Friday, September 28, 2012

35 years on

A few days ago I learned via Facebook that the Columbia University Libraries have digitized back issues of the Columbia Daily Spectator from the 1940s to the present. This is a boon for me, since I was a reporter for the newspaper, served on the student council, and was also a staff member of the Office of Student Activities. These were the three main occupants of the since-demolished student center, Ferris Booth Hall. I think I hold the distinction of being the only person to have belonged to all three groups.

A search of the digitized archives comes up with over 200 hits for me from those pages, from 1975 to 1984. This archive will be of great help to me in the future, since my own old issues of the paper disappeared many years ago.

When I began writing s-f a decade ago, I recalled the irony of the fact that - of all the writing I did for the Columbia Spectator - I only did ONE book review, but it was James Gunn's "Alternate Worlds". I later bought a copy through eBay, and in 2004 I attended the Campbell Conference in Lawrence, Kansas, and he signed it for me.

Thanks to this newly-opened archive, I was able to retrieve the review and read it after 35 years. Although parts of it makes me cringe today, I thought I'd reprint it, so here it is, from April 28, 1977:

A guide to the cosmos


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.
The original illustration from the 1977 article

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." This is probably the long-range effect of Isaac Asimov, generally known as the most pompous man alive, who, luckily, contributed only a short, saccharine introduction to Gunn's book, describing his love affair with sci-fi in prose so picturesque I thought I might be reading the Song of Solomon.

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 and his reluctance to judge contemporary authors, 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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