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An Introduction to Science Fiction Readings: Where to Start

By / June 8, 2016 / no comments

There are people out there who insist that you cannot write science fiction unless you know the history of science fiction. Yeah, I know, ludicrous, isn’t it. It’s impossible for any one person to read all the sf being published in any one year, so getting to grips with everything that has been written in the genre over the last 500 years is a non-starter. But it always used to be said of science fiction that it was a conversation, that writers feed of what others are doing, that themes are developed over time, that a writer now can learn from the mistakes that another writer made 50 years ago. Anyone writing a space opera today without at least some awareness of the innovations to the sub-genre that Iain M. Banks made 20 years ago is going to end up looking pretty silly.

Fortunately, sf is pretty good at preserving and constantly rehashing its own history. For 50 years or more there has been a steady stream of fat anthologies reprinting significant stories from the history of the genre (usually concentrating on sf as a literature of the 20th century, since before H.G. Wells we tended to get book-length works rather than short stories). The latest of these massive volumes, The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is due out in about a month. The interesting thing is that all of these volumes present a very different version of the history of the genre, both in terms of who was writing it and where they came from. These are some of the collections that fit this very particular evolutionary niche:

century of science fiction
A Century of Science Fiction
edited by Damon Knight
Dated 1962: 26 stories (including 5 novel extracts). Earliest: “What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien (1859); latest: “The First Days of May” by Claude Veillot (1961). 24 men, 2 women (Marion Zimmer Bradley and Katherine MacLean). 18 Americans, 4 Britons (H.G. Wells appears twice), 2 Frenchmen and 1 Belgian (an extraordinary range of nationalities for a collection of this period, but Knight was known for his translations from the French.

penguin sf omnibus
The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus
edited by Brian Aldiss
Brings together three collections from 1961, 1963 and 1964: 36 stories. Earliest: “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov (1941); latest: “An Alien Agony” by Harry Harrison and “The Rescuer” by Arthur Porges (both 1962). 31 men (Isaac Asimov, Bertram Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke and Walter M. Miller all appear twice), 1 woman (Katherine MacLean). 25 Americans, 6 Britons, 1 Australian (this is more typical of the period, an almost entirely male, almost entirely Anglo-American view of the history of science fiction).

world treasury of sf
The World Treasury of Science Fiction
edited by David G. Hartwell
Hartwell made a habit of producing massive anthologies that attempt to encapsulate either a genre or a sub-genre; this is the first of two that appear on this list. Dated 1989: 52 stories. Earliest: “Forgetfulness” by John W. Campbell (1937); latest: “On the Inside Track” by Karl Michael Armer (1986). 47 men, 6 women (there are 3 collaborations between men and women, including Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore appearing once as themselves and once as Lewis Padgett; one collaboration between two men, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and Theodore Sturgeon, Stanislaw Lem, Gerard Klein and Italo Calvino all appear twice). 28 Americans, 5 Britons, 1 Japanese, 1 German, 1 Colombian, 3 French, 2 Dutch, 1 Pole, 1 Czech, 1 Italian, 3 Russians, 1 Argentinian, 1 Norwegian (this anthology was deliberately designed to showcase science fiction outside the usual Anglo-American axis, and Hartwell was always more open to sf from other traditions than most American editors; even so, this is something of an outlier for the period).

oxford book of sf
The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories
edited by Tom Shippey
Dated 1992: 30 stories. Earliest: “The Land Ironclads” by H.G. Wells (1903); latest: “Piecework” by David Brin (1990). 28 men, 3 women (including “The Piper’s Son” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore writing as Lewis Padgett). 21 Americans, 6 Britons, 3 Canadians (a British editor and publisher possibly skew this collection slightly towards the British, but generally this is business as usual, overly male and overly American).

norton book of sf
The Norton Book of Science Fiction
edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery
A collection deliberately designed as a teaching aid for university science fiction courses. Dated 1993: 67 stories. Earliest: “The Handler” by Damon Knight (1960); latest: “Invaders” by John Kessel (1990). 41 men, 26 women (there are no collaborations, and nobody appears more than once). 61 Americans, 6 Canadians (this is clearly a view of the history of science fiction that allows considerably more space for women, which is only to be expected given the editors; but look at the distribution of nationalities: this is science fiction as an exclusively North American enterprise. This is the only one of these volumes which doesn’t even have a single British contributor).

sf century
The Science Fiction Century
edited by David G. Hartwell
The second of Hartwell’s massive anthologies. Dated 1997: 45 stories. Earliest: “Another World” by J-H Rosny aine (1895); latest: “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress (1991). 41 men, 5 women (there is one collaboration, “If the Stars are Gods” by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford). 31 Americans, 5 Britons, 1 Pole, 2 Italians, 2 Canadians, 1 German, 2 Belgians, 1 Australian, 1 Russian (in common with Hartwell’s other anthology, this includes a wide range of international sf, but it is still seen as overwhelmingly masculine).

big book of sf
The Big Book of Science Fiction
edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
This is the new kid on the block, and like all of the above probably aims to be the definitive historical statement of what science fiction is. Dated 2016: 105 stories. Earliest: “The Star” by H.G. Wells (1897); latest: “Baby Doll” by Johanna Sinisalo (2002). 74 men, 31 women (William Tenn appears twice and there is 1 collaboration by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky). 10 Britons, 2 Indians, 1 German, 1 Austrian, 4 French, 1 Spanish, 8 Russians, 57 Americans, 4 Argentinians, 1 Mexican, 2 Australians, 1 Brazilian, 3 Japanese, 1 Pole, 1 Ecuadorian, 2 Canadians, 1 Norwegian, 2 Chinese, 2 Finns, 1 Ghanaian (this is probably a fair a representation of where sf is today as you are likely to find, weighted towards the male and the American, but with a far better representation of women writers and non-Anglophone writers than is usual).

Well, that’s a general introduction to a list of heavy books (literally, some of these could break your wrist) that collectively serve as an invaluable introduction to the history of the sf short story over the last century or more. Not counting duplications (and there are a lot of those) there are 361 stories here. In my next post, I’ll look at which writers and which stories are most frequently represented.

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Paul

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