The Secret History of Science Fiction.
This collection of short stories, raises the question what if Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" had won the Nebula award in 1973, instead of Arthur. C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama. It was nominated for the award.Would the fact that a landmarked work of postmodern fiction won, have changed anything. Would the future distinction between literary fiction and science fiction have been erased? This ingeniously conceived anthology raises this question, by plotting an alternate history of speculative fiction and by arguing that the lines between genres have long been obscured.
By using this device the editors can demonstrate their reasoning, and by showcasing a selection of authors that perfectly prove that great fiction cannot be categorized,this volume aptly demonstrates that great science fiction appears in many guises.
The anthology, starts with an introduction, where the editors set forth their argument, using a 1998 essay published in the Village Voice by Jonathan Lethem as their starting point. In this essay, titled “Close encounters: the squandered promise of science fiction” Lethem states that the moment Pynchon lost was a “Tombstone marking the death of the hope that Science Fiction was about to merge with the mainstream”
After this appears 19 short stories,prefaced by a quote from each of the featured authors, and by allowing the individual authors, the chance express their own point of view, the editors make their cause, that much stronger. So in light of this I’ll add a quote with each story, although as each story has at least a quote from two of the authors, I will pick my favourites.
Angouleme – Thomas. M. Disch.
[A group of bored teenagers plan to murder an old man, but it’s purely bravado, not meant to happen]
“Realistic fiction leaves out far, far too much. How old is realistic fiction? How old is fantasy?” - Gene Wolfe
The ones who walk away from Omelas – Ursula. K. Le Guin.
[what would you pay for your happiness]
“At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence…..” – Ursula. k. Le Guin
Ladies & Gentlemen, this is your crisis – Kate Wilhelm.
[Is this the future of reality TV & how will it shape our thought processes.]
“I think it’s difficult for a novelist nowadays to write without irony about a way of life that's fulfilling or satisfying. I think that in America today it’s not easy to see that way of life without being grossly sentimental or blocking out certain realities. It’s a paradox. I suppose if we knew it, we’d all be living it. But I do think it’s necessary to try to imagine that. It’s extremely difficult.” – John kessel.
Descent of Man – T.C. Boyle.
[A man loses his wife to a Chimpanzee, who happens to be a genius,who has translated Nietzsche’s “Beyond good and evil” and Chomsky’s “Language and mind”]
“Art is supposed to be unconventional which is why I detest genre writing of all kinds. I mean, it’s comforting for people who read it--- but they are morons. (LAUGHS). Because they know that Joe will get murdered & somebody else will figure out why or how. Or some spy will figure out how to prevent terrorists from taking over the world. I don’t really care. it doesn’t interest me. I want to be taken away to a different place every time.” – T.C. Boyle.
Human moments in world war III – Don Delillo.
[ In this we follow the interactions of 2 astronauts, floating above the planet whilst war rages on below them]
“Technology is our fate, our truth. It is what we mean when we call ourselves the only superpower on the planet. The materials & methods we devise make it possible for us to claim the future. We don’t have to depend on God or the prophets or other astonishments. We are the astonishment. The miracle is what we ourselves produce, the systems & networks that change the way we live & think.” – Don Delillo
Homelanding –Margaret Atwood.[A woman, probably human, tries to describe her planet and her species to the member of another civilization.]
“Not all science fiction is “science”----science occurs in it as a plot-driver, a tool--- but all of it is fiction. This narrative form has always been with us: it used to be the kind with angels & devils in it. It is the gateway to the shadowiest & also the brightest part of the human imaginative world…..” –Margaret Atwood
The nine billion names of God- Carter Scholz.
[A writer submits a story that is the exact replica of a classic work by Arthur.C. Clark. An exchange of letters with an editor ensues, in which the writer claims that although the words are the same, the context, hence the meaning is different.](Pure Borges).
“Fiction is an adventure or it’s nothing --- nothing at all. What’s an adventure? An invitation to wonder & danger. If what I write doesn’t lead a reader into the woods, away from the main path, then it’s a failure. Somebody else wrote it. I disown it. – Steven Millhauser
Interlocking pieces – Molly Gloss.
[this is a beautiful story about personal disaster and trying to reach some understanding, and acceptance.]
“A librarian in the library of Babel, a wizard unable to cast a spell; a spaceship having trouble getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise & profound metaphors of the human condition……” – Ursula. K. Le Guin.
Salvador – Lucius Shepard.
[An American soldier in the Jungles of Salvador, After taking too much drugs, has a mystic experience and ends up killing his platoon. Months later, back in civilian life, the experience still plays heavily on his mind]
“Stories that spring to me from landscapes, from settings. When I go to a place like Honduras or Nicaragua, & a story occurs to me, I’m not going to take it out of its context, because it’s a story particular to that place & time.” – Lucius Shepard
Schwarzschild Radius – Connie Willis.
[This tale draws a line between the horrors of trench warfare (WW1) & the theoretical workings of black hole.]
“I don’t want to define science fiction because there’s a basic assumption when you ask somebody to define a genre. The word genre in French means species, & you can define a species, for example, by the fact that cats can’t interbreed with dogs…….. It’s hard to imagine that a Chihuahua & a Great Dane are the same species & they can interbreed, but they can’t with a Fox….. That's not true of genres in literature. They aren’t definable because they aren’t fixed in the same way.” – Maureen McHugh.
Buddha Nostril Bird – John Kessel.
[This is an Arabian nights tale, dealing with identity & what one can know (Empirical / Apriori) ?]
“How comfortable are we, thinking of ourselves as artists? There’s no question that we’re artists, but it’s something we’re uncomfortable thinking about because of the pulp fiction creation myth “It came from the gutter” We were raised out of the mud of the pulps & have yet to achieve the same status as Updike, Joyce Carol Oates & all” – James Patrick Kelly
The Ziggurat – Gene Wolfe.
[This story features a marriage disintegrating , a bitter custody dispute, and the visit of time travellers from the future]
“Memory is all we have. The present is a knifes edge & the future doesn’t really exist (that’s why SF writers can set all these strange stories there, because it’s no place. it hasn’t come into being).So memory’s ability to reconnect us with the past, or some version of it, is all we have.” – Gene Wolfe
The Hardened Criminals – Jonathan Lethem.
[A young criminal is sent to a prison where dangerous inmates are literally hardened: they become living bricks as part of the prison walls and some of them can still talk, with varying degrees of sanity.]
“My intention was that the book (Sarah Canary) would read like a Sci-Fi novel to a Sci-Fi reader, & that it would read like a mainstream novel to a mainstream reader, which is the point, that you bring your own perceptions to everything in a very compelling sort of way.” – Karen Joy Fowler.
Standing room only – Karen Joy Fowler.
[The assassination of President Lincoln, seen through the eyes of the daughter of Mary Suratt, who runs a boarding house & frequents the same circles as actor John Wilkes Booth.]
“What I find exciting is the idea that no work of fiction will ever, ever come close to “documenting” life. So then, the purpose of it must be otherwise. It’s supposed to do something to us to make it easier ( or more fun, or less painful) for us to live….” – George Saunders.
10.16 to 1 – James Patrick Kelly.[Cross, a time traveller, fails in his mission and has to rely on a young boy to kill a man and prevent WWIII from happening.]
“It’s less true of other art forms, but for some reason with writers in particular we want to know where to stick them, where to shelve them……”. – Michael Chabon.
93990 – George Saunders
[a clinical account of a series of (pointless?) experiments performed on monkeys, in the name of science. ]
“Sometimes the best way to look closely at an object is to remove it from its natural surroundings, study it in isolation. We do that in science fiction; often we transport the here & now to somewhere else, another time.Sometimes we stay here & change the time, or change the background to get a closer, clearer view” – Kate Wilhelm
The Martian Agent, A planetary romance – Michael Chabon.
[This is the story of two young brothers. Whose father is pursued by the army as a traitor of the British Empire, they are caught & imprisoned in some kind of reform home, until their uncle, a renowned engineer, comes to their rescue in a flying ship.]
“The positive side of the ghettoization of the fantastic is that writers within that ghetto have done a lot of exploring & defining. Jazz was not invented by high culture……” – John Kessel.
Frankenstein’s Daughter - Maureen. F. McHugh.How society reacts to a family who has a cloned daughter: a 6-year-old mentally delayed child who is in constant need of attention (medical & otherwise).
“For those who resist the notion that the mainstream is a genre, we recommend that they browse the shelves of their local bookstore. For if the mainstream is not a genre, then it must necessarily embrace all kinds of writing: romance, adventure, horror, thriller, crime, and, yes, science fiction.” – James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel.
The wizard of West Orange – Steven Millhauser.
Set in the 19th century, this is the diary of a man who works for a company (Edison?) that invents new devices. One of the devices “The Haptograph” can replicate the sense of touch (the feel of a feather, kiss etc.) But it has the capacity to explore new combinations, with serious consequences.
“I’m fanatically reluctant to say that fiction ought to do one thing rather than another. I do know what I want from fiction. I want it to exhilarate me, to unbind my eyes, to murder & resurrect me, to harm me in some fruitful way. But that said, yes, the journey into intense feeling & the conquest of unknown emotional territory is something fiction can make possible.” – Steven Millhauser
“What we normally consider the mainstream — so called realistic fiction — is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist.” – Gene Wolfe.
In this collection, the editors have an array of writers lined up, with the one aim, “to explore the possibility of an alternate history of speculative fiction” yet what you get from reading this anthology, is that the lines between genres have long been obscured, in fact from the earliest days the boundaries have had traffic from both sides. I will leave the last words to a writer whose ideas are never constrained by borders or boundaries, whose muse is equally at home in a spacesuit or in Armani.
“The novel of ideas. The novel of manners. The novel of grim witness. The novel of pure dreaming. The novel of excess. The novel of unreadability. The comic novel. The romance novel. The epistolary novel. The promising first novel. The sad patchwork, grave robbing, over-my-dead-body posthumous novel. The suspense novel. The crime novel. The experimental novel. The historical novel. The novel of meticulous observations. The novel of marital revenge. The beach novel. The war novel. The anti-war novel. The post-war novel. The out of print novel. The novel that sells to the movies before it’s written. The novel that critics like to say they want to throw across the room. The science fiction novel. The metafiction novel. The death of the novel. The novel that changes your life because you are young and open-hearted and eager to take an existential leap. – Don Delillo.