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Venturing in the Slipstream

By Brian AtteberySeptember 23, 2011

The Secret History of Science Fiction by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly

EVERY ANTHOLOGY TELLS A STORY about the present state of literature, about categories and connections, about the past and its ongoing relevance. In The Secret History of Science Fiction, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel offer up an alternative history (a well-established category within science fiction). It starts with a "what if" borrowed from an essay by Jonathan Lethem: what if science fiction had rejoined the mainstream in the early 1970s, when Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was nominated for — but did not win — SF's Nebula Award? How might both science fiction and conventional literature have benefited if, as Kelly and Kessel posit in their introduction, "on one side of the genre divide, SF was being written at the highest levels of ambition, [while] on the other side, writers came to use the materials of SF for their own purposes, writing fiction that is clearly science fiction, but not identified by that name?" Just imagine: we might have writers such as Michael Chabon or Karen Joy Fowler writing recognizable SF, while genre magazines would be publishing stories as polished and as self-aware as any New Yorker piece. 

In Kelly and Kessel's "secret history" of the genre, all of that has come to pass. They have assembled a set of 19 stories, nine by writers who have indeed appeared in The New Yorker and ten by writers who have not. Just to complicate matters, though, the New Yorker crew includes genre favorites Ursula K. Le Guin and Gene Wolfe. All the stories, including one by each editor, are terrific. All employ similar themes and devices and play similar games with perception and identity. The SF writers contribute poignant character studies like Maureen McHugh's "Frankenstein's Daughter" and metafictional experiments like Kessel's "Buddha Nostril Bird." The writers who might be considered "mainstream" take on scientific issues such as the ethics of primate experiments, examined with clinical irony by George Saunders in "93990." Margaret Atwood makes use of science fiction's capacity to generate powerful metaphors in "Homelanding," and so does Connie Willis in "Schwarzchild Radius." 

Atwood is well known in SF circles for displaying a reasonable understanding of SF artistry on even-numbered days and then denying any such knowledge on odd ones. Both Atwoods are represented among the authorial statements used as interludes between the stories. Here is Atwood number one acutely describing the tradition within which SF operates: "This narrative form has always been with us: it used to be the kind with angels and devils in it. It's the gateway to the shadowiest and also the brightest part of the human imaginative world..." And here is Atwood number two making a distinction without a difference: "
Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." By "speculative fiction" she means what most would consider simply good SF. 

No story here involves intergalactic space travel, teleportation, or Martians (though Michael Chabon's steampunkish alternative history is titled "The Martian Agent: A Planetary Romance"). Many involve scientists and machines; all take place on earth or in nearby orbit; they are about equally divided among present, past, and near future. My sense is that Kelly and Kessel have not skewed the selection. This is an accurate representation of contemporary print SF. The story the editors have chosen to tell is a true one. But it isn't the only story one can construct from the selections. 

I saw a split, not between genre and non-genre writers, but between two ways of treating imagined realities. Among the various "what ifs" or "if onlys" that generate these fictions, some are given full representational depth and emotional weight while others are treated as mere means. Science fiction works on two levels simultaneously: it constructs a convincing extrapolated world, with characters and themes arising therefrom, but at the same time everything in the story represents something in our own experience. Big Brother is on our TV screens; our medicine cabinets are full of Huxley's soma; we are aliens and cyborgs. In the best SF, the two levels remain separate. The extrapolated dimension is like an elaborately constructed aircraft; the metaphoric is its shadow on the ground. If the engineering is good, the plane stays aloft and the mundane meanings flicker and flow beneath. But sometimes a writer loses interest in the vessel and goes only for the metaphor.

There is a clear division between the writers whose vehicles stay aloft and those that never get off the ground, and the line does not correspond to a writer's identification with a particular genre. Atwood's "Homelanding" is no more than an exercise in metaphor: witty and pointed metaphors about gender, but with no commitment to the alien observers that generate them. Thomas M. Disch's "Angouleme" is a study of anomie among privileged teens, with the barest gesture toward differentiating its future from the 1970s present in which it was written. Jonathan Lethem's "The Hardened Criminals," in contrast, though it makes its metaphoric basis obvious in the title, gives surprising substance to a world in which the hardened bodies of half-conscious prisoners are used to build the walls of a prison. Other stories that convince me of their altered realities include Molly Gloss's "Interlocking Pieces," about the unanticipated consequences of organ transplants; Don DeLillo's "Human Moments in World War III," in which the beauty of Earth seen from space contrasts with the deadly technologies we cannot stop creating; Kelly's "1016 to 1," in which a teenager during the Cold War must determine subsequent human history; and Steven Millhauser's "The Wizard of West Orange," about one of Thomas Edison's inventions — a tactile simulator — that leads to a heartbreaking moment of near transcendence. 

One of the most powerful effects of SF's double structure is that after the story is over, after the airplane has flown off to other skies, the shadow remains. Lethem's hardened criminals are still suffering; I continue to celebrate with Millhauser the touch of the world on my skin. For those who seek out such shadows, this book is an invitation to explore science fiction's histories, both secret and acknowledged. 

LARB Contributor

Brian Attebery is an American academic writer on science fiction and fantasy fiction. He is professor of English at Idaho State University. His 1979 doctorate from Brown University was in American Civilization. Attebery won the Pilgrim Award in 2009.


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