Worlds Apart: Narratology Of Science Fiction by Carl D. Malmgren (book review).

A few years ago, I amassed a collection of science fiction books and promised myself I would read at least one every few months. Fast forward four years, and I’ve hardly made a dent in the pile. Such is life. As fellow geeks, I’m sure many of you can relate to having a vast number of unread books. With the current scarcity of non-series SF titles, I decided to dive into ‘Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction’ by Carl D. Malmgren, published in 1992.

This book, consisting of five chapters and a mere 176 pages of text (once you deduct notes, bibliography, and index), is a relatively short read. As with many academic works, Malmgren’s writing is heavy on quotations, which can make it challenging to discern his unique perspective. However, some of the cited books may be worth exploring.

Malmgren delves into the history of SF, primarily examining the impact of readers’ choices on the genre. One might think that sales figures would be a sufficient indicator, but purchasing a book doesn’t guarantee that it will be read. Many of us are guilty of hoarding books, only to leave them unread on our shelves. Book sales trends might not accurately reflect readers’ preferences; they could be influenced by promotion, herd mentality, or other factors.

The author’s third chapter focuses on four SF types: alien encounters, alternative societies, gadgets, and alternate worlds. These categories are somewhat vague, allowing for some overlap. For example, Malmgren explores all-female societies but fails to mention Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘Venus Plus X.’ A review of the bibliography reveals that none of Sturgeon’s books were cited, which is an odd omission given the topics covered in ‘Worlds Apart.’

It’s nearly impossible to read or watch everything in the SF realm, but leaving out significant works or authors seems peculiar. Malmgren does reference Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human’ later in the book, but he also makes a few questionable assertions. For instance, he mischaracterizes the telepathic robot RB-34 in Asimov’s ‘Liar’ and the nature of the mental communication in Robert Silverberg’s ‘Dying Inside.’

Despite these shortcomings, Malmgren’s book introduces other noteworthy titles and encourages critical thinking about the genre. The author’s assertion that fantasy deals with the unreal and SF with the unknown is only partially correct, as both genres explore various aspects of reality. Similarly, while Heinlein’s idea of SF as thought experiments applies to all genres, the notion that these experiments could provide real-world solutions is debatable.

In conclusion, while I don’t always agree with Malmgren’s positions, his book has made me think more deeply about the science fiction genre. Occasionally reading non-fiction works about SF can help reaffirm or challenge our views on the subject.

GF Willmetts

April 2023

(pub: Indiana University Press, 1992. 208 page indexed hardback. Price: I pulled my copy for about £10.00 (UK). ISBN: 0-253-33645-7)

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