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17 of the Best Science Fiction Writers Heavily Featured in SF Anthologies You Need to Read

By / June 9, 2016 / no comments

So yesterday I wrote about 7 massive sf anthologies which effectively serve as a history of the genre. It’s not an exhaustive list (there’s a similar anthology from Wesleyan, for instance), but for anyone wanting a crash course on science fiction’s past, particularly the 20th century, would find any of these a good place to start.

The seven, in chronological order, are A Century of Science Fiction edited by Damon Knight (1962), The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss (1961-64), The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989), The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories edited by Tom Shippey (1992), The Norton Book of Science Fiction edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery (1993), The Science Fiction Century edited by David G. Hartwell (1997) and The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016).

One of the things I wanted to make plain in the previous post is how our view of the history of sf, and hence our view of what constitutes science fiction, changes depending on all sorts of circumstances, including when we are looking from, and who is doing the looking. It is noticeable, for instance, that in the hands of most of the editors science fiction is primarily American; our growing recognition that it is a global literature written around the world and in every language, is fully reflected only in the most recent anthology, and in those edited by David Hartwell. It is also noticeable how male the lists are, in none of the anthologies do women constitute more than one-third of the contents, and in the early ones in particular we are lucky to get even one or two women. We may see science fiction as an international language in which women and men have an equal contribution to make, but it seems we have a way to go before that idea seeps into the way we view the history of the genre.

What is particularly interesting is to look at who features in these anthologies, which writers are considered to have produced work that stands out in the history of the genre. Some 227 authors have their work featured in these seven books. The vast majority, of course, appear in only one or two of the anthologies. But there are some surprising names here: Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury. These are writers who are not only considered to have played an important part in the history of sf, but also to be highly accomplished short story writers. Their absence from the great majority of the anthologies is noteworthy.

Of course, there are tides in this. There are writers who were moderately well known in the middle years of the 20th century, but who have slipped from our consciousness since then: Arthur Porges, Theodore Cogswell. Others, such as Iain M. Banks, only began getting published 20 years or more after the first two anthologies appeared. Even so, such tides of recognition can be revealing also.

Robert Heinlein would, at one point, be identified as perhaps the greatest of all sf writers (he possibly still is to a lot of readers), and with work like “The Roads Must Roll” or “The Menace from Earth” he was no mean short story writer, yet he only appears in two of these anthologies, and two of the three earliest at that, as if, for more modern editors, his place in the sf pantheon is becoming less assured. At the same time, William Tenn, a writer I would have imagined had slipped from our popular consciousness, gets two stories apiece in one of the earliest and the most recent anthologies, suggesting more consistency in how he is regarded.

More than just fashion might be at issue. William Gibson appears in each of the four most recent anthologies, only fitting one might think for someone who changed science fiction so effectively. Exactly the same is true for Bruce Sterling. Yet their colleague and contemporary, Pat Cadigan, the third member of the triumvirate who created and shaped cyberpunk, appears in only two, and those the two with the greatest proportion of women contributors. That couldn’t be anything to do with her sex, could it?

Naturally, there are one-hit wonders among those who crop up multiple times. Though not as much as you might expect. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” is inevitably there in The Big Book and the Oxford anthology, but in A Century of Science Fiction Damon Knight has chosen an extract from a different story, “The Ideal”. And though Tom Godwin makes a solitary appearance in these anthologies it is not with “The Cold Equations”, one of the most talked about and controversial science fiction stories of all time, but with a story that is now all but forgotten, “The Greater Thing”.

The three writers who are most consistently featured, each appearing in five of the seven anthologies, are Arthur C. Clarke (no surprise there), Frederik Pohl (again no surprise), and James Blish. I am a little surprised by this, particularly considering that four of his appearances are in the four most recent anthologies, because I rather assumed that his star had waned somewhat in recent years, not as much as Porges or Cogswell, but certainly his name doesn’t seem to crop up in conversations about sf quite as much as Clarke or Pohl, or Heinlein come to that. I would have been fractionally less surprised if the editors had consistently chosen the same story, say “Surface Tension”, but that is not the case, so clearly Blish’s reputation survives better than I had thought.

Along with Clarke, Pohl and Blish, the writers who make four appearances are:

Brian Aldiss
Isaac Asimov
J.G. Ballard
William Gibson
Damon Knight
Ursula K. Le Guin
Katherine MacLean
James H. Schmitz
Clifford Simak
Cordwainer Smith
Bruce Sterling
James Tiptree Jr (Raccoona Shelden)
H.G. Wells
Gene Wolfe

Not a bad list if you are looking for writers to introduce you to the rich variety of work that science fiction is capable of. But then, you could say that of all of these anthologies. Just remember that they are telling very different stories.

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