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Literary-Criticism Approaches
to Studying Science Fiction

"The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity."
"And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty."

- Miranda Jones and Spock, "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" (Star Trek: The Original Series)

This page provides resources for SF literary scholars.

All types of literature have critics, just as all other forms of art. We read reviews of movies, TV shows, books, short-stories, art exhibits, in blogs and sites like IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, or journals and magazines (print or online). Literary reviews can be as formal as what might appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction or Kirkus Reviews, or more popular as you might find in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, or as informal as what you might find on io9. In-depth scholarly work about SF appears in publications like Extrapolation, Femspec, Foundation, and Science Fiction Studies.

Criticism helps us evaluate, understand, and interpret art. Critics help us determine if a movie is worth the ten bucks to see in a theater or if we should wait for it to show up on Netflix, or if a book is worth getting in hardcover or if we can just download it from the author's website to pick at when we get a chance. Criticism also helps us determine whether a piece of art is likely to please us or piss us off - that is, a critic whose work we trust helps us find art suited to our tastes, life experience, emotional triggers, and privilege (or lack thereof).

By learning how to effectively deconstruct literature through discussions or in our reading, we are better able to experience the narratives we engage with. Literary criticism helps us delve into the text and understand it from a variety of measures and viewpoints. Often, these perspectives aren't readily apparent without such a deep, critical look.

SF as a genre has only existed since Hugo Gernsback (honored by the World SF Society with the Hugo Award) coined the term scientifiction for his new Amazing Stories magazine in April, 1926 (see the cover to the right). Before that time, critics and scholars were still capable of deriving meaning from literary works - even things that later were accepted into the science fiction canon, or generally accepted as proto-SF. Similarly, literary criticism as a field of study and its approach as practiced today in academic circles has only existed since the early twentieth century.

Yet, for as long as writers have been writing, critics have been evaluating their work. The earliest literary scholarship arose from philosophy and moralistics. Not until the New Criticism Formalism and Formalism came into vogue in the 1930s did we begin to see the rise of what looks like modern literary criticism. These dominated the study and discussion of literature for decades, emphasizing close textual readings over previous approaches around authorial intention and reader response. The emphasis on form and attention to "the words themselves"  persisted through the 1960s, long after the decline of these critical doctrines themselves. In 1957, Northrop Frye discussed the critical tendency to embrace ideology in his book, Anatomy of Criticism. Around that time, academics began to embrace other forms of philosophical theory in their literary studies, and the field of literary criticism has expanded to embrace not only the older approaches, but also drawing in approaches from other fields, which is where literary criticism stands today: as diverse as the scholars who study it.

Science fiction criticism began to appear almost immediately after the genre was named; in fact, much proto- and early SF had already gotten the lit-crit treatment; critics such as Henry James had long considered H.G. Wells to be the most important author of his time. Because SF has unique qualities, history, authors, and influences, and because its themes, ideas, and purpose often override traditional literary goals and expectations, the astute science-fiction scholar needs to develop a unique set of tools to successfully approach the literature of the human species encountering change, especially if she hopes to publish her scholarship and criticism.

Major Literary-Criticism Movements

This section lists the major forms of criticism practiced by literary scholars, when they entered the critical toolbox, and the kinds of questions they seek to answer. Keep in mind that just about any political or philosophy theory is a valid approach for examining literature, but the more formal and traditional your approach, the more likely traditional editors of scholarly journals will find your work acceptable.

When examining science fiction, you might need to adapt and hybridize some of these approaches in order to ask the most-relevant questions, particularly when studying core-genre works.

Important Critical Works

Want to know more? You'll want to know these works:

"Views of Science Fiction"
Graduate Seminar - partial syllabus here

Originally available for graduate credit
and for professionalization
contact us if you'd like to see this course offered through the Ad Astra Institute.

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This site is associated with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA), AboutSF, and other organizations, and its contents are copyright 1992-present Christopher McKitterick except where noted, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: Feel free to use and adapt for non-profit purposes, with attribution. For publication or profit purposes, please contact McKitterick or other creators as noted.

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Works on this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

updated 10/2/2016