Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Evans, Arthur B., Ed. Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Evans, Arthur B., Ed. Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction

Article excerpt

Evans, Arthur B., ed. Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014. 448 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-8195-7438-1. $29.95.

Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction collects sixteen very different essays first published in the pages of Science Fiction Studies between the years 1976 and 2010, united more by the chronological range of texts that they collectively cover than by any shared theoretical approach or thematic emphasis. Editor Arthur B. Evans defines the ambit of "early science fiction" very broadly here: He has selected essays that cover texts dating to as late as the 1930s, but also others treating forerunners of modern sf considerably predating the twentieth century. As such, the collection moves back through R.U.R., Wells, Verne, Frankenstein, and then farther still into the murkier and more contested prehistory of genre science fiction. Seekers after proto-science fictions predating the mid-seventeenth-century milieu of Cyrano de Bergerac will be disappointed, but the editor has nevertheless managed to pack three centuries of sf's history between the covers of this book--including sf of several different languages and literary traditions, from Continental Europe to Latin America. Evans himself provides only a short preface that might have served better if expanded into a proper introduction, so provocative and articulate are its claims about the field of "early sf." For instance, Evans eloquently (and admirably succinctly) explains his view on the meaning of the retroactive label "science fiction" as applied to three major eras that he identifies as follows:

   Although its origins and evolution continue to be the subject of
   lively debate among scholars, science fiction emerges as a genre in
   the imaginary voyages, utopias, and futuristic fiction of the
   sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. During the
   nineteenth century, it popularized its narrative recipe and
   ideological worldview in the gothic fiction of Mary Shelley, the
   extraordinary voyages of Jules Verne, and the scientific romances
   of H. G. Wells. And it eventually adopted its generic name and
   social identity in the American pulp-fiction magazines of the 1920s
   and 1930s. (vii)

Evans advances this compact thesis without allowing himself space to present a rationale for either the inclusion of early modern fictions or the exclusion of earlier narrative still. The preface also contains a further piece of polemic agitating for the adoption of the broader term "early sf' in preference to the more common "proto-sf' (viii). I find the term "proto-sf' somewhat less dismissive than Evans does, and one might also question the utility of using the same term to refer to 1930s sf and seventeenth-century texts, as if both were equivalently "early" or "proto-," and the rupture with 1940s Campbellian sf indeed so extreme.

Beyond these two points of prefatory provocation, the volume as a whole advances no particular narrative, and naturally has some unavoidable gaps in coverage. Evans's stated intention is simply to collect and contextualize some of the most important writing on early sf, and newly commissioned afterwords--in most cases written by the authors of the articles themselves--add some value to these republished pieces. At the same time, if a scholar already has online access to the back catalog of Science Fiction Studies, I doubt that these short notes would themselves constitute a sufficiently compelling reason for purchase of the volume. The book's greatest utility may in fact lie in the additional bibliographic material gathered in the two concluding sections, "150 Key Works of Early Science Fiction" and "Bibliography of Criticism on Early Science Fiction," the latter of which is so thorough that it accounts for almost one-fifth of the book's page count.

If I might question somewhat the need to reprint the essays in this fashion, this is not to say that I do not think that the articles themselves deserve to be read and re-read and widely circulated. …

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