Saturday, November 26, 2016

Short Sci-Fi for the ultimate binge

kw: book reviews, science fiction, collections, compendia

Take 105 science fiction stories by 105 authors, culled from the past century or so, and you get 1,150 pages of really great reading: The BIG BOOK of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. I don't know yet if it is fair to call it the "best of the best", because I haven't finished reading it yet. I cannot fairly review either the book as a whole, nor any large portion of the stories on a story-by-story basis. I must simply introduce the book and let it go at that.

The editors do review the book as a whole, and in the context of the several eras and sub-genres of science fiction writing, in their 18-page introduction. That article is quite good reading in its own right. The Table of Contents consumes four pages. I checked through it and saw that I had read stories by 38 of the authors, and of the stories printed here, only 17. I had thought that I've read pretty thoroughly in this genre (or set of related genres), but they have gathered nearly 90 stories I have not read, and brought 67 authors to my attention, some of whom I am sure I will wish to pursue further.

One of the editors' aims was to bring a wide international focus to this collection, so a number of the stories are translations from, for example, Spanish and Chinese, and a few stories are by English-writing authors from outside the Anglo-American axis to which most readers of English-language science fiction—and editors of genre periodicals and books—confine themselves.

The editors also sought to dispel the myth that "early" science fiction, that of the "golden age" of the pulps and the pre-pulp era of Wells and his contemporaries, is somehow "primitive" or "naive". Nothing of the sort. A lot of it was, but not nearly all (Perhaps they consider Doc Smith and his Lensmen series to belong to a too-naive arm of early sci-fi, because they include nothing by Smith nor by most other early "space opera" authors).

Having read but 17 stories so far (3 were re-reads), I can say that, indeed, early Twentieth Century science fiction included stories of great scope and sophistication. But the Pulp Era was named that for a reason, and it wasn't only the the low quality of the paper. A great majority of the pulp fiction of the first third of the century really was junk, and set the stage for Sturgeon's Law that "90% of everything is crap." But as I recall, it was fun crap! The early stories included here are equally fun, though they tend to demand a bit more of a reader.

So, when I want sophistication, I can find it, and when I want mindless fun, there is plenty to be found. But you won't find much mindlessness in this volume. The Vandermeers have a higher purpose. And that's OK. I love the stories I have read so far. But rather than binge-read my way through the whole volume, I'll keep in on my nightstand for reading in between other books and journals.

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