REVIEW: The Secret History of Science Fiction edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
19 stories and one introduction attempting to reconcile mainstream
literature that’s science fiction and science fiction that’s accepted
by the mainstream.
PROS: A lot of well-written reprint stories, 5 of which were outstanding.
CONS: No outright bad story, but there were 3 which didn’t really entertain me as much as the others.
BOTTOM LINE: Terrific collection of stories featuring authors both the genre and non-genre readers wouldn’t have otherwise read.
In light of last week’s Mind Meld, nothing seems more apt than reviewing The Secret History of Science Fiction
edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. At first glance, the
selection of authors seem contrary: T.C. Boyle and Margaret Atwood for
example are authors whom we associate with the “we don’t write science
fiction” crowd. And then there’s the science fiction writers who’ve
been accepted by the mainstream (and by mainstream, I really mean the
literary): Ursula K. Le Guin, Jonathan Lethem, Karen Joy Fowler. This
is, in many ways, the anthology that presents the best of both worlds:
the mainstream stories that are science fiction, and the science
fiction stories that have been accepted as literary.
We also shouldn’t forget the “History” is The Secret History of Science Fiction
as the book features stories from the past few decades, and are easily
some of the best stories from the included authors, such as “The Ones
Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Le Guin or “The Hardened Criminals” by
Jonathan Lethem. I really enjoyed a lot of the stories here, perhaps
because I’m the perfect target audience: someone who wants to reconcile
literary writing with genre (or tear down those borders as the case may
be). There’s less focus here on adventure and space opera elements, or
hard science fiction for that matter, but more on the human condition,
and how we see the world. Having said that, there’s a lot of enjoyable
stories here, but my personal favorites include:
- “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
- “Ladies and Gentlemen, This is your Crisis” by Kate Wilhelm
- “Homelanding” by Margaret Atwood
- “Interlocking Pieces” by Molly Gloss
- “The Ziggurat” by Gene Wolfe
Individual story reviews follow…
“Angouleme” by Thomas M. Disch feels more like a literary
heavy-weight than what we normally associate with a science fiction
piece. The author builds upon character, history, and setting,
culminating to a critical crisis point that’s intentionally ambiguous.
And yet, this is also science fiction, although the thread that Disch
weaves is subtle. Admittedly, if you’re the fan of science ficion along
the lines of space opera, this isn’t a story that’ll immediately grab
you, but to me, this is an example of how what’s literary can be good
science fiction. Disch’s skill can’t be ignored and one can’t help but
feel impressed with his writing.
“The Ones Who Walk
Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a familiar story, and for
several years, I wrongly misconstrued this as Shirley Jackson’s “The
Lottery”. It works on the same premise after all: a utopian society
that comes at a price. This is a more idea-centric piece yet despite
its brevity, is full of depth and works just as powerful, if not more
so, compared to the first time I read it in college. And unlike “The
Lottery”, there is a promise of hope to be found here, although it is
does not come without sacrifice.
Gentlemen, This is your Crisis” by Kate Wilhelm is a welcome surprise.
Typically, some stories become obsolete with age. This one however
rings more true as what was an exagerration of quiz shows and televised
contests feels right at home with today’s reality TV. Combine an
unsanitized Survivor where contestants are in an actual life-or-death situation combined with Big Brother’s
perpetual surveillance, and what you end up with is this story. Of
course what elevates this piece is how Wilhelm doesn’t focus on the
contestants as much as the viewers. In fact, when’s all said and done,
what resonates is the dialogue between husband and wife in the last
scene, and how it best exemplifies human behavior.
of Man” by T.C. Boyle immediately catches your attention with the
language. Much of the narrative is spent winning you over to the
protagonist’s plight, at how he takes the experiment personally. In
terms of dialogue, Boyle uses a familiar technique, with the janitor’s
accent exaggerated in the text, and this might annoy some readers
(along the same lines as a stupid Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon
can be a frustrating reading experience) but it worked for me here and
it didn’t occur too often. Other than that, the eventual resolution of
the story is predictable to fans of science fiction, but it’s
“Human Moments in World War
III” by Don DeLillo feels anywhere between a hard science fiction and
mundane science fiction piece but a lot of the focus is spent on
introspection and the emotional conflict surrounding the characters.
This is the equivalent of “slice of life” in space and while I can
respect the author’s skill, there wasn’t much reward for me at the end.
I understand DeLillo’s intent, but this story does lull a bit, even for
a reader like myself.
I’m not a big fan of flash
fiction, but “Homelanding” by Margaret Atwood is one of the exemptions.
Atwood employs the technique of de-familiarizing the familiar and
through this method, places humanity in a different light. Its
deceptively simple premise packs a punch and Atwood’s selective choice
of words is simply brilliant as it not only makes the reader re-asses
their paradigm, but entertains as well as amazes.
Nine Billion Names of God” by Carter Scholz might initially seem like a
jab at the genre (especially when you read him in a publication such as
this but the reality is that he’s a science fiction author) but it’s a
fascinating idea-centric story told in epistolary form (and it probably
wouldn’t have worked any other way without seeming condescending or
patronizing). Some readers might think this is a self-referential piece
but it works on its own as everything that’s necessary to understand
(and appreciate) it is in the text. The story works on multiple fronts,
whether it’s on the metafictional level or in sheer plot.
Pieces” by Molly Gloss seems like the opposite of Scholz’s story but is
equally impressive. Gloss proves that it’s possible to tell an
idea-centric story by focusing on characterization and that’s what
makes this story accessible and powerful. There’s little exposition to
be found here as Gloss respects her readers to be smart enough to pick
up all the clues she insinuates. The story has a lot of ramifications,
everything from gender to personality, and yet this is a very compact
and tight story. Why have I only encountered Gloss now?
by Lucius Shepard is very detailed, whether it’s the setting or his
characters. What’s impressive with Shepard is how the former is
integral to the story, and how the latter’s conflict works on both the
physical and psychological level. Just when I thought I had this story
pegged down, Shepard takes it into a different direction, and the
intrinsic dilemma is retained until the very last paragraph. Admittedly
Shepard’s prose is not one that immediately grabs me, but one has to
acknowledge his skill here.
“Schwarzchild Radius” by
Connie Willis hits the gut as the author goes for a twin-pronged
attack. The juxtaposition between the science of a black hole and the
plight of the characters in the story is surprising but effective. This
piece reminds me of Kafka, and yet Willis transcends the author with
all the science fiction elements she throws in (some are subtler than
others). There are other commendable facets to the story such as the
attention to detail (the trash in the trenches for example) as well as
the perpetual spotlight on the characters.
Nostril Bird” by John Kessel feels surreal at first but it soon
develops into a philosophical rollercoaster where abstract concepts are
given concrete shape and form as only science fiction can accomplish.
It manages to remain irreverent from beginning to end, throwing sucker
punches when you least expect it.
“The Ziggurat” by
Gene Wolfe is one of the longest stories in the book yet it’s also the
most engaging. Wolfe combines a science fiction adventure with personal
drama–a husband in the middle of a divorce and has been accused of
molesting his daughters. From the description to the dialogue, Wolfe
hits all the right beats, with never a dull moment. His
characterization is also impressive, especially when it comes to our
protagonist, who is conveyed as practical but still sympathetic.
Combine it with subtle horror elements this one is a winner.
Hardened Criminals” by Jonathan Lethem is simply brilliant. Aside from
the title working on multiple levels, Lethem exaggerates a particular
facet of human behavior by the inclusion of a fantastical element–in
this case a prison made from the bodies of people. The author is brutal
when he needs to be, but also honest when writing his characters. Right
from the get-go, Lethem sells us this reality with his seriousness and
attention to detail, and the ending, while a bit didactic, drives his
I’m not a big fan of historical fiction,
or alternate history for that matter, since I’m simply ignorant when it
comes to American history. Having said that, I’m not sure where
“Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler falls under, especially since
the author’s prose is so convincing. Fowler captures a definite era and
atmosphere, and while lesser writers are content with that, Fowler
takes it to the next level by focusing on the minutiae of her
protagonist, someone who’s neither good nor evil, but someone with very
human concerns and needs. Combine this with the judicious use of the
flash-forward technique and Fowler writes a gripping and personal story
amidst what is a monumental event.
“10^16 to 1″ by
James Patrick Kelly is similar to Fowler’s story in the sense that he
sells me the historical–or alternate historical–aspect of it to the
point that I don’t know any better whether this is, in fact, divergent
from reality or not. That’s where their similarities end however as
Kelly uses a different point of attack to carry his story forward.
There’s a slow build-up of his protagonist, winning us over with his
dreams, his aspirations, and his family situation. And then Kelly
introduces the science fiction element to the story, and while the plot
isn’t anything new, the way the author narrates his story is. The
strongest aspect of the story is that we cheer on Kelly’s narrator,
even as he considers doing the most reprehensible of actions. And when
the ending comes, we feel that Kelly didn’t cheat, and that it’s a
I can understand what’s being
attempted with “93990” by George Saunders and the fact that it’s
inelegant is intentional with its mimicry of scientific papers.
However, that doesn’t alter the reading experience, and this honestly
isn’t the most enticing of narratives, more along the lines of a
concept story clumsily told. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its own
rewards. The brilliance of Saunders writing is that what’s mentioned
isn’t as important as what’s not mentioned, and the conclusion follows
“The Martian Agent, A Planetary
Romance” by Michael Chabon feels like a modern pulp story infused with
lots of characterization and backstory. My honest reaction is that it
felt satisfactory but nothing outstanding. Chabon’s skill is
undeniable, especially how elaborate and detailed his world is, but at
the end of the day, I felt impatient with the author. Where’s the
action, where’s the promise of planetary romance? It’s not a bad piece
as much as it feels like a part in a larger tapestry. And while it
arguably ends at a point where it can stand well on its own, I’m still
waiting for a sequel.
“Frankenstein’s Daughter” by
Maureen F. McHugh is rich in characterization as McHugh doesn’t neglect
the domestic struggles of her characters amidst the backdrop of her
science fiction concept. In fact, this is probably what sets her apart
from other genre authors, and it’s a strong selling point of McHugh
that the personal dilemma of her characters isn’t overshadowed by her
concepts. I could easily imagine this working without the cloning
element, but so what? The fact that it’s included heightens the story
and makes the epiphany at the end all the more powerful.
Wizard of West Orange” by Steven Millhauser begins with a slow start
but the author soon delves into an unexpected branch of science that
sounds plausible in the context of his writing. However, Millhauser
takes the next step as the implications of this discovery is taken to a
philosophical level instead of merely settling for the expected.
Millhauser also assembles a modest cast, each with their own quirks and
personalities, making this more than just a plot-centered story.
Notable by the time you reach the end, although there were points where
it required patience from this reader.
Filed under: Book Review
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