I have to confess from the start that this is the first I’ve heard of American university tutor Frank McConnell, who died in 1999. Against the trends in 1992, he was prepared to lecture on graphic novels over there and even brought in Neil Gaiman as a guest lecturer for seven years and who provides an introduction to this book. Previous to that, he was amongst the first in the late 70s to lecture about SF at university classes.
‘The Science Of Fiction And The Fiction Of Science’ contains ten of McConnell’s Eton Conference Lectures, throwing insights on the likes of HG Wells and aspects of SF. I should say from the start that it does help if you are familiar with the more famous SF books from the Golden Age because they are referenced, although enough information is given to see when McConnell is going in his lectures.
What shall I pick out? I’m not sure if I agree with McConnell about the ‘Creature From The Black Lagoon’s interest in Kay when she was swimming in the way as being sexual attraction, which is also a common comment from other people as well, but more a fascination with something unusual in the water that he wanted to examine further. I mean, how many other humanoid creatures has he seen swimming in his lagoon?
With his tenth chapter, ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’, McConnell’s comments that fantasy is seen as a safe genre pretty much sums up something I’ve said in recent months. However, he develops this argument for why SF writers switch genres to fantasy because it gets more exposure and makes more money. This is why SF is still seen as the ghetto genre. Frankly, I think it makes more sense for SF to stay that way. Being regarded as ‘safe’ might pay better but SF would become too sanitised and would lose much of the punch attributed to it. There is some confusion with some books. Years ago, it took a lot of convincing to a work colleague that McCaffrey’s ‘Pern’ books were SF. Thankfully, ‘Dragonsdawn’ put an end to that argument. Just because something looks like something doesn’t mean it is something. I do think that where publishers are making the mistake is trying to make SF ‘safe’ when they should be playing up the attraction that SF is radical. I’ll examine that further in the January editorial.
McConnell’s examination of why our genre seems to be deprived of culinary delights compared to their use in other genres is a point well taken but then body functions and such aren’t always included in a lot of fiction neither simply because readers don’t want every last detail. If anything, at least we’re spared food pills these days.
With chapter 13, ‘You Bet Your Life’, McConnell makes the same assessment as I do about ‘Blade Runner’, that Deckard learnt his humanity from a Replicant, which he wouldn’t be able to do if he himself was an even more advanced model than Rachel.
What is interesting about chapter 14 is McConnell probing the name of our genre as not really representing what it is. To some extent, he is correct. Not all Science Fiction stories are about changes that science and technology bring to a society but as I’ve pointed out recently, nothing ever fits any label. Attempts to change the name before to Speculative Fiction (keeping the initials SF) failed and we ended up being lumbered with ‘Sci-Fi’ to our woes.
Although these lectures are over twenty years old now, a lot of the issues McConnell discusses still have relevance. The fact that they still exist also points at the fact that they still haven’t been resolved means no one has come up with an answer yet other than divide SF into 14 sub-genres. If you come away from this book with a better understanding of the problems then maybe you’ll offer solutions into the pot and hopefully some of them will stick.
(pub: McFarland. 222 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £30.50 (UK), $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-3722-1)