Modern Science Fiction: “Introduction”

Today I’m starting a series on different sections of James Gunn’s just published 1951 master’s thesis Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis.

I’ll be calling them essays, but the implies more craft and stylish meanderings than you’ll read. I’ll be summarizing Gunn’s assertions and challenging a few or commenting on how they have or have not held up.

Essay: “Introduction”, James Gunn, Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis, James Gunn and edited and annotated by Michael R. Page, 2018.51QhTYVGKDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Conventionally, Gunn starts by laying out his thesis.

The science fiction of old is “basically escapist” and, like “the two other major escapist genres, the mystery and the western”, it could die a slow death. Well, one out of two successful prophecies is not bad. The western genre is pretty moribund. Mysteries, however, outnumber science fiction in the popular literature ecosystem.

Gunn says science fiction, however, needs to become less concerned about expanding its market share and be more concerned with growing up. He quotes a then noted literary critic, Christopher Isherwood, reviewing Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in 1950. Isherwood noted a new science fiction emerging that didn’t have utopian illusions, no gadget worship, where aliens are approached in an “anthropological and non-violent” way.

Gunn says science fiction needs to do the three things every literary genre does to realize its potential: realize what it was, what it is, and think about what it can become. It needs to take up “organized, objective self-contemplation”.

Gunn is careful to say he’s just opening up the discussion and his conclusions are “tentative”.

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