Sunday, 3 February 2013

"Great Books"

Britannica published a Great Books of the Western World series, two volumes of summary and discussion followed by fifty eight volumes covering three thousand years of epics, drama, history, philosophy, logic, mathematics, science, theology, psychology, economics, political theory and novels, from Homer to Beckett.

If the series had been able to include one single work of science fiction (sf), then I suggest that it should have been HG Wells' The Time Machine, an admirably brief speculation about the nature of time and the future of mankind with vivid imaginative descriptions of "time travelling." If an expanded edition of the series were to include a volume of sf, then I suggest that the contents should be:

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus;
The Time Machine;
Last And First Men;
the first page of Superman from Action Comics no 1, June 1938.

Frankenstein, the first sf novel, addressing the issue of the legitimacy or otherwise of scientific inquiry, is listed as "Additional Reading" on "Science," which is one of the 102 "great ideas of Western thought," from "Angels" to "World," identified by the Great Books editors. The Time Machine is listed for "Progress" and "Time."

I think that Superman should be included among the works of fiction because:

it can be represented by a single page;
whereas the Great Books includes Nietzsche among the philosophers, the comic book Superman was created by an American Jewish writer-artist team during the period when the Nazis were in power in Germany;
this Superman not only represents a transition of media from prose fiction to sequential art but also initiated the transition of genres from sf to superheroes, just as Frankenstein had initiated the earlier transition of genres from Gothic fiction to sf;
it should be recognized that narrative, drama and sequential art are the three story-telling media;
superheroes, also known as mystery men, are a major modern multi-media, mainly magazines and movies, mythology;
the "Additional Reading" for Superman would include the seminal sf novel, Gladiator by Philip Wylie, a possible source for Superman, and Alan Moore's major work, Marvelman/Miracleman, which not only expresses but also reflects on ancient and modern mythology.

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