This is Science Fiction?

Who ended up in Jeff and Ann VanderMeer's "The Big Book of Science Fiction"?

By Paul KincaidDecember 3, 2016

This is Science Fiction?

The Big Book of Science Fiction by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer. Vintage. 1216 pages.

IS THERE ANY BRANCH of literature so insecure, so uncertain of its own status, as science fiction?

Historians confidently place its origins in 1516 (Utopia by Thomas More), or 1634 (Somnium by Johannes Kepler), or 1818 (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley), or 1926 (Amazing Stories edited by Hugo Gernsback). Obviously, a unified and clearly identifiable literary form could not have such diverse birthdays. But then, lack of unity is the one consistent feature in all approaches to science fiction. There are innumerable definitions, all of which flatly contradict each other, and the most widely accepted, by Darko Suvin, allows for a story to be science fiction one day but not the very next day owing to some advance in science or technology. Clearly we are on shifting and unstable ground.

In compensation, science fiction goes to extraordinary lengths to convince itself, and anyone else who might be paying attention, of its own worth. There are huge numbers of awards: the Hugos, Nebulas, Clarke, Tiptree, Campbell, Sturgeon, BSFA, Aurealis, and so on, with more added every year. More anthologies showcase the best SF short stories of the year than in every other branch of literature put together, usually with very little overlap. But then, where there is no general agreement about what science fiction is, it is hardly surprising that there is no consensus about what it does best.

Given that the short story has always held a central position in science fiction, the burden of apostrophizing the form has generally fallen upon anthologies. In particular, the periodic appearance of monumental historical anthologies (through the authors they select and the types of story they include) presents a particular narrative. Portraying a common history, these anthologies depict a uniform march of progress from the earliest oddities to the current glories of present day science fiction. It hardly matters that such histories vary, often wildly, from one anthology to the next; it is the sense of commonality, the sense that there really is such a unified and identifiable thing as science fiction, that matters.

These awards and anthologies, which function as histories and taxonomies, instantiate ongoing attempts to tackle science fiction’s identity crisis — one that has consumed the field ever since people first tried to apply a name and a form to the literature. However, what we call science fiction is not and never has been uniform. If there is any consistency in science fiction, it is an engagement with the new, and so science fiction is constantly engaged in reinventing itself. The science fiction of 25 years ago, 50 years ago, and 100 years ago is clearly ancestral to the science fiction we read today, but it is not the same thing. Those antecedent forms were not using the same tools or working toward the same end.

This inherent instability is starting to be recognized. (This recognition is, in many cases, reluctant: interference in the Hugo Awards by the groups calling themselves Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies can be traced, at least in part, to the fact that the science fiction lauded today is no longer the same kind of science fiction they were brought up on.) We are starting to become used to a more fluid approach to science fiction in terms of its history, criticism, character, and practitioners. The latest monumental historical anthology, which has the appropriate title of The Big Book of Science Fiction, reflects that fluid approach.

The anthology is, of course, didactic in intent: this is a history of science fiction, it tells us, although it is not a history we might all be familiar with. The volume presents 105 stories spread across nearly 1,200 large-format, double-columned, densely packed pages, laid out in chronological order. The collection takes us from its earliest story, “The Star” by H. G. Wells, first published in 1897 (few of these anthologies venture much before the dawn of the 20th century, despite the wealth of short science fiction that appeared throughout the 19th century), to its latest, “Baby Doll” by Johanna Sinisalo, which was first published in 2002. This is a relatively distant cut-off point since most similar anthologies include at least some contemporary work, but over the last 15 years or so science fiction has fragmented more and more; this early end may be a sensible way of maintaining the desired perspective and avoiding engagement in current culture wars.

That Johanna Sinisalo is both a woman and Finnish indicates how this take on the history of science fiction diverges radically from the norm. Science fiction, throughout most of the 20th century, has presented itself as an overwhelmingly masculine literature. Clare Winger Harris, a major contributor to the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, had by the 1950s been effectively written out of the history of the genre. Subsequently, Andre Norton served as a major gateway into science fiction for a generation of readers and writers during the 1960s, Joanna Russ was probably the most controversial figure SF has ever produced, and James Tiptree Jr. turned out not to be a man, dammit! Yet, with the obvious and perhaps inevitable exception of Ursula K. Le Guin, women played comparatively little part in the various histories of the genre and in the anthologies that reflected those histories. Of the 105 stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, 31 are by women, which is a remarkable advance in comparison to many of its predecessors.

More remarkable is Sinisalo’s nationality. As a literature of the 20th century, science fiction has often been perceived as characteristically Anglo-American. The usual story goes like this: SF is often said to have originated in Britain (Mary Shelley, Wells), but with the advent of the pulps, particularly Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, the genre quickly became overwhelmingly American. Writers from Canada or Australia were allowed into the club, but anything not written in English was for all intents and purposes invisible. After Verne, Zamyatin, and Čapek, science fiction in languages other than English certainly didn’t feature in the histories. There may have been an awareness that science fiction was being written in Germany, in the Soviet Union, and perhaps even in Japan, but there was little idea of what that science fiction might actually look like. Even when work by Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky Brothers began to appear in translation, these were regarded less as representatives of other science fiction traditions than as clever foreigners who had learned how to do an American trick. Only since the turn of the century has the idea of science fiction as an international literature once again started to take hold. Even so, representative anthologies still tend to be overwhelmingly American.

It may be a pleasing shock, therefore, to discover that the contents of this anthology include stories from Argentina, Austria, Brazil, China, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Russia, and Spain. Geographical coverage is not perfect; both China and Africa are distinctly under-represented — but all the same, I have never encountered such an international range of contributions in an anthology of this type before. Many of the stories benefit from new translations commissioned especially for this volume, demonstrating a rare and welcome commitment to the international voice of science fiction.

Inevitably, therefore, this history of science fiction differs markedly from what most of its readers are familiar with. Yes, recognizable waymarkers make an appearance: Wells, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson. These, however, are set in an unfamiliar context, and it isn’t at all clear that the direction they are pointing toward is the one we might expect. Wells may be an obvious starting point, but his story is immediately followed with “Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein, a Bengali feminist writer with limited work translated into English. The story itself is not particularly special: a highborn Indian woman receives a vision of a world governed by women. As suffragist movements spread around the world, from the last decades of the 19th century into the 1920s, such stories proliferated, many of them more inventively constructed and better written than this one (the best example was probably Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman). I suspect the story is here less for its intrinsic quality (it serves as a representative of a type, but not necessarily as an exemplar of the type) than to make a statement about how the history of science fiction is being approached.

This message is emphasized with the next several selections, from Germany, Austria, France, Spain, and the Soviet Union, along with pieces by W. E. B. Du Bois and Clare Winger Harris, before we again encounter a name familiar from more conventional histories.

One imagines that the Du Bois story is included largely for the shock value of encountering that famous name in unexpected circumstances. The story itself, “The Comet” (which probably owes a debt to H. G. Wells’s novel In the Days of the Comet), wherein a poor black man survives a cataclysm brought about by the near-passage of a comet, is a competent piece of propaganda but not a startlingly good or original work of fiction. Within “The Comet,” the survivor joins up with a rich white girl, and all goes well until her friends return from outside the city and racial divisions slam down once more. The Harris story “The Fate of the Poseidonia” is a much more impressive piece, more complexly structured and more fully developed. Her story is powerful enough to suggest the sad and surprising injustice of her exclusion from science fiction history.

The translated works also vary in quality. “Mechanopolis” by Miguel de Unamuno, for example, is a fable about a man in a city run by and for machines (again, one imagines that part of the impetus for inclusion was placing the renowned Spanish philosopher in this unfamiliar context). Meanwhile, “The Doom of Principal City” by Yefim Zozulya presents the hauntingly original tale of a conquered city that finds itself steadily buried below an entirely new city by an occupying enemy. The normal chronology of the anthology is interrupted by this tour of the globe, spelling out the fact that science fiction is not limited to one culture or language. Science fiction, this collection makes clear, is a far more heterogeneous thing than we usually allow for.

The traditional trajectory would have taken us from Wells to Gernsback, pointing toward the rise of the pulp magazines throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the foundation upon which the familiar, culturally dominant mode of American science fiction was built. But the pulp era is represented by only (let’s be generous) five stories. Two are by women, Clare Winger Harris and Leslie F. Stone, not the usual exemplars. One, “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, is a startling departure from the norms of the period, and consequently an acknowledged classic of early American science fiction. Then there is “The Last Poet and the Robots” by A. Merritt, a writer more usually associated with the florid extravagances of the fantasy pulps than the hard-edged technophilia of science fiction. This leaves only Edmond Hamilton’s “The Star Stealers” to represent what Brian Aldiss called the “wide-screen baroque” of space opera. Throughout the pulp era, the more extravagant the setting, the more leaden the prose tended to be, and Hamilton’s account is no exception. His portrayal of heroes setting out to investigate a galaxy-threatening dead star is full of ponderous explanations and clichéd heroics, so it is perhaps no real surprise that more of the stuff hasn’t been chosen for this anthology.

Nevertheless, while the pulp era of American science fiction is underrepresented, what followed is passed over in almost complete silence. In 1939, John W. Campbell took over editorship of Astounding, and by carefully nurturing a stable of writers that included Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A. E. van Vogt, and L. Ron Hubbard, he established a form of science fiction that would become known as “hard SF.” This was a brisk, technophiliac literature in which the iron laws of the universe trumped everything and human ingenuity always defeated alien ruthlessness (and American men always came out ahead of everyone else). Such hard SF became the defining norm for science fiction, at least until the release of Star Wars made space opera popular once more.

One can understand the absence of Robert Heinlein from this collection, due apparently to problems over the rights to his work, but other key writers of the Campbell era such as Hal Clement or Tom Godwin (whose controversial story “The Cold Equations” is probably the archetypal work of hard SF), are also absent. So are later hard SF writers including Gregory Benford and the writers of the New Hard SF like Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Greg Egan. The portion of the book which covers the 1940s and early 1950s, the period of Campbell’s unquestioned dominance of American science fiction, contains fewer non-Anglophone writers than any other part of the anthology, but there are only two stories that were first published in Campbell’s Astounding, and both are relatively minor works. “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak, which would go on to form part of his novel City, tells the somewhat sentimental story of a man and his elderly dog, both transformed to survive in the atmosphere of Jupiter. “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz tells of humans endangered because they don’t understand the lifecycle of the aliens they exploit (later, “Where Two Paths Cross” by the Soviet writer Dmitri Bilenkin tells a similar story with rather more skill).

Some writers normally associated with hard SF, such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, are here represented by stories that tend toward a more transcendent, almost spiritual mode, and noticeably neither was originally published by Campbell. Asimov’s “The Last Question,” not his best story by any means, depicts the successive iterations of a supercomputer that eventually acquires godlike powers to reverse entropy and restart the universe. Clarke’s “The Star,” which probably is his best story, recounts the crisis of faith that occurs when a Jesuit scientist on a mission to explore an alien civilization’s remains calculates that the nova which destroyed the civilization was also the star of Bethlehem.

We must assume that the near-invisibility of hard SF in this anthology is a matter of editorial taste, because the humanist science fiction that began to develop in the 1950s is well represented by writers like Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Katherine MacLean, Margaret St. Clair, and William Tenn (the only author to appear twice in this anthology). I tend to believe that the place of hard SF in the history of science fiction is over-rated, so I can hardly fault the VanderMeers for their revisionist efforts, but I do find it interesting. Their decision is particularly notable given that science fiction between the early 1940s and the early 1960s was an overwhelmingly American affair. Two British writers are included, Arthur C. Clarke and, rather unexpectedly, James White, with the first of his stories about an intergalactic hospital, “Sector General.” However, the only non-Anglophone writers included here are Juan José Arreola at the very beginning of the period, Jorge Luis Borges with the brilliant “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and, at the end of the period, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. From this point on, work in translation punctuates the contents list far more regularly, as if the American core had to be established before we could be reminded once again that this is a truly global literature.

Beginning at this point, the book feels less like a broad survey of science fiction than a selection of aspects that particularly appeal to the editors. A number of the stories gathered here have appeared in earlier anthologies edited by the VanderMeers: for instance, “The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones (an example of the British New Wave that is otherwise not widely anthologised) and “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer previously edited collections including The New Weird and (almost on the same scale as this monster) The Weird. A similar taste for the mysterious, the unexplained, and the surreal exists in The Big Book of Science Fiction. This penchant comes through in the Dalíesque Mars we encounter in “Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki, for example, and the people who are slowly being transformed into trees in “Standing Woman,” a hauntingly tender story by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Even when the stories superficially conform to the scientific rigor more usually associated with science fiction, there is an air of the weird about them: the dying reverie of a crashed astronaut in Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea”; the body horror of a scientist eaten up and transformed by his own discovery in “Blood Music” by Greg Bear; the cardinal found frozen on an uncharted world in Michael Moorcock’s “The Frozen Cardinal”; the aliens who assume the form of women to satisfy their human invaders, only to find themselves unable to abandon this new role, in “Wives” by Lisa Tuttle. It’s a heady brew and these are excellent stories, but there are times when the collection feels only tangentially science fiction, or rather, like it is plowing a deep furrow but only in one section of the larger whole that is science fiction.

Most of the movements that have ranged across science fiction in the last 50 years or so, at least since the eclipse of hard SF, are well represented here, but then, most of these movements were reactions against the scientific rigor of hard SF.

In Britain, the New Wave of the mid-’60s rejected the technocratic optimism of hard SF in favor of psychological depth and modernist literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness prose and unreliable narrators. That tradition is illustrated here by such stories as “The Voices of Time” by J. G. Ballard, “Sporting with the Child” by Barrington J. Bayley, and “The Snake that Read Chomsky” by Josephine Saxton. Across the Atlantic, the new wave took a somewhat different form, epitomised by Harlan Ellison’s two key anthologies, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, which presented an iconoclastic literature emphasizing sex, drugs, and political radicalism — topics previously veiled or completely absent from American science fiction. This radicalism seems to resonate with the editors’ tastes even more than the British New Wave. Examples range from Kurt Vonnegut’s precursor tale of state imposed euthanasia, “2BR02B,” to Harlan Ellison’s playful account of chaos in an overly ordered society, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Samuel R. Delany’s tale of sexual desire for genderless spacemen, “Aye, and Gomorrah,” forms a neat pair with James Tiptree Jr.’s story of sexual desire for the alien, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side.” And there’s the contrast of David R. Bunch’s chilly mechanistic fable “Three from Moderan” with Michael Bishop’s warm tale of sexual healing “The House of Compassionate Sharers.”

The New Wave wasn’t exclusively the playground of a new generation of writers, as proven by the inclusion of “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl, one of the finest of all science fiction short stories. Set on one day about a thousand years in the future, this story neatly and dispassionately overturns every traditional notion of what it means to be human and in love. The New Wave was also the springboard for other developments in science fiction, exemplified by the inclusion of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” and Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed”: stories that presaged the emergence of feminist science fiction over the coming decade.

The anthology’s inclusions display the readiness with which fiction from other cultures fits into the same tonal and stylistic range, as if non-Anglophone writers were producing New Wave science fiction all along. Actually, this may be true. One of the characteristics common to both branches of the New Wave was release from the restrictions commonly placed upon the genre, such as coyness about sex and resistance to literary experiment. These restrictions were self-imposed and science fiction writers outside the United States or, to a lesser extent, Britain, had not been subject to them. (Different restrictions were imposed on, for example, Soviet science fiction writers, but these restrictions were of a different character; and because they were externally imposed, the writers became adept at circumventing them.) The broad comedy of Stanisław Lem’s “Let us Save the Universe,” complete with crude cartoons of outlandish creatures, and the satire of Alicia Yánez Cossio’s “The IWM 1000,” about a machine that does our thinking for us, would have fit comfortably into any contemporaneous New Wave magazines or anthologies.

Novelty becomes old and familiar very quickly, and the New Wave had pretty much run its course by the early 1970s. The next major movement, cyberpunk, which emerged in the 1980s, is reasonably well represented here by the usual suspects, including William Gibson (“New Rose Hotel”), Pat Cadigan (“Variation on a Man”), and Bruce Sterling (“Swarm”), though the chosen stories are not always typical of the movement. “Swarm,” for instance, is one of Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist stories, but it is yet another story that depends for its effect on a sense of body horror. Once again, one detects the editors’ preference for the contemporary humanist movement set up as an opposition to cyberpunk (by outsiders rather than by the writers themselves). Here, for instance we find S. N. Dyer (“Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead”), Karen Joy Fowler (“The Lake was Full of Artificial Things”), Pat Murphy (“Rachel in Love”), and Kim Stanley Robinson (“Before I Wake”) — though the best is possibly “Snow” by John Crowley, an acute story of memory and forgetting in a place where storing the personality of the dead for later consultation is possible.

More movements have, inevitably, followed. The most successful, at the end of the 20th century, were reinventions of earlier forms: the New Hard SF and the New Space Opera. I’ve already noted that the technophiliac SF both these forms favor is not altogether in sync with the interests of the editors. The New Hard SF is completely absent, and the New Space Opera is acknowledged only by the presence of Iain M. Banks’s “A Gift from the Culture.” This may have been the best short story Banks wrote, but he wrote few and most were labored, so once again one suspects that a story is included more for the author’s name than for the intrinsic value of the story.

It is easy to periodize the history of science fiction, as I have done in this review, to present it as a distinct sequence of movements following movements, or as generations of influential editors: Gernsback then Campbell then Moorcock and so on. Yes, movements overlap, space opera and hard SF have never entirely disappeared, and there are still stories replicating the literary modernism of the British New Wave or revelling in the human-machine interface of cyberpunk. However, patterns can be discerned amid the mass of stories. Indeed, the VanderMeers themselves follow such a periodizing approach in their long and engaging, if at times contentious, introduction. Within it, they justify the inclusion of some stories, particularly early in the volume, on the grounds that they are contes philosophiques, and yet they try to separate contes philosophiques from science fiction proper. In fact, the contes philosophiques has been an integral part of science fiction from its earliest days right to the present. The works of current writers such as Adam Roberts or Ada Palmer, for instance, are contes philosophiques, and to try to separate the contes philosophiques from science fiction is as futile an exercise as trying to separate satire from science fiction.

Such periodizing, however, does not work when the focus is spread beyond the overly analyzed range of Anglo-American science fiction. One Norwegian story, “The Owl of Bear Island” by Jon Bing, really tells us nothing about Norwegian science fiction and still less about Scandinavian SF, though there are thriving SF communities in Sweden and Denmark completely absent from this telling. Does “The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer really belong with the humanist SF of the 1980s, or is that just a coincidence of mood and publication date? “Sharing Air” by Manjula Padmanabhan was first published in India in 1984, but the fable of an austere future society looking back in horror on the excesses of the 20th century could really have been written at any time in the previous 50 years. In some countries we might assume that imported American science fiction proves the existence of a market for locally produced work following the American model, but that is far from universal. A writer like Cixin Liu (“The Poetry Cloud”) shows awareness of American science fiction, but he is also writing out of a long tradition of Chinese SF, so any effort to place his work within an American frame would be misguided.

One story from Africa, “Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ” by the Ghanaian poet Kojo Laing, does not reveal whether African SF has had its new wave or its cyberpunk. The opening sentence of the story — “When the small quick lorry was being lowered from the skies, it was discovered that it had golden wood, and many seedless guavas for the hungry” — displays that sense of the magical combined with an acute political awareness that we find in other West African writers from Chinua Achebe to Ben Okri. The fact that the editors refer to this magical mode as surrealism reveals, I suspect, more about the editors’ sensibilities than it does about Laing’s.

In other words, despite the chronological order of this volume, the stories from non-Anglophone sources are inherently ahistorical. What they do, and do excellently, is act as a chorus reminding us constantly that science fiction was happening differently in different places, that the familiar account we have been brought up on is at best only a part of the story.

Even in the time since this book was published, science fiction will have changed. In the decade and a half since the cut-off point for the collection, science fiction has already changed radically. At best, this anthology provides a snapshot, a reminder of great stories we might have forgotten, an introduction to great writers we may never have heard of. But even in this, The Big Book of Science Fiction is a particular and idiosyncratic account.

Even the 58 stories by American writers and 10 by British writers together offer only a partial account of the familiar ground of science fiction’s history. The technophile, mechanistic tale that is for many readers the very heartbeat of SF is downplayed. The selections emphasize stories that veer toward the weird or the surreal or the fantastic. That said, some classics repay every rereading: alongside some of those already mentioned we might include “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty, “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis, and “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. At the same time, some authors are represented by work below their best. Was Asimov’s “The Last Question” chosen over “Nightfall” because the latter is more characteristic of Campbellian hard SF; or “All the Hues of Hell” by Gene Wolfe chosen over “Seven American Nights” because of the fantasy and even horror overtones laid upon the science fiction?

In any anthology of this nature, there are going to be questions regarding which authors were omitted or why one story was preferred over another, and we cannot know how many of these choices were guided by the availability of rights or constraints of length. So if I question such omissions or choices, it is emphatically not to condemn the book (which is far too good to deserve such condemnation), but rather to discern the principles, tastes, and preferences that decided this view of science fiction rather than another. This book is going to stand as the key historical anthology of science fiction for years to come, so it is worth stressing that this is at best a partial view; there is a guiding aesthetic within it that favors one approach to science fiction over another.

The most exciting aspect, of course, is the way it opens up science fiction to the rest of the world. The interspersion of science fiction from other cultures among the more familiar fare provides a counter-history: this too was science fiction, this too was going on. But if there is an aesthetic that guides the choice of American SF, that same aesthetic applies here as well. We don’t necessarily know if other kinds of science fiction are being produced elsewhere in the world, but they might be, and with what is on offer here as a guide, we know that it is worth seeking out.

Will this book resolve science fiction’s identity crisis? Does it give us an account of science fiction that we can feel confident about? By shining a light into aspects of science fiction obscured or ignored by conventional histories are we at last getting close to the full story?

No. But it will tell you a part of the story that is well worth knowing. And it will provide an awful lot of pleasure along the way.


Paul Kincaid is a recipient of both the Thomas D. Clareson Award from the Science Fiction Research Association and the British Science Fiction Association Award for nonfiction.

LARB Contributor

Paul Kincaid is a recipient of both the Thomas D. Clareson Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, and the British Science Fiction Association Award for nonfiction. He is the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call And Response (2014). His forthcoming book Iain M. Banks will be published by Illinois University Press in 2017.


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