Petterson, Bo. How Literary Worlds Are Shaped. A Comparative Poetics of Literary Imagination. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter GmbH, 2016. ISBN: 978-3-11-048347-5
Reviewer| Jyrki Korpua
Professor Bo Petterson (University of Helsinki, Finland) is a respected scholar of literature who in his line of work has been interested in the logics of science fiction as a genre. His previous research includes studies about the works of writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Stanisłav Lem, Edgar Allan Poe, and H. G. Wells. This was one of the reasons why I was enthusiastic about Professor Petterson’s recent study on literary worldbuilding.
Professor Petterson’s study is highly interesting for researchers of speculative fiction or literary genres in general. However, the book does not concentrate on genre logics. Professor Petterson comments this by saying that, “[a]s for genres, I do not spend much time sorting out their features as such –” (5). The book is published in the De Gruyter’s Narratologia-series, which is dedicated to high standard contributions in the field of narrative theory, so it is obvious that the study itself focuses on narrative strategies and reconstructions of historical literary worldmaking. Still, Professor Petterson’s own interest in science fiction becomes evident from early on. In the “Introduction”, Petterson starts by quoting American science fiction author Fredric Brown on how easy it is for us to imagine “ghosts, gods and devils”(1). In the book, examples from works of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction are diverse. Authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Terry Pratchett, and of course Wells, Vonnegut, Lem and Poe are either mentioned or closely analysed. This is of course obligatory for a study focusing on literary worldbuilding. Many theorists of fantastic worldbuilding are also commented on and introduced. On this point it is clear that the book has taken many years to be completed. For example, such a significant contemporary study as Mark J. P. Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012) is only once shortly referenced.
Circa 270 pages of comparative literary study is divided into nine chapters, which can be read as three separate sections that Professor Petterson names general, specific, and world-oriented (7). The first is dedicated to realistic and fantastic literary imagination and to the reliability of literary representations. This section can be read along with Professor Petterson’s previous studies on considerably discussed, but still ponderable, concepts of mimesis and representation. The second section focuses on how literary worlds are shaped by modes and themes and on the actual process of literary worldbuilding. Finally, the third section focuses on the relationship between literary worlds and our (physical) reality, and discusses important questions as, for example, “why literature matters?”. The book gives many possible answers to this question, but the most important of these is that literature matters, because “it provides a sense of wonder and it does so in manifold ways” (Petterson 242). We, as human beings, pursue this sense of wonder and we almost want to be intoxicated by fiction. However, Professor Petterson does not conclude his study there. In the end, he also gives the reader “Ten reasons to Study and Teach literary worlds” (Petterson 253‒266). This final chapter of the book gives us a good sense of why the poetics of literary imagination matter.
The most important aspect in this work is that it offers an extensive comparative analysis of a multi-layered and complex content from a multicultural point-of-view. Professor Petterson’s study includes a wide variety of examples from “canonical” Western sources, but also examples from ancient and non-Western literatures. As such, it is perhaps the first study to present such a wide-ranging account on the literary worldbuilding and it has the feeling of “a life’s work” embedded in it.