Age of Wonders, David G. Hartwell

Tor, 1996 revision of 1984 original, 319 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86151-6

I must have read Age of Wonders three times in either of its incarnations, so I’m a bit surprised that I have never formally reviewed it on-line.  But my own search engine tells me that I haven’t… so here’s a quick recommendation for one of the best book ever published on the American Science Fiction genre and its subculture.

(I might as well make a few pre-emptive disclaimers before going any further, since there are a number of links between Hartwell and myself: : I’m on a quest to collect all issues of his New York Review of Science Fiction magazine, he has edited novels by people I consider to be friends, I’ve got a handful of his books personally dedicated to me, we have shared a number of conversations throughout the years, I have moderated at least one panel with him and he has –briefly- driven me around Orlando.  We are, in other words, just a bit more than nodding acquaintances.)

Originally published in 1984, Age of Wonders was last revised in 1996 to incorporate a number of changes in the field.  While that revision is now fifteen years old, don’t let the pre-Web publication date distract you from the book’s vast and timeless understanding of Science Fiction.  Its first point of interest is the way it explains why “the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve”.  It’s at that age, after all, that bright teenagers pick up a chronic reading habit, a reading regimen that often contains a large proportion of Science-Fiction.  From his understanding of the field, Hartwell shows how disaffected teenagers often find in SF a literature that appeals to their sense of the world, and how they never completely let go of their affection for the genre after that.  Ask around SF conventions, and you will often find people who correspond exactly to this profile –including myself.

Hartwell then proceeds to sketch a history of the fannish subculture that has, since the beginning, surrounded the Science Fiction genre.  It has forever been in the nature of SF’s readership to communicate among itself, and the presence of fandom is one of the things that still makes the SF genre so different from other literary fields: It fosters SF’s awareness of itself as a distinct entity, structures the conversation within the field and provides authors with encouragement that, in some cases, is more valuable than the potential monetary rewards offered by a wider readership outside the genre.  Science-Fiction fandom is small, but it’s concentrated.

Age of Wonders also spends quite a bit of time discussing the nuts and bolts of the impact that SF has on its readers.  Hartwell dedicates entire chapters to the study of the “Sense of Wonder” so particular to SF, to the tortuous relationship that Science Fiction has with real science and reality, to the reasons why clear prose has long been SF’s dominant stylistic requirement and to the biggest historical controversies within the field.

Hartwell illustrates those points with anecdotes drawn from fandom’s long history, quotations from other writers, informed opinions and, in one case, a deconstruction of a short story to see how it works.  It’s worth noting that Hartwell writes Age of Wonders from a well-rounded perspective drawn from his experience as a fan, an academician and an active editor within the field.  While the book is immensely useful as a pedagogical resource (it comes with a few appendices to provide a solid bibliography of essential works), it’s clearly written and immediately accessible to non-academician.  Its affection for the genre is obvious, but that doesn’t blind it to some of SF’s structural faults.

Whether you’re an insider looking for a theoretical framework, or an outsider trying to understand what makes Science Fiction so different, Age of Wonder is an essential resource. Reading though it once again, I was struck by how much material I once knew and had forgotten since then: it reminded me that, without any doubt, Hartwell has forgotten more about SF than I (and most other people) will ever know.

Fifteen web-dominated years after its publication, it’s worth pointing out that in many ways, Age of Wonders reflects a certain experience of Science Fiction that will remain of its era.  Today’s SF fan is markedly likelier to discover the genre through media sources (film, TV or video games) than to come across paperback spinners at their local drugstore.  The factors leading to a chronic teenage reading habit (ie: isolation, boredom) may not be as acute given today’s multiplicity of web-driven entertainment options.  The experience of fandom has also changed dramatically over the past decade and a half, web sites taking the role once played by local generalist conventions as gathering places for the casual fan.  Conventions have grown at once bigger and more specialized, as Hollywood-dominated Comic-Con now makes headlines while literature-focused Readercon can still thrive.  Most notable, however, is the way the geek experience that Hartwell describes has become a fairly mainstream lifestyle in-between massively successful entertainment such as Halo, Inception and The Big Bang Theory.

I would be the first in line to buy a third edition of Age of Wonders.  Any update would have to navigate a path between a historical acknowledgement of the fannish experience, and the way geek culture has become just another market segment.  Is there anything in the written SF subculture that still distinguishes it from a more casual acquaintance with SF media?  Is written-SF still a vital side-stream of American culture, or is it merely another competing entertainment option?  Is there still something significant to a love for Science Fiction that links with a lust for the future, sympathy for technology and a self-imposed marginalization from society?

Leaving aside the still-hypothetical question of a third edition, 1996-era Age of Wonders remains an essential component of any serious non-fiction collection about Science Fiction.  It clearly and usefully describes the genre, its readers, its reasons for existing and its essential inner workings.  It’s good enough to re-read every decade, no matter which edition you can get.

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