Modern Science Fiction by James Gunn

After reading Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018) by Alec Nevala-Lee I reread The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (1989) by Alexei and Cory Panshin. These two books form an interesting synergy. They are about science fiction’s Golden Age of the 1940s, written over a generation apart, that leaves two distinct impressions. After finishing the Panshins’ book I remembered that the blog MarzAat reviewed a master’s thesis on science fiction that James Gunn wrote back in 1951. I figured Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis would be a third view of SF’s Golden Age of the 1940s, and it was. It’s also one of the earliest scholarly examinations of science fiction.

Gunn divides his book into two parts, one that focuses on the philosophy of science fiction, and the other on categorizing plots. I can only recommend this work to people like me who enjoy reading about the history of science fiction. I doubt Modern Science Fiction will appeal to average SF readers because of its academic nature. However, it is a unique early perspective on the genre. The Panshins’ book is a more compelling read because they tie everything together with a single theory. The Nevala-Lee book is more readable because biographies have a great common appeal.  Gunn writes an aerial overview and is a quick introduction to the genre at a time when few people knew it existed. I enjoyed it mostly for the stories Gunn picked to discuss. Often they were the same classics we remember today, but sometimes not.

I’ve now read five books that covered Astounding Science-Fiction in the 1940s – including A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers and Astounding Days by Arthur C. Clarke that I read the year before last. I also read The Great SF Stories 1-12 (1939-1950) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, so I’m familiar with many of the stories themselves. I’m slowly getting a feel for how science fiction developed chronologically. I’m currently reading short SF from 1951.

The one book I recommend for understanding the science fiction stories of the 1940s is The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It was quite insightful. I realized how we think of science fiction now, or even when I started reading it in the 1960s, is quite different from how writers and readers thought of it in the 1940s. The subtitle of his book is Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence and back then I believe science fiction was seeking transcendence that echoes the Transcendentalists of the 1850s. Science fiction from 1939-1949 had a kind of excitement like the counter-culture did in the 1960s.

There’s a reason why Campbell, van Vogt, and others went ga-ga for Dianetics, and Astounding couldn’t run enough ESP/psionics stories in the 1950s. James Gunn saw some of that too in his book, but he called it philosophical. We now pity Campbell and van Vogt being caught up in L. Ron Hubbard’s scam, but Dianetics and Scientology in the 1950s promised to give SF fans the transcendental uplift they dreamed of from reading science fiction in the 1940s. If this seems like a digression from the history of science fiction, it’s not. I believe studying science fiction as it evolved over time is rewarding. I wish the Panshins had written a comprehensive book about science fiction in the 1950s for me to read next. So far I can’t find anything like The World Beyond the Hill for that decade. I’m guessing science fiction changes every decade or with each new generation of readers. I believe my best bet for the 1950s is Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines From 1950 to 1970 by Mike Ashley.

The long introduction by Modern Science Fiction’s editor Michael R. Page is a gem of an overview of books about science fiction. Page says Gunn’s 1951 book-length thesis is probably just the fourth book about science fiction after Pilgrims Through Space and Time (1947) by J. O. Bailey, The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction (1941) by Philip Gove’s, and Voyages to the Moon (1948) by Marjorie Nicolson. The latter two were really about proto-SF, and Bailey’s book barely mentions the Golden Age. So Gunn’s book could be the first about Campbell’s Golden Age Astounding. It was written at a time when the non-SF-reading public was just learning the term science fiction, and Gunn spends part of his time introducing the genre. (See my essay “When Mainstream American Discovered Science Fiction.”  I reprint a Life Magazine article from 1951 telling its readers all about the world of science fiction and fandom.)

Because Page mentions so many books he considers carrying on Gunn’s work exploring science fiction I thought I’d list them as a checklist to acquire. I’ve owned and read many of them over the years, but I thought it would be nice to make this a chronological list to remember and share. I’m anxious to get into the 1950s and 1960s, after gorging on books about the 1940s.

Here are the books Page mentions. I’ve put a plus by the ones I’ve already read/own. Most cover more than one decade of SF history. Someone needs to write a history of the first decade of F&SF, Galaxy, and the big boom in science fiction. (Maybe Ashley’s has done just that.)

  • 1941 – The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction by Philip Gove
  • 1947 + Pilgrims Through Space and Time by J. O. Bailey
  • 1947 – Of Worlds Beyond (symposium) edited by Lloyd Arthur Eschbach
  • 1948 – Voyages to the Moon by Marjorie Nicholson
  • 1951 + Modern Science Fiction by James Gunn (master’s thesis)
  • 1951 – Modern Science Fiction (essays) edited by Reginald Bretnor
  • 1955 – Inquiry into Science Fiction by Basil Davenport
  • 1956 + In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight
  • 1959 + The Science Fiction Novel (symposium)
  • 1960 + New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis
  • 1963 + Explorers of the Infinite by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1964 + The Issue at Hand by James Blish
  • 1966 + Future Perfect by H. Bruce Franklin
  • 1966 + In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight (expanded edition)
  • 1966 + Seekers of Tomorrow by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1966 – Voices Prophesying War by I. F. Clarke
  • 1967 – The Future as Nightmare by Hillegas
  • 1968 – Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Armytage
  • 1970 – Into the Unknown by Robert M. Philmus
  • 1970 + More Issues at Hand by James Blish
  • 1970 + The Universe Makers by Donald A. Wollheim
  • 1971 + SF: The Other Side of Realism (essays) edited by Thomas Clareson
  • 1971 + Science Fiction: What It’s All About by Sam Lundwall
  • 1973 + Billion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
  • 1974 – Science Fiction Reader’s Guide by L. David Allen
  • 1974 – New Worlds for Old by David Ketterer
  • 1975 + Alternate Worlds by James Gunn
  • 1976 + Anatomy of Wonder by Neil Barron
  • 1976 + A Pictorial History of Science Fiction by David Kyle
  • 1977 + The Creation of Tomorrow by Paul A. Carter
  • 1977 – Science Fiction: History, Science Fiction by Eric S. Rabkin
  • 1977 + The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany
  • 1979 – The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001 by I. F. Clarke
  • 1979 – Metamorphoses of Science Fiction by Darko Suvin
  • 1979 – The Known and the Unknown by Gary K. Wolfe
  • 1979 + The Science Fiction Encyclopedia by Peter Nichols and John Clute
  • 1979 + The World of Science Fiction by Lester del Rey
  • 1980 – Aliens and Linguists by Walter E. Meyer
  • 1980 – The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction by Patricia Warrick
  • 1981 – Alien Encounters by Mark Rose
  • 1982 – Terminal Visions by W. Warren Wagar
  • 1985 – Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 by Brian Stableford
  • 1986 + Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
  • 1987 – Foundations of Science Fiction by J. J. Pierce
  • 1987 – Great Themes in Science Fiction by J. J. Pierce
  • 1989 – Rationalizing Genius by John Huntington
  • 1989 – When World Views Collide by J. J. Pierce
  • 1989 + The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin
  • 1990 – Understanding American Science Fiction 1926-1970 by Thomas Clareson
  • 1993 – The Magic that Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology by Albert I. Berger
  • 1994 – Odd Genre by J. J. Pierce
  • 1998 + The Mechanics of Wonder by Gary Westfahl
  • 2008 – The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csciery-Ronay
  • 2012 – Astounding Wonder by John Cheng
  • 2017 – Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System by John Rieder

Books Page Didn’t Mention Which I Own:

  • 1964 + A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers
  • 1975 + Hell’s Cartographers (essays) edited by Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison
  • 1980 + SF in Dimension by Alexei and Cory Panshin (expanded edition)
  • 1982 + The Engines of the Night by Barry N. Malzberg
  • 1984 + Age of Wonders by David G. Hartwell
  • 1986 + Dimensions of Science Fiction by William Sims Bainbridge
  • 1986 + Galaxy Magazine by David L. Rosheim
  • 1999 + Back in the Spaceship Again by Karen Sands, Marietta Frank
  • 1999 + Pioneers of Wonder by Eric Leif Davin
  • 2000 + Critical Theory and Science Fiction by Carl Freedman
  • 2000 + The Time Machines by Mike Ashley
  • 2003 + The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (essays) edited by Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn
  • 2004 + The Gernsback Days by Mike Ashley, Robert A. W. Lowndes
  • 2005 + Different Engines by Mark L. Brake, Reverend Neil Hook
  • 2005 + On SF by Thomas M. Disch
  • 2005 + Transformations by Mike Ashley
  • 2007 + Gateways to Forever by Mike Ashley
  • 2007 + The Gospel According to Science Fiction by Gabriel McKee
  • 2009 + Science Fiction and Philosophy edited by Susan Schneider (essays)
  • 2014 + New Atlantis: v. 3: The Resurgence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2014 + New Atlantis: v. 4: The Decadence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2016 + The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts
  • 2016 + New Atlantis: v. 1: The Origins of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2016 + New Atlantis: v. 2: The Emergence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford

You’d think with so much written about science fiction it would be well defined with a precise well-interpreted history.

James Wallace Harris, 11/17/19

5 thoughts on “Chronology of Books About Science Fiction

  1. Hi James

    A great list, but lots to read. I will certainly be tracking down a few of the titles and I appreciate the effort you have put into researching this and compiling the list.

    Thanks Guy

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  2. Thanks for that list. Perhaps you could answer a question I wondered about given your encyclopedic knowledge of S/F. I asked it also on the reddit r/scifi subforum:

    Was the 70’s a great decade for S/F?

    Does everyone have this experience that their favorite S/F stories were from the period when they first discovered S/F as teenagers?
    Back then, I read also earlier works of the Grand Masters which I loved also, but still those contemporary S/F stories in my formative years remain among my faves.
    Was it because the S/F in the 70’s was so good, or is that anyone in whatever decade they first started reading S/F those stories remain among their faves?

    Robert Clark

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      1. Thanks for responding. I’ll give your list a read. I’m curious also about the other question. Have the S/F books you first read as a young person really stuck with you as among your favorites or have they been eclipsed as your appreciation of the field has matured?

        Bob Clark

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      2. I’ve spent a lot of time on my blog dealing with this very question. The books that have stuck with me the most are the Heinlein juveniles from the 1950s. I’m sure they shaped my whole sense of science fiction. However, there are books I didn’t like as a kid, but admired as an adult, like The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov.

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