The OF Blog: 2008 in Review: SF/F Non-Fiction

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 in Review: SF/F Non-Fiction

Many times in recent years, I have glanced at the shortlists for awards such as the Hugos, Nebulas, and the World Fantasy Awards and I have seen categories for "Related Works." Although I rarely indulged myself with further investigation, there was always something about those books, many of them biographies, that roused my professional curiosity. Although I received/read only four non-fiction works that touch upon SF/F/comics, it would have been very difficult for me not to consider strongly listing all four of them if the list were ten times as large, as each is very well-written.

The first book I read was journalist David Hajdu's, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Hajdu's book is a cultural history on 1950s America and the McCarthy-fueled condemnation of comic books as being a cultural blight that threatened not just the well-being of pre-teen and adolescent boys, but all of America. Hajdu focuses on the Congressional hearings involving EC Comics and how American society at that time was able to see the sometimes-lurid, often-graphic comic books as being simultaneously reactionary, in a quasi-Nazi state of glorifying the übermensch, and somehow revolutionary, vaguely Communistic in its attitude toward life and liberty. A passage from the Prologue notes this in vivid fashion:

"Comic books are definitely harmful to impressionable people and most young people are impressionable," said the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of an incendiary tract, Seduction of the Innocent, which indicted comics as a leading cause of juvenile delinquency. "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.

"The time has come to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores."

Churches and community groups raged and organized campaigns against comic books. Young people acted out mock trials of comic characters. Schools held public burnings of comics, and students threw thousands of the books into the bonfires; at more than one conflagration, children marched around the flames reciting incantations denouncing comics. Headlines in newspapers and magazines around the country warned reader: "Depravity for Children - Ten Cents a Copy!" "Horror in the Nursery," "The Curse of the Comic Books." The offices of one of the most adventurous and scandalous publishers, EC Comics, were raided by the New York City police. More than a hundred acts of legislation were introduced on the state and municipal levels to ban or limit the sale of comics: Scores of titles were outlawed in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and other states, and ordinances to regulate comics were passed in dozens of cities. Soon, Congress took action with a set of sensational, televised hearings that nearly destroyed the comic-book business. Like Janice Valleau, the majority of working comics artists, writers, and editors - more than eight hundred people - lost their jobs. A great many of them would never be published again.

Through the near death of comic books and the end of many of their makers' creative lives, postwar popular culture was born (p. 6-7).
Hajdu takes this dramatic, exciting backdrop and he expertly analyzes the root causes, the ways that immediate post-WWII worries and frustrations were shown not just in the protests against the comics, but also in the comics (especially those of EC Comics, to which Hajdu devotes the majority of his discussion) themselves. Hajdu notes how the seeds for today's comics were planted at this time and how those characters evolved to fit in with the ethos of the 1950s and the reaction that set in by the mid-1960s. His research is impressive and the book works on two levels, one as a general introduction to popular culture, the other as a secondary source full of primary source document citations that could be used in further research.

Although Paul Kincaid's What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction is a collection of essays rather than a single dissertation-length piece of writing, the essays contained within examine topics such as reader interactions with texts and how we devise our own interpretations as to what the texts might mean. As I said in my earlier review:

Imagine that you are holding an unfamiliar book. Curious, you open it up and start reading. Almost immediately you are greeted with strange, sometimes unknown words. "Fuligin" and "grok?" What the hell? Is this something unusual, or are these but clues that what is within is not mimetic?

In the opening section to What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Paul Kincaid's latest collection of essays, such scenarios as the above are discussed and analyzed. What is "science fiction?" What does the science fiction reader do when reading tales that contain night unimaginable technologies or creatures? These questions and more he addresses concisely, arguing that far from confusing the reader, such words as the disinterred "fuligin" in Gene Wolfe's series The Book of the New Sun and the neologism "grok," found in Robert Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land, serve to focus the reader's attention even more to what is transpiring in the text, thus making the "weirdness" of the story not something incomprehensible, but rather it permits such stories to be interpreted in a fashion unlike those that would be employed for processing terms and themes for mimetic fiction.
Kincaid's book is a worthwhile read for SF critics and for those who want to explore more why Book X and its plot/characterizations/themes work for them, but Book Y doesn't. In many ways, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction works best as being read in conjunction with the third book on my list, Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy. From my review:

Every few months, the cycle begins anew. Someone out there somewhere, someplace, asks "What makes this work a fantasy?" He or she ponders it for a bit, like a cow chewing its cud, then the thoughts are spit out, perhaps onto a blog or into the middle of a forum discussion. Others read it and react, "No!" or "Yes!" or "Yes, but..." Names are tossed about as example of the X but not Y "qualities" of "fantasy." "Yes, Borges is." "No, he isn't!" "Yes, yes he is!" And so it devolves into the claiming of authors as being X, Y, and Z or X and Y but not Z, or Z but not X and Y, and by the time the poor, baffled reader deciphers what is being argued, he or she is left wondering if anything was really accomplished.

Sometimes, however, someone dares to go a bit further, to ask tougher questions, such as "How is this story interacting with the world about the reader?" Occasionally, these questions lead to further explorations that reveal a lode full of fruitful results. These rare works contribute to the growing historiography of literary studies, studies that leave the reader not just knowing more, but also armed with an interpretative set that can be applied to other works. Farah Mendlesohn's recent book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, has the potential for being such a book.

Instead of engaging in a rather Quixotic attempt to define a hard and fast set of rule for "what is fantasy," Mendlesohn instead is more interested in understanding the construction of the genre, namely its language and the rhetoric employed, in order to provide critical tools for further analysis (Introduction, xiii). She argues that more is to be gained from examining the various ways in which a dialectic between the author(s) and reader is created; as it takes an implicit understanding of what the author is constructing and what the reader will digest for a true "sense of wonder" to be constructed out of mere words. This idea appeals greatly to me, as too many comments on the structures of fantasies fail to note this dialectal event by which an author creates scenes that contain expectations that the reader desires to see fulfilled. It is a case in which the actual creation of a form is often neglected for looking just at the already-constructed forms themselves.

Mendlesohn posits that there are four main types of fantasy: portal-quest, intrusive, immersive, and liminal, with many works utilizing elements of each of these four. Each type or form has its own semantical relationship between character, plot, setting, as well as how reader expectations shapes these relationships. Mendlesohn structures her book into five sections, devoted to each of these four types and a final section for those works that exist on the peripheries of each of these. It allows for a lengthy exploration of well over one hundred novels along their "genetic" kinships, as well as noting those books that do not meet the criteria.
While I had a few quibbles about some of the particulars of Mendlesohn's approach, overall, her Rhetorics of Fantasy has the potential to become quite influential in shaping some of the arguments over how to define and interpret works of speculative fiction, particularly fantasy. The final book I read (and one I really wanted to review, before my current job began to suck up most of my creative energy) in this group was John Rieder's Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. As the back cover states:

This is the first full-length study of emerging Anglo-American science fiction's relation to the history, discourses, and ideologies of colonialism and imperialism. Nearly all scholars and critics of early science fiction acknowledge that colonialism is an important and relevant part of its historical context, and recent scholarship has emphasized imperialism's impact on late Victorian Gothic and adventure fiction and on Anglo-American popular and literary culture in general. John Rieder argues that colonial history and ideology are crucial components of science fiction's displaced references to history and its engagement in ideological production. He proposes that the profound ambivalence that pervades colonial accounts of the exotic "other" establishes the basic texture of much science fiction, in particular its vacillation between fantasies of discovery and visions of disaster...
While I hope to write an in-depth review when I likely re-read this book in the Summer of 2009, my first impressions were that Rieder touches upon quite a few of the points of unease that I have had in reading some of the late 19th to mid-20th century SF narratives, particularly when it comes to "first contact" and the behaviors of the initiators of that contact (benign overlord-like attitudes if the first contact comes from the almost invariably Caucasian explorers/settlers, threatening and devious if the first contact is initiated by an "alien" group). There were a few points that I vaguely recall that I wished Rieder had explored more, but my general impression, six months after reading the book, is that it is a welcome addition to the cultural histories that explore how imperialist ideology was reflected in the popular culture of its day.

Four might not be as lonely of a number as one, but I suspect there are several other outstanding non-fictions that touch upon spec fic narratives and concerns. Can anyone name some good 2008 releases that would fit this criteria?

Next up will be a look at Spanish-language and translated fictions for 2008 that I felt were among the best of the year. While there will be some mimetic fictions involved, a good many of these are also speculative fiction works.

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