Rob Latham answered a few questions for us about editing the new anthology Science Fiction Criticism.
Tell us a bit about a significant piece in the collection and why you selected it.
Well, the volume is packed with classic essays, so it’s hard to pick just one. That said, I was very happy I was able to include Philip K. Dick’s “The Android and the Human,” despite the fact that it was the single costliest item, in terms of reprint rights, in the book. Dick’s essay is one of the most incisive commentaries on how science fiction can illuminate our strange kinship with machines ever written. But it’s just one of 36 superb pieces in the volume!
What made you realize this kind of collection was missing from the field?
Every other field of literary study has a standard anthology of the “greatest hits” of criticism, but for some reason science fiction doesn’t. There are many very useful handbooks—including my own Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction—but no “one stop shop” for key essays and arguments. After teaching SF for twenty years, and always being compelled to assemble my own course pack of critical work to supplement the primary texts, I decided I should assemble an anthology that could serve the purpose, for me and other teachers.
Did you begin compiling essays with a certain piece or pieces in mind?
There were certainly critics—such as Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ—whose essays had to be in the volume because they had been so hugely influential. But there was also more recent work by younger scholars that was opening up fresh avenues of inquiry in the field. The challenge was to achieve a balance between touchstone texts of the past and essays from more recent decades that seemed destine to endure.
What do you think is the most unusual piece in the collection?
Without a doubt, this would be Nalo Hopkinson’s “A Report from Planet Midnight.” First of all, it is one of two transcribed speeches, so it has the rhetorical energy of a piece geared to be read aloud to a live audience. But more than that, it has a brilliant central conceit: Nalo presents herself as the host to an invading alien, from the eponymous Planet Midnight, who proceeds to arraign the audience for their blinkered assumptions about race and ethnicity in science fiction. It’s really a tour-de-force.
What are the benefits and challenges of editing a collection?
The benefits are getting the chance to work with others as you put the book together. Most of the authors included are still alive and writing, and they were very enthusiastic about having their work in such a volume. The challenges are commensurate with including so many voices: trying to secure rights to works that may have a complicated publication history. All in all, the benefits outweighed the challenges!
Given unlimited space, what would you have added to the collection?
Well, the original list of “essential” authors/essays I drew up was twice as long! Trying to capture the core of science fiction criticism in one volume, even one as capacious as this, is not an easy task. I am glad that I was able to include so many works by practicing SF writers (Delany, Russ, J.G. Ballard, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, etc.), but there are so many others I wish I could have added: A.J. Budrys, Damon Knight, James Blish, and on and on.
Tell us one new thing you learned from editing this volume.
I sort of knew this before, but editing this book really reinforced how rich and inexhaustible science fiction literature is. New ways of viewing the genre are constantly coming into being, as fresh generations of critics bring their analytical tools to the task of understanding what SF does and can do in the world. It’s obvious that, far from being just an “escapist” form of mass entertainment, SF is one of the most vital and intellectually vibrant popular forms in the world today.
What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?
I hope they come away with a renewed appreciation for the transformative potential of science fiction criticism, its ability to give us shrewd new ways of understanding both the classics of the field and the world in which we live. All of the 36 essays in the collection make a case for science fiction not just as a form of popular literature but as a way of seeing and being in the world.
Rob Latham is an independent scholar based in the USA. Winner of the Science Fiction Research Association's Thomas D. Clareson award for distinguished service to the field, he is editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014), co-editor of The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010) and author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs and the Culture of Consumption (2002). For two decades, he was a senior editor of the journal Science Fiction Studies. He is the editor of Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology, now available from Bloomsbury.