The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence
By Alexei and Cory Panshin.
Published by Phoenix Pick: http://www.phoenixpick.com/
ISBN: Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-60450-443-9
Published April 2010. Originally published 1989. Review copy received.
Review by Mark Yon
This release by Phoenix Pick shows the very welcome return of a past classic.
If you didn’t know, Alexei and Cory Panshin are the husband and wife collaborators of a number of books; these days you may know Alexei best as the writer of the Nebula Award winning Rite of Passage (1968).
Some recent readers to SF may not know that the two writers also wrote criticism of the SF field. Alexei’s first book was the controversial Heinlein in Dimension (1968) a book that caused a controversy on its publication.
The book under review here is also a non-fiction book, a history of science fiction, starting with its genesis (Panshin suggests that Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, published 1794, as an origin point) up to the end of the 1950’s.
It won the Hugo award in 1990 for Best Non-Fiction book. Issac Asimov at the time said, “The best, the best, history of science fiction I have ever read…I expect to read The World Beyond the Hill over and over for the rest of my life. It is an unbelievably wonderful book.”
Twenty years on, does the book stand up to scrutiny on the other side of the 20th century?
It is a massive book, a big book with a big history. It tells of events that set the context of the development of SF from the pre-rocket days (The Romantic Era) to the Technological Era and up to the Atomic Age.
As time marches on, there are few left, able to tell those tales in person. Here we have a critical perspective from writers and fans who were part of the critical zeitgeist. Alex Panshin’s critical analysis of Robert A Heinlein, Heinlein in Perspective, was an astute study, if rather divisive on its release.
This book builds on some of Alexei and Cory’s ideas in their other non-fiction book, SF in Dimensions (1980). The Panshins begin with the idea of SF beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but also pointing out the importance of lesser known novels now, such as the aforementioned The Castle of Otranto. The Panshins claim that the importance of this gothic novel is that as a unique synthesis of mystery and plausibility, it was revolutionary, and so laid out the groundwork for the genre.
The Panshins then tell of Jules Verne and HG Wells, but also of lesser known authors such as Jack London. The make the point that Edgar Rice Burroughs was perhaps the first great keynote writer of the 20th century, not just for Tarzan but perhaps more for his John Carter on Mars SF series, which combined an ability to adapt Man’s barbaric vitality with civilised enlightenment. Burroughs inspired and led to the arrival of many of the genre’s pulp authors.
However the fact that the book is dedicated to John W Campbell, Edmond Hamilton, EE ‘Doc’ Smith and Jack Williamson shows a book with its colours firmly nailed to its mast. Many authors and editors are shown to be of influence – HG Wells, Hugo Gernsback (though, frankly, neither are given a complimentary perspective here.) Burroughs and EE ‘Doc’ Smith are seen as the authors who moved things on in this tapestry of future history. Perhaps most important in all of this is the influence of John Campbell, legendary author and, for decades, editor of Astounding/Analog. The argument here throughout is persuasive and enlightening. If the 1950’s and 60’s can be regarded as SF’s coming of age, then Campbell’s imprint, as a key editor in the most popular SF magazine of its time, is highly influential. And so it is shown here. Campbell was more than an author – he moulded SF and SF writers – Asimov, Heinlein et al – and his importance is paramount here.
But Campbell is not the only influence. Just as important in SF’s search for transcendence, the Panshins point out, are the externalities of climate and culture – World War Two, global division between capitalist and communist societies, the Space Race – all of which are reflected in the SF of their time. It is often said, and perhaps with surprise to non-genre readers that SF, for all of its visions of the future, actually often says as much about the climate and culture that it was written in.
So have the ideas dated? No: much of what is said here is just as appropriate in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. What this book does is give a reasoned account of the ideas and concepts of the 20th century that have led to the development in the 21st. Though it is dated – a lot has happened since 1989, as indeed 1950 – what it has to say on SF’s formative years is entirely relevant.
The Panshins’ style is deceptive. It is well written in that narrative style that tells a tale as well as makes a point. It is persuasive and well researched, which its points made with clarity and evidence from the authors and their works.
There are criticisms, but not ones to be worried over unduly. Yes, it is Americo-centric, yet such was the hold of the American pulps in the 1950’s and 60’s. It could be argued that a greater degree of balance with more information given of the other editors of Campbell’s time – Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy and Anthony Boucher, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for example.
My biggest criticism is that this huge tome of small print stops at the point at which Asimov’s The Mule (from the Foundation series) is published in 1952. As much time has now passed since the 1890’s -1950 as has been covered in the book. Unlikely though it is (as the Panshins now regard themselves as non-Science Fiction writers) it would be very interesting to read whether the ideals of the World Beyond the Hill (that sum of knowledge and culture to date) has been reached or transcended as much as the Panshins would hope it could be. I believe that their view would be that their ideals – an SF that transcends present genre boundaries – have not. They seem to believe that instead SF has become conservative and self-reverential, dealing with old tropes rather than pushing itself for a new ideal.
It is not often that we review older books at SFFWorld. It is usually only those who really stand out that make the grade. This is, I’m pleased to type, is one of them. In my opinion, it is a book that no one with an interest in SF’s history should be without. A thoughtful book that makes you think. Well done to Phoenix Pick for resurrecting this one. Highly recommended.
Mark Yon May 2010.