New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; $25.00 tpb; 1160+ pages
Truth in advertising: This is a certainly a book; it is big; and it is stuffed full of science fiction.
Four years ago, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer published another book that was big. It was stuffed full of weird stories, and they called it (of all things) The Weird.
Like that book, The Big Book of Science Fiction takes an extremely broad and historical view of its topic, containing over a hundred stories by nearly as many writers (one writer has two stories and one three). And therein lies the rub: no sane reviewer would try to comment on each and every story in an anthology of this size. What one can do, then, is discuss the editors’ taste and their success in meeting their (stated or apparent) goals and perhaps add a few comments about the stories that stand out from their admittedly glittering company.
Let’s start with their goals. Fortunately, they are stated openly.
A xix-page Introduction sets the scene, describing the landscape we shall be touring and outlining the editors’ organizing principles. Two important principles stand out for me, and these will somewhat inform this review. The editors intend (1) that the book should be representative of more than the Anglophone world and (2) that it should be representative of all of science fiction and not just what lives inside the genre’s walls. Also, they set the limits of the representation at “the Twentieth Century,” though one story at each end lies outside that boundary.
Well, then. The stories are presented in a rough chronological order, beginning at the beginning with H.G. Wells and hitting many of the high spots of genre science fiction, bringing in examples of stuff from outside the genre walls with a goodly dollop of stuff that I’d never even heard of before.
Given the physical limits of such a book, they do as good a job as can be expected. Every continent except Antarctica is represented, and about a third of the stories are (mostly new) translations.
Unfortunately, American (and Anglophone in general) science fiction is mostly represented by intra-generic stories with the nongenre material mostly coming from countries where there is very little or no distinction made between the literary and the fantastic.
And of course one can quibble about some of their choices.
There are some chestnuts here. (E.g.: Did we really need another reprinting of “A Martian Odyssey” when so much of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short career remains in limbo? Or another reprinting of “Surface Tension” when James Blish’s longer career ditto?)
There are a few questionable choices (e.g.: Of all of Isaac Asimov’s massive body of short stories, did they really need to pick a gimmick story? Wouldn’t one of the “condensed novels” be a better representation of J.G. Ballard?).
There are stories whose inclusion I question not because of their quality or their extra-generic provenance but because they aren’t science fiction as I understand the term—or in one case (Jarry’s “Elements of Pataphysics”) fiction at all. Indeed, I question the VanderMeers’ rather limited definition of science fiction as depicting the future, when there is a significant body of sf set in the (often paleological) past.
There are a few novel excerpts, which, while the VanderMeers think they stand alone, generally do not. This is not an unmitigated bad thing, though, as it will cause me to seek out at least one of those novels in its full form.
Then, too, there are some puzzling omissions. Some of these (including the elephant in the room, Robert Heinlein, whose story simply wasn’t available) are noted and explained in the Introduction. One wonders, though, at the omission of, say, Roger Zelazny, who was one of sf’s most gifted short story writers; of Zenna Henderson, whose vision was as unique and fascinating as that of David Bunch; or of Larry Niven, whose stories brought life back into “hard” sf when, under Campbell’s late editorship, it was, well, not dead, exactly, but certainly beginning to smell funny. Edmond Hamilton but not Leigh Brackett?
But to make room for any of these, something else would have to go, and at this point we transition from the question of whether they were successful at meeting their goals—they clearly were—and embark upon the question of taste; and so the rest of this review is, necessarily, personal reactions.
One metric I use when peering for the first time into a retrospective anthology: how much have I read before, and did I like it? In this case, I had read about a third of the stories before, and, while I had found some of them deeply disturbing, I liked them all. So my hopes were high for the other two-thirds, and they were, by and large, met.
The editors’ choices show exemplary good taste. Even the stories that didn’t work for me have literary qualities that I can perceive. There are no stories in this book I would be able to call “badly written,” though a couple, especially in the early parts of the anthology, seem to me a bit crudely written.
In an anthology like this, there is a fine balance to be struck between emotionally loaded stories and stories of wonder/scientific geekery, and the VanderMeers hit the sweet spot here. Generally speaking, even the most “emotional” stories have their speculative wonders, and even the geekiest stories have at least some emotional hook. Two made me nearly cry, several made me laugh, and none of them bored me. There was only one story (Kojo Laing’s “Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ”) that I actively disliked, and my religious feelings probably played into that. There were three or four that left me unmoved either emotionally or intellectually.
All in all, this seems like a pretty good track record.
Some stories that stood out as I read this behemoth:
W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Comet” concerns a disaster overtaking what at first seems to be the world but turns out to be “merely” New York. Subversive for its time in that it involves a white woman looking on a black man as a man it works through the consequences of the disaster from a point of view different from that of the brawny white male hero typical of early sf.
Katherine MacLean’s “The Snowball Effect,” though it appeared (and was perfectly at home) in Galaxy, is the kind of ad-absurdum thought experiment John W. Campbell loved: what if sociology could be applied practically?
Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon” is, admittedly, a bit of a chestnut, but it’s hard to find a major Smith story that hasn’t been reprinted endlessly. It isn’t so much a story as it is a day-in-the-life piece, but one that creates huge psychological distance and ends with as nasty a bite as you could ask for.
Adolfo Bioy Casares’s “The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink” is a perfect tale of alien contact, told from the point of someone other than the contactee.
The three stories by David R. Bunch are hugely welcome. I used to buy copies of his 1971 book, Moderan, and give them to anyone who would take them; these three stories from that volume give only a smidgeon of a hint of a clue as to why, but they stand as well alone as I could hope for. (For those willing to spend $20 for a 45-year-old paperback, let me assure you its bizarre delights are many.)
It wouldn’t be a true world sf anthology without something by Stanislaw Lem. “Let Us Save the Universe” is another nonstory, a combination of a stfnal bestiary and a parody of conservation politics.
Lisa Tuttle’s “Wives” shocked me when it first appeared. It shocked me again in rereading it in this volume; its power has not been diminished by the years.
Josephine Saxton’s “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” is as strange as its title, a tale of plotting and counterplotting in the lab, set against a truly original future culture.
Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” is a strangely moving tale of memory and lost chances.
Leena Krohn’s “The Gorgonoids” is another non-story or perhaps an implicit story about maybe-artificial, maybe-intelligent, maybe-life on a different plane of reality from our own.
And Johanna Sinisalo’s “Baby Doll” is a profoundly disturbing “if this goes on—” tale of the sexualization of children.
The introductions to the individual stories are generally helpful in understanding, at least, why the editors chose a particular author and/or story. They run from half a page to two pages in length (and thus take up about 6–7 percent of the total volume of the anthology) and follow the typical form of “who the author is/what the author has written and some critical response/blurb for the story in question, with initial publication information.”
As with The Weird, The Big Book of Science Fiction is a triumphant (no: triumphal) celebration of its subject.
Dan’l Danehy-Oakes lives in Alameda, California.