01 September 2010

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction

I first saw a copy of The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction at Readercon and, on a quick look at the table of contents, was impressed, because here was as solid a collection of basic SF as I'd seen in a while -- indeed, for one volume covering the years it does in a general way, I don't know of a better one (The Road to Science Fiction is great, but it's 6 volumes!  Others I can think of are either more focused on a particular era or are more thesis-driven).

One thing that's important to keep in mind about the book is that it is intended as a teaching anthology -- its primary audience is any sort of "intro to SF" class (it even has a companion website with sample syllabi).  As such, it seems to me really strong.

Jeff VanderMeer raised a good point about the anthology's odd inclusion of very few stories from the last 20 years.  It's bizarre, and one of those things that tends to happen with books edited by a bunch of people.  It would be nice if the introduction addressed this weakness, because there are always compromises that have to be made in an anthology, and I imagine the editors probably thought that more recent work is more readily accessible to readers through various other anthologies and websites, so their focus should be on the older stuff.  Indeed, in a class, it would be easy to supplement this anthology by also using something like Dozois's Best of the Best and maybe some online stories.  Problem solved.

A more efficient solution would have been to end the anthology with Jim Kelly's "Think Like a Dinosaur" from 1995, and use the extra space and money on enriching some of the other decades, but I expect Wesleyan would have frowned on a book in which the most recent story is fifteen years old.

So the lack of representation for the last 20 years is weird, but I can understand it, and I would happily have such stories as "The Liberation of Earth" and "Desertion" and "When It Changed" and so many others easily accessible.  The only giant and inexplicable omission I've noticed in the book so far is its failure to reprint Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations", which is the story "Think Like a Dinosaur" is in direct response to.  (Eric Schaller notes this in the comments to Jeff's entry.  I emailed one of the editors to see if anyone's willing to talk about this omission, but haven't heard back yet. See update in next paragraph.)  One of the nice things about the book is that it is explicitly concerned with the idea of an SF megatext, and for that purpose, including "The Cold Equations" would have made a lot of sense.  There could be a problem with rights or something that prevents the story being reprinted in the book, but, again, it would have been nice to see it addressed in the introduction.  Godwin's story is mentioned in the headnote to "Think Like a Dinosaur", which only compounds the oddness.

Update: Just heard back from the editors of the book -- "Cold Equations" was on the original long list, but length considerations came into play, as well as a desire from at least a few of the editors to allow "Think Like a Dinosaur" to be something other than just a response to "Cold Equations".

(Eric also mentions that it would have been better perhaps to reprint "Mr. Boy", which is, I agree, among Jim's most impressive works.  But it's much longer than "Think Like a Dinosaur", and for an anthology like this, long stories take up so much space that they need to be absolutely essential to be included.  "TLD" fits the book's purposes well and is short enough that it doesn't hog precious space. Also, any of us would choose different stories by some of the authors, but that's the nature of anthologies.  Some of the selections that on a first glance I thought were odd -- especially Clarke's "The Sentinel" and Aldiss's "Supertoys..." -- make sense within the context of the book; in this case, it encourages connections to familiar media: both stories partly inspired films [indeed, films either directed by Stanley Kubrick (2001) or intitiated by him (A.I.)].  So while they're not by any means the best or most representative works by those authors, that's not the purpose of their inclusion in the anthology.)

Larry Nolen speaks truthfully when he calls it a "safe" anthology.  I expect the editors would agree, because that's part of the point -- this is an intro anthology.  To fill it with lots of esoteric authors or less-familiar stories would be counter-productive to the stated purpose.  I'm not the audience for it (except that I might assign it to classes one day), because I already have copies of 95% of those stories.  This is not a book you give to somebody who has a shelf full of SF anthologies covering a bunch of different eras.  This is a book you give to somebody who's seen a few sci-fi movies and maybe read a couple books or a short story here or there, or  to somebody who has only read current work and wants a one-volume crash course in some of the classics of the field.  For such a person, this is a marvelous book.  Just stick a note in the end with a list of some of your favorite recent anthologies, so they can see the wonderful diversity of what's been published since 1995...