(Actually, I'm lying. I didn't ask him about snails.)
I first made a note to remember Istvan's name when I encountered his essay "Science Fiction and Empire", which I thought was fascinating and even, dare I say it, scintillating. When I read Adam Roberts's review of his book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, I knew I needed to read it. So I did. And then I had questions. Thus, an interview was born...
Here's some of what Istvan has to say about his book:
I wanted to do a lot of things writing The Seven Beauties, and they kept changing—which probably shows up in the zig-zag way the book is written. My first and overriding goal was to write something useful and stimulating for students and younger scholars of SF. That meant producing a sort of textbook from hell—the opposite of a normal class text. I mainly wanted to generate problems and suggestions that folks interested in studying SF could develop, critique, or just run away with. Early on, my model was the mathematician Paul Erdös, who is known not so much for the originality of his solutions as for the questions he posed. He made a career of formulating intriguing problems that would attract younger mathematicians to solve. So Seven Beauties is supposed to be a sort of compendium of interesting problems. In some cases I stated things more assertively that even I believed them to be, since some folks don’t get inspired unless they feel provoked.For more about Istvan, see his own webpage.
But I also wanted to place SF in a larger historical and cultural context, and specifically an artistic one. I’m trained in comparative literature, and I’m committed to literature as a tradition. There has been a lot of impressive scholarship on SF from cultural-studies perspectives. The main way that students and scholars look at the genre now is in terms of popular culture, gender/race/sexual identity/class critique, postcolonialism, vestiges of New Left Marxism, and the postmodernist notion that SF and contemporary social mythologies are converging. I can’t add much to that rich and diverse work, and fortunately I don’t have to. What I wanted to do was to treat the science-fictional imagination as if it were not just a symptom of some other, more basic social process, but something that audiences consider valuable on its own terms. To find out what those terms are I reversed the normal way of looking at SF, sort of like a Magic Eye picture, so that science-fictionality would be my context, and the historical-contextual forces would be constructed by it. That’s actually a rather Old School approach, which is why I wrote in my intro that the book could be read as steampunk criticism. My premise is that SF has been a powerful imaginative force influencing the social imagination of the past long century.