the history of something as told by some of the people who made it. In the case of James Gunn’s Inside Science Fiction, the “something” is, indeed, science fiction, and Gunn was one of the history makers.

Gunn is one of those writers I was reading when I was a new fan (although in my case the term “fan” needs some definition, considering the connotations developed over the past couple of decades: I don’t do cons, I am not and never have been completely devoted to science fiction, I have not memorized any Star Trek episodes, and I am not much of a joiner to begin with). As for Gunn’s place in that history, given his concentration on the teaching of science fiction, it is safe to say that he, along with Jack Williamson, Samuel R. Delany, and a few others, is one of those responsible for taking science fiction from the ghetto of fandom to the university campus and even the high-school classroom.

It’s a fascinating set of essays, some originating as articles, some as speeches, some as chapters in books, collected together in this volume (this is the second edition, newly revised and updated). Gunn has also written an actual history of science fiction (Alternate Worlds, published in 1975), a six-volume historical anthology (The Road to Science Fiction), and a study of the work of Isaac Asimov.

Gunn has approached this compilation in an orderly fashion, first introducing the reader to the “what” of science fiction in the section titled “Getting Inside Science Fiction,” which gives a brief history of the pulps, the great editors of the 1940s and 50s — John W. Campbell, Horace Gold, and Anthony Boucher, of, respectively, Astounding (later Analog), Galaxy, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — who really put science fiction on the map as a serious form, and providing a cogent look at the way science fiction sees the world — or did, then. (Confession: In spite of my disavowal of being a “fan”, I subscribed to all three magazines as a teenager.)

The second section, “Science Fiction and the Teacher,” reflects one of Gunn’s overriding interests — he himself has been a teacher of science fiction for a number of years — and also takes a look at the idea of science fiction as “literature” (which is not something that a lot of people are willing to accept even now) and providing a much-needed explication of the “Protocols of Science Fiction,” elaborating on an idea that I’ve seen espoused by several critics, particularly Samuel R. Delany: you can’t read science fiction the same way you read a detective story, a western, or the latest mainstream best-seller because the whole frame of reference is different.

He is slightly kinder toward “Science Fiction on Film and Television” than other critics, but not much, and frankly, I have to agree with him: the number of “science fiction” films and television shows that have been both good film and good science fiction is no more than a handful (he terms Star Wars a fairy tale, which is about right, I think — of course, according to Joseph W. Campbell, that’s part of its appeal). Most have been westerns with ray guns. It is, however, a strong point in Gunn’s favor that he gives us a rationale for his judgments, rather than just sneering.

The final section is a broad one, titled “Science Fiction and the Real World,” which in this instance includes space exploration, the visible results of atomic energy and ecological ignorance, and what life is really like these days. The last chapter, “Science Fiction in the Second Millenium” (which I keep thinking must have been a slip — we are really in the third millennium of the Common Era) takes in the emergence of cyberpunk, courtesy of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, among others, and the “New Weird” of authors such as China Miéville, which Gunn sees as a “marriage” of science fiction and fantasy. There is also the penetration of the mainstream by science fiction authors and science fiction books — Ursula K. LeGuin, Michael Moorcock, Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, the work of Jonathan Lethem (whom I would consider slipstream, as nearly as I — or anyone — can tell what that means), not to mention mainstream authors such as Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and Philip Roth who have adopted the mode and outlook of science fiction in some of their work. (One near-omission from Gunn’s list, assuming the “John Pynchon” he refers to is really Thomas Pynchon, whose Gravity’s Rainbow and most of his early works display a kind of mutable reality that treads a ground somewhere between urban fantasy, dystopian science fiction, and magical realism, and who, I think, deserves a much more prominent place in any listing of “crossover” authors.)

All in all, for those who have a more scholarly than usual interest in science fiction, Gunn’s book is welcome, although I would have preferred some judicious editing of the assembled texts — the recurring synopses of the days of the pulps does get a bit repetitive. Quibbles aside, however, this is a valuable addition to the historical literature on science fiction for the general reader, and I, for one, am very glad to have it on my bookshelf.

(Scarecrow Press, 2006)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.