The Modern Masters of Science Fiction series is a survey of the work of individual authors who continue to inspire and advance the genre. With seven books released in the series (and more to come in the Fall 2016 season), Gary K. Wolfe, the new editor of the series, weighs in on what is in store for this literary study of important science fiction writers.
Q: The study of science fiction (and other genre literature) has historically been marginalized within literary scholarship. What is science fiction’s place in the academy, and why does this series belong at an academic press?
Gary K. Wolfe: The academy has always been a bit slow in catching up with the actual reading habits of the public, and science fiction isn’t alone in having been marginalized by literary scholars—think of noir writers like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, now treated as major figures in American literature, but who only a few decades ago were only taught in popular culture classes, along with science fiction, mystery, and romance writers.
Some of this, in America at least, has to do with the origins of popular science fiction in the “disreputable” venues of pulp magazines and later, of small fan presses. There has always been a tradition of research and critical writing in science fiction, mostly carried out by fans and devotees, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that formally vetted academic studies began appearing from major university presses. That meant, frankly, that academia had some catching up to do, and as more and more science fiction writers emerged as major literary figures—from Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin in the U.S to Iain M. Banks or J.G Ballard in England—that process of catching up never ended. By addressing this need in the Modern Masters series, the University of Illinois Press provides a venue for the study not only of widely familiar literary “crossover” writers, but of important and influential science fiction writers such as Lois McMaster Bujold or Frederik Pohl, who might not otherwise receive the kind of scholarly attention they deserve.
Q: How would you characterize the (co)evolution of science fiction studies and science fiction fandom since you published The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction in 1979?
Wolfe: 1979 may be the first year that the academic study of science fiction gained wide recognition, not only with my book but with Darko Suvin’s very influential Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. The journals Science Fiction Studies and Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction had been founded only a few years earlier, and the field’s other major academic journal, Extrapolation, expanded its visibility by moving to Kent State University Press. Fan scholarship and commentary continued to be a lively part of the field, and some of the pioneer academic scholars, such as Thomas Clareson, had all been active fans. While there may have been a degree of mutual mistrust between academic scholars and fans, the past few decades have seen a good deal more synergy and mutual interests between the two groups, so that several of the volumes of the Modern Masters series have been embraced equally by fans and scholars.
Q: The Modern Masters of Science Fiction series has a lot of “first single-author studies.” Why hasn’t anything like this existed before, and what is its value to scholars and fans?
Wolfe: There were a number of earlier efforts to develop series of single-author studies in SF, usually in the form of short chapbooks from fan presses. On one or two occasions a university press attempted to launch a series of more substantial books, but the timing may not have been optimal, and the degree of commitment on the part of the press may have been soft. The Modern Masters series has two advantages: science fiction readers and fans are no longer as skeptical as they once were of formal academic scholarship, and the University of Illinois Press demonstrated a clear commitment at the outset to support an ongoing series. This means that the series can include studies not only of authors who have been the subject of considerable academic study—like William Gibson or Le Guin—but of accomplished and popular writers less visible on the academic radar, like Bujold or Gregory Benford.
Q: What are the advantages of a genre-oriented “bio critical” approach, as opposed to straightforward literary criticism or literary biography?
Wolfe: Especially for authors being treated for the first time at monograph length, the biocritical approach provides an invaluable historical and publishing context for critical discussions of the fiction. Most readers will have a pretty good idea of the cultural context of a Victorian author, but not even many fans might have a clear picture of the pulp magazine and fandom environment that shaped an author like Frederik Pohl. The biocritical approach provides context in another sense as well, by placing the fiction within the context of the growth and development of science fiction itself, treating science fiction as central to the author’s literary achievement rather than as a kind of hobby or sideline, as has been done in some discussions of Iain Banks, Doris Lessing, and others.
Q: How do you see the series developing over the coming years? Do you have any dream subject/author pairings?
Wolfe: I do have a couple of dream subject/author pairings, and I believe at least one of them is under contract already. My hope is that the success and visibility of the series will attract a wide range of scholars, not all of whom may have thought of themselves as science fiction scholars–as is the case already with a couple of contributors. At the same time, the series does not disdain the work of independent scholars who may be among the most knowledgeable critics of a particular author. The overall goal of the series, I believe, is to provide fresh overviews of familiar names like Heinlein and Asimov, but also to bring into the discussion of science fiction serious examinations of authors less familiar to the academy, such as R.A. Lafferty or Lois McMaster Bujold.