The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
Arthur B. Evans et al., eds. Middletown, Connecticut. Wesleyan University Press. 2010. xviii + 767 pages. $39.95. isbn 978-0-8195-6955-4
Readers who know science fiction (sf) largely from movies, television, or video games are in for a revelatory treat. The stories in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction reveal modern, written sf to be a mature, flexible, often sophisticated way to tell tales whose concerns are those of realistic literature—ethics; community; communication across boundaries of race, gender, and power; preservation of personal integrity and authenticity; and what it means to be human—but whose focus is the impact of science and technology. This focus makes sf superbly suited to our world today. Science fiction, the editors write, "considers human life—what people are—in terms of what science knows. . . ."
The singular strategy of sf, how its way of telling stories differs from that of other fiction, is to transport readers into imaginary but possible other worlds that are connected by logical extrapolation to the reader's world. Thus transported, readers view their world anew. "Realist fiction writes about what exists while fantasy fiction deals with hopes and fears and dreams—emotional states rather than ideas. Science fiction, in contrast, writes about things that might be, although they are not yet and may never come to be." This displaced perspective can generate insights into heretofore unexamined assumptions about the reader's world.
From the cornucopia of stories that constitute what the editors call the "sf megatext"—"a place of shared images, situations, plots, characters, settings, and themes generated across a multiplicity of media"—they have chosen fifty-two exemplars. To each they have added a headnote—a mini-essay, really—rich with information about the story's author, how the story exemplifies themes, topics, and tactics of sf, and how it relates to other works in the megatext.
Read as presented (chronologically), these stories track the evolution of sf from its origins in Jules Verne's Voyages extraordinaires (1863–1905) and H. G. Wells's scientific romances (1895–1901) to the sophisticated stories of the early twenty-ﬁrst century. Usefully, the editors also offer an alternative table of contents that lists the stories thematically: alien encounters, evolution and environment, war and conﬂict, and so forth.
The Wesleyan Anthology is being marketed as a teaching anthology, in which capacity it would doubtless succeed. But any reader will learn, more by osmosis than pedantry, what sf is about, how it evolved, and how to appreciate even its most subtle modern manifestations (see anything by Gene Wolfe). For, ultimately, this is a book of well-wrought stories—fables, parables, adventures, allegories, satires, slice-of-life dramas, and more—told in a common mode. A handful offer the often undervalued delights of escapism exalted by "sense-of-wonder," an awareness of the natural or technological sublime that typifies the fantastic; many offer pungent political commentaries or challenges to received assumptions about, say, gender and sexuality; almost all offer involving, idea-rich narratives sure to inspire reflection long after they have been read. That is, these stories do what literature is supposed to do.
Within its necessarily limited scope—essentially, anglophone sf—the Wesleyan Anthology succeeds brilliantly. But that scope precludes its conveying the full richness of sf, which today is unquestionably a world literature, with major writers in Japan, Russia, eastern and southern Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere (see WLT, May 2010).
Readers seeking a more transnational perspective on sf today should investigate The Road to Science Fiction Volume 6: Around the World, ed. James Gunn (1998), The SFWA European Hall of Fame, ed. James Morrow and Kathryn Morrow (2007), The Black Mirror and Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany and Austria, ed. Franz Rottensteiner (2008), Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain, ed. Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán (2003), and Kurohahan Press's ambitious but so far uneven, ongoing series Speculative Japan (2007, 2011). Yet, however valuable, each of these books is inadequate. What we really need is for someone . . . perhaps the editors of the Wesleyan anthology . . . to compile a companion volume that expands the scope of this otherwise invaluable book.
Michael A. Morrison
University of Oklahoma