Science Fiction Studies

Bookworm Wednesday: Science Fiction Studies

The SFS logo

Okay, so this isn’t actually a BOOK, it’s a scholarly/academic journal called Science Fiction Studies, published out of DePauw University in Indiana, but it’s ABOUT books (and film, and video games, and so on)…  And it’s a very enjoyable read for anyone interested in science fiction from a more academic, theoretical perspective (as well as from a more personal entertainment perspective).

I’ve read a few articles from this journal before, but I was required to do a history/review of a scholarly journal for my Doctoral Studies course we had to choose any scholarly journal that we thought we might be interested in submitting to in the future and it seemed like a good opportunity to do some more reading into this journal.  And I thought I’d share with you all a little of what I learned about this journal, and what it means for those who study science fiction (or would like to, if only English departments took it more seriously, *cough* UH! *cough*), and for those of us who write science fiction.

R.D. Mullen of Indiana State University and Darko Suvin of McGill University, Montreal founded the journal Science Fiction Studies in 1973.  At the time, there were already two other journals that took a scholarly/theoretical approach to science fiction Extrapolation, founded in 1959, and Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction, founded in 1972.  There had also, since the 1960s, been a growing interest in science fiction in colleges, thanks in part to the founder of Extrapolation, Thomas Clareson (who also founded the Science Fiction Research Association in 1970), and to a handful of college teachers such as Sam Moskowitz, who taught the first non-credit science fiction course in 1953 (Moskowitz 413, Parrinder xv), and Mark Hillegas, who taught the first for-credit science fiction course in 1962 (Williamson 375).

Despite science fiction’s in-vogue status in the 60s and 70s, and the large class-sizes such courses were able to produce, however, there was a general lack of acceptance among most college administrations and faculty members.  Barbara Bengels explains that despite beginning her science fiction course in the 70s when such classes were popular, and despite stressing that her course “would be an historical approach beginning with the classics,” she still dealt regularly with “polite smiles from [her] colleagues and downright sneers from the more rigid traditionalists” (428).  She adds that even nearly twenty-five years later, in the 1990s, she still feels a need to “apologize for teaching a course that [she] love[s]” and explain “how many literary gems are included in [her] syllabus and how intellectually challenging the course is” (Bengels 428).  Furthermore, as Gary Westfahl explains in his introduction to Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy, “of all forms of once-neglected literature that now receive significant scholarly attention, science fiction has attracted and continues to attract the most academic resistance” (2).  Even today, many English and literature departments often refuse to allow science fiction courses to be taught, do not allow graduate students to pursue dissertations on science fiction, and sometimes even punish faculty members who publish works on science fiction.  (For instance, the University of Houston does not treat science fiction, or any kind of genre fiction, with much interest or respect.)

And so, in 1973, Mullen and Suvin set out to prove that science fiction studies could be a serious, rigorous, and even important area of literary scholarship.  As Mullen states in the “Notes in Retrospect” of the first volume of Science Fiction Studies, one of the main goals of the journal and its contributors was to “bring the apparatus of critical scholarship fully to bear upon representative works [of science fiction]” and to thus demonstrate that “‘modern science fiction’ can be profitably studied not only as a phenomenon of popular culture but also as literature.”  This remains the goal of Science Fiction Studies currently.

The first issue of Science Fiction Studies should give you an idea of how good this journal would be.  The first issue contained seven articles and book reviews by: David N. Samuelson, Patrick Parrinder, Stanislaw Lem, Mar Angenot, Robert M. Philmus, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Darko Suvin. Both Stanislaw Lem and Ursula K. LeGuin were already enormously well-known and celebrated science fiction novelists (I often wonder how Mullen and Suvin first approached them about contributing to the journal).  They have remained associated with the journal throughout its existence, contributing many articles over the years, and even on occasion appearing as Editorial Consultants.  On the list of Editorial Consultants of the first volume were a few familiar names: James Blish, a well-known fantasy and science fiction novelist who also wrote literary criticism under the pseudonym William Atheling, Jr; Mark R. Hillegas, already mentioned as the first to teach a for-credit science fiction course; and Northrop Frye, the influential literary theorist/critic.  By 1975, Blish had died, but Fredric Jameson, a very well-known Marxist literary theorist, had been added to the list and had also contributed several articles to the journal.

The journal has grown a reputation for being especially strong in the areas of genre, international science fiction, feminism and queer theory, and postmodernism (Zook).  This is evident in such recent articles as “The First Wave: Latin American Science Fiction Discovers Its Roots” by Rachel Haywood Ferreira, and “Becoming Medusa: Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood and Sociobiology” by Adam J. Johns; as well as in Vol. 38:1 (Mar 2011), the special issue on Bruce Sterling’s 1989 essay “Slipstream,” a term coined by Sterling to discuss fiction that was not strictly science fiction but continued “anti-realistic” elements what is generally referred to now postmodernism (Sterling).  The journal has also become increasingly more open to other mediums, including film, comic books, television, art, video games, and even music.  Just as an example: in Vol. 29: 3, the special issue on “Japanese Science Fiction,” several articles discuss Japanese animation such as in “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ and ‘Serial Experiments: Lain’.”  Also, in Vol. 37: 2 there was included an article called “‘Sounds Like a Human Performance’: The Electronic Music Synthesizer in Mid-Twentieth-Century SF,” which discusses the role of electronic music and instruments in mid-century science fiction.  These are just a few examples of the variety of mediums that have been added to the canon of science fiction by virtue of the journal’s willingness to treat them seriously.

I could go on about this journal for hours, if you let me, but this bit of history should give you some idea of the scope, seriousness, and prestige of this journal but more than that, it should be obvious how much these editors and the writers who submit essay to this journal love science fiction and everything connected to it.  While the journal is often very theoretical, I think just about anyone with a serious love and fascination for science fiction should be able to get something interesting and/or useful out of reading one or two issues of Science Fiction Studies.  And keep an eye out, because SOMEDAY I’m going to have articles published in it too.

Note: here are a few of the articles I reference in this, for those who are curious:

Bengels, Barbara. “The Pleasures and Perils of Teaching Science Fiction on the College Level.” Science Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov 1996): 428-431.

Moskowitz, Sam. “The First College-Level Course in Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov 1996): 411-422.

Mullen, R.D. “Notes in Retrospect.” Science Fiction Studies 1:1 (Fall 1973): 3.

Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. London: Methuen, 1980. Print.

Westfahl, Gary. “Introduction: Masters of the Literary Universe.” Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy Eds. Gary Westfahl and George Slusser. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 1-4. Print.

Williamson, Jack. “On Science Fiction in College.” Science Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov 1996): 375-376.

Zook, Jim. “Daring Journal of ‘SF’ Theory.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Jun 1, 1994. Chronicle News Archives <http://chronicle.com/article/Daring-Journal-of-SF-Theory/91159&gt;

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10 thoughts on “Science Fiction Studies

  1. I love your reviews! They are always comprehensive and serious– but your personality still shows through. More importantly you often make me want to read the things that you obviously liked. Well done… again. Cheers.

  2. Wow, this looks like an amazing journal! Definitely gotta check out those articles.

    The sneering against genre fiction (and particularly science fiction) has always amazed me. It reminds me somewhat of an anthropology class where we discussed the idea that the most aggressive oppressors of a social class tends to be the class *right* above it, because they’re desperate for wider society *not* to associate them with that social class. Maybe I’m over-analyzing it…but it’s always what my mind jumps to when it comes to literary elitism.

    I think artists and writers are always trying to rationalize our “frivolous” pursuits – if we were in the middle ages, we would probably need patrons! So there’s this desperate push to glorify realistic fiction, rather than the more fanciful concepts that genre fiction deals with. But it’s all sort of ridiculous, really. Writing is inherently a made up thing. I don’t see why making up a coffee shop is inherently better than making up a space station. At least a space station is IN SPACE!

    • Yeah, it is starting to change, slowly. There are some English departments (like at DePauw where this journal is published) that have become much more open-minded about genre fiction (and children’s literature), but there are still many many more who refuse to take it seriously, and it drives me NUTS. But I am fighting to be allowed to do my dissertation in science fiction, and when I get a full-time teaching job I intend to work hard to make more scifi and genre fiction courses and make it a more visible and accepted sub-field in the lit departments.

      It’ll probably never happen, but it’s nice to have ambitions. ^_^

  3. I didn’t know science fiction was so frowned upon in the scholarly circles. That’s a little discouraging, as I like fantasy and science fiction, and I’m pretty sure fantasy is either on the same level as science fiction or worse. Am I right? =(

    Still, I love this review. It’s engaging and not boring, which is awesome. I’m curious about the subject, too, so good job.

    • Yes, fantasy is usually right on the same level as science fiction, or sometimes even a tad bit lower. Because at least an occasionally piece of science fiction is considered “real” literature — like Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 or Neuromancer (to some extent) — but almost NO fantasy is considered serious literary fiction. Which is ridiculous.

      And thank you, I’m glad you liked the review.

      • That makes me sad because I’m primarily a fantasy writer and I was thinking about getting an MFA in Creative Writing at least. I mean, I never wanted to go for a PhD because I never wanted to teach — don’t exactly have the passion for it — but I think to get an MFA you have to write something similar to dissertation? I’m not sure how the regular English major works either, haha.

        • Yes, for an MFA you have to write a novel, a collection of short stories, or a collection of poetry (depending on what area you plan to specialize in). And most (though not all) MFA programs are rather snobbish about genre and commercial fiction. MFA programs tend to be very focused on “literary” fiction and beating back vulgar popular mass-production commercial fiction with their intellect and prestigious degrees.

          Of course, this is a gross over-generalization, and not every MFA is like that. But you have to be careful about which one you go to, because SOME will be.

          And it occurs to me that I still owe you an email, don’t I? So sorry it’s taking so me long! This semester is trying to murder me.

  4. There you go busting out thousands of words on the blog! Ha ha. It blows my mind to think about just how much you must write every day…probably what I write in a week, or even two weeks!

    Just an fyi – I Versatile Blogger Awarded you – love your stuff! And, I loved Watership Down – I’ve been trying to put together a post and I was going to let you know, but I decided to wait and re-read it and then post about it. I want to let its goodness age in my mind and then revisit it for more appreciation. Thanks again for the recommendation!

    • Lol. Yeah, I do tend to get long-winded sometimes… I’m never sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for this blog. So many people say that blogs shouldn’t get so long, but I just can’t seem to help myself. *shrug* At least some of you are patient and charitable enough to read the whole thing. ^_^

      Thank you for the Versatile Blogger Award, and I look forward to reading your post about Watership Down! I’m definitely planning on reading again over Winter Break.

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