The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk, Editors
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2010
792 pp., illus. 2 b/w. Trade, $85.00; paper $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-8195-6954-7; ISBN: 978-0-8195-6955-4.
Reviewed by Enzo Ferrara
Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica
Science Fiction Studies is an academic journal lively engaged with critical and cultural theories published three times a year at DePauw University (Indiana). Its issues deal with what is considered the most popular selling genre of contemporary literature. Since the middle of the twentieth century, in fact, science fiction exerts an enormous influence on popular culture, dominating the art of cinema where star wars, intergalactic journeys, or unstoppable epidemics are frequent expedients to pose really big questions, e.g. about what it means to be human, the limits of knowledge, the role of science, and the chance of alternative societal development, opening up speculations and discussions that other forms of literature would have trouble in dealing with.
The editors of Science Fiction Studies conceived and developed this robust anthology (52 novels) with the ambition to exemplify a number of themes and styles characteristic of the genre and represent, if possible, the best and most teachable stories in the field. The aim, indeed, is explicitly pedagogic: the anthology is thought to "serve as a bridge not only to an appreciation of some of the best works of SF ever written but also to the world of SF scholarship" (p. xvii). Ancillary material consists of a critical bibliography listing many of the most important studies in the field and a teacher's guide available online (http://www.wesleyan.edu/wespress/sfanthologyguide).
The most important features of SF are extensively analysed in the introduction to properly address the reader, or the teacher, towards a fruitful exploitation of the collected texts. Remarks are, for example, on how varied the genre is, the chronic difficulties for SF to establish itself in a public space, the historical location of its origin - back to the Renaissance tales of great voyages, among enlightenment and romanticism with Mary Shelley's modern Prometheus ("Frankenstein", 1818) having a particular importance, emerging from the techno cataclysm of the Industrial Revolution?
A peculiar point worthy to be discussed is the so-called "SF Megatext", i.e. the amount of narrative items and landscapes commonly shared by writers and readers of SF cumulatively gathered, one story after another, encompassing typical characters (renegade scientists, robot rebels, alien or artificial intelligence), environments (spaceships, space-time distortions, inhumane landscapes), events (nuclear and other apocalypses, galactic conflicts) and ethical concerns (science responsibilities, encounter with otherness, shifting definitions of human condition). All of these regularly re-imagined elements form a unique inter-textual background that lies behind so many SF narrative purchasing the reader with confidential expectations about the plot accompanied by a rather jargonized language: "The more familiar readers are with the SF Megatext, the more readily they will find their way into and through new stories", explain the curators.
No anthology can incorporate the richness of a genre, nevertheless the stories of the Wesleyan Anthology offer a comprehensive outlook on SF, ranging from its roots in the XIX century ("Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1844, p. 1) to the more recently published novels ("Exhalation" by Ted Chang, 2008, p. 742) that demonstrate the form's continuing vitality. Two approaches, historical and thematic, are offered, thus a chronological perspective illustrates SF evolution along with intersection with its most frequently recurring topics, "alien encounter, apocalypse, dystopia, gender and sexuality, time travel, and virtual reality" (p. xv). The collection includes classics as Julius Verne and Herbert G. Wells, early precursors as Edward Morgan Forster and Edmond Hamilton, strengtheners of the genre as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Sheckley, and Robert A. Heinlein, visionaries and postmodernists as Philip K. Dick and James G. Ballard, disenchanted writers as Stanislaw Lem and Bruce Sterling. Twelve authors are women, among them only Leslie F. Stone and Judith Merril are included in the list before 1960.
Appreciable in this set is the recognition that even in the most technicistic version SF remains a humanist writing, readers, students and teachers can interact meaningfully with the texts to explore in diverse ways new means of talking and thinking about the world. With time, the genre has lost most of its original boundaries and has changed as a literary slipstream able to cross the previously conceived separations between SF, fantasy and mainstream fiction. Another noticeable judgment is that whatever they produce, utopian dreams or dystopian nightmares, SF writers renew the bourgeois notion of fiction as criticism of reality. "At its core, SF dramatizes the adventures and perils of change" editors explain, making clear that "although not always set in the future, SF's consistent emphasis on transformation through time demonstrates the increasing significance of the future to Western techno-cultural consciousness" (p. xii).
In the beginning, SF writers as Herbert G. Wells and E. M. Forster (see "The machine stops", 1909, p. 50) shared disillusion, their intention was to warn contemporary readers about the perils of a society entirely projected into future, careless of the present. During much of the XX century, speculative fiction served itself as an impulse of transformation, an exercise to imagine the future with novel possibilities of action. Actually, SF may seem having lost most of its fascination, as the modern society is mindless of the future, wholly concentrated on the utilitarian urges of a constant present. But, the capability to let issues rebound between present and future is probably the most intriguing competence of SF. Like ancient myth, it can implement rationality with imaginary consciousness forging new terms and means able to keep the will - at least - out of the recurrent impasse of mankind culture. Representations of the future like those gathered in this anthology are to be praised not much because of the positive or negative ideological elements they represent, rather as imaginative efforts to roll the human mind out of the precarious constraints that incessantly affect its evolution, since the dawn of time. This book is apt for everybody.