Literary-Criticism Approaches
to Studying Science Fiction

"The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity."
"And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty."

- Miranda Jones and Spock, "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" (Star Trek: The Original Series)

This page provides resources for SF literary scholars.

All types of literature have critics, just as all other forms of art. We read reviews of movies, TV shows, books, short-stories, art exhibits, in blogs and sites like IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, or journals and magazines (print or online). Literary reviews can be as formal as what might appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction or Kirkus Reviews, or more popular as you might find in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, or as informal as what you might find on io9. In-depth scholarly work about SF appears in publications like Extrapolation, Femspec, Foundation, and Science Fiction Studies.

Criticism helps us evaluate, understand, and interpret art. Critics help us determine if a movie is worth the ten bucks to see in a theater or if we should wait for it to show up on Netflix, or if a book is worth getting in hardcover or if we can just download it from the author's website to pick at when we get a chance. Criticism also helps us determine whether a piece of art is likely to please us or piss us off - that is, a critic whose work we trust helps us find art suited to our tastes, life experience, emotional triggers, and privilege (or lack thereof).

By learning how to effectively deconstruct literature through discussions or in our reading, we are better able to experience the narratives we engage with. Literary criticism helps us delve into the text and understand it from a variety of measures and viewpoints. Often, these perspectives aren't readily apparent without such a deep, critical look.

SF as a genre has only existed since Hugo Gernsback (honored by the World SF Society with the Hugo Award) coined the term scientifiction for his new Amazing Stories magazine in April, 1926 (see the cover to the right). Before that time, critics and scholars were still capable of deriving meaning from literary works - even things that later were accepted into the science fiction canon, or generally accepted as proto-SF. Similarly, literary criticism as a field of study and its approach as practiced today in academic circles has only existed since the early twentieth century.

Yet, for as long as writers have been writing, critics have been evaluating their work. The earliest literary scholarship arose from philosophy and moralistics. Not until the New Criticism Formalism and Formalism came into vogue in the 1930s did we begin to see the rise of what looks like modern literary criticism. These dominated the study and discussion of literature for decades, emphasizing close textual readings over previous approaches around authorial intention and reader response. The emphasis on form and attention to "the words themselves"  persisted through the 1960s, long after the decline of these critical doctrines themselves. In 1957, Northrop Frye discussed the critical tendency to embrace ideology in his book, Anatomy of Criticism. Around that time, academics began to embrace other forms of philosophical theory in their literary studies, and the field of literary criticism has expanded to embrace not only the older approaches, but also drawing in approaches from other fields, which is where literary criticism stands today: as diverse as the scholars who study it.

Science fiction criticism began to appear almost immediately after the genre was named; in fact, much proto- and early SF had already gotten the lit-crit treatment; critics such as Henry James had long considered H.G. Wells to be the most important author of his time. Because SF has unique qualities, history, authors, and influences, and because its themes, ideas, and purpose often override traditional literary goals and expectations, the astute science-fiction scholar needs to develop a unique set of tools to successfully approach the literature of the human species encountering change, especially if she hopes to publish her scholarship and criticism.

Major Literary-Criticism Movements

This section lists the major forms of criticism practiced by literary scholars, when they entered the critical toolbox, and the kinds of questions they seek to answer. Keep in mind that just about any political or philosophy theory is a valid approach for examining literature, but the more formal and traditional your approach, the more likely traditional editors of scholarly journals will find your work acceptable.

When examining science fiction, you might need to adapt and hybridize some of these approaches in order to ask the most-relevant questions, particularly when studying core-genre works.

  • Traditional Literary Criticism: includes Aesthetic, Biographical, Dramatic Constructionism, Moral, and Philosophical Criticism (ancient through present).
    • Arose from Aristotelian and Platonic criticism.
    • What is the relevant canon, and how does this work compare, fit, reflect, reject, or expand the canon?
    • What and who influenced this work?
    • What is the historical context?
    • What literary allusions appear in the text?
    • How can understanding an author's life help readers more thoroughly appreciate the work? When and where did she live? Where did she go to school? What else did she write?
  • Structuralism and Semiotics (1920s - present)
    • Based mostly on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. Meant to be a meta-language (a language about languages) for decoding languages and systems of signification.
    • How does the signifier (words, marks, symbols) reflect how a particular society uses language and signs?
    • How is meaning represented in a system of "differences" between units of the language?
    • What are the underlying structures of signification that make meaning itself possible?
  • Formalism and the New Criticism (1930s - present)
    • Focuses on the words of the text rather than he author, historical milieu, or other context.
    • How does the work use the form?
    • How does it use irony, style, metaphor, sentence structure, imagery, symbolism, figures of speech, tone, and other literary devices?
  • Archetypal and Mythological (1900 - present)
    • What recurrent or universal patterns appear in the work?
    • How can you use ancient mythical structures to study it?
    • Psychoanalytic: Uses the theories of Freud to analyze the work. (Now considered passé.)
    • Jungian (1930s - present): Especially examines the "collective unconscious."
  • Marxist (1930s-present)
    • How does the work represent conflict between class (lower class vs. working class vs. bourgeoisie vs. the wealthy)?
    • How does it reflect capitalist or socialist values?
  • Ecocriticism (1960s - present)
    • How does the work reflect current understanding about human impact on the environment?
  • Reader-Response (1960s - present)
    • Central tenet is that literature exists not as static artifact but as a transaction between the text or author and the reader's mind.
    • How can you evocatively describe what happens in the reader's mind while interpreting the narrative?
    • How can you express your reading as a creative, collaborative process with the author?
    • What meaning do you derive from your unique act of reading?
  • Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction (1960s - present)
    • Rejects the assumption that language can accurately represent reality; there is no fixed meaning.
    • How is language used in the text?
    • How do the actual signifiers (such as words) create meaning?
    • Here are a few authors whose work responds well to this approach.
  • Feminist (1960s - present)
    • Brings the focus to the woman as reader, author, character, and subject.
    • How does an author's gender influences consciously or unconsciously affect the work?
    • How does sexual identity (of the author, characters, reader, and so forth) affect the narrative or interpretation of it?
    • Can you approach the work "gynocritically" (women-centered; for example, focusing only on women authors)?
  • Queer Theory (1970s - present)
    • Arose from Feminist Theory.
    • How does the work reflect or resist normative definitions of "man," "woman," and sexuality?
    • Does it reflect or resist traditional societal, literary, and historical constructions of male gender identity? Female? Other identities?
    • Does it transgress, reverse, mimic, or critique sexuality or sexual identity?
  • Evolutionary or Darwinist (1980s - present)
    • How can an understanding of evolutionary processes provide insights into the narrative, characters, setting, and so forth?
    • Also the subcategory of Social Darwinism, which suggests the strong are rewarded with greater wealth and power, while the weak are punished with loss.
  • New Historicism and Cultural Studies (1980s - present)
    • How does the work signify or express the historical or sociological context?
  • Post-Colonial and Ethnic (1990s - present)
    • Affected ethnic groups usually include African, African-American, Central and South American, Chinese, Native American, Southeast Asian, Indian, Irish, and Filipino.
    • Early proponent of "Ethnic Studies" is W.E.B. Dubois.
    • An important subgenre is Afrofuturism (aka African Futurism).
    • How does the work reflect Euro-American colonization during their imperialist periods?
    • How does it reflect the blindness of privilege from the point of view of authors immersed in imperialist cultures?
    • Does the POV reflect external (empire-building) or internal (the enslaved)?
    • Does the work exoticize (especially in travel narratives) or "Orientalize" native peoples?
  • Thing Theory (1990s - present)
    • Foremost theorist is Bill Brown.
    • What meaning do the objects in the work carry?
  • Posthumanism and Transhumanism (2000s - present)
    • Strives to move beyond archaic concepts of "human nature" to develop ones which constantly adapt to contemporary.
    • How does the work define what it means to be human?
    • How does it display nature and the natural world, especially after technology has reshaped what we consider "natural"?
    • How does it examine the human experience for people who are partly or fully biomechanical?
    • What does it say about the human experience for people who are no longer biological, or who no longer possess a physical body?

Important Critical Works

Want to know more? You'll want to know these works:

McKitterick also offers:

"Views of Science Fiction"
Graduate Seminar - contact me for details

Available for graduate study (3 credits)
or not-for-credit (for professionalization)

updated 10/2/2016