Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Science Fiction Primer: Interview with Amy H. Sturgis

Posted by Randy Hoyt • Apr 1st, 2009

Amy H. Sturgis is an author, speaker, and professor at Belmont University. She specializes in fantasy and science fiction and in Native American studies. In addition to her numerous book chapters, articles, and conference presentations, Amy has written four books on U.S. history and Native American studies (including the recent Tecumseh: A Biography) and edited three works on science fiction and fantasy (including a collection of essays on C.S. Lewis titled Past Watchful Dragons).

[Editor's Note: The conversation below is the first part of a single interview. The second part of that conversation appeared in another issue as Native America & Speculative Fiction.]


Randy Hoyt: In the very first issue of this magazine, I proposed a working definition of myth that encompasses more than just traditional mythology, including fantasy and science fiction. What do you think that all three of these have in common?

Amy H. Sturgis: All three are involved in the project of answering the question of what it means to be human: the nature of humanity; the nature of humanity’s relationship to the earth, the cosmos, the infinite; and other questions like these. The very first storytellers, through their mythological stories, parables, and other tales, were trying to come to some sense of the world and to figure out their place in it. I see mythology as a “mother figure” out of which the other two have grown. I would group all these under the umbrella “speculative fiction,” along with much of horror. I would also emphasize that some of the sub-genres of science fiction like utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and weird fiction or Gothic fiction fit under this heading. I think all of these forms of speculative fiction originate from the same impulse that was first shown through mythology.

RH: I like that term, “speculative fiction.” Could you explain a little bit more what you mean by that?

AHS: I think the easiest way to describe it is to consider what does not fit in speculative fiction. On the one hand, you have the kind of fiction that describes the world as we can see it or taste it or feel it, a world that is already familiar to readers: “mundane fiction.” These stories take place in the time and place in which the readers live or one with which they are familiar from history. For example, when reading Jane Austen, readers don’t have to be told how gravity works in order to understand her story because it’s taking place in a world that they already recognize. Speculative fiction is the opposite of that. These stories use imaginative tools in order to answer the important questions about the human experience, attempting to explain everything from what happens when we die to what makes thunderstorms occur to how the earth and its inhabitants came into being in the first place.

RRH: In what ways would you say that fantasy and science fiction differ in their approach to these questions?

AHS: I think the impulse to draw a line between these two types of speculative fiction is something with which the critics are more concerned than the practitioners, those telling the stories. Some of my favorite authors move fairly easily between the two: Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Orson Scott Card, for example. But as a critic, the distinction that is helpful for me — inspired by some of the work that scholar James Gunn has done — involves describing science fiction as the fiction of change and fantasy as the fiction of difference. In a work of science fiction, it’s our world, our universe; we recognize its natural laws as identifiable and familiar to us; but there’s a change. Artificial intelligence might exist, or we might have interstellar travel or time travel. It’s our world with a change added to it, a “what-if.” That change requires plausibility, if not probability: the change could really happen. Fantasy, on the other hand, is more about overall differences. When you are in Middle-earth or in Narnia, there’s a different set of rules in effect there. Even in the wainscot fantasies like Harry Potter, with the wizarding world that butts up against our own, things are still different in that secondary universe. This is what Tolkien wrote about in “On Fairy-stories,” a believable world of fantasy with its own internal dynamic and its own laws that hold true for that world. I think this angle — change vs. difference — helps me to move any given work in one direction or another, but I think there’s an argument to be made that some works incorporate both, some blur the lines, and other are just not easily pigeon-holed in either one.

I think it’s interesting to see whether science fiction or fantasy gains an ascendancy over the other one at different times. In the 1950s, for example, there was a sense of wonder and excitement about the future and technological progress — “We’re going to go to the moon!” and “Think of all the things we’re going to accomplish!” At that time, there was a greater interest in science fiction than in fantasy, particularly with science fiction becoming popular in young-adult fiction thanks to the juveniles of Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton, and others. Contrast that with today, when the national polls say that young people don’t think their life is going to get better, that they don’t think the world their children will inherit will be as good as the world their parents lived in, when there’s a general societal concern about what the future holds. Today, you see the trend moving sharply from fantasy and away from science fiction. I’m not saying there’s a definite causation, but there is definitely a correlation between the way we view the past and the future and which of the two genres speaks to us. At a given time one seems more popular than the other in part because of the way we feel about the state of our affairs today.

RH: When would you say that modern science fiction as a genre began?

AHS: I think that all speculative fiction has a very long past. In terms of the greater tradition out of which science fiction emerged, you would have to go all the way back to something like the Epic of Gilgamesh or Plato’s Republic to find the seeds. As scholars again, more than as fans or practitioners, we pinpoint when certain movements began or shifted. Scholars differ about the beginning of modern science fiction as we know it, but I think the best case can be made for Mary Shelley’s 1818 publication of Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus. Elements of science fiction can be found in earlier works, but Shelley really combines all of the necessary ingredients for what we consider modern science fiction. The next important figure would probably be Edgar Allan Poe. The genre really came into its own with people like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells writing at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

Science fiction has of course gone through many different stages, waves, or movements since. The thing I like most about the history of science fiction is how closely it is connected to the question of what it means to be human. The science part of science fiction keeps expanding. It starts out as biology and chemistry, then takes in physics, then takes in linguistics and anthropology and sociology. As more disciplines get brought in under the science part of science fiction, we get new insights into what it means to be human. I think at some level, we always answer the question “What is human?” with something like “Whatever is like me.” That is just our frame of reference. But as science fiction has expanded its lens by incorporating the tools of different sciences, the notion of “what’s like me” gets bigger and bigger. So the answer starts out to include only well-educated, land-owning white men and then evolves to include people of both genders and all races. But then, what traits must a computer or an artificial intelligence possess in order for us to think of it as something like a human? What about different biological creatures, like a primate on our planet or a different life form on another planet? What of clones? What is necessary for us to consider any life human enough to be treated as human? Some of the most innovative questions about the very nature of how we understand the universe have come from writers using science fiction to get at these questions in a different way.

RH: For people who want to get started with science fiction, what classic works would you recommend?

AHS: Mary Shelley is a good starting place. Frankenstein (1818) is a work of absolute genius, but I really love her less-known but equally-brilliant book The Last Man (1826); I try to foist that on people whenever I can. You can’t wrong with anything by H.G. Wells; his work stands up incredibly well. I would particularly recommend The Time Machine (1895).  I’m also a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, who is as much a science-fiction author as a weird-fiction or horror author; The Color Out of Space (1927) would be a good one to read first. I would also include three books that were instrumental in my own adolescence: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966). These classic works give a sense of the possibilities and the breadth of science fiction.

RH: You teach classes on the history of science fiction at Belmont University. What do you cover in those classes?

AHS: There are three classes in particular, and each of them has a bit of a different perspective. The one I’ve taught most is called “The History of the Future”; it essentially looks at one hundred years of history through science fiction. We look at science-fiction texts and ask how the works reflect the concerns of the authors about their own time period. It’s a history course, but the premise is that the science-fiction authors — no matter how remote the worlds they describe, how furry the aliens, or how chartreuse the ray-gun beams — are actually talking about their own time and place and reacting to it in some way. Joe Haldeman’s classic work The Forever War (1974), for example, is set in the distant future at a time of interstellar travel. It is a story about people sent away from home to fight on the front lines. Because of the way time works with space travel, they return from the war to encounter a place that is literally a different world than the one they left, and these soldiers must suffer through the difficulty of finding their place in this alien world. But Haldeman is writing about his experience in Vietnam as a soldier, serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and then returning home to a less-than-recognizable United States. Students can learn much more from that rich text about the experiences of the Vietnam Era than they can get from reading a history textbook.

Another class I teach is called “Worlds Gone Wrong,” a class specifically on the dystopian tradition. We start with E.M. Forrester’s The Machine Stops (1909) and look at different dystopian works from the last hundred years to see the different warnings that authors have given. These descriptions of worst-case scenarios tell us about the concerns of the time periods in which they were written: totalitarian governments, moral decline, rampant consumerism, and other concerns. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), for example, discusses drug abuse and gangs and the disintegration of the cities; we look at how that book relates to the early ’90s but also to our concerns today. A lot of the students are really interested to find out that environmental concerns — something they associate with today’s mainstream media — show up quite early in dystopian works.

The third class in which I use science fiction is about the frontier and US Exceptionalism. We look at the idea that started back in the late nineteenth century with Frederick Jackson Turner called the “frontier thesis,” which suggests that the United States is unique among all other nations because it had the experience of the frontier. We bring that idea forward to consider what the frontier means in different eras in the United States’ history. Is the United States really unique? If not, why did we come up with this idea? If so, how do we look at it in a twenty-first century context? It is not strictly a science-fiction class, but we do look at works like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) and David Brin’s The Postman (1985), as well as the science-fiction television series Firefly (2002), to think about the frontier in different ways.

RH: What about more recent science fiction? Is there an anthology or some other resource that would expose people to work going on today?

AHS: There is a great anthology series called The Road To Science-Fiction (1979-1998) edited by James Gunn. It contains six volumes, with each volume addressing a different time period. The last several volumes include contemporary stories from around the world. The series as a whole is an excellent introduction for anyone interested in the history of science fiction.

I have also found podcasts to be a great resource for recent stories. There are a number of great podcasts in speculative fiction, such as Escape Pod and SciFiDimensions. I am personally involved with a podcast run by Tony C. Smith called StarShipSofa, which spotlights new science fiction stories published in the last year or two. Tony has persuaded some tremendous authors — authors who are in a good position to shape the genre in the twenty-first century — to donate their stories. I am very fortunate to do dramatic readings of these works for the podcast. I’ve narrated stories by the likes of Jeff Carlson, Vonda McIntyre, and Paul di Filippo, among others. Last year and this year, the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) allowed StarShipSofa to run dramatic readings of all of the stories they shortlisted for their Best Short Fiction award — the highest science-fiction honor for short stories in Great Britain. (In February, I was honored to do the dramatic reading of M. Rickert’s 2009 BSFA-nominated story.) StarShipSofa will also be putting up has also just put up dramatic readings of all seven nominees for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

RH: Not only do you do dramatic readings, but you also write and read fact articles on the history of science fiction. I have really enjoyed listening to those and getting some historical context on the genre. I found your articles on Francis Stevens, the Arkham House Sampler, and the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in particular to be quite fascinating.

AHS: Thank you so much! I greatly appreciate it. The other main goal of StarShipSofa, besides spotlighting new authors, is to try to rescue some the forgotten pioneers of science fiction. I hope my fact articles contribute to that end. It gives me great joy to be a part of the podcast and to shine the spotlight on authors and works I think are too important to be forgotten.


I have included links to all the books and podcast episodes Amy recommended during the interview below. You can learn more about Amy’s work by visiting her web site, amyhsturgis.com. She is currently working on what sounds like an exciting new book, The Gothic Imaginations of J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, and J.K. Rowling, for publication with Zossima Press in 2010.

[Editor's Note: The conversation above is the first part of a single interview. The second part of that conversation appeared in another issue as Native America & Speculative Fiction.]


Recommendations

One Response »

  1. Amy mentioned to me that the StarShipSofa would soon be adding dramatic readings for all seven of the finalists for this year’s Nebula Award for best short story. These readings were added on April 2, so I went ahead and added them to the “Recommendations” section of this interview to include those links. Enjoy!