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.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.