Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age Of Maturity, 1970-2000 by Darren Harris-Fain (book review).

In case you don’t know by now, whenever there is a non-fiction book associated with Science Fiction that I haven’t read, you can bet I’ll pounce on it. Darren Harris-Fain dedicates his book, ‘Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age Of Maturity, 1970-2000’, to Thomas Clareson who wrote many a fine tome on SF and you probably own copies of his books. If you don’t, please pick them up on the second-hand market because they give a fascinating insight into the Golden Age of SF. It wasn’t until I looked at other books listed at the opening that I realised there’s an earlier volume dedicated to 1926-1970 which I’ll endeavour to pick up but starting with the second will see how knowledgeable Harris-Fain is. Back in the 1970s-80s, there was only a limited number of significant SF books and authors and very easy to work your way through most of them as I did. As such, he does tend to focus more on those than an overall view of that period.


He pays special attention to the New Wave that was going on in SF at the time, although I have to confess I wasn’t really that struck by it. Mostly because, at least in the UK, it was such a niche that you could happily navigate around it. Mind you, to me, SF fiction was SF fiction and I didn’t really get caught up in the desire to revamp our genre. SF has always evolved over the years but usually as a gradual process, dictated by the changes in scientific knowledge as much as anything.

An odd thing that Harris-Fain does is to jump from then to more modern rather than follow through on the period. When it’s done with examples, when there are some from the period, then it might be confusing because they didn’t exist at the time. Case in point is flying cars. Harris-Fain compares the fantasy flying car from ‘Harry Potter’ against SF versions, forgetting the likes of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, which Ian Fleming wrote in 1964 which would match the influence. I don’t think SF fans have ever muddled our genre with fantasy. SF depends on plausibility after all and if there’s any major deviation in the science laws it tends to reflect in the entire reality. Magic, by and far, only affects a limited range of things within a reality.

The strength of this book comes from his examination of the period SF books and series. If you think you’ve missed any, then Harris-Fain’s appraisals should indicate which ones you need to read. Objectively, there’s only a couple I missed out on.

There are some things we both agree on. Stephen King’s first novel ‘Carrie’ is definitely SF but then, so is ‘Firestarter’ which he doesn’t reference. Even from the second chapter, I couldn’t help but wonder just how extensively he read the period books with such knowledge gaps.

Harris-Fain points out that Lois McMaster Bujold had humans with arms for legs in ‘Falling Free’ (1989) and then neglects to mention that John Varley did it earlier with ‘The Ophiuchi Hotline’ (1977) and who is missing as an entry in this book. It’s one thing to be selective on what you include but it’s always best to check as to who was first or done it earlier, if only to cover your back. Just because Varley is Canadian and not American doesn’t neglect the fact that he did such bio-engineering first. It’s obvious further into the book that he abides by Sturgeon’s law of 90% of everything is crap a little too much but doesn’t give much in his criteria for ignoring someone like Varley. Granted in a 220 page book you aren’t going to cover every SF author but there are many such absences. It isn’t as though he totally ignores UK SF authors neither as we get the occasional mention.

Although there is some reference to ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The X-Files’ and the effects of film and TV series over literature, it is odd that there is no mention of the likes of ‘Babylon 5’ and ‘Stargate’. People influenced by SF on film or TV might or might not explore SF literature but you do have to take such things into account. Genre fandom today is built up dedicated sections and those who belong to them don’t necessarily mix in with others and is probably, in part, responsible for the loss of the more non-specialised fan.

Getting SF more mainstream is something that goes through phases of want and avoid in our community and even publishers wanting to change this situation have had little success. In many respects, SF has always been seen as being a bit of a ghetto but its strength comes from being radical and changing that does tend to knock its teeth out. It’s very odd that no other genre has been so radical or imaginative but can’t compete on literature merits. It’s hardly a level playing field.

This doesn’t mean Harris-Fain doesn’t have important things to say. In his conclusion chapter we agrees that we live in a Science Fiction age but doesn’t think that doesn’t contribute with SF writers not succeeding in keeping up with the changes. If anything, I think the general public is getting too used to SF from other forms than literature than to explore the written word. The fact that the so-called professors of literature don’t understand SF needs to be examined more from the perspective of them being wary of science in general and don’t want to portray their own ignorance. SF will survive and we’re just in a bit of a slump at the moment.

Bear in mind this book was released in 2005 with any conclusions Harris-Fain raises then might not necessarily apply today. Oddly, some of them do although I doubt if SF has stayed static in that time but more to do with being age-old arguments that are never resolved. A good bonus with this book is reference to other older non-fiction SF books that you might want to locate. Many of whom I have but I did earmark a couple I hadn’t heard of to keep an eye out for. It’s also pocket-sized and an ideal read on the way to conventions or queuing.

GF Willmetts

April 2016

(pub: University Of South Carolina Press, 2005. 220 page small square hardback. Price: $ (US), £40.50 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-57003-585-2)

check out websites: http://www.sc.edu/uscpress/index.htmland www.eurospanbookstore.com

8 thoughts on “Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age Of Maturity, 1970-2000 by Darren Harris-Fain (book review).

  • A good review, both balanced and honest, which always helps! I think the title ‘Age of Maturity’ annoys me most (for a start, if 1970-2000 is ‘Maturity’, what is between 2000 and 2005, and indeed what between 2005 and now?). If it had referred to any other genre, ‘American Crime Fiction, The Age of Maturity, 1980-2010’, would it have been published at all? There’s an overwhelming, and underlying, attitude in academic circles that SF can be good, so long as it isn’t ..SF. What’s the difference between a ‘mature’ and an ‘immature’ SF story? It wouldn’t be, would it, that the ‘mature’ SF story uses certain elements from ‘literature’? That we are welcomed into the fold to the extent we concur that ‘literature’ is a ‘mature’ genre? I’m less-and-less convinced that ‘literature’ (which only traces its lineage back to the 1700s rather than the several millennia of myth and fantasy) should really be accorded the place of ‘peak’ of fiction, even though there is an additional question on whether literature considers itself to be fiction at all.

  • Hello Ian
    I frequently point out how titles don’t match to the content. I didn’t with this book but I suspect ‘Age Of Maturity’ is more of a reference to the New Wave SF writers who were earnest to be seen as writing ‘literature’. He might have meant a dose of sarcasm although I doubt it in this case.
    I do think that other genres are there for people who like safe plots.

    • With the proviso that I haven’t read the book – the words ‘Age of..’ rather suggest he meant the entire period rather than just a tilt at a particular group with an agenda..
      Not sure what your last sentence means – are you saying that ‘other genres’ are for ‘safe plots’ and ‘literature’ is for unsafe ones.. or that all plots are inherently ‘safe’ and literature doesn’t have plots?

  • Hello Ian
    It does have a long title. You never know how much is author or publisher but it is part of a series covering all genres and hence my wanting to see the 1926-1970 previous book to see what he deems as significant there.
    A lot of SF doesn’t follow the standard plots that other genres do. Take Romance, which uses the same basic plot all the time. SF has a habit of making people think about things like environment and world-wide catastrophe amongst other things that other genres don’t.
    I do think that when other genres are described as ‘literature’, those who say it are more concerned with great writing than anything under-current to.

    • Well, the first book was by Clareson, so there may be some discrepancies.
      I’m not certain Romance does follow the same basic plot – except in the sense that ‘a romance’ involves.. a romance.. and I’m certain many would say that the endless teenage dystopias of recent years have muchly been about ‘romance’ inside a catastrophe. Romantic dystopia, or Dystopian romance? Which word takes precedence? Are ‘J D Robb’s’ novels, police procedurals set in the future, or SF novels which happen to involve crime? What tips it either way?
      I suggest that, to some, ‘literature’ is a judgment not on style (the word ‘literary; covers that) but rather on the lack of genre elements – the more elements, the less it can be ‘literature’

  • Hello Ian
    The booklist in the book didn’t specify the author but I’m not that surprised.
    The basic romance plot is: boy meets girl. They fall out. They get back together. The end.
    SF does and is capable of embracing all the tropes of other genres hence my describing 13 sub-genres here a few years back.
    Oddly, ‘1984’ is regarded as ‘literature’ but those who claim it don’t say its SF.

  • As others have noted in some discussion of this post, John Varley was born and raised in Texas.

  • Hello Andrew
    Which makes his omission from this book even more puzzling, doesn’t it??


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