It may surprise you to know that people see science fiction and fantasy literature as more than mere vehicles of entertainment. In addition to enjoying the fiction side if things, there is gratification in knowing about the history and culture behind it. But what exactly is speculative fiction academics? And what does it teach us about the field?
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To answer these questions I turned to Karen Burnham.
Burnham is a longtime speculative fiction fan whose love for genre prompted her to learn more about it. Since then, she has become a vital part of the science speculative fiction community. In addition to running her blog Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory, Burnham is also the editor of the Locus Roundtable Blog portion of Locus Online, the online version of Locus magazine, which is the premier magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field. Her latest project is writing a book about the work of science fiction author Greg Egan, coming soon from University of Illinois Press.
How would you explain the field of speculative fiction academics to someone who knows nothing about it?
Speculative fiction academics is pretty much like any other academic endeavor. You can look at any art form and ask what it tells us about culture, about humanity, about its time, and about our time—and people are looking at science fiction and fantasy that way too, now.
Scholars tackle sf in all its different forms—literature, graphic novels, TV, movies, plays and even fan fiction—from a variety of perspectives. Any tool, approach or theory that you can apply to literature or other pop culture field can be applied to sf as well.
What prompted you to learn more about the speculative fiction field beyond reading the fiction itself?
It all came about once I started reviewing. I had decided to write about what I read to keep myself honest—I felt like I’d been skimming too much and not really getting much out of my reading.
Writing about a story really makes me focus on it. Well, once I started doing that, I wanted to do it better. I looked at the people I really admire in the sf reviewing field, and that list started with Gary K. Wolfe, senior reviewer at Locus magazine. He’s an academic himself, with a position at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I started reading some of his nonfiction books, specifically The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction, and branched out from there.
What can we learn about modern-day speculative fiction by studying the speculative fiction of the past?
There’s so much! I’m afraid I started as a very naive reader. From my personal experience, I had the impression that science fiction started with Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein, and fantasy started with Tolkien.
When I worked up a reading list of influential books from different eras, I was amazed to find out just how much sf existed before those famous folks. Some writers today reach back to an older tradition than the Golden Age—I’m thinking especially of Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link, both of whom have more in common with pre-World War II authors such as Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirlees than with Tolkien.
Has exploring the field of sf changed the way you read and/or enjoy fiction?
Yes, absolutely! I find I get a lot more enjoyment out of what I read by being able to see each piece as part of a larger whole. Whether I’m reading something old and classic or new and untested, you can see how all these stories have connections with other parts of the field.
Now, there’s a problem with being a reviewer in that you can become jaded—when you read a book that’s perfectly fine but not doing anything particularly new or interesting, it’s hard to find something to say about it, and it makes it harder to enjoy. But looking at it from a scholarly viewpoint can help that—it’s not a book that lacks interesting features, it’s one more piece of a broader story about the field.
Your quest to learn more about science fiction led you to your latest project, an analysis of the work of Greg Egan. How did you prepare for this and what can readers expect?
I started writing about Egan almost as soon as I began writing about literature. One of my first reviews for Strange Horizons was of Schild’s Ladder, and my first paper for the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was on portrayals of post-human gender in Egan’s Schild’s Ladder and Charles Stross’ Glasshouse.
I’ve always found his work interesting to read and write about. Once I was given the opportunity to focus on his work for this book project [part of a larger project by the University of Illinois Press], I set about reading all his books and stories in publication order [10 novels and 60 short stories or so], so that I’d have a sense of how his work evolved over time. I also looked up all his interviews and as many reviews of his work as I could find.
Then I started writing...but I quickly realized that I needed to bring in other perspectives in order to have a more complete view of the subject. So I’ve been reading up on subjects as diverse as information theory and critiques of transhumanism.
Luckily it’s all been fascinating. I hope that when all is said and done, readers will get a feel for the breadth and depth that Egan’s fiction covers. He tends to get placed so firmly in the “hardest of hard math- and physics-based sf” camp that it’s easy to forget that he also writes passionately about things like bioethics. I hope that people will also find more information about some of Egan’s themes, such as becoming posthuman, the scientific method, general relativity, neural networks and brain uploading to be of interest.
Who are some of the key figures in science fiction and fantasy academics?
There’s a spectrum of people that shade from well-read fans through to ivory tower academics. Before science fiction was accepted as a legitimate subject for study by academics, there was a lot of fan scholarship and criticism, and more than most fields that is still welcomed—thank goodness, or else my degrees in physics and electrical engineering wouldn’t let me anywhere *near* the University of Illinois Press.
Still, many of the people of the “pure academic” side of the spectrum have written very accessible works on the field. Gary K. Wolfe is still one of the best, combining as he does the month-to-month new releases beat of a reviewer with the perspective of an academic with over 30 years experience reading the field. Farah Mendlesohn in the UK has done great excellent work and has also teamed up with Edward James on some excellent surveys. Rob Latham at the University of Riverside brings genre into the literary discussions that go on there, and at the new Los Angeles Review of Books. Graham Sleight edits the excellent journal Foundation in the UK. David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer produce the monthly New York Review of Science Fiction which has interesting critical articles as well as reviews.
Frankly, some of the most important critics of the field are authors themselves, and everyone should seek out the critical writings of Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, and the late James Blish and Joanna Russ.
For those who might be interested in the academics side of speculative fiction and want to read more, what are some good books to start with?
Luckily this part of the field has been getting better and better over just the last few years. There are a bunch of different kinds of critical works. A good place to start is probably with the broad surveys, either wholly nonfiction such as the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction [Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James] or a definitive short fiction anthology such as the Norton Book of Science Fiction [Ursula K. LeGuin and Brian Attebery].
There are also good essay collections that are quite painless and illuminating, such as Gary K. Wolfe’s Evaporating Genres, Paul Kincaid’s What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Joanna Russ’ The Country You Have Never Seen, and Samuel Delany’s Starboard Wine. I found Delany’s About Writing to be extremely enlightening when I was starting out. Then there are books that have a sustained argument to make about the genre, such as Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction or Wolfe’s The Known and the Unknown. Plus there are review collections, such as John Clute’s recent Pardon This Intrusion.
What are some good online resources where folks can learn more?
Hands down, the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia is the best single reference site for science fiction. After that, things get a little scattered. I wouldn’t say that there’s any single online portal for this kind of work. The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts has information about their conference, and you can connect with other interested persons through their e-mail list. There’s also The Center for the Study of Science Fiction, hosted by the University of Kansas. James Gunn has been crucial in getting academic attention for the field, and he’s starting a new publication, James Gunn’s Ad Astra which may prove interesting.John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.