Alternate Worlds by Gunn, James, 1975

Alternate Worlds by Gunn, James

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Over the last sixty years James Gunn has been pretty active in just about all fields of SF. He has written more than his fair share of fiction and several of his major works can still be found on the shelf in bookstores. He edited and wrote a large share of an encyclopedia, several teaching aids, a handful of television scripts (for The Immortals, a show whose concept came from one of his own fiction works), and a genre history, and he did a lot of the work to launch the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in Kansas. He started organizations that preside over some of the more important genre-related awards, he still writes and teaches, and I know personally that he takes time to answer each and every e-mail and letter that he receives. He is, in short, a driving force in the American genre, and he has been such for over sixty years. When it comes to reference books I, like most I suppose, tend to use them only when I have a specific question. Lately I have come to the realization that these books, often packed with unsung virtues, are worth reading and reviewing. Within the last two weeks I have finally read from cover to cover one of his most important non-fiction genre related works, Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, a coffee table sized genre history/criticism volume with scads of photos of authors and pulp illustrations. I’m still kicking myself for not doing this years ago.

Though he was not brief at all in getting to the major point, Gunn articulated a theory of modern American SF that I think hits the nail on the head. First and foremost Alternate Worlds is a genre history; Gunn’s analysis of every important work back to the Bible can be tedious, but it is not misplaced, and through his takes on those works Gunn built to something big and wonderful. I’ll let Gunn say it in his own words. Typically I refrain from using quotes as long as the one I am about to put here, but this is the best analysis and critical response I have yet seen, at least as it applied to the genre up to 1975, when this book was published.

The wellsprings of science fiction are in the mind; of literature, in the heart. Science fiction appeals to the intellect and achieves its effects through the disproportion observed between man and the universe, between man’s lifetime and eternity, between his accomplishments and his dreams; literature appeals to the emotions and achieves its effects through the analysis of character and the interplay of language. Science fiction and literature seem poles apart. Fantasy and literature, on the other hand, are inseparable; fantasy, which is concerned with the conflict between man and his imagination, which deals with the fanciful explanations man has created to rationalize himself, his origin, and his fate, and the mysterious forces that act upon him and his world – that is, with myth and legend – has as long a history as literature itself; they are interwoven and in some ways identical. Insofar as we dare to generalize about so diverse and so indefinable a phenomenon, we might say that science fiction is a social vision, a public vision; fantasy is always personal and private. Science fiction concerns man’s dreams of reality; fantasy the reality of man’s dreams.

Gunn then went on to describe how magazine fiction developed and flourished, and how the SF genre developed its own unique idiom. He pointed out that especially in the 1930’s, but not unique to that decade, SF became a literature of ideas and that that the best stories can all be refined down to one specific idea, and said further:

In science fiction the idea became king; the situation, superior to the character; the character, a kind of purified vehicle for the ideal. This offends literary critics and fantasy readers; they are accustomed to reading about complex characters in familiar surroundings and to concerning themselves with the way these characters change or are revealed during the course of the narrative. In science fiction it has not mattered (until recently) how complex or how sensitive a character was if he was wrong in the eyes of the universe, if he held views that were in conflict with the physical laws governing the world we know; and the usual science fictions story shows relatively simple characters in unfamiliar surroundings, moved by familiar emotions to unusual actions. In science fiction, that is, the characters remain the same and the environment changes. As readers, we cannot have both changed environments and changing characters or we have no reference points at all; we lose not only standards for understanding the meaning of change but meaning itself. Ultimately, of course, it is environment that matters to science fiction, to us, and to the human race.

I think that the above is an excellent response to the critics of SF who have in the past called it “infantile,” “mindless,” and “heartless,” or words to that effect. But it also puts, I think, appropriate emphasis on one of the most important literary element of SF writing: That of setting, or environment. As I noted above, SF has changed significantly in the 34 years since this volume was published. Since then SF has gone through, and continues to go through, a revolution where mainstream literary ideals have been imported; where elements such as characterization have increased in importance to SF critics and readers; where the boundaries between SF, fantasy and mainstream literature have not only become blurred, but have started to significantly overlap one another. But those older ideals still remain important too. SF is still the creature it was back in the 20’s, the 50’s, the 70’s and today, even if it has become more sophisticated. These older notions of what SF is still carry water even though there definitely are new rules for SF storytelling. But I have always felt that if you ignore the past, or turn you back on this one enormously important idea, you probably are not writing SF no matter how many gizmos you pack into your story.

Science fiction, for all its fantasy, sprang out of naturalism, which viewed man as another animal conditioned by his environment and no more responsible for his actions than any other animal, and it is through fantastic subject matter treated naturalistically that science fiction has achieves some of its finest effects. But science fiction philosophy has moderated its naturalism, its Darwinism, with rationalism.

For those of you who doubt that the modern genre, with all of its kowtowing to mainstream literature, with all of its efforts to remove itself finally and once and for all from the ghetto that Gernsback put it into, for all of its mighty striving to become respectable in the eyes of those who “know literature,” just take look at a book like The Road, read the above quotation from Gunn, and just try to convince me that he did not know exactly what he was talking about back in 1975.

The biggest problem that Gunn encountered in the book was that he decided to go back to early-history, and thus had very little time to cover all of the major works within each section or phase of genre history. This was perhaps most hobbling in the first section. There Gunn only adequately succeeded in reverse engineering the stories that became the topics for discussion, including some of the oldest ones known. His desire was to prove how those fantastic tales served the innate human need for wonder; for fantastic ideals. Though major sub-genres were not ignored, he did this primarily by focusing on lunar voyage stories. His purpose was not to analyze the needs of the ancient reader or the motivations of the ancient writer, but rather to build up to the modern era and explain how ideas in literature accumulated and fed the uniquely American need for innovation, advancement and forward thinking, and he did that by focusing on the futurity element within those tales. That is to say, Gunn focused only on stories that told tales of times forward in the future than when they were written. As it happens, I have read many of those stories, and while there were many that were set in the future, I recall quite a few that were either set in their various presents, or in an indeterminate time. Also, I question Gunn's supposition that "true" SF includes only those stories that were set in the future, though I can certainly buy that fifties (the ear in which Gunn first flourished) SF was in fact focused on the future. Perhaps the better way to state it is that authors from that era were more interested in the futurity aspect alone; that stories would not necessarily have to be in the future, as long as gadget/innovation motifs would work within the conceptual frameworks of the story that they were trying to tell. Other than that Gunn did a laudable job of moving the reader through a large volume of stories, though I personally feel that many of them are of no importance to the contemporary genre.

I’ve often wondered if there is a place for Gunn’s fiction in the modern genre. Of course, he is still a very important figure in SF, but the bulk of his important output, both fiction and non-fiction, was published before the decade of the 80’s started. I point this out because Alternate Worlds, for all its virtues, is at best a broad look at a historical age of the genre. Newer critics and scholars have much, much more to say about Gunn’s topics these days, and though I personally think that the simplistic, reductionist view that Gunn has taken here probably is right, for that time and for this one, some of them do provide some insights that Gunn missed back in the day. But…that is another of the virtues of the SF endeavor. We are constantly analyzing ourselves, over and over again. Hey! It’s why I’m here too!

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

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

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