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How to Build Your SF Reference Library: Classic Reviews

By / September 6, 2017 / no comments

I know, it’s been a little while since we added to this feature, but there are always more books to add to the library. And this post takes us back, in a sense, to the early days of science fiction scholarship. The earliest sf scholarship was probably bibliographies, fans compiling detailed and complete lists of the works of their favourite authors. But hot on the heels of the bibliographies came the book reviews. Now at first the reviews weren’t anything to write home about. You know the sort of thing, because you still get it today: this was dead good, and this is the plot in exhaustive detail. It’s the sort of thing that really tells you nothing, not even if the book is worth reading or not. But in the 1950s, a couple of prominent sf authors started to write reviews, bringing to them not only a thorough knowledge of the field but also a practical knowledge about what does and does not work, and why. The result was ferocious, at least compared to what had gone before, they were often controversial, but in one very important respect they were where science fiction criticism began.

With two exceptions, all the books I’ve included here came out from small specialist presses. You will almost certainly have to seek out secondhand copies, but it is well worth the effort.

James Blish

More Issues at Hand: Critical Studies in Contemporary Science Fiction   The Tale that Wags the God

It was in 1952 that the first reviews started to appear under the name of William Atheling, Jr., and it would be some time before Atheling was identified as James Blish. These reviews were collected in the early 1960s in two volumes, The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand. More than ten years after Blish died in 1975, a third volume appeared as The Tale that Wags the God. The thing about Blish was that he could be cutting and funny at the same time, so these reviews, even of books that have disappeared from view in the intervening decades, are still great fun to read.

Damon Knight

In Search of Wonder: essays on modern science fictionAt the same time that the first William Atheling, Jr., reviews appeared, so did the first reviews by Damon Knight. His approach was, if anything, even more analytic than Blish’s, and throughout the 50s he was probably the pre-eminent critic of science fiction. A first volume of his reviews, In Search of Wonder, appeared in the mid-50s, but no second volume followed. Then, in the mid-60s, all the material that would have formed the second volume was incorporated into a greatly expanded second edition of In Search of Wonder.

Algis Budrys

Benchmarks Continued 1975-1982The third in the great triumvirate of author-critics was Algis Budrys, who began writing a regular bi-monthly review column for Galaxy magazine in 1965 and continued until 1971. All of these columns were collected in Benchmarks. Whether Budrys intended that that would be an end to his reviewing career is unclear, but by 1975 he was back writing a regular review column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and he kept that up without interruption until 1993. But we had to wait until 2013 for these columns to be collected in three further volumes, Benchmarks Continued, Benchmarks Revisited and Benchmarks Concluded. His views were at times idiosyncratic, at times controversial, but these four books between them provide an amazing overview of hundreds of books that appeared over those 30 years.

Joanna Russ

The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (Liverpool University Press - Liverpool Science Fiction Texts & Studies)Also in the mid-60s, Joanna Russ began writing reviews for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and did so, intermittently, through to the early 80s. For anyone familiar with Russ’s work, it will come as no surprise that these reviews were fiercely critical. Her writing was sharp, acerbic, and took no prisoners, but she was still a necessary and invigorating voice in sf criticism just at the point when science fiction was beginning to take notice of feminism. The best of her reviews, along with other essays, were belatedly gathered into a volume called The Country You Have Never Seen.

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