Salvage Operations by Rob Latham

Reprint publications are crucial to maintaining an institutional memory for these popular genres.

July 1st, 2012 reset - +

ACCORDING TO THE “Year in Review” survey that appeared in the February 2012 issue of Locus magazine, there were 3071 book-length works of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and affiliated genres published in 2011, of which 931 were reprint titles. Undoubtedly the largest segment of the latter category was the paperback incarnation of books published the previous year in hardcover, with another large portion being the recycled backlist of perennially popular authors. But a sizeable fraction of these reprinted works were salvage operations — publications that either brought back into view authors in danger of lapsing into obscurity or presented well-known works in fresh critical-historical contexts, thus giving them new life for contemporary readers. Such publications are crucial to maintaining an institutional memory for these popular genres, whose prolific current output always threatens to overshadow their traditions.

One of the major publishers of state-of-the-art critical editions is Wesleyan University Press, whose “Early Classics of Science Fiction” series has brought back into print, often in fresh translation, work by Verne, Wells, Camille Flammarion, Ignatius Donnelly, and others. The latest volume in the series is J.-H. Rosny aîné’s Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind (January 2012), translated and introduced by Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser. Rosny aîné (1856-1940) was a pioneer in the representation of alien beings, including metallic and other inorganic life forms, and his tales foreground problems of communication across species boundaries in ways that seem quite modern (the three included here were published between 1887 and 1910). A lengthy (75-page) editorial introduction evaluates the author and his work in relation to relevant historical, scientific, and genre contexts. If you find this slim volume to your taste, you can sample many more of Rosny aîné’s scientific speculations in the numerous editions translated by Brian Stableford and published by Black Coat Press, a Tarzana-based publisher that specializes in English translations of classic works of French popular fiction.

The Wesleyan series has been a leader in the ongoing recasting of Jules Verne’s critical legacy, restoring the satirical and sociopolitical commentary often cut from earlier editions of the author’s work. Now SUNY Press has gotten into the act with the first complete English translation of Verne’s The Sphinx of the Ice Realm (June 2012), translated and edited by Frederick Paul Walter (who collaborated with the late Walter James Miller on a restored and annotated edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1993). A sequel to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Sphinx is an Antarctic adventure story that seeks to rival, in its macabre atmosphere, Poe’s original tale — which is included as an appendix to the new edition. A second appendix features the section on Pym from Verne’s 1864 essay "Edgar Allan Poe and His Works," and the excellent Textual Notes gloss Verne’s rampant allusions to Poe’s oeuvre. A book like this goes some distance towards establishing how recursive and intertextual early SF often was.

Less academic in orientation but no less welcome in its efforts at critical salvage, HiLo Books’s “Radium Age Science Fiction” series, which debuted this year, covers a relatively neglected period in the genre’s history — the three decades between the classic scientific romances of Wells in the late 1890s and the mature pulp era of the early 1930s. The first two volumes in the series, published in May, are Jack London’s 1912 post-apocalypse tale The Scarlet Plague and Rudyard Kipling’s “With the Night Mail” and “As Easy as A.B.C.”: Two Yarns about the Aerial Board of Control, the latter featuring two stories — from 1905 and 1912 — that depict a bureaucratic imperium governed by airships. It is difficult to read either work now, especially the Kipling with its bristling array of super-dirigibles, without imposing the retrofuturist perspectives of steampunk, though Matthew De Abaitua’s introduction to “With the Night Mail” provides excellent historical context in fictional and real Victorian-Edwardian air-power fantasies, and Bruce Sterling’s Afterword makes clear how innovative the stories were when first published, with their futuristic bulletins and advertisements spoofing magazine conventions of the day. Matthew Battles’s introduction to The Scarlet Plague links London’s “bacteriological pessimism” to a range of texts and historical events, including Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” Wells’s War of the Worlds, and the sinking of the Titanic. Both London’s and Kipling’s books are welcome reissues, and future volumes in the series will feature works by H. Rider Haggard, William Hope Hodgson, and Karel Capek.

A more longstanding fan enterprise is NESFA Press, the official publishing arm of the New England Science Fiction Association. Since 1972, NESFA has been releasing limited edition hardcovers featuring material both old and new, though they have specialized in retrospective collections of short and long-form work by SF writers often in danger of falling off the critical radar screen — Zenna Henderson, Murray Leinster, Anthony Boucher, Charles L. Harness, Fredric Brown, and William Tenn, to name a few. In 2009, they began a series gathering the Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson, volume four of which, entitled Admiralty, appeared in 2011. For some reason, the books are not organized chronologically, this one containing stories spanning the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The highlight of the volume is 1972’s “Goat Song,” a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novelette that retells the legend of Orpheus in a far-future cybernetic dystopia. Though usually lacking much in the way of critical apparatus, NESFA’s books are beautifully produced and affordable, and in many cases they represent the only in-print editions of important SF talents of the past.

Their 2005 volume The Masque of Mañana, edited by Sharon L. Sbarsky, was the only currently extant gathering of Robert Sheckley’s pioneering short stories — until New York Review of Books Classics released Store of the Worlds in May. Edited by Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem, it includes 26 of Sheckley’s finest tales, which are some of the most scathingly hilarious ever published in the genre; most are from the 1950s, the period of the author’s peak productivity and popularity. The editors’ superb introduction meticulously traces an SF lineage that links Sheckley’s “sardonic outcry” back to the darker strains of Henry Kuttner and C.M. Kornbluth and forward to the anti-technocratic pessimism of J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison. They also show how his futuristic tales were representative products of their era: satirical send-ups of consumerism and middle-class lifestyles that make him a bastard cousin of John Cheever and Richard Yates. This is the first NYRB Classics title to focus on an SF author, but the series to date has been admirably diverse, including hard-boiled writers like William Lindsey Gresham, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Dan Carpenter, so one can perhaps hope for more works in a fantastic vein in the future.

Another valuable form of salvage is the historical anthology, drawing together a range of writers on a single theme or summing up a specific subgenre. Two excellent recent works in this area are David Hartwell and Jacob Weisman’s The Sword & Sorcery Anthology, published by Tachyon Press in June, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, originally published in the UK in 2011 and released stateside by Tor Books in May 2012. The former volume canvasses a tradition of dark fantasy that can be traced back to Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan of Cimmeria in the 1930s. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant” opens the book, which also features work by C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Joanna Russ, Karl Edward Wagner, and thirteen other masters of the form (two stories are original publications). David Drake’s introduction is chatty and vacuous, but the fiction is gorgeously macabre, weaving in elements of myth, fairy tale, occult lore, and blood-and-thunder adventure. Though a more testosterone-drenched subgenre of the field would be difficult to imagine, there are five stories by women in the volume, none more ferocious than Jane Yolen’s “Become a Warrior,” an unsparingly grim tale of sorcerous revenge.

The Weird is a more ambitious anthology, seeking to provide an exhaustive introduction to the “weird tale,” a form whose boundaries are difficult to descry since they blend in one direction into mainstream Surrealism and in the other into classic pulp. As a result, the book is generously eclectic — indeed, just plain generous — in its selections, including over 100 stories on over 1100 double-columned pages. The coverage is chronological, beginning with an excerpt from Alfred Kubin’s 1908 novel The Other Side and culminating with K.J. Bishop’s 2009 story “Saving the Gleeful Horse.” Along the way, Kafka rubs shoulders with H.P. Lovecraft, Julio Cortázar with Robert Bloch, Haruki Murakami with Stephen King. As these names suggest, the scope is international, making this book a valuable supplement to Peter Straub’s award-winning two-volume introduction to American Fantastic Tales, published by the Library of America in 2009. It reminded me a lot of Alberto Manguel’s Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature, from 1983, which had less of a genre slant but whose juxtapositions were equally rich and arresting. There is a “Foreweird” by Michael Moorcock and an “Afterweird” by China Miéville, both of which emphasize the protean quality of the genre, while the editors’ introduction provides a highly condensed historical overview. This is one of the best anthologies published on the fantastic in recent years.

These are just a few of the hundreds of reprint works that have appeared over the past months. So prepare to dive in and perform some personal acts of salvage….

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