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Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy
editors: Gary Westfahl and George Slusser
Greenwood hardcover £49.95
review by Steven Hampton
This is the 97th book in a series of 'Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy' from Greenwood Press, distributed in UK by the Eurospan Group. There are three parts to this worthy if uneven collection - firstly, some overviews of SF and the academy; secondly, an examination of a few 'mechanisms of canonization', and finally, 'case studies in marginalization'. Identifying the varied, and numerous problems that exclude SF from widespread acceptance into general mainstream literature, and relegate it to the genre ghetto, is no easy task. Social stigma, aesthetic pretension, changing political values, and the thorny issue of labels applied for marketing all seem to play a part in the troubles of 'literary gatekeeping' and "the suppression of the marvellous in theories of the fantastic." Tom Shippey, Frank McConnell, Susan Kray, and Jonathan Langford set the scene.
McConnell's Seven Types of Chopped Liver: My Adventures in the Genre Wars is by far the most enjoyable and accessible piece in the opening section. Shippey is perhaps too intent on championing usage of yet another dreary label with his description of the 'fabril tradition', while Kray's quarrelsome The Things Women Don't Say simply judges feminist SF too harshly, ignoring the achievements and breakthroughs of many female authors in the genre during the last 20 years. Langford's Why the Academy Is Afraid of Dragons considers flawed definitions of the fantastic or the marvellous as possible keys to the puzzle of why SF has never been the 'in' thing as far as academic interests are concerned.
Part two includes chapters on the Arthur C. Clarke award and its reception in Britain (written by ex-Foundation editor, Edward James), and 'the rebellion against recursive fiction' championed by Stephen P. Brown (editor of Science Fiction Eye). Arthur B. Evans (managing editor of Science Fiction Studies) examines the role of scholarly and academic journals in the canonisation of SF. In Popes or Tropes: Defining the Grails of Science Fiction, Joseph D. Miller questions the authority of The Norton Book Of Science Fiction (edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery), with appropriate statistical analyses, for not properly addressing the largely hard-science biased 'grails' of SF.
Part three comprises five chapters starting with George Slusser's Multiculturalism and the Cultural Dynamics of Classic American Science Fiction, which taps into Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold The Moon and Bruce Sterling's Islands In The Net as 'representative' SF texts about imperialistic and post-industrial societies. This is followed by a somewhat tedious essay by Elyce Rae Helford on coloured women and SF in the US, which is bogged down with academic jargon, but does at least enthusiastically comment on the work of feminist writers like Octavia E. Butler, and promotes the groundbreaking Red Spider White Web by Misha. Howard V. Hendrix's more intriguing chapter, Hard Magic, Soft Science, spotlights two novels: Assemblers Of Infinity by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason, and Bruce Boston's Stained Glass Rain, for their almost entirely different themes, characters, and writing styles - but goes on to find grounds for reconsidering both books as SF. The closing essay, White Men Can't... by Joseph Childers, Towsend Carr and Regna Meenk, is about "(De)centering Authority and Jacking into Phallic Economies in William Gibson's Count Zero" and, despite a few pertinent interpretations of the cyberpunk ethos, is an even woollier piece of academic blather than its subtitle makes it sound. Unlike other contributors to this peer-reviewed nonfiction book, the three writers of this article fail to produce a coherent argument about anything in particular.
Although far from unanimous, the most telling conclusion of all these disparately focused essays is that SF owes its 'authority' to science and nature, not history and culture, and - more or less - that's what really irks the snobby literati.
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