Friday, September 30, 2016

Blast from the past

The only time among my many writings for my college newspaper I did a book review, it was of James Gunn's "Alternate Worlds". I have cut and pasted it below.
It was originally published in the Columbia University Daily Spectator on April 28, 1977. If you would like to see the original issue archives on-line, here is a link (I shared the features page with Henry Kissinger and Iggy Pop?)

A guide to the cosmos
By LOU ANTONELLI
Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction by James Gunn (A&W Visual Library, $7.95)
The appeal of Alternate Worlds extends beyond the narrow confines of the science fiction genre. It is an interesting work of illustrated history by noted science fiction author, James Gunn. Though issued in hardcover in 1975, its lofty $29.95 asking price kept many from looking into this scholastic and philosophical work.
Since its issuance in softcover at a more reasonable figure, both science fiction buffs and the genre's casual readers can add the book to their shelves.
Gunn has done his homework. The book traces the origins of science fiction ideas from Homer to Vonnegut, and presents the basic concepts that led to the recognition of science fiction as a legitimate art form under the broader category of fantasy. It is also a graphically pleasing book, with 85 full color plates and 635 in black and white. The color illustrations are science fiction pulp magazine covers. (If you are old enough to remember when the science fiction pulps were in their heyday, you may recall that these covers could get bizarre at times, but were always interesting.)
The black and white illustrations are weighted heavily towards author's portraits, with many illustrations from famous science fiction stories thrown in. Gunn's opus is a celebration of the fact that in recent years science fiction has burst from the ghetto of pulp magazines and monster movies, and captured an ever-widening audience. But Gunn is a science fiction writer himself, and it becomes apparent that he is too close to properly assess the role of the genre in the modern world.
While it is true that science fiction has gained the recognition it so long deserved, it is pompous for Gunn to say "the world has finally caught up with science fiction" and that it is "the most relevant fiction of our time."
Once he draws away from philosophizing and turns to historical narrative, Gunn is on firm ground. He explores the development of the genre, particularly after the start of the industrial revolution, and offers solid opinions as the place of the authors in the development of the modern idiom. Only as he draws closer to the present era (and his contemporaries) does his narrative begin to falter, mostly because he refuses to objectively judge their place in the history of the genre. Finally, he resorts to an embarrassingly redundant listing of names, with no value judgments whatsoever.
Gunn is commendable in the degree to which he follows the true science fiction line in this history. Considering how indefinite the boundaries of the genre are, he does a wonderful job of separating the science fiction from the fantasy, so that writers like Vonnegut and H. P. Lovecraft are only mentioned in conjunction with the true science fiction they wrote.
Despite his weakness in placing the role of science fiction in modern society, his reluctance to judge contemporary authors and considering the size of the project undertaken, Gunn manages to produce a well-researched and coherent history. Alternate Worlds is likely to be used as a reference for years, and it is a piece of interesting reading, to boot.

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