The Big Book of Science Fiction
Edited by Ann Vandermeer and Jeff Vandermeer
Review by Sam Lubell
Vintage Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781101910092
Date: 12 July 2016 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer lives up to its name with 1,200 pages, 105 stories, and about 750,000 words including an encyclopedic 11,000-word introduction detailing the definition and evolution of science fiction and 50,000 words of biographic information on each author. Almost all the stories are from the 20th century, with just a couple of exceptions, "The Star" by H.G. Wells from 1897 and "Baby Doll" by Johanna Sinisalo from 2002. A few of the contents are not really stories but excerpts from novels. The book includes stories from many different nations, sub-genres, and themes; although the editors admit that they favored stories with environmental themes. For each author, the editors provide a description of the author's whole career, with some of the text borrowed (with permission) from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
The book is essentially three anthologies in one, although the stories are ordered chronologically rather than by type. The first set is traditional American/British science fiction stories. This starts with the pulp stories of Edmond Hamilton, Stanley Weinbaum, and A. Merritt, and continues to the golden age of science fiction with Clifford Simak, Ray Bradbury, James Blish, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Frederick Pohl, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, and Robert Silverberg. Finally, the book includes more recent authors like George R.R. Martin, Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear, William Gibson, C.J. Cherryh, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Octavia Butler.
The anthology also includes many less known authors who are still important to the field such as William Tenn, Katherine MacLean, James Schmitz, Cordwainer Smith, Damon Knight, Carol Emshwiller, Theodore Sturgeon, J.G. Ballard, R.A. Lafferty, David Bunch, Joanna Russ, James Triptree Jr., Michael Bishop, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Cadigan, John Crowley, Tanith Lee, Michael Moorcock, Pat Murphy, Rachael Pollack, Geoffrey Landis, Robert Reed, Ted Chiang, and Corry Doctorow.
But the book's extensive introduction on the different traditions of science fiction--and dedication to Judith Merril, whose Year's Best anthologies in the 1960s routinely took stories from non-genre publications--shows the editors cast a broad net in defining science fiction. They took care to include stories from outside the "dominant mode that originated with the pulps" such as the Conte Philosophique (fables of reason) tradition building on the utopian fiction of H.G. Wells.
Finally, the third type of stories in this anthology encompasses stories from other nations, especially Russia/Ukraine and Latin America. About 40 of the 105 stories are translations. Seven stories are translated into English for the first time and another seven are presented in new translations. Few American readers will recognize these names, but it is fascinating to see how other nations develop their own science fiction traditions. One name readers may know is Cixin Liu, the author of The Three-Body Problem, represented here by a novella, "The Poetry Cloud".
Of course, even 105 stories are not enough to include the full breadth of science fiction. Inevitably, some readers will decry the absence of their favorite author, although the editors admit they couldn't include van Vogt, Heinlein, and Shaw due to rights issues. The book does not include steampunk, as the editors (who have edited whole anthologies on the subject) consider it more like fantasy, nor far future stories with magical science (such as Vance's Dying Earth) for the same reason.
There will be year-long college courses taught using this as a textbook. There has never been a science fiction collection with this wide a scope, incorporating traditional, non-traditional, and international science fiction. Still, this is not an academic book, but one chock full of some of the world's best, most entertaining science fiction stories. If you buy one anthology this year, The Big Book of Science Fiction is the one to get. Of course, if you prefer fantasy, Jeff VanderMeer has written that their next anthology will be The Big Book of Fantasy.
Readers may prefer the ebook version over the print copy for a couple of reasons. Probably to save space, the publisher designed the book with two columns per page (like Analog magazine) which some readers may dislike on aesthetic grounds. Ebooks avoid that problem and allow the reader to make the font larger. Also, the book's 1,200 pages stretches the limit of paperback binding and some readers on Amazon are complaining that their copies already are disintegrating.