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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!



19 stories and one introduction attempting to reconcile mainstream

literature that’s science fiction and science fiction that’s accepted

by the mainstream.

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 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

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.


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

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.


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.


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