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The Secret History of Science Fiction
Edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Tachyon Publications Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781892391933
Date: 01 October 2009 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Kelly and Kessel’s The Secret History of Science Fiction is a diverse anthology. Covering a span of 37 years (with stories ranging from 1971 – 2008) and authors ranging from whole-hearted genre writers to those perceived as mainstream, this collection would be worth a look for its ambitious approach alone. The fiction collected here is excellent and each story is very different from the next.

What on earth do Kelly and Kessel mean by “The Secret History”? They elaborate in the introduction. While they acknowledge that development of science fiction is grounded in the pulps of the 1930s and over time has established itself as a recognizable genre, they embrace the idea that genre boundaries are fluid. A number of recent – award-winning, high selling – mainstream books have used the tropes and/or trappings of science fiction without the genre label. Without the stigma of a genre label. Or the perceived stigma of a genre label. Kelly and Kessel note: “it seems to us that the divide between the mainstream and science fiction is more apparent than real” (12). The book closes with an extended quote from Ursula K. LeGuin that sums up both the point of the anthology and the future of science fiction as she sees it. In part:

It seems to me that SF is standing, these days, in a doorway. The door is open, wide open. Are we just going to stand there, waiting for the applause of the multitudes? It won’t come; we haven’t earned it yet . . . Or are we going to walk through the doorway and join the rest of the city? I hope so. I know we can and I hope we do, because we have a great deal to offer – to art, which needs new forms like ours, and to critics who are sick of chewing over the same old works and above all to readers of books, who want and deserve better novels than they mostly get. But it will take not only courage for SF to join the community of literature, but strength, self-respect, the will not to settle for the second rate. It will take genuine self-criticism. And it will include genuine praise. (381)
The collection:

Stories set in very different but believable near-future worlds: Thomas M. Disch’s “Angouleme” where a group of teens attempt to purge their existential angst; Kate Wilhelm’s “Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Your Crisis” melds reality television with the human need for catharsis; Jonathan Lethem’s “The Hardened Criminals” builds a prison out of the bodies and minds of criminals, bringing together a father and son.

Stories using medical advancements: Molly Gloss’ “Interlocking Pieces” brings together the donor and recipient of a brain transplant; Maureen F. McHugh’s “Frankenstein’s Daughter” alternates between the perspective of the teenage son and the mother sharing the story of a family struggling after a significantly less-than-perfect cloning.

Stories which offer an historically alternate view: Karen Joy Fowler’s “Standing Room Only” offers the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln from the perspective of a smitten young woman; Michael Chabon’s “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance” shows an American frontier where the Republic failed but steam-power and airships succeed; Steven Millhauser’s “The Wizard of West Orange” provides a view of Edison’s workshops and inventions from the perspective of his librarian.

Stories where time travel makes all the difference: Gene Wolfe’s “The Ziggurat” shuffles together a man alone, his soon-to-be ex-wife, his son and her daughters, multiple mythologies, and small women originating from a pre-colonial mysteriously abandoned settlement whose vehicle – where time runs differently – has now crash landed during a blizzard, to comment on the relationship(s) between man and woman; James Patrick Kelly’s “1016 to 1” brings a robot from the future with a mission to begin WW III with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stories that use scientific experimentation as backdrop: T. C. Boyle’s “Descent of Man” extends the research of a primatologist (Jane) to the personal; George Saunders’ “93990” purposefully clinical follows a drug study on a set of primates.

Stories using war: Don DeLillo “Human Moments in World War III” is very reflectively narrated by an astronaut in orbit around Earth, witnessing the war from space; Lucius Shepard “Salvador” a soldier in battle, a surreal disaster, then a return home to recover – even taking into account the mystical elements, this is the most real soldier’s story I think I’ve ever read; Connie Willis’ “Schwarzschild Radius” frame story with a young researcher questioning a WW I German veteran about his relationship with Schwarzschild at the Russian front, the veteran remembers and becomes immersed in the memories.

Stories fitting no tidy category: Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” simply and elegantly describes a utopian community and its price; Margaret Atwood’s “Homelanding” where the human form and cultural norms are presented in the most basic manner as if being described to a non-human; Carter Scholz’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” is an exchange of letters between an editor and a writer who has submitted the Clarke story “The Nine Billion Names of God” as his own; John Kessel’s “Buddha Nostril Bird” a novel approach to enlightenment.

My favorite part of the anthology is the series of quotations at the beginning of each story, generally one from the author of that story and one from another author in the collection. These focus the reader’s attention as well as inspire thought-provoking reflections. All the quotations focus on writing and genre: perceptions, definitions, boundaries and lack thereof, successes and lack thereof. Obviously carefully selected and placed within the anthology.

All in all, The Secret History of Science Fiction is a solid anthology, thoughtfully collected and introduced, strongly recommended.

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