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The Secret History of Science Fiction

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Tachyon Publications has a new anthology out called The Secret History of Science Fiction. It centers around a subject that has sparked countless debates and rants among Science Fiction fans. And no, it's not River Tam vs. James T. Kirk.

Editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel have collected these nineteen stories to explore the supposed divide between mainstream literature and speculative fiction. They've written an eye-opening and informative introduction as well as compiled dozens of quotes by the individual authors on the subject of Sci-Fi vs. Literary Fiction or"Li-Fi"*. Writers and fans in the field have long complained of being marginalized by the general public and even more so by the literary elite. How did this happen and who's to blame? Does it even freakin' matter any more?


Before Hugo Gernsback there was no separate science fiction genre (or "scientificton" as Gernsback called it, Forrest Ackerman popularized the current two-word term). Writers from Mary Shelly, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Twain used themes of the fantastic in their works that are still considered classics of Literature today. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells explored advancements in contemporary science and technology and were lauded by audiences around the globe inspiring millions.

As Gernsback and later, John W. Campbell and others codified early science fiction traditions they were deeply mired in the pulp magazine traditions. Fun stuff to be sure, but the gee-whiz boys' adventure stuff was very lacking in well-rounded characters and well-crafted plotting. It has been pointed out recently that even notable award winners of the 1950s weren't really turning out timeless prose. Let's face it, the SF Ghetto was constructed from the inside out and zealously maintained from within.


Around 1970 followers of the New Wave movement like Moorcock, Aldiss, and Disch tried busting out of the ghetto but could never find a large enough audience. An incursion in the other direction occurred in 1973 when Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was shortlisted for the Nebula for Best Novel. It lost to Rendezvous with Rama which, with all due respect to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, is a novel with some cool science and a great setting where not much actually happens. In a 1998 Village Voice essay Jonathan Lethem called this moment "a tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream". Really? Maybe it was just too soon. In the decades since Lethem made that morbid observation popular culture has become very accepting, if not downright starved for science fiction and its fantastical siblings. Granted, much of that is re-hashing Space Opera pastiches from the 50s or teen vampire fluff, but science fiction prose continues to grow, mature, and inspire. Besides, I really can't imagine Pynchon as a Guest of Honor at a big convention. Although he would probably like filking.

To me these concerns over genre distinctions are silly but will probably never go away. Booksellers and librarians will still need some classifications so that they can direct you to the right shelf. There will always be a handful of literary elitists in pooh-poohing our favorite books as escapist drek. And deep within the bowels of SF fandom, grumbles will continue about certain writers abandoning the field for snootier credentials (O hai Mr. Vonnegut & Ms. Atwood!). Or even worse, Outsiders coming in to completely destroy all their precious memories of Astro-King vs. the Bimborgs of Pluto (admit it, a remake of that would totally rock.). The thing to remember is that the distinctions between types of literature are not walls with razorwire to be patrolled. They are shifting vague zones— grey areas, if you will.

The Secret History of Science Fiction is all about authors mixing it up, exploring, Boldly Going where they like and never sacrificing quality. These stories are good enough to make The New Yorker's Eustace Tilley pop his cartoon monocle. You'll get profound and often disturbing looks at the human psyche and what we do to each other. The effects of science and technology upon society are also explored in this volume by writers who really know science fiction, not just slumming. Instead of quick summaries of these worthy reads I'm going to close with a few quotes by the authors about this whole imaginary divide of imaginations.


Gene Wolfe:

What we now 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. F you ga 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.


Connie Willis:

The thing I have always liked best about science fiction is that it defies definition.
It keeps constantly reinventing itself – and just when you thought stories about robots or time travel or first contact had been done to death, it thinks of some brand-new story to tell.


T.C. Boyle:

I've thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the last 25 years — which I detest – and it's as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that's utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it's just entertainment like rock'n'roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn't capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn't work. Nothing will come out of it. The beauty of the language, the characterization, the structure, all that's irrelevant if you're not getting the reader on that level – moving a story. If that's friendly to readers, I cop to it.


Ursula K. Le Guin:

It seems to me that SF is standing, these days, in a doorway. The door is open, wide open. Are we just going to stand there, waiting for the applause of the multitudes? It won't come; we haven't earned it yet. Are we going to cringe back into the safe old ghetto room and pretend that there isn't any big bad multitude out there? If so, our good writers will leave us in despair, and there will not be another generation of them. Or are we going to walk through that doorway and join the rest of the city? I hope so. I know we can and I hope we do, because we have a great deal to offer – to art, which needs new forms like ours, and to critics who are sick of chewing over the same old works and above all to readers of books, who want and deserve better novels than they mostly get. But it will still take not only courage for SF to join the community of literature, but strength, self-respect, the will not to settle for the second rate. It will take genuine self-criticism. And it will include genuine praise.


Here is the complete Table of Contents:

Introduction by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel
"Angouleme" Thomas M. Disch
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" Ursula K. Le Guin
"Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis" Kate Wlihelm
"Descent of Man" T.C. Boyle
"Human Moments of World War III" Don DeLillo
"Homelanding" Margaret Atwood
"The Nine Billion Names of God" Carter Scholz
"Interlocking Pieces" Molly Gloss
"Salvador" Lucius Shepard
"Schwarzchild Radius" Connie Willis
"Buddha Nostril Bird" John Kessel
"The Ziggurat" Gene Wolfe
"The Hardened Criminals" Jonathan Lethem
"Standing Room Only" Karen Joy Fowler
"10^16 to 1" James Patrick Kelly
"93990" George Saunders
"The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance" Michael Chabon
"Frankenstein's Daughter" Maureen F. McHugh
"The Wizard of West Orange" Steven Millhauser


*That latter term was coined by that merry prankster Orson Scott Card. Say what you will about the guy, "Li-Fi" is pretty Goddamned fucking funny.

The Secret History of Science Fiction may be purchased here, here, or from your local independent bookseller.


Commenter Grey_Area is known to Real Literary Critics as Chris Hsiang. He will not get off their lawns.