Anatomy of Wonder, The, 4th Ed. by Barron, Neil, ed., 1994

Anatomy of Wonder, The, 4th Ed. by Barron, Neil, ed. - Book cover from

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One of the best and most interesting parts of my SF collection is my non-fiction and reference section. Since the 1960's, with the advent of the New Wave literary sub movement within the genre, SF has become pretty heavily criticized. I believe that it was because SF moved so much closer to mainstream fiction at that point. Both SF and mainstream literature in the 60's were concerned with inner space, psychology, drug use, etc., so it makes sense that the genre would begin attracting scholarly minds. But whatever the genesis, at this point in the late oughts it appears that SF may be a completely self-contained genre. Consider: It has a rich and active publishing tradition, a rabid, international fan base, and a fully realized and fully-functional critical arm. Nothing else is needed, is it? Anyway, Neil Barron's Anatomy of Wonder is probably one of the most important books for critics and non-critics alike, as it gives pretty deep descriptions of many of the more important works in the genre. It has always been "big" in SF, but now that it is in its fifth edition, it really starting to get physically big too. Four out of five stars.

One of the highest virtues of this book is the fact that it gives whole paragraph descriptions of important works in the genre. In the field of SF criticism, this is quite a lot. All of the other books that focus on the genre as a whole seem to limit commentary to one or two sentences, and sometimes less. For example, about Simak's fix-up novel City, the editors say:

Eight quietly told stories from Astounding, 1944 to 1951, which describe the decline and disappearance of humanity once it abandons its most characteristic habitat, the city. Some of the more venturesome leave civilization to imprint their psyches on wild, non-tool-using animals native to Jupiter ("Desertion"); others retreat to automated estates, as in "Huddling Place," a locale that recurs in later stories run by an ageless robot butler named Jenkins and inhabited by sentient, peacable dogs who are taking over human's erstwhile role of planetary custodians. (Meanwhile the ants, also evolved into sentience, pursue bizarre and incomprehensible goals of their own.) In book form, the stories are framed as "legends," told around campfires by the dogs, who politely debate whether humans in fact ever existed. A haunting, elegiac tale, diametrically opposed to the "can do" spirit of most Golden Age SF. An additional story, "Epilog," was added for a later edition. A major work, which in 1953 won the International Fantasy Award.

Barron also gives similar treatment to reference works, poetry, comics and art, magazines, and has other categories for awards, series, translations, teaching aids and others. The third edition also has an excellent section of foreign SF, but that has not been carried forth into the fourth and fifth editions. There is also a great section on young adult fiction, which I'm sure I will be getting familiar with over the next few years.

The only real downside to this publication is the price. The fifth edition sells for over $80, but fortunately most libraries know that this is the one that they should have on hand. If you cannot afford it, try at a public library.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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