Book review: The Big Book of Science Fiction boldly takes the canon in fresh directions
The guiding spirit for this bumper anthology isn’t Asimov or Wells but the Argentinian fabulist Borges, as the editors take a broad-church view of what sci-fi can be
edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Surprisingly, the literary spirit that haunts Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s massive new anthology, The Big Book of Science Fiction, isn’t Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov or H.G. Wells.
It’s Jorge Luis Borges, the creator of miniature fables of humans grappling with their double-edged longing for and terror of infinity and omniscience. He’s represented by a signature story, name-checked in another one and appears to influence several more.
Borges once imagined an infinite book with pages of infinite thinness. The VanderMeers approach that event horizon with this double-columned paperback of more than 1,200 pages, containing some 750,000 words in more than 100 stories. People who like to read in bed may want to opt for the e-book.
A review of a few hundred words can only begin to suggest both the contents and quality of this excellent collection of short fiction. The VanderMeers sidestep territorial quagmires by defining sci-fi, simply and effectively, as fiction that depicts the future in a stylised or realistic manner. This definition allows them a wide range of choices.
They include writers not normally seen as Team SF, such as Borges, whose brilliant Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) imagines the complete transformation of reality by a book; African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois’ The Comet (1920); and Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s Mechanopolis (1913).
The VanderMeers also take an international view of speculative fiction, selecting stories, for example, from Finland, Ghana, India and Ukraine, as well as from the Anglophone world. In Liu Cixin’s amusing (and Borgesian) The Poetry Cloud (1997), a godlike being who can transform energy into matter is affronted by a Chinese scholar’s challenge that it write a poem better than Li Bai. Failing in his initial attempts, the being decides to burn out some suns to power the quantum computer he needs to create all possible poems.
The VanderMeers lavish praise on Milwaukee writer Cordwainer Smith, whom they call “perhaps the most unique and important science fiction writer of the 1950s”. They include Smith’s classic The Game of Rat and Dragon (1955) – essential reading not only for sci-fi fans but also for cat lovers. Another Wisconsin native, Clifford D. Simak, is represented by Desertion (1944), which the VanderMeers describe as one of the first stories to explore pantropy – modifying humans themselves for space exploration.
Many stories here explore the outer limits of what it means to be human. In Michael Bishop’s haunting The House of Compassionate Sharers (1977), a person who sees himself as “a series of myoelectric and neuromechanical components” following an accident is subjected to an unusual treatment to restore an essential human quality.
The Big Book of Science Fiction doesn’t codify a genre the way the VanderMeers’ previous mega-anthology The Weird did. Many good science-fiction anthologies exist, though I can’t think of any quite this large or this internationally inclusive. But this collection has a high batting average – less than a handful let me down. This book could serve as a portal to years of pleasurable and thought-provoking reading.