James Sallis informs us that:
When teaching science fiction, I always suggest that to fully understand a story, one must know the period in which it was written. A story written in the 1940s, for instance, may well come from a different mind-set and from wholly different conventions-- effectively from another world -- than our own. One has little trouble getting the story of ''Invasion of the Body Snatchers," or even understanding in large part the sources of its power: fear of being taken over, the threat of loss of self and identity, the primal fear of sleep and what it may steal from us. But how greatly is that understanding enhanced by the knowledge that, written and first filmed in the heyday of the Cold War, ''Body Snatchers" is as much as anything about the great Communist takeover?
Sallis seems to be suggesting that science fiction in particular requires from later readers a knowledge of "the period in which it was written" because it more intensively reflects the social anxieties and concerns prevalent during that period (although this does clash with Sallis's further contention, in the next paragraph, that SF often "taps into grand themes and archetypes"). Presumably, Invasion of the Body Snatchers might still reach current readers because it examines "the threat of loss of self and identity," a "universal" theme, but our "understanding" of the novel will be deepened if we are aware of the way it also embodied the local and contemporaneous fear of "the great Communist takeover."
Doesn't Sallis have it exactly backward? Isn't it our appreciation of something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the cultural codedness of which is by now surpassingly obvious, and was probably apparent enough even at the time, strengthened when we realize it is also--indeed, mostly--about such things as "the primal fear of sleep," etc.? Sallis himself seems to indicate as much later in his essay when he writes of the way in which the "art of the thing takes over" in good fiction, but why does he then also insist that calling attention to the codednes, returning us to the "period in which it was written," is such a revelatory act? That a work of fiction might have contingent ties to the social realities of its time is surely not surprising. How does an acknowledgment of those realities "enhance" our reading in any important way? Unless you think the social context is likely to be more interesting than the book itself?
The problem here probably lies in the extreme vagueness of Sallis's use of the word "understanding." Does he mean simply that we "understand" that the social context exists? This seems more a matter of fact than of interpretation. Knowing this fact surely doesn't help us much in deciding whether something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers is worth our attention. Does he mean that considering the social context is a means of "understanding" in a more concrete sense, that it is an act of literary criticism per se that illuminates a feature of the work otherwise only dimly perceived? But wouldn't identifying such a work as primarily a political allegory only diminish its appeal, affix it to its historical "period" so firmly as to make reading it mostly superfluous, literally an "academic" question? To me, James Sallis makes reading science fiction seem more like an effort to uncover "mind-set" and debate "conventions" than a potentially satisfying reading experience.