Popes or Tropes:
Defining the Grails
of Science Fiction
Joseph D. Miller
Historically, the attempt to define science fiction has been an endlessly engaging and generally harmless parlor game for critics of the genre. Perhaps that harmlessness reflects the degree of attention that we pay each other. But the naming of true names is synonymous with the wielding of great power—the power to crystallize a field, a specialty, or a profession by the synthesis of a definitive corpus of work. This is not necessarily a bad thing; academic history is rife with examples of classic texts that have so defined and usefully focused whole realms of enquiry. The risk is a premature descent into stasis, often signalling conclusion of the dynamic phase of intellectual exploration.
Contemporary science fiction may be undergoing exactly such a change of state. In the past we have been marginalized and ghettoized; today we are Nortonized! In America the maturation of a literary specialty is often heralded by the publication of a Norton anthology. And the editor of such a distinguished anthology wields an absolute, essentially papal power in defining a field by inclusion and exclusion. Thus we have The Norton Book of Science Fiction1 Presumably, the appearance of this book in 1993 meant that the field had been deemed sufficiently sanitized so as to be teachable to college freshmen. Perhaps such an anthology marked the maturation of our field and a degree of acceptance by the wider literary community. Or perhaps it marked the beginning of decline and absorption into the ranks of the mundane.
Of course, whenever editors assemble a genre-defining anthology (or when a pope releases a papal bull), the results may be idiosyncratic, anachronistic, unrepresentative, or even patently offensive. To judge objectively the value of such acts of individual definition, one must compare them to the collective definition : the ways the genre (or belief system) has been defined by writers, editors, readers, and practitioners in general. This reformative act of comparison inherently threatens the primacy of authority; in traditional Catholicism the comparative act would be judged unnecessary since the collective definition invests the Pope with absolute authority. Since the science fiction community does not invest Norton anthologists