Thursday, August 13, 2009

Silverberg's SF 101, mindblowing short fiction

You may be of the aware of the recent online discussions over the recent Mammoth Book Mindblowing SF, which has attracted some unfavorable attention over how it has managed to be a collection of stuff entirely by male writers. A good intro to the matter is can be found here at the Tor site, and one can turn up plenty more discussion of it in other places, such as Tempest Bradford's site. Brandon Bell this week offered a pair of posts acknowledging the controversy (one about some mindblowing books not necessarily all by white dudes, and another set of reading recs for great stuff by female authors).

It seems to me that an editor would have to go out of his way to come up with an all-male antho anymore. I ended up with a 50/50 male/female writer ratio for Things We Are Not naturally without even thinking about it a lot. I did not apply any sort of "quota" to it. It just happened to work out that half of the stories that I most liked out of all of the submissions that I received were by women. While sf may still be perceived in some quarters as a guy's genre, it seems that nowadays there are just as many women writing it as men. At least that's the impression I get from my experience with M-Brane and also from general reading in recent years.

Well, the above is by way of introduction to the fact that I wanted to mention this all-old-white-dude anthology that I happen to be perusing this week: Robert Silverberg's Science Fiction 101, previously published as Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder. I picked it up at the library a few days ago. It's a collection of a dozen remarkable, classic sf short stories, each accompanied by critical essays by Silverberg. It serves as a sort of primer for readers and writers of sf. I have to admit that it might have escaped my notice that the table of contents has nothing but dudes in it had I not had the the Mammoth affair on my mind. But, in the case of this book, it serves as an example of how things have changed. The collection was originally published over twenty years ago, and even then, most of the stories in it were already quite old. Silverberg selected mostly items from the 1950s and 1960s, almost all of it pre-New Wave and before an increasing number of women writers were taking up sf.

But he did this very deliberately because he was trying to present a starting point with the genre for both readers and writers, along with plenty of analysis and commentary as to why these stories as a group are a good starting point. And it is very true that this earlier era of sf was almost wholly male-dominated. So, while I doubt that Silverberg was even thinking about representing the other gender when compiling this book, I do not think either that he was deliberately disregarding it. What's more important with this book, I think, than the vintage of the stories or the genders of their writers, is that these twelve stories are still, for the most part, stories that could be listed in the "mindblowing" category.

The book contains decades-old tales that still seem somehow fresh and endlessly re-readable today. Items like Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" and Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" and Fred Pohl's "Day Million" dazzled and rattled people back in their day, and they still pack their punch. I was also happy to find a few things that I had read before in my life but had forgotten about such as Brian Aldiss's brilliant "Hothouse" and Robert Sheckley's terrific "The Monsters," as well as Philip Dick's "Colony." If you were to turn up a copy of this somewhere, I'd recommend reading even if just for Silverberg's essays accompanying each story. He makes a lot of great observations about the work of his peers and passes a long some good technical analysis of what makes the stories work without getting tedious and pedantic about it. Also, I think it's a good thing once in a while (even while doing the necessary of work of keeping abreast of what's hip and happening and significant in today's sf world) to go back and spend some more time considering our beginnings.

[The image is of Silverberg.]

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Jeff Kozzi said...

Chris--your best post yet. Turning a negative debate into something positive to say about a VERY WORTHWHILE book!!

Sometimes, the male-bias is not recognized by the writers and editors.

There is an old Avengers/West Coast Avengers crossover between Annuals where the teams fought individual matches. Marvel found itself under fire because, in trying to even out the victories between the teams, ALL the women lost the matches, including She=Hulk's loss to Hawkeye and Captain Marvel to Iron Man. Sometimes a cvigar is just a cigar!

Christopher Fletcher said...

Good point, Jeff. I'm glad I happened to be reading this particular thing at this particular time.


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