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Practicing Science Fiction

01/02/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Practicing Science Fiction: Critical Essays On Writing, Reading And Teaching The Genre edited in the USA - or Buy Practicing Science Fiction: Critical Essays On Writing, Reading And Teaching The Genre edited in the UK

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Practicing Science Fiction: Critical Essays On Writing, Reading And Teaching The Genre edited by Karen Hellekson, Craig B. Jacobsen, Patrick B. Sharp and Lisa Yaszek. pub: McFarland. 220 page indexed small enlarged softcover. Price: GBP 29.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4793-0).

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The nature of this book, ‘Practicing Science Fiction’ is not about treating SF as a way of life even if that might make for interesting book but about using the subject as a means to explain things about ethics and life to students. All these essays are drawn from the 2008 Science Fiction Research Association Conference in Lawrence, Kansas. In my day, they would probably have been called it Life Studies using examples from across the board. Would they have used SF? Probably not. It was regarded as too cultish at the time and I suspect a lot of my fellow students would have been bored or wondering at some book choices they might not have heard of, let alone the authors concerned, to have it all centred on SF. Whether the same would be true today with a greater acceptance of SF and its abundance across the media over here I’m not so sure. One can only hope that the tutors ensure their students read the books first. As this book was released in 2010, it’s a shame that there wasn’t an afterword telling how effective this was in practice in the preceding two years.

The book is divided into four sections: teaching, reading and writing, media and women. Each section has three or four chapters on these subjects.

With the opening chapter by Jen Gunnels, Tom Godwin’s famous 1954 story, ‘The Cold Equation’, is again used as the centre point of moral consideration. I say that only because it’s a favourite for debate even with SF fans. It’s always likely to have any class divided as to the decisions made and it’s an overall no-win situation.

Even in the opening chapters, there are references to books about Science Fiction in ‘Works Cited’ that I’ve yet to read which is always a good sign for further reading.

The section on reading and writing’s introduction by Patrick B. Sharp points out the influence Charles Darwin had on all areas of writing but then, to my mind, the same could be said for any major scientific discovery. Do you suppose that faster-than-light travel would have even been thought of without Einstein even it wasn’t something he thought possible. It’s only with SF that we speculate where it will take us let alone discoveries and their effect that hasn’t happened yet. Although chapter four by Charles Harding focuses on HG Wells who speculates on the latter, it’s a shame that some attention wasn’t given to Jules Verne who mostly focused on where then current developments would take us. Having a contrast, at least in the classroom gives some sort of balance as to why even someone such as Wells is so prominent.

There is, however, a complete chapter devoted to Robert Heinlein’s 1941 short story, ‘Solution Unsatisfactory’, when he examined the usage of radioactive dust from atomic bombs. It’s a shame really that the actual story couldn’t have been included. I’d contest this chapter’s author Edward Wysocki as to how often it’s appeared in anthologies as I’ve yet to come across it in any of my collection even if I know it by reputation.

In the introduction to the media section, Karen Hellekson points out that SF extends into all media although I think that’s true of any media, more so because SF does use the other genres and is not really in isolation or it would make it difficult to make a connection to the reader or viewer. There’s a lot of visual attraction to Science Fiction which makes it effective in films and TV and added longevity cos, especially those in future settings, don’t become dated.

‘Torchwood’ is used in one chapter by Susan A. George as an example of personality comes from memories although this is an old SF theme with Van Vogt probably the first to demonstrate that in ‘The World Of Null-A’. Saying that, for ‘Torchwood’ to reach a prominence in academic books so quickly is a good sign for how it’s getting into to the consciousness.

Saying that, perhaps ‘Watchmen’ is getting over-used in the same context, let alone in interpretation. The one thing that I would question in the chapter by Ho-Rim Song on said subject is the use of the appendixes. Writer Alan Moore included them as a means to fill in background detail and also as a means to ensure there wasn’t any advertising to mess up the flow of the story which was a common problem back in the 80s. The significance of why there were pirate comics instead of super-hero comics is largely cos it is a world that had them for real. This is often a grey area for the DC and Marvel Earths as to whether they would have their own super-hero comics as well in their realities, although the latter did have a mention of them in the 70s within its titles. I would be more inclined to believe that there would be celebrity super-hero magazines as a variant of what we have in our reality.

I have to confess that the last section on women is more to do with the position of the fairer sex in their realities and this is where you really have to know the works of the lady authors concerned. If you haven’t read Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ (who has two chapters devoted to her and on the same book) or Ursula LeGuin then you might be a little stuck with the analysis. Before you ask, I have actually, although not for a while. I do think it’s problematic to pick a single book example rather than any indication that the authors in question haven’t dealt with this in their other books, which they have.

As I frequently point out, the length of my commentary reaction with non-fiction is usually a sign of the kind or reaction you yourself would give and I always prefer something I can argue their points with than just nod my head that they’ve sagely gotten what they’re talking about. The real question will always be would they get their students to do a similar thing? It would if they were familiar with the subject or even in their tender years read all the relevant books but I can see, at least with some of the chapters, it will be seen as a means to get fulfil a course mark. However, for the SF fan, there’s material here that you can argue over.

GF Willmetts

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