SFNF Reviews

Beginning December 2017, I’m revisiting (or visiting for the first time) some of the early works of SF history and criticism.

(The photo shows a smattering of highlights from my sf/nf shelves, not all of which I’ve yet read.)

  • Eshbach, Lloyd Arthur. 1947. Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing. Fantasy Press.
    This earliest critical volume of modern SF collects 7 essays, among which Robert A. Heinlein identifies 3 basic plots and his 5 rules for being a successful writer, A.E. van Vogt describes his technique of writing in 800-word scenes that include every idea that pops into his head as he writes, and John W. Campbell offers advice for how to sell him a story. (Also, more than one essay reveals the bias of its time: how women have no place in SF stories except as a love interest, and even that is not recommended, as a distraction.) [full discussion]
  • Anonymous, ed. 1959. The Science Fiction Novel. Advent.
    Four talks given at the University of Chicago in 1957. Heinlein defines science fiction, and considers it superior to all other fiction; C.M. Kornbluth claims no work of SF has had any social impact; Robert Bloch’s is best, identifying the cliches in most SF novels, especially the one about the hero who saves the world. [full discussion; Heinlein addenda]
  • Bretnor, Reginald, ed. 1953. Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future. Coward-McCann.
    Eleven essays: Campbell on how SF is a response to ongoing change; Anthony Boucher on the facts of publishing SF (in 1953); Fletcher Pratt examines cliches; Isaac Asimov’s substantial essay on “Social Science Fiction” in which he identifies four eras of SF and defends his notion that history repeats; and a couple essays about how SF of the time was responding to social and religious issues (the atom bomb; artificial insemination); and editor Bretnor insists SF is defined by its active awareness of the scientific method. [full discussion]
  • Knight, Damon. 1956/1996. In Search of Wonder 3/e. Advent.
    The earliest useful critic of SF, who refused to give bad books a pass just because the SF world was small in the 1950s and was attacked by outsiders dismissing it as trash. Knight insisted that “ordinary critical standards” of grammar and scientific literacy always apply, and he famously excoriates A.E. van Vogt as incoherent, dismisses popular works by Matheson and Robinson as “anti-science fiction,” and has no high opinion of Ray Bradbury. He admires works by Heinlein, Sturgeon, and with reservations those by Asimov, Blish, Clarke, and others. And he wrestles with a definition of science fiction. [full discussion].
  • Amis, Kingsley. 1960. New Maps of Hell. Harcourt Brace. [1961, Ballantine]
    The famous British novelist, a lifelong SF reader, compares SF to jazz and admires SF especially to the degree it is satirical or utopian. He examines selected stories for how they reveal wishes and fears of their readers: sex, doom, dangers of technology, the ‘escape’ into space really about being part of a larger goal of exploration. He especially admires Frederik Pohl and Robert Sheckley, and calls the former’s (with Kornbluth) THE SPACE MERCHANTS as being the best SF novel to date. He looks forward to new writers not unfamiliar with general literature, and the passing of cranks. Amis’ insights are acute, though his examples verge on cherry-picking, and his style was at times overly rotund. [full discussion]
  • Blish, James (as by William Atheling Jr.). 1964/1973. The Issue at Hand 2/e. Advent, and 1970. More Issues at Hand. Advent.
    Another 1950s critic, not quite as prolific as Knight, with two slimmer volumes of essays. Blish also applied critical standards, with firm ideas about the best ways stories ought to be told. Highlights include his pseudonymous critique of his own “A Case of Conscience,” his admiration for Robert A. Heinlein, Algis Budrys, and Theodore Sturgeon, the notorious errors of Sam Moskowitz, and his take on the “New Wave” of the 1960s and the evolution of Judith Merril. [full discussion]
  • Wollheim, Donald A. 1971. The Universe Makers. Harper & Row.
    Wollheim, famous as an editor of Ace Books in the 1950s and ’60s and then founder of DAW Books in the ’70s, provides a partisan history of SF, at its core a description of future history as an exploration of the solar system and then galaxy, establishment of a galactic civilization, and then its fall, rerise, and “challenge to God.” Discussing Stapledon, Asimov, and others who support that vision; ending with some distress about the “New Wave” and popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. [full discussion]
  • de Camp, L. Sprague, and Catherine Crook de Camp. 1953/1975. Science Fiction Handbook, Revised. 1975 edition McGraw Hill Paperbacks.
    A quarter of the book a history of SF, the balance advice to would-be writers, with explanations about editors and publishers, where ideas come from, how to plot and characterize, how to sell and keep business records. Even in the 1975 edition, some curious descriptions of a magazine editor’s office, and of typical SF readers, and writers. [full discussion]
  • Robinson, Frank M. 1999 Science Fiction of the 20th Century: An Illustrated Edition notes
  • Walton, Jo. 2016. What Makes a Book So Great notes
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. 2017. No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
    A collection of short essays that first appeared on Le Guin’s blog from 2010 to 2018. Topics include acquiring a new cat and other mundane matters; on fantasy she discusses how imaginative literature is about “it doesn’t have to be this way,” the relation of fantasy and science, dystopias and questioning unlimited growth; how science is about acceptance and not belief, and how children learn new ideas and distinguish pretending from false beliefs. [detailed notes]
  • Benson, Michael. 2018 Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. Simon & Schuster. notes
  • Watts, Peter, “Understanding Sarah Palin, or, God Is In the Wattles” summary and comments