There’s more to the science fiction and fantasy field than mind-expanding fiction stories. There are also many nonfiction books about the genre itself. If you’re looking to know more about what makes science fiction tick, check out these nonfiction books.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn

Author Robert A. Heinlein was a giant in the science fiction field during its Golden Age. Today he is still (along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke) considered one of the “Big Three” authors of the genre. His influential career began with short stories and continued with numerous novels, including a set marketed as “juveniles” (what is called “young adult” today) and a series portraying a detailed “future history” of mankind. Through landmark works such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, Heinlein showed that science fiction makes a fantastic vehicle for political commentary. His radical conservative views were on full display and are still the subject of fierce debate among fans. For her book The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein (Unbound, March 7), Hugo Award-winning academic and historian Mendlesohn undertook the massive task of reading through Heinlein’s entire body of work, including unpublished stories, various speeches, and essays written thoughout his career. By doing so, she is able to show the evolution of Heinlein’s attitudes. There’s no cheerleading here—just a survey of his views, good or bad, and how they changed over the course of his life.

 

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Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future by Peter Swirski

Lemography, edited by Peter Swirski and Waclaw M. Osadnik

Stanislaw Lem, best known for his SF classic Solaris, was a Polish writer whose books, which lean towards philosophical explorations, have been translated into 41 languages. Liverpool University Press has two new books available about this widely read author. The first is Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future by Peter Swirski (Liverpool University Press, Sept. 30), a critical and interpretive study of the man and his work. The book lays its groundwork by detailing Lem’s life and cultural influences in the context of the second half of the 20th century. It goes on to examine his novels with the goal of critiquing them and turning Lem’s philosophical ideas into concrete interpretations. For example, one essay looks at Return From the Stars, his 1961 quasi-Utopian novel about a cosmonaut returning to an Earth very different from the one he left, and examines notions of “ethical cleansing by mandatory de-aggression,” as it is called in the book. While aimed at fans of Lem’s work, this book may also be of interest to armchair philosophers, as it shows how various beliefs play out in Lem’s richly imagined, sometimes Kafkaesque, worlds.

The second book focusing on Lem is Lemography, edited by Swirski and Waclaw M. Osadnik (Liverpool University Press, Sept. 30). This collection of critical essays shines a spotlight on lesser-known aspects of Lem’s writing often overlooked in other critical studies, with a particular focus on Lem’s influence on 20th century literature and culture. To meet this goal, the editors tapped a diverse array of contributors from around the world. Each essay zooms in on a specific aspect of Lem’s novels to identify the seeds of his literary and philosophical contributions.

 

Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft by Jason Ray Carney

For the uninitiated, weird fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction and usually deals with, well, weird stuff. Weird fiction stories usually contain elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, or the supernatural, but sets itself apart by being darker and more unconventional. Its early pioneers included Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft. Just as Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke are considered the “Big Three” authors of science fiction, Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft are the “Big Three” of weird fiction, mostly because their work predominantly appeared in Weird Tales magazine. These three authors are the focus of a new nonfiction book about weird fiction, Weird Tales of Modernity by Jason Ray Carney (McFarland, July 25). Carney argues that despite being published in a pulp fiction magazine, these authors were serious literary artists. He shows how they used their fiction—and specifically the motivating feeling of fear—as a platform to speculate about deep philosophical questions that troubled them. Their main gripes? The economic, technical, and cultural effects of modern progress. Carney looks at specific stories by each author and how their own fears were on display in their fiction.

 

The Joker Psychology: Evil Clowns and the Women Who Love Them  edited by Travis Langley

If you’re looking for something less academic than the previous titles, check out The Joker Psychology,edited by Travis Langley (Sterling, Sept. 3). This is being published as part of the Popular Culture Psychology series of nonfiction books, which aims to make “boring” science fun by showing how real-life science might explain some of the things we see in films and television. Langley, a professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkansas, has written numerous psychology themed books about pop culture. In this one, timed to the release of the film Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime, he offers readers a peek into the psyche of a madman. The bulk of the book looks at the Joker’s relationships, particularly with Harley Quinn, his girlfriend and accomplice. Don’t let the pop culture theme fool you—you’ll find serious discussion here. For example, there’s an examination of the relationship that exists between therapist and patient and what happens when a therapist crosses the line. There’s a look at how different kinds of therapy might be applied to help Joker and Harley reverse their evil ways. The Joker Psychology also includes interviews with the creators who have brought the laughing maniac to life in comics and film, like comic book writers Dennis O'Neil, Gail Simone, Adam Glass, and Len Wein; Jerry Robinson, the ghost artist who created the Joker with Batman creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane; retired FBI profiler Mark E. Safarik; voice actors Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, and Will Friedle; and my generation’s Batman, the late Adam West.

Science Fiction/Fantasy correspondent John DeNardo is the founding editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning blog. Follow him on Twitter @sfsignal.