Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System

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Wesleyan University Press, Mar 7, 2017 - Literary Criticism - 224 pages
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A fresh approach to the history and shape of science fiction

In Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System, John Rieder asks literary scholars to consider what shape literary history takes when based on a historical, rather than formalist, genre theory. Rieder starts from the premise that science fiction and the other genres usually associated with so-called genre fiction comprise a system of genres entirely distinct from the pre-existing classical and academic genre system that includes the epic, tragedy, comedy, satire, romance, the lyric, and so on. He proposes that the field of literary production and the project of literary studies cannot be adequately conceptualized without taking into account the tensions between these two genre systems that arise from their different modes of production, distribution, and reception. Although the careful reading of individual texts forms an important part of this study, the systemic approach offered by Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System provides a fundamental challenge to literary methodologies that foreground individual innovation.


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I found Rieder's work on science fiction a few years back in the article that became chapter two of this book. I found it so, so helpful. When I first read it, I remember thinking, "Wow, this is the best thing I've read on science fiction as a genre." Imagine my excitement when I saw that he had developed his argument into a whole book. I flipped my lid.
The book pays off. It was even more than I had hoped for, actually. I find that it's a deft and searching exploration of genre theory through science fiction, and science fiction through genre theory. Plenty historical and theoretical, but also plenty detailed, with some great case studies. Based on the work that I've read in the past (from Suvin makes a significant contribution to the efforts to grapple with science fiction as a category of analysis and cultural production. For me this is right up there with Seo Young-Chu's _Do Metaphors Dream..._, Camille Bacon-Smith's _Science Fiction Culture_, Samuel Delany's mindblowing essays, the Cambridge Companion edited by Farah Mendlesohn, the encyclopedia from Clute and crew, and Jessica Langer's _Postcolonialism and Science Fiction_. It is just a super helpful tool for positioning and discussing what we're talking about when we're talking about SF.
Building on his previous work in colonialism and science fiction, Rieder’s book begins with an assessment of the scholarship on mass culture and the media flows of the early twenty-first century, when science fiction gained currency as a genre identifier. Drawing together analyses of educational curriculum, technologies of publication, and the social production and distribution of literacy itself, Rieder makes the case for understanding science fiction as a social convention familiar to authors, editors, booksellers, and readers, but often the worse for its encounters with the jagged edges of traditional genre systems that focus more on formalist analysis. Calling on the work of Frederic Jameson, John Frow, Delleuze and Guattari, Bowker and Starr, and Gary Westfahl, among many others, Rieder traces a history of what SF has meant and currently means to people in the world. Rather than viewing the genre as some kind of freestanding thing that is somehow coherent external to human relationships and decisions, Rieder works to reveal that there are always a variety of human investments and human motives at work in defining and employing the idea of science fiction.
Rieder offers an analysis grounded in the social history of texts rather than their formal characteristics. His argument ranges backward in time to the various texts that have become touchpoints in the debates about where science fiction began. He also pushes forward to the present in tracking the roles of science fiction across various forms of media.
Along the way, the book explores and engages the ways that artists and fans have navigated and channeled the shifting ideas about what science fiction is, how we can know it when we see it, and who it belongs to as a literary strategy and a locus for community formation. Ur-texts make frequent appearances in the early going, with a careful reception study of _Frankenstein_ taking pride of place. Further case studies draw insights from the work and experiences of Philip K. Dick, women fans and writers making gains for feminism in the 1970s (this is where he really reminded me of Bacon-Smith), and more recent examples of Afrofuturism and indigenous futurism in North America.
Rieder’s book thus creates a “sketch of the history of SF” that shows the genre to be a “product of multiple communities of practice whose motives and resources may have little resemblance to one another” (11), but whose work we would all identify, somehow, as science fiction. Drawing on his forays in genre theory and the various well-designed case studies, Rieder closes the book by offering a new periodization of science fiction that focuses on the ideological power of the genre.
I think this is going to be a foundational work


INTRODUCTION Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System
Genre Theory SF and History
2 The Mass Cultural Genre System
3 Genealogies of SF
4 Philip K Dicks Mass Cultural Epistemology
Two Hollywood Films and the Tiptree Award Anthologies
Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism
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About the author (2017)

JOHN RIEDER is professor of English at the University of Hawai'i at Mōnoa. Although he has published work on English Romanticism, and on the professionalization of literary studies, for the last fifteen years he has focused his research agenda on science fiction, contributing essays to Extrapolation, Science Fiction Studies, Science Fiction Film and Television, Paradoxa, and other venues. His book on early science fiction, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2008. He currently serves as a coeditor of Extrapolation.

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