Road to Science Fiction - From Here to Forever by James Gunn
Scarecrow Press Trade: ISBN 0810846705 PubDate: 07/01/03
Review by Edward Carmien
608 pgs. List price $ 40
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In volumes one, two, and three of this titanic work, James Gunn traces the history and evolution of science fiction literature from ancient times to the near-present. Volume three, subtitled “From Heinlein to Here” capped the series, originally in the late 1970’s and in the revised version (recently published) somewhat later. Why, then, is there a fourth volume?
Science fiction is big. Too big, it turns out, for three major anthologies (along with critical material) to review. Gunn doesn’t pick up where volume three ends with From Here To Eternity, however. He has produced an anthology that postulates the future of sf is in its growing diversity. No longer, he argues, is it possible to define a period of years with a term like “the new wave.” If nothing else, cyberpunk showed us that there was a larger body of sf that existed beyond that frantic sub-genre, a body influenced by but not swept away by cyberpunk’s tropes and themes.
Volume four is new ground for the series. It turns away from the grand scheme of the first three volumes, and intends instead to represent quality writing of diverse kinds. This volume four does very well, presenting works by authors as varied and as excellent as Vonda N. McIntyre, Joan D. Vinge, James Tiptree, Jr., John Varley, Barry N. Malzberg, and so on and so forth (for more than 30 authors). This 500+ page anthology is more like other anthologies that make a historical statement about science fiction, such as Card’s excellent Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction Of The Century (just bigger).
Readers of the series will notice some repetition in the critical material. This is not because Gunn has run out of things to say—rather, it is a symptom of what the volume does (fill in previously unaddressed areas). By pulling together a range of excellent stories that span decades of sf publishing history, references must be made to material from earlier volumes, especially volumes two and three.
In an ideal world, Gunn would have known his series would have the publishing legs to run to this length, and this material would have been incorporated more smoothly into the series. As it is, one can hardly fault the man for not owning a crystal ball that could have told him, more than two decades ago, that The Road To Science Fiction would enjoy (much deserved) attention from publishers who have reprinted the older volumes and commissioned new ones.
Teachers of science fiction will find this volume only slightly less useful than the earlier volumes in the series. Writers will probably find it more useful, as a wide array of excellent yet (given the breadth of the genre today) not necessarily widely known authors. The focus remains on short stories and the publishing world that puts them into print, but references are made throughout to novel-length works, and Gunn includes a chapter from Frank Herbert’s Dune. The author introductions continue to be excellent: Gunn provides both biographical and critical information about the authors he presents in this volume.
The world of science fiction has expanded tremendously during the past decades, by one measure (titles published) over 20 times what it was in the early 1970’s. To understand what is going on in this world (even for the busiest sf readers) requires a guided tour—and James Gunn is just the fellow to give such a tour.