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Book Review: The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin

Genre: Nonfiction, Literary Criticism
Hardcover: 676 pages
Publisher: Phoenix Pick
Publication Date: April 30, 2010
ISBN-10: 1604504439
ISBN-13: 978-1604504439
Author Website: Alexei Panshin; @CPanshin

The World Beyond the Hill is the Hugo-winning piece of science fiction literary criticism that every hard-core critic of the genre absolutely must read. Written jointly by Alexei and Cory Panshin, this thoroughly researched 673 pages tome was first published in 1989. Publisher Phoenix Pick has resurrected this classic from the ashes and given students and critics a new edition to add to our reference library.

The Panshins’ criticism begins with The Castle of Otranto by Sir Horace Walpole, moves into Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the era of Gernsback, Campbell, Burroughs, Heinlein, and others, concluding with Asimov’s final Foundation story “The Mule”. The book covers the development of science fiction in the late nineteenth century through the end of World War II. Through it all, the Panshins’ trace the “quest for transcendence” that they see in these stories.

Science fiction is a literature of the mythic imagination. In science fiction stories, spaceships and time machines carry us outside ourselves, outside our world, outside everything we know, to distant realms that none of us has ever seen—to the future and outer space….Science fiction has been effective myth for out time because it respects both the actual and the transcendent. It takes account of what we know and what we don’t, and then looks beyond the here-and-now to thrill and inspire us with dreams of what might be.

So then the book traces, in three parts and eighteen chapters, this notion of transcendence or the-world-beyond-the-hill, that, according to the Panshins, is more mythic even than fantasy. As the authors lay out there argument by tracing science fiction’s early history, this notion of the transcendent is elucidated with significant examples and detailed analysis of novels and short stories and comparisons to other works. Readers will see how each work builds upon the other, and how as scientific knowledge expanded, so too did science fiction.

The book, though hefty, still only touches the surface of what was published in that era, and the Panshin’s could be accused of cherry-picking works to fit their notion of transcendence. And of course, their interpretation of each work they do address is tailored to fit the overall theme. However, it is still a work that at least thinks critically about the genre, even if you may disagree with some of its notions, while still being accessible reading for the general consumer.

Though it is a work of literary criticism, the Panshins ensured that the book is eminently readable, and even those who are not students of literature will find it fairly easy to read. The authors document their source material and quotations in endnotes, limited the distracting nature that footnotes can have. This makes it easy to just sit down and read it, chapter by chapter, almost as if it were itself a novel. It is more critically deep than many popular histories or biographies, yet at the same time is just as readable.

It is also a superb reference book for anyone studying the genre, or even some of the eighteenth century “literary” works that are often labeled as precursors to SF, such as Frankenstein or certain works of Poe and Verne.

I highly recommend this book for students of science fiction as literature and those with an interest in its history. It is a superb reference material that is both thought-provoking and easy to read.