Road to Science Fiction, Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to Wells
By James Gunn
The Scarecrow Press, Trade: ISBN 0810844141 PubDate December 2002
Review by Edward Carmien (originally posted Dec 2002)
List price $29.95
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This volume of Gunn's epic work, first published in the 1970's and now available again from The Scarecrow Press, covers the primordial beginnings "in the Sumerian Gilgamesh and the Greek epics" of science fiction to its first hairless, upright ancestor (some guy named Wells, apparently) around 1900. It is the beginning of the answer to the question: is science fiction literature?
If you're reading this review there is a strong likelihood your immediate thought is "but of course!" Sadly, many do not agree with this sentiment. Science fiction is not lauded in the halls of academe as being essentially equivalent to Faulkner (with aliens). Gunn's clear intent is to lay a firm foundation for science fiction as a serious and essential art form.
Using examples that range from an excerpt of A True Story by Lucian of Samosata (which details a voyage to the moon) to "The Star" by H.G. Wells, Gunn plots the progression of a consistent breed of literature over an impressive time span. He introduces each piece of the puzzle with a well-supported bit of text; those bits, taken together, form an impressive essay on the subject.
The usual suspects are all here: Shelley, Haggard, de Bergerac, Poe. Less obvious names also abound: Bacon, Kepler, Kipling. Gunn uses each to promote his thesis that science fiction is the literature of change (contrasting it to mainstream literature, which he labels the "literature of continuity.") Epiphanies in science fiction usually are "of the relationship between man and his environment" rather than revelations about character.
An obvious question one might ask about Gunn's six volume series is "but isn't he taking the fun out of science fiction?" I don't think he does, although this first book is not good reading for fair-weather readers. Gunn's prose is serious and well informed without being prolix.
First and foremost this book (and by extension one imagines the rest of the series) is of great use to teachers and students of science fiction. However, Gunn's work is accessible to any serious reader. I recommend it for anyone with an interest in acquiring a useful vocabulary of texts and authors for use during those conversations in which the value of science fiction is questioned. In short, (and with apologies), the next time someone you're near impugns this thing of ours, get your Gunn out and start blasting. If nothing else, you will score points for knowing who "Lucian of Samosata" was.