Paul Simon’s observation that “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts” seems somehow applicable to the whole concept of canonical SF anthologies, of which the latest is The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, assembled jointly by six savants who represent the editorial board of the prestigious journal Science Fiction Studies. Every decade or two the field senses a need to redefine its history, both to itself and to outsiders, the latter of whom might wish to employ the resultant volume as a map of strange territories useful in a classroom environment. But generalist readers also benefit from a fresh look at the classic tales, along with unearthed, obscure yet representative gems.
The last such major undertaking was The Norton Book of Science Fiction, compiled a generation ago in 1993 by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. The amplified scholarship of the past seventeen years, plus a different approach, methodology and remit on the part of the current editors, have resulted in a volume that barely overlaps its predecessor. And while the Norton has the greater number of stories, the Wesleyan feels more comprehensive and definitive, insofar as it reaches all the way back to the birth of SF (choosing Hawthorne’s “Rappacinni’s Daughter” as illustrative of these origins), rather than starting at 1960, as did the Norton. Also, the sieve-like group-mind approach to story selection in the Wesleyan avoids some of the more capricious and problematical choices made by Le Guin and Attebery. Even lacking first-hand acquaintance with her work, I’m sure Diane Glancy is a fine writer. But her story in the Norton, “Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters,” has hardly become a polestar to steer by.
To the contrary, the selections in the Wesleyan, even the possibly debatable twenty-first-century ones, constitute a flexible, inarguably essential vertebrae of the patchwork Frankensteinian creature that is SF, off which can be hung multiple organs and limbs. One gets the sense that if all other SF were somehow destroyed in an apocalypse, the field could be reconstituted from the seed vault of texts herein. The scintillant introductions to each piece, full of cross-references and context, form a mini-history of the genre as well. This book resembles a time-lapse film of SF’s growth, a century-and-a-half of metamorphosis and evolution compacted into one beautiful fastforward montage.
Re-reading these seminal stories in their new matrix, I discover things I had forgotten or never knew. For instance: I recalled everything about Fritz Leiber’s brilliant “Coming Attraction”—except that it was told in the first-person. Recognition of the author’s choice of voice suddenly links it to other subjectively immersive dystopian works like A Clockwork Orange. Epiphanies such as this abound. Without falling into a teleological fallacy, this volume nonetheless magnificently charts some kind of blindly urgent Darwinian evolution of the genre to more and more sophisticated states. It captures, for the present and near-term future anyhow, as vivid and crystalline a portrait of SF as possible.
–PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.