Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder

I just finished reading Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder as part of the research on my dissertation’s important theoretical chapter.

I wish that I had known about and read this book a long time ago. I have heard some of the things that he argues about Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr. in other places, but I see now that those other places likely based or were inspired by Westfahl’s book.

Having read The Mechanics of Wonder, I am persuaded by Westfahl’s arguments that science fiction came to be what it was from the work of Gernsback and Campbell. Their delayed influence on the writing taking place in the genre appears to have had profound implications. For the most part, Westfahl’s rigorous approach to evidence and his claims based on that evidence are very well received.

This is not to say that I am giving up my Aldiss or Suvin. I find their work equally stimulating even if their historical claims might not always be on target. I believe that we can find earlier examples of science fiction even if they are not part of the modern instantiation of the genre itself. Can we not say that a particular work is science fictional? Can we not go so far as to say that a given work is part of the science fiction genre, because it shares all of the characteristics of the work even if it was not yet part of the genre due to its chronological deficiencies?

Likewise, I believe that structuralist approaches such as that undertaken by Suvin are useful for understanding the mechanics of the science fiction genre. In fact, Suvin provides an advantageous link between two different spheres of knowledge in my theory chapter. Westfahl’s careful reading does knock a few sizable holes in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, but I will gladly salvage the concept of cognitive estrangement.

The Mechanics of Wonder is a must-read for everyone studying science fiction. Westfahl not only presents compelling evidence, he also provides a demanding model for scholarly rigor and engagement of evidence.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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6 comments on “Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder
  1. Pawel Frelik says:

    Jason, for a diametrically different theory of sf as a genre (which in some ways clashes with Westfahl’s arguments) I would suggest Sherryl’s and Mark’s “There Is No Such Thing as Science Fiction” and this year’s Pioneer winner – John Rieder’s essay from Science Fiction studies.

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the link! I’m currently revising a chapter that deals w/ Campbell’s involvement w/ Dianetics and would like to see what Westfahl has to say about him.

  3. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Pawel, Thanks for the two suggestions–I will check them out. I have been meaning to read John Rieder’s essay, but I wasn’t aware of Sherryl and Mark’s essay. Both essays are now queued! Best, Jason

  4. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Andrew, Westfahl briefly mentions Campbell’s interest in Dianetics as part of his overall interest in psionics and telepathy. In the chapter, “‘Can Openers, Cliches and Case Studies’: John W. Campbell, Jr’s Career as a Science Fiction Editor” argues that Campbell attracted some of the best writers in the 1940s due to the magazine’s deep pockets. Campbell may have been an idea man, but his editorial acumen did not necessarily make such a great impact as people might remember. Then in the magazine’s decline, Campbell began promoting his own interest in ESP and other non-mainstream scientific research as well as outright quackery. Dianetics fit into this regime. Campbell promoted these things in Astounding/Analog through editorials and nonfiction reports, and he pushed writers to write about these topics to further reinforce what he saw as important ideas that deserved more attention. Westfahl can supply you with the background for his interest in Dianetics. You should also check out his collected letters. I have volume 1 through interlibrary loan, but I have not received volume 2 yet. There are many letters referencing Hubbard. I see that both volumes are available as Kindle ebooks–this might be more useful for research since the index of volume 1 focuses on people and not terms. Good luck with your chapter! Best, Jason

  5. Andrew says:

    Thanks, Jason. Yeah, I’ve read through the first volume of the letters, as well as a collection of his best editorials. Campbell certainly does seem like a crank (esp. in later years). I think his pushiness later on also is important b/c a lot of people credit people disliking him with partly inspiring the new wave.

  6. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Andrew, I didn’t know that there was a collection of Campbell’s editorials. I just looked it up, and found that our library happens to have a copy. However, it will likely take a few days to receive it, because our library trucked out two floors of books to an off-site storage facility to make room for comfy chairs, cubicle workstations, and a new Starbucks-like feel. I look forward to reading it. It is a pain locating old issues in cbr format online. It is a shame much of the old Gernsback stuff seems to be only available in the original magazines–I can’t even find scans of those (besides Amazing). Best, Jason

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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