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How to Build your SF Reference Library: Robert Scholes

By / January 12, 2017 / no comments

With everything that was going on at the end of last year, we missed the news that Robert Scholes had died. Scholes was one of the first academics who attempted to apply literary theory to science fiction. Not always successfully, it must be said. And for the casual reader his work tends to be off-puttingly academic in tone; so if the jargon disturbs you, don’t go there. But if you are serious about studying science fiction, his books are a worthy addition to your library.

There are three books that we think offer a good place to start with Scholes.

Structural Fabulation, based on a series of lectures that he gave, is an attempt at a definition of science fiction (which he calls “fabulation”) that contrasts with Darko Suvin’s more famous but more problematic definition. According to Scholes, fabulation is “fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way”. As with so many definitions of science fiction, it makes sense when you apply it to the core of the genre, but the moment you start to look at the edges it becomes less convincing. Certainly a large number of works would fit into this definition that we would not normally consider to be science fiction. Nevertheless, there is at the heart of this book a serious and interesting approach to the literature that still has resonances today. For instance, John Clute’s ideas about “fantastika” might well have roots in Scholes’s fabulation.

Science Fiction: History-Science-VisionScience Fiction: History – Science – Vision, written in collaboration with Eric S. Rabkin, is a more accessible work. Roughly the first half of the book consists of a lively, opinionated and at times waspishly amusing history of science fiction up to the 1970s; and at the end of the book there’s an analysis of ten key novels, including Frankenstein, The Time Machine, A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Left Hand of Darkness, that is sensitive, engaging and still well worth reading today. If, between these end points, the section on science is badly dated, that’s only to be expected, and you can safely skip it for the more interesting parts of the book.

Bridges to Fantasy, which Scholes co-edited with Rabkin and George Slusser, is one of the volumes collected from the long running Eaton Conference on Science Fiction, in this case the second conference in 1980. These essay collections are, inevitably, hit and miss, some papers are more accessible than others, some are more interesting than others, some are more reliable than others. But even so, all told the Eaton Conference collections are usually worth considering because you are always likely to find an essay that excites your interest or gives you a radical new perspective or even changes your mind about something.

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