Charting the Fantastic and Bizarre

New anthologies help readers find their way through the evolving genre of science fiction

SCIENCE fiction, once a ghettoized subcategory of pop fiction, now publishes so many titles monthly that no one can gain a comprehensive sense of what is going on in the genre.

Consequently, readers tend to stick with favorite writers. And one way new readers can find those favorites is to read anthologies of short stories and novellas, then go on to look for work by writers whose work they enjoy.

One such anthology is Universe 2, edited by Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber (Bantam, 397 pp., $21.50 cloth, $10 paper). Consisting of 22 selections, with a general introduction by Silverberg and introductions to each story as well, this reestablished annual anthology continues the Universe series edited by the late Terry Carr from 1971 to 1987.

All but one of the stories are previously unpublished. Their authors include the widely acclaimed and the lesser known. Silverberg and Haber chose stories of considerable variety on the basis of literary excellence.

Readers will find some stories fairly traditional in style, some much more esoteric - such as Alex Jeffers's "The Fire The Fire." For those who know Tom Godwin's famous short story "The Cold Equations," Deborah Wessell's "The Cool Equations" will prove a rollickingly inventive riposte.

Nebula Awards 26, edited by James Morrow (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 322 pp., $24.95 cloth, $12.95 paper) includes stories from the finalists in the annual Nebula competition. Chosen by the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), the material is written by its members.

The Nebulas are highly valued awards. But the manner of their choice will always be a source of argument among the members of SFWA. Few members can read all the relevant material they vote on. At times, they choose on the basis of reputation or familiarity in general rather than the sterling quality of any particular story; as a result, the range of quality in the collection varies greatly. A couple of the stories are quite negligible, though on the whole the standard is high and the writing satisfying.

If one can judge by these two collections, science-fiction stories are moving away from narratives told in a traditional manner toward the more fantastic, bizarre, and, if one can accuse a science-fiction writer of such a thing, the literary and even arty. Twenty years ago, when the genre was more economical, straightforward, and head on, many of the stories in this anthology would have had a struggle getting published.

Particularly delightful is Terry Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire." Ted Chiang's "Tower of Babylon" turns back on itself marvellously. Joe Haldeman's "The Hemingway Hoax" appears in its shorter version, edited down from its novel length for Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine by Gardner Dozois. The result is in part not easily intelligible. The full novel version is a fine time-travel and alternate-universe story based on Hadley Hemingway's disastrous loss of a suitcase full of her husband Ernest's stor y manuscripts.

The Nebula anthology also contains a fine essay by Karen Cramer on science fiction in 1990, another by Bill Warren on science-fiction films of 1990, tributes to Donald A. Wollheim and Lester Del Rey, reprints of Rhysling Poetry Award winners, and other material. Not only are most of the stories highly worthwhile, but this volume also gives the reader interesting insights into the maturing science-fiction and fantasy community as of 1990.

Robert Silverberg has also edited a remarkable project, Murasaki (Bantam, 290 pp., $20 cloth), a novel in six parts, each written by a different Nebula-winning writer. This multiple work presents a problem of a created dual world - two planets that revolve around each other. These worlds have complete biological communities, as well as successive waves of settlers from Earth. The setup is outlined in two essays - now appendixes to the book - one by Poul Anderson, the other by Frederik Pohl. Pohl then wro te the first chapter of the tale. Successive chapters were added by David Brin, Poul Anderson, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and Nancy Kress.

The result is remarkable and, if not entirely consistent in tone, wholly satisfying. While each chapter is more or less a separate story, the options open to successive writers decrease as the story progresses. Finally, Nancy Kress, in tying it all together in virtuoso fashion, marches such a parade of brass bands around her stage we do not notice that she pulls rabbits out of hats and pockets until the theater is full of them. But we believe it. We want to. The novel comes together as a tour de force of

world-building and a fine example of collective literary ingenuity well worth reading. It escapes being merely an exercise and stands as a tribute to the professionalism of its writers.

In spite of the incredibly productive literary life of the late, beloved Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein remains the most widely published author of science fiction. Starting in the '30s, he helped early to define the genre. His works for juveniles marked for many readers their first experience in a lifelong interest in the field. His direct style appealed to young readers. While he went on to more complex work, he retained the economical and inventive style that helped win a huge number of readers.

Since Heinlein's passing in 1988, he has remained well-respected in the genre, as the present publication of Requiem (Tor, 341 pp., $21.95 cloth) attests. This volume, edited by Yoji Kondo, contains six stories, an essay on making the film Destination Moon, and five speeches - all by Heinlein - and in addition 21 tributes to Heinlein by major figures in science fiction.

Heinlein's original novelette, "Destination Moon," is also included. Surely more up-to-date than Jules Verne's or H. G. Wells's travel to the moon, Heinlein's is remarkably dated, as probably should be expected, but it does consider a number of the technical questions involved. Still, it is amusing for Monday-morning quarterbacks to read of three characters who had to leave for the moon in a hurry because of political intrigue, deciding as they went what the best method of landing might be. "Requiem" is a book chiefly for Heinlein buffs and those interested in the history of science fiction.

Another beloved old timer who just keeps rolling along, Ray Bradbury, has produced a new collection of 23 largely related essays entitled Yestermorrow (Capra Press, 240 pp., $19.95 cloth). Here, Bradbury considers very down-to-earth futures for American urban problems. He does this with his usual rhapsodic yet practical verve, and with the imaginative vision of someone for whom both science fiction and urban-planning seem natural. Jon A. Jerde adds an afterword in praise of Bradbury.

Bradbury's essay on his relationship with Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson is wholly charming - probably the best piece in the book. Beyond that, one feels Bradbury is hooked on malls, though he wants them redesigned to be humane and comfortable. His sense of the future is largely urban and a little fantastic, the latter just what one would expect from an avid devotee of Walt Disney. He has a winning modesty, as well as a deftness of perception and phrase that make this brief book delightful.

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