After reading John Kessel and Jim Kelly’s The Slipstream Anthology, I was sold on their taste in stories, so when I found The Secret History of Science Fiction, I picked it up with the expectation that their taste in science fiction would also mesh well with mine. I was mostly right. Although there were fewer pieces in The Secret History of Science Fiction that I loved as much as the slipstream stories, I can safely say that this is because I don’t have quite the jones for science fiction as I do for slipstream.
There are nineteen stories included in this collection as well as an introduction by the editors in which they discuss the “genrefication” of science fiction and its status as a lower form of literature ascribed to it by readers and critics unfamiliar with it. Throughout the course of the book, before each story, quotes are included by famous science fiction writers and writers who dabble in sci fi but would otherwise be considered “literary” writers as well as those who straddle both lines regularly, such as T.C. Boyle and Ursula K. Le Guin. The quotes continued the introduction’s discussion and were just as good as the stories, and I found myself eager to read them as well.
Of the nineteen stories in this collection, I became enamored with eight of them. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which I’d read previously but was more than happy to revisit, concerns a utopian society and is written as if the author is trying to convince the reader of the society’s existence. “Ladies and Gentleman, This Is Your Crisis” by Kate Wilhelm tells the story of a young couple and their weekend obsession with a reality television show a bit more dangerous than ours today, in which the contestants face actual death, and through their viewing of the show, the narrative explores the nature of relationships between men and women.
In T.C. Boyle’s “Descent of Man,” an absolutely hilarious story, a man is concerned when his girlfriend becomes wrapped up in her work assisting a hyper-intelligent ape. Margaret Atwood’s “Homelanding” is a short piece which uses a woman landing on a foreign planet to explore, very briefly but no less affectingly, our own planet’s treatment of women. “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Carter Scholz is also a hilarious read, in which a writer submits Arthur C. Clarke’s famous story as his own, and the story consists of his back-and-forth with the editor who rejects him.
I found “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis beautifully poignant. To quote Kelly and Kessel, this story “uses the physics of black holes as a metaphor for the isolation of men trapped in war, drawn inexorably toward their deaths.” Maureen F. McHugh’s “Frankenstein’s Daughter” tells the story of a broken family coping with the hardship of raising a cloned child developmentally disabled by the procedure. I appreciate the way it uses a common sci fi premise to tell the domestic story of the difficulties of raising children. My favorite story in the anthology is “The Wizard of West Orange” by Steven Millhauser, in which a new invention of Thomas Edison’s will allow people to record and experience touch.
Of the rest of the stories, there were only three I can say I didn’t care for. Gene Wolfe’s “The Ziggurat,” in which a recently divorced man finds a spaceship in the yard of his isolated cabin and is harassed by the female aliens, seemed to be trying to say something about masculinity, but I felt as if it took too long to say it and didn’t quite say it as clearly as it could have; I’m still unsure as to the significance of the ending, which left me frustrated. Michael Chabon’s “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance” just didn’t speak to me, and neither did Karen Joy Fowler’s “Standing Room Only,” I suspect because the historical subject matter concerning Lincoln’s assassination isn’t quite my cup of tea. Although Jonathan Lethem’s “The Hardened Criminals,” in which the common phrase of the title is literalized, starts out strong, it disappoints toward the end. I love both Fowler and Lethem, but the stories included in this anthology aren’t what I would consider their best work.
Still, The Secret History of Science Fiction introduced me to a wealth of writers I would like to check out more of. I would certainly recommend this to any reader skeptical of the worth of science fiction.
Additional stories in this collection:
"Angouleme" by Thomas M. Disch
"Human Moments in World War III" by Don DeLillo
"Interlocking Pieces" by Molly Glass
"Salvador" by Lucius Shepard
"Buddha Nostril Bird" by John Kessel
"1016 to 1" by James Patrick Kelly
"93990" by George Saunders