January 13, 2011


The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Edited by Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham and Carol McGuirk. Wesleyan University Press. $39.95.

     Here is a thick, educationally oriented SF anthology that transcends its academic purpose to become an excellent introduction to science fiction, in all its guises, from the mid-19th century to the present. The six editors of the journal Science Fiction Studies have here assembled a collection of short stories representing, collectively, many of the best writers and many of the most trenchant themes of the SF field. Beginning, rather arbitrarily, with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” of 1844, and continuing, also rather arbitrarily, through Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” of 2008, the book presents 52 stories by such giants of the field as Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick and James Tiptree Jr. It also includes stories by some SF oddballs, such as the wonderful R.A. Lafferty and Alfred Bester. Readers unfamiliar with the enormous stylistic and topical variety of SF will find here a veritable feast of works by Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Wilhelm, James Patrick Kelly, William Gibson, Samuel R. Delany and Frederik Pohl.

     The “academic-ness” of the collection comes through in some pleasant ways: in addition to the chronological table of contents, there are separate ones by topic (“Alien Encounters,” “Evolution and Environment,” and so on), so interested readers can focus on specific fields of interest to SF writers. And the introductions to the stories blithely toss out authors’ full names in addition to the names’ more-common forms with initials – Catherine Lucille Moore, James Graham Ballard, Clifford Donald Simak – although a few authors retain any mystery their initials may invite, such as Arthur C. Clarke. On the negative side of academia, the book’s general introduction and some of its specific ones may be off-putting to readers seeking, at least in the beginning, to enjoy this genre and form their own opinions, as in the note that SF’s “linguistic openness or indeterminacy means that sf always operates at a sentence-by sentence level in the subjunctive mode,” or the comment that readers must “negotiate the distance between the estranged world of an sf story and their own reality – a process in which they must reconstruct an absent paradigm and decode the text’s subjunctivity.”

     Still, it is possible to skip the general introduction altogether and go straight to the stories – and that may be a good idea. A more serious criticism of this generally thoughtful and well-assembled book is that its early authors are chosen rather arbitrarily (no Edgar Allan Poe, for example), and that it leaves out some of the giants of the field, such as A.E. van Vogt and Fredric Brown. The latter omission is particularly odd, since Brown was the greatest master of the short-short story (one or two pages), and this volume includes five blank pages after its 767 pages of text – plenty of room for a Brown short-short. Nor is this the only oddity: the introduction to James Patrick Kelly’s 1995 story, “Think Like a Dinosaur,” notes that “its most striking feature” is the way in which Kelly makes use of “one of the field’s most famous examples of hard sf, Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (1954)” – but the Godwin story is not in the anthology.

     Readers, however, are unlikely to care very much about such matters, especially if they are unfamiliar with SF and therefore have no way of knowing what is missing in this anthology. What is not missing is a sense of the many ways in which the field has changed over the years – how it has, indeed, developed on multiple levels from the time of such very early SF authors as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Readers who already know SF will find this collection less useful than will people new to the field, because the editors include story after story that has been anthologized and re-anthologized – these are mainstream selections within the genre. Still, there is something to be said, even for longtime SF readers, in favor of having a single book containing such gems as Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” J.G. Ballard “The Cage of Sand,” Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed,” and many more. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction can be used as the basis of a course in the genre – in fact, there is a free online teacher’s guide available at www.wesleyan.edu/wespress/sfanthologyguide. But it can also be used simply as an excellent compendium of top-notch stories by an amazingly diverse set of writers whose interests, concerns and styles are all over the map – not only the map of Earth but also the map of the stars and beyond.

No comments:

Post a Comment