In Joy Still Felt Essay - Critical Context

Isaac Asimov

Critical Context

In Joy Still Felt and its predecessor, In Memory Yet Green, are valuable works on several levels, but perhaps their greatest significance lies in Asimov’s firsthand account of the development of science fiction from its infancy in the pulp-magazine era to its enormous popularity in the late twentieth century. The history of science fiction remains to be written. Surveys such as Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973), however useful, are really no more than preliminary sketches. The subject is in flux. As a well-defined genre, science fiction has existed only since the 1920’s, and in its short life it has undergone protean changes. In the 1980’s, as countless books and films have selectively borrowed themes and devices and plot situations from science fiction, the boundaries of the genre have become blurred, yet most critics persist in treating science fiction (if they discuss it at all) as entirely distinct from so-called mainstream fiction.

It is certain, however, that whatever their perspective, historians of science fiction will find memoirs such as Asimov’s indispensable. While Asimov’s narrative is unique in its prodigious detail, it is complemented by other autobiographical works by science-fiction writers. Among the finest of these is Frederik Pohl’s The Way the Future Was: A Memoir (1978), which covers the same period that Asimov surveys. Hell’s Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers (1975), edited by Aldiss and Harry Harrison, collects brief memoirs by six writers, including Robert Silverberg, Alfred Bester, Damon Knight, and Pohl, as well as the two editors of the volume. A similar collection, Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays by Notable Science Fiction Writers (1981), edited by Martin H. Greenberg, includes pieces by nine writers, among them Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Katherine MacLean, Margaret St. Clair, and A. E. van Vogt. These works and others of their kind provide the basis for an alternate history of modern fiction.