The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
Edited by Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, Carol McGuirk
Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010. xviii, 767 p. $39.95
Reviewed by Stephan Kraitsowits
Université de Picardie-Jules Verne (Amiens)
The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction collects an array of chosen pieces of fiction representing the nebulous world of science fiction. Fifty very good short stories and two excerpts taken from full-length novels are republished in a single, 767-page volume covering what the editors have called “150 years’ worth of the best science fiction ever”. The specific reasons for extracting these particular texts from literature as a whole are very briefly explained in a quick introductory overview of some of the present debates concerning the birth, history and rhetoric of the genre. Within the volume, the texts are presented in their chronological order; although a second table of contents lists them according to what the editors call “science fiction’s most frequently recurring topics”: alien encounter, apocalypse, dystopia, gender and sexuality, time travel, and virtual reality stories. Each individual text is further introduced by a head note outlining the story’s distinctive character, its particular relationship to the rest of its author’s literary career and to science fiction in general. The volume concludes on a selected bibliography of referential studies on the genre, from the latest science fiction encyclopedias to the canonic professional and academic journals, through the available historical, critical and cultural studies papers. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction thus appears to be just another –though more recent- instance of the dozens of ‘best of’ science fiction anthologies available. There are, however, at least two notable differences, which, finally, make all the difference.
The first is that this particular collection is not the result of the idiosyncratic likes or dislikes of one (or perhaps two) particular editors but that of six university professors, all having published scholarly essays on science fiction and all actively contributing to the study of the genre today. Individually, each editor is competent enough to compile his or her own anthology on science fiction… and some of them have. Arthur B. Evans is a professor at DePauw University and one of America's most prominent scholars of Jules Verne. The excerpt from Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is his translation of the original 1864 text in French. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. is also a professor at DePauw University and the author of an original critical essay on the narrative specificity of the genre science fiction called The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008). His "beauties": fictive neology (words), fictive novums (new thing), future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, the science-fictional grotesque, and the technologiade are thus all represented in the stories of this particular anthology. Joan Gordon is the former president of the Science Fiction Research Association and a professor of English at Nassau Community College. Veronica Hollinger is a professor of cultural studies at Canada’s Trent University and the co-editor of Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction (2008). Rob Latham is an associate professor of English at the University of California and the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (2002). Finally, Carol McGuirk is a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University and teaches sf classes in FAU’s MA English track in science fiction and fantasy. Collectively, the six editors of the WASF are also the present co-editors of one of the world’s most respected journals for the critical study of science fiction: Science Fiction Studies. They are thus probably one of the most commendable editorial teams when it comes to anything academic on science fiction.
The second originality of the Wesleyan anthology is that the physical book is accompanied by a website. The fact that the editors of this particular anthology believe that a paper anthology (a highly refined technological apparatus in its own right) should be accompanied by the latest fashion in editorial gimmickry (a dedicated website) is not what is most important in this approach. What really counts is that the website opens up further vistas for the science fiction scholar, with links to selected sites dedicated to the genre, to the particular authors showcased in the anthology and sometimes even to essays on the very stories presented. In fact, the sister website presents itself as a full syllabus on science fiction, complete with teacher’s guide and discussion questions, when accompanied by the raw material provided by the fifty-two texts of the WASF. The result is that the world of science fiction appears capable of offering more than sufficient quality material for serious academic consideration and that one hundred and fifty years of dissemination, throughout every possible media from pulp magazines to computer games, has made sf one of today’s primary cultural victuals and most definitely a necessary object for in-depth academic enquiry.
Nonetheless, despite the credentials of the editors and the worthy pedagogical ambition of the collective endeavor, the fifty-two stories republished in the WASF will necessarily be considered as an inaccurate, unfair and incomplete portrayal of the first 150 years (or so) of the science fiction genre. If the general aim is historical and pedagogical, why, for example, was an excerpt from Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth chosen rather than his Off on a Planet, the very text selected in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback to inspire the ‘new’ genre of ‘scientifiction’? Why also begin the anthology with a rarely cited but excellent text by Nathaniel Hawthorne and refuse entry to Edgar Allan Poe’s equally well-written scientific hoaxes (such as “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”) that are, in many respects more clearly prototypical of the rhetoric of the genre? Where too are all the examples of the sf written outside of the US and the UK besides the token Frenchman (Jules Verne), Pole (Stanislaw Lem) and Australian (Greg Egan)? Finally, why are there only three, early excerpts from full-length novels when, according to the editors’ own historical overview, Science Fiction today is more often published in novel form than it was in the 1950s when the short story was the genre’s favorite vehicle? The knowledgeable editors of the collection probably pondered for weeks over these very questions before making their final choice and seem to have decided that contrarily to other anthologies, rather than give any definite answer as to what science fiction is all about, their opus would be a middle-of-the-road compromise leading to years of further study and heated debate.
Enough said, however, about the editorial backdrop and let us explore the stories themselves. These, as always with my favorite genre, are the gateways to exotic locals and wondrous thought experiments, unsurpassed in imagination by the pale mimetic worlds of mainstream fiction. The first four are quality texts by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster illustrating the existence of proto science fiction within the mainstream world of literature. Of course, there could have been excerpts from stories by Mary Shelley, Samuel Butler, R.L. Stevenson or even from Thomas More, Francis Godwin or Jonathan Swift but this would have needed a whole other anthology. Tales of “scientifiction” written after April 1926 and thus after the designation by Hugo Gernsback of a genre defined as “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and E.A. Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” follow. Examples of these very early sf stories are those by Edmond Hamilton, Leslie F. Stone and Stanley G. Weinbaum, all published for the first time in Gernsback’s pioneering Wonder Stories. Examples from the Golden Age of science fiction are those texts by Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon and Judith Merrill which were first published in the competing magazine Astounding. New Worlds, the first British magazine and pirate ship of the British New Wave of science fiction is also presented under the worthy banner of J.G. Ballard’s “The Cage of Sand”; just as is the Australian magazine Eidolon with Greg Egan’s “Closer”. Of course, many other magazines, fanzines and webzines that have published science fiction since the late 1920s and have greatly participated in its definition and dissemination would have liked to have been equally acknowledged... But again room, of course, had to be kept for stories taken from another popular vehicle favoring the spread of science fiction: showcase editions of new science fiction stories. The last story of the collection, to take just one example, is a token of just such a compilation and illustrates perfectly the creativity and complexity of a genre still budding with a life born from a long tradition of quality texts.
Therefore, more than just another collection of fiction about illusory scientific / technological advances or imagined social / environmental upheavals, the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction adequately presents that genre, of which John W. Campbell Jr. (holding his arms wide apart) used to say: “This is science fiction. It takes in all time, from before the universe was born, through the formation of suns and planets, on through their destruction and forward to the heat death of the universe. And after.” His hands would then come together so that his index fingers delimitated a very tiny measure of space and he would add: “This is English Literature, the most microscopic fraction of the whole”.
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