American Literature: Special Issue on SF, Fantasy, and Myth (Mar. 31, 2010)

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American Literature (Duke University Press)
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American Literature (Duke University Press)
Special Issue on SF, Fantasy, and Myth

DEADLINE: 31 May 2010

More than one commentator has mentioned that science fiction as a form is where theological narrative went after Paradise Lost, and this is undoubtedly true…The form is often used as a way of acting out the consequences of a theological doctrine….Extraterrestrials have taken the place of angels, demons, fairies and saints, though it must be said that this last group is now making a comeback.
—Margaret Atwood, "Why We Need Science Fiction"

Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.
—Rod Serling

In this work I am attempting to create a new mythology for the space age. I feel that the old mythologies are definitely broken down and not adequate at the present time.
—William Burroughs (on the Nova trilogy)

From revolutions in communications technology and transportation to encounters with space travelers and aliens, from leaps in human evolution to new dimensions of existence, from creation stories of the past to speculations about the future, science fiction, fantasy, and myth have variously captured the far reaches of the human imagination, making the familiar strange and the strange inevitable. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it is fascinating to watch the rapid innovations in science and technology overtake their fictional anticipation and to return to our most speculative and fantastical literature to see how perceptively it anticipated the social and geopolitical transformations—and challenges—these innovations would inspire. We can, moreover, look through these fictions and recognize in them a prolonged engagement not just with the transient social anxieties of their individual moments, but also with the timeless drama of human contact with the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly, and the sublime.

This special issue brings together these genres with their divergent but intersecting histories and asks why they might be particularly relevant to study in the contemporary moment. While science fiction has garnered increasing attention in recent years in the academy (and increasing recognition in mainstream publications), the status of fantasy is even more controversial—and the line between them itself a subject of debate. Myth, by contrast, has long been a source of scholarly fascination, although the term typically emerges in the study of American literatures in its pejorative sense. Yet, myth plays a seminal role in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, so much so that science fiction and fantasy can arguably exceed the category of genre to contribute to what William Burroughs calls "a new mythology for the space age." The issue seeks to move past the definitional debates—beyond, for example, determining the distinction between science fiction and fantasy or the precise definition of myth—to explore broadly the relationship of these genres and modes (individually or in combination) to American literatures and cultures. How, for example, might a focus on science fiction, fantasy, and/or myth change our understanding of literary history? Of literary engagements with scientific and technological innovations as well as with the most pressing political concerns of the moment? How might we use these literary forms to understand genre as a historical repository? The role of mythology in modern culture? What social and geopolitical conditions might produce a genre or mode—or perhaps a critical category that newly classifies certain literary conventions as genres? What themes or questions surface when we read more canonical works through the lens of science fiction, fantasy or myth? Conversely, what happens to these categories when we take seriously, as scholars such as H. Bruce Franklin have done, their early appearance in American literary history? This issue will explore the insights that emerge when we consider the various imaginative engagements that characterize science fiction, fantasy, and myth as central concerns of American literary history and cultural production.

Special issue editors: Priscilla Wald and Gerry Canavan. Submissions of 11,000 words or less (including endnotes) should be submitted electronically at by 31 May 2010. When choosing a submission type, select "Special Issue." Please contact us at 919-684-3948 or if you need assistance with the submission process. Please direct other questions to Priscilla Wald ( or Gerry Canavan (