This post, by Timmi Duchamp, originally appeared on the Ambling Along the Aqueduct blog on 11/30/12.
A couple of days ago, Jonathan McCalmont posted Annoyed with the History of Science Fiction to his blog. "Annoyed" notifies us, from the top, that it’s to be read as a rant rather than a sampling of his thoughts on the subject of the history of science fiction. Fair enough. The title also– unintentionally, perhaps– conflates some hypostasized notion of all the existing histories of science fiction distilled into a single "history" with what non-academics usually mean by the word "history" (viz., the past, which inevitably becomes singularly dicey when treated as a conceptual entity). By "history," McCalmont, I believe, means the former. Rants can be interesting and useful, though, and "Annoyed" is both.
It seems a piece by Gary Westfahl provoked McCalmont by making the sort of generalization that seems always to be with us in the sf/f sphere: "the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable." McCalmont explains his annoyance thus: "The reason I am singling out Westfahl’s essay is that it illustrates the field’s lamentable tendency to allow these types of broad historical claims to go completely unchallenged and unsupported." So far so good. But when he says
I believe that the historical approach to science fiction lacks the critical apparatus required to support the sweeping claims made by people who use this approach. Far from being a rigorous analysis of historical fact, the historical approach to genre writing is all too often little more than a hotbed of empty phrases, unexamined assumptions and received wisdom.
Here, I have a bit of trouble with McCalmont’s own generalization. Yes, I see what he calls "the historical approach" used by some academics and many non-academics in the field all the time, but unlike McCalmont, I assume they’re doing so because they’ve chosen to ignore the variety of attempts quite a few smart academic critics have lately made (and continue to make) to grapple with the ungainly, difficult-to-grasp subject without falling into pitfalls Samuel R. Delany has often and effectively excoriated (and which McCalmont duly alludes to). A science fiction work’s closeness to the culture and politics of its time means that any history necessarily has to take shifts in culture and politics (and scientific practice as well as science!) into account. There are scholars in the field attempting to do that– taking a variety of approaches that try their damnedest to eschew generalizations like the one McCalmont cites about Heinlein’s influence.
Now let me get on to the interesting and useful parts of McCalmont’s post. He takes John Berger’s excellent Ways of Seeing and David Bordwell’s On the History of Film Style as examples of approaches to an aesthetic field’s history (art history and film history, respectively) that is illuminating rather than stultifying. Bordwell, McCalmont tells us, pays special attention to the impact certain film techniques (particularly "deep focus," "long take" and "dynamic editing") had on film-making and how we watch films. I think McCalmont gets to something important when he writes: