A deft and searching exploration of genre theory through science fiction, and science fiction through genre theory, John Rieder
's Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System
(Wesleyan University Press, 2017) makes a significant contribution to the efforts to grapple with science fiction as a category of analysis and cultural production.
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. Calling on the work of Frederic Jameson, Deleuze and Guattari, Bowker and Starr, and Gary Westfahl, among many others, Rieder traces a history of what SF has meant and currently means, revealing a variety of motives at work in defining and employing the genre.
Allowing his argument to range backward in time to the various texts that have become touchpoints in the arguments about where science fiction began, and forward to the present in tracking the roles of science fiction across various forms of media, Rieder offers an analysis grounded in the social history of texts rather than their formal characteristics. Along the way, Rieder's work 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 Shelley's 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, 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 the fruit of both his forays in genre theory and their thorough exploration in well-designed case studies, Rieder closes the book by offering a new periodization of science fiction that will spur further work into the ongoing ideological power of the genre.
Carl Nellis is an academic editor and writing instructor who researches contemporary American community formation around appropriations of medieval European culture. You can learn more about Carl's work and request an editorial consultation at carlnellis.wordpress.com.