The look at James Gunn’s master thesis Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.
Essay: Definitions of SF and Plot Types
So why does Gunn’s thesis classify the genre by plot type?
Science fiction, as we noted in the preceding section, is a medium of ideas, and the only way ideas can work themselves out dramatically is in terms of plot.
Gunn looks at seven different definitions of science fiction from the seven anthologists he mostly relied on in his sample.
The most striking are from Sam Merwin, Jr and Groff Conklin.
Merwin succinctly said, “Science fiction is fantasy wearing a tight girdle”.
Conklin was longer, but I think he hit on something important with needing at least the appearance of rationality:
It may be suggested that science fiction is composed of “supernatural” writing for materialists. You may read every science-fiction story that is true science fiction, and never once have to compromise with your id. The stories all have rational explanations, provided you are willing to grant the word “rational” a certain elasticity.
While Gunn says any literary form that can be confined to a rigid definition has already ceased to grow. (My question when I hear these evolutionary arguments about how the genre must evolve and change is change and evolve to what? What is the defined standard? Is there no time in that evolution it is more fit for its purpose than other times? If so, what purpose? How will you know you’ve evolved enough?) Continue reading →
This summer’s project seems to be James Gunn.
I’m only going to do a brief review of this book. Following a pattern similar to what I did with Brian Stableford’s book of critical essays on science fiction, Opening Minds, I’ll have some thoughts on individual chapters and do separate blog posts on them.
I’ll also be looking at some Gunn short stories and will comment on how they relate to Gunn’s theories.
Review: Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis, James Gunn and edited and annotated by Michael R. Page, 2018.
Anybody interested in science fiction criticism will want to pick this one up. It’s the first real critical study of contemporary science fiction.
Its only predecessors are J. O. Bailey’s Pilgrims Through Space and Time (a doctoral dissertation from 1933 and published in 1947) and Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Voyages to the Moon from 1948. But Bailey, a Victorian scholar, concentrated on works from that period and barely looked at pulp magazines. Nicolson’s work was only about a certain type of science fiction.
Gunn’s thesis is from 1951 and addresses what he terms science fiction in the realistic mode and definitely looks at contemporary works.
His sample drew from the pulps and also from five reprint anthologies.
What is peculiar to Gunn’s work is his emphasis on plot types, and he gives a schematic classifying them all. In the foreword, science fiction scholar Gary K. Wolfe, who was put on his lifetime vocation by encountering parts of Gunn’s thesis when it was reprinted in Dynamic Science Fiction, remarks that this reflects Gunn’s work as a writer. A science fiction writer could use this thesis to think about story generation, and Gunn gives his advice on which plots are and are not worth pursuing. Continue reading →