The secret history of science fiction; or, trying to please mainstream readers

What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the 1970′s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered.

Title: The Secret History of Science Fiction
Editors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel
Year: 2009
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

secrethistoryI wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from an anthology promising to reveal the “secret history” of science fiction. This volume finds its roots in the never-ending debate on the worthiness of sf as literature, and aims to present a variety of sf that is somehow more critically respectable. And so the editors have put together nineteen stories which are not your typical science fiction, stories which (at least most of them) intentionally try to blur the lines between sf and mainstream literature. Well hey, any well-read science fiction fan knows there is plenty of high-quality sf out there (as well as low-quality too, of course). But as to literary chic, I go with the Goldilocks standard: you shouldn’t have too little or too much, but juuuuuust the right amount. Unfortunately, the majority of these stories fall into the “too much” category, trying so hard to succeed at being “real” literature that they fail at being good sf. There are a few good stories here, but the majority are quite boring, artificial, or pretentious. I can’t say I’d be disappointed if most of them had remained a secret.

One of the things I do like about this anthology is that in between the stories are short passages from all the participating authors in which they discuss their views on different types of fiction, their strengths and weaknesses, and the relations between them. Often these short discussions are more interesting than the actual stories. Ironically, one of these passages, written by T. C. Boyle, gives a good explanation of what I found lacking in many of the included stories:

I’ve thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past twenty-five years — which I detest — and it’s as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that’s utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing will come out of it.

And that pretty much sums up the problem with most of these stories (including Boyle’s, unfortunately). For me, they definitely do not work on the level of entertainment, as movement of plot, as presentation of events or characters or ideas I can bring myself to care about. There seems to be more style than substance here. Also, several stories have only the most tenuous link to science fiction, as if “literary sf” necessarily means “watered-down sf.”

There are a few diamonds among all this coal, however, and they mostly come from the ladies. By far the best of the bunch is “Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler, which the editors call “a time travel story turned inside out.” It’s a subtle and creative approach to a well-worn subject. Le Guin’s contribution is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a nice little allegory about how the happiness of the many is often built on the sacrifices of the few. “Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis,” by Kate Wilhelm, is an eerily accurate prediction of the phenomenon of “reality tv” (written in 1976), and also recalls Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the way people are addicted to their wall-size tv screens. “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis is also a very decent story, although I’m not sure I’d label it sf at all. The one other story I liked is by Carter Scholz, “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and if that title rings a bell, there’s a good reason for that. This is a very clever piece poking fun at literary theory and the ridiculous and abstruse lengths it can go to in search of interpretation and “deep meaning.”

That leaves fourteen more stories for which I can’t drum up enough interest to even mention by name. See the post tags for the rest of the authors included. Two of those are Kelly and Kessel themselves, and I must say I always find it rather narcissistic on the part of editors who include their own stories in the anthologies they put together.

I have to include one final quote from the author views, since I like this so much. This is from Gene Wolfe (and no, I didn’t like his story either):

What we normally consider the mainstream — so called realistic fiction — is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist.

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