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REVIEW: The Secret History of Science Fiction edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

REVIEW SUMMARY: Bring on the Li-Fi!

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 19 stories and one introduction attempting to reconcile mainstream literature that’s science fiction and science fiction that’s accepted by the mainstream.

MY REVIEW:
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.

“Ladies and 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 exaggeration 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.

“Descent 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 nonetheless poignant.

“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.

“The 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.

“Interlocking 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?

“Salvador” 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.

“Buddha 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.

“The 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 thesis home.

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 natural progression.

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 that example.

“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.

“The 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.

4 Comments on REVIEW: The Secret History of Science Fiction edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

  1. Re Karen Joy Fowler’s and James Patrick Kelly’s stories: a great part of their merit, I think, lies in their subtle use of SF tropes. Fowler’s is not an alternate history but a time-travel story, but her description (or lack thereof) of time travelers is such that you’re never sure.

    Now Kelly’s, one of my favorites among his work (along with “Itsy Bitsy Spider”) is actually an alternate history, the trouble being that the “alternate universe” is ours due to (SPOILER!!!!) the main character’s failure to make things right. Not only is this universe the alternate one, it is also the wrong one.

    Sounds like a great antho, though I have (and I’ve told it before) some troubles liking “The Ziggurat”, mostly because of its ending. I think the writing, the rythm, the characters, are all great, but the ending is so awfully mysoginistic that it ruins all else, beginning with the reading experience.

  2. Ken St. Andre // October 26, 2009 at 2:26 pm //

    I think your title–The Secret History of Science Fiction–is something of a misnomer.  The stories are not the history of science fiction.  The history of SF is the people who wrote it–from Jules verne to china mieville and everywhere in between.  And secret should tell us the stuff that we don’t know.  We know Margaret Atwood and Ray Bradbury’s books straddle the line between literature and sf, but we don’t know how the N3F got started.  We don’t know the evolution of science fiction in the arts and in the movies and even in music.  We don’t know the scandals and the feuds, the murders and the suicides, the romances and the heartbreaks of science fiction.  We don’t know how and why science fiction migrated to the internet.  We don’t know if there’s a qualitative difference between science fiction and fantasy.  We don’t know the relationship between science fiction and gaming.  That would be the secret history of science fiction, and it remains to be written–if it’s even possible to write it.  Who needs another collection of over-anthologized short stories?

    –Ken St. Andre, member SFWA, busy with the real sf that literary anthologists will never see.

  3. Hi Ken. I agree that would have made a great nonfictin book, but I’m assessing this as a fiction anthology (and the question isn’t really about over-anthologized short stories, but how they come together in this particular package–the sequencing, the presentation, the context, etc.).

  4. Jeff VanderMeer // October 27, 2009 at 6:59 am //

    Seriously? The Chabon from our Steampunk anthology from Tachyon…originally from an antho of pulp retro stories…in The Secret History of SF. Well, geez. That just seems silly.

    I also continue to believe it’s bad form, and shows a lack of discipline, to put one’s own work in a serious anthology. There’s nothing secret about Kelly and Kessel within the SF genre, and they are, with all due respect, largely unknown outside of it.

    This said in the context of liking both writers’ work and liking them personally, and thinking that the core of this antho appears to be on target for the mission. As a reader, and just in terms of the symmetry of an interesting purpose perfectly executed, I just wish it was a little more on target.

    JeffV

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