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29 April 2016

REVIEW: "The World of Science Fiction, 1926-76" -- Life in the gutter


This was a very pleasant surprise used-bookstore buy. Written in the late Seventies, and so just after the premiere of "Star Wars" (but before the sea-change in pop culture that Star Wars inspired could take full effect), Lester del Rey gives a mostly-objective historical account of science fiction, which he divides into four "ages" spanning (then) fifty years. Though some of the material can be quite dry, del Rey's writing style is congenial and makes for an entertaining and enlightening read overall.

Del Rey sets down the genesis of science fiction as a true category to be 1926, when Hugo Gernsback (the namesake of the Hugo Awards) published a pulp magazine specifically for what he then called "scientifiction." From there we have the era of John W. Campbell, who almost single-handedly elevated sf to a higher standard, the bust of the Fifties, and the rise of the "New Wave" and fracturing of the category into various disparate sensibilities. Throughout, del Rey highlights authors and stories that he considers particularly meritorious or significant to the development of sf; while his tastes are strongly stated, he's mostly careful about noting when a story appeals to him personally or is significant to the category as a whole. There's a consolidated list of recommended reading in the appendices, with helpful notation marking whether a work is notable primarily for historical value.

As the growth of sf for most of its first fifty years was almost entirely in magazines, del Rey goes through a lot of timeline-esque publication listings. That may have more merit to scholars of science fiction than to the casual reader; however, it's often notable just how many acknowledged masters of the field were discovered by a single magazine editor, or how many seminal stories were published in the same year.

Del Rey also gives a running history of science fiction fandom, which is especially interesting when compared to the pop-culture domination of science fiction tropes in modern fandoms today. Many of the conflicts that launched a thousand think-pieces have historical analogues from back when hardcore science fiction fans numbered in the mere hundreds! But of particular interest is the knowledge that sf has always been a category of several interests, not always in agreement—for example, it grew out of pulp adventure stories and tinkerer science-enthusiast fiction, which until 1926 were quite separate entities, and cared differently about the relative importance of scientific plausibility and strong plotting to a story.

Del Rey's editorial distance declines quite a bit as the history becomes more contemporary; his remarks on the so-called "New Wave" of sf were hilarious to me, if a bit strident. Still, I think his comments there, and then his recommendations towards a proper critical theory of science fiction, are instructive even for modern readers; certainly there's no lack of controversy over genre norms in modern science fiction and fantasy.

Overall this is a fine history of sf literature. Del Rey makes a good case for the seminal works in the field, and his recommendations should make for a nice introduction to the "deep norms" of sf as a literary category. I'm not sure how much I believe the conjecture that "you can't write science fiction unless you've read lots of its background material," but it certainly wouldn't hurt!

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