Review of Mammoth Book Of Short Science Fiction Novels by Isaac Asimov
Mammoth Book Of Short Science Fiction Novels
by Isaac Asimov
I picked this up while nosing around an antique shop. My copy is battered: its front cover is torn and disfigured; its spine is bent into a sadistic and perilous curve; its pages are bloated and distorted from what I can only guess is water damage. If it weren’t such a thick book, I’d have scoffed at the £2 I paid for it.
As it is, there is something familiar about The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels. I feel like I’ve read some of these stories before—and maybe I have, since their inclusion in this anthology is doubtless because Isaac Asimov and the other editors felt the stories are good examples of the genre. So, I plucked my way through them, one or two at a time, reading other books as I went. Some have their own entries on Goodreads, and so I’ve posted separate reviews (they are novellas, for the most part, so I feel like they count as individual books read):
- Profession, by Isaac Asimov
- Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell, Jr.
- Time Safari, by David Drake
- Enemy Mine, by Barry B. Longyear
- The Moon Goddess and the Son, by Donald Kingsbury
- Flash Crowd, by Larry Niven
- The Desert of Stolen Dreams, by Robert Silverberg
Individally, few of these stories stand out as being of high quality, in my opinion. Yet many of their authors are regarded as visionaries in the genre. Many of these stories—Who Goes There?, Enemy Mine (which, to be fair, actually was that good)—have served as inspiration for later works and adaptations. It’s part of the paradox of speculative fiction that a lot of its “greatest” or more influential works are also, in some subjective senses, just not that good.
Indeed, as its panel of editors and all-but-one male selection of authors might indicate, this anthology is a snapshot of only a corner of the science fiction community—a large, vocal corner, perhaps, but certainly not a corner representative of the wider community. The stories are actually more interesting in this format, presented together rather than read separately, for how their similarities in style and tone reflect the tastes and tendencies of an industry that was, by and large, quite male-dominated. Asimov explains in his introduction:
They differ in subject matter, in style, in everything you can think of but quality. They are all skillfully written, cleverly constructed stories, with ingenious ideas, as you will have to admit, even if one or two of them should happen, for one reason or another, not to be entirely to your liking.
I’m not as convinced as he is about the uniformity of quality, but I will have to admit that they are all cleverly constructed and full of interesting ideas. Science fiction is the genre for Big Ideas, and this book definitely showcases how the novella form can put such ideas to good use. In this respect, Asimov is completely accurate in his assertion.
His introduction is actually one of the best parts of this collection and rather deserves a review of its own. It is one of the reasons I feel like I’ve seen this collection or something similar in the past, because Asimov begins, in typical Asimovian fashion, with an itemized, categorical list of the different types of fiction by word length, from short-short story to novel. (Interestingly, he pegs a novella as being “30,000 to 50,000 words” and then a novel as “70,000 words and up”. I can only assume that, back in the 1980s, nobody ever wrote fiction between 50,001 and 69,999 words. That would just be silly.)
Asimov provides a brief insight into the way the science-fiction publishing industry evolved out of the pulp magazine, which naturally preferred short stories—novels were serialized. Novellas existed in a state of fragile equilibrium, for they were usually small enough to publish in one instalment, but they would take up the space of several short stories, which was a big risk for the publisher.
I belong to a generation that does not have these problems. We live in an age of plenty. Thanks to the Web and digital media, it is literally possible to publishe every single story one would like to publish, regardless of space constraints. (It’s not possible to read all such stories, of course, and so there is a curation factor involved in selecting and bundling them into things like ezines—but that’s another topic.) And it is ridiculously easy for me to get a hold of all but the most obscure books: I have libraries, bookstores, online retailers, all of whom are happy to find me the books I want.
So it’s hard for me to imagine the excitement that, as a youth, Asimov must have felt when he paid over his 25 cents (or however much such things cost back in the day) for a copy of the latest magazine. It’s hard for me to imagine the feeling of camaraderie that existed among science-fiction readers of the early and middle twentieth-century. (These days, we live double lives, treading the fine line where science fiction has become mainstream, but only in specific, commercializable ways.) The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels seems very much a celebration of the ingenuity brought to bear by people who feel like they were casting words out into the world that might not be picked up and read at all, such was the tenuous nature of writing and of science fiction as a genre….
For all this sense of underground romance, though, I don’t regret missing out on the Golden Age or New Wave eras of science fiction. In fact, I feel very lucky to be alive right now. This is an exciting time for science fiction and fantasy. There is a diversity of voices and ideas in the field like we have never seen before. And I’m not just talking about the presence of women writers, writers of colour, queer or trans writers … I’m talking about the existence of a wider, more fluid and dynamic conversation happening within the public sphere. While a back-and-forth among authors has always existed, its public nature only extended as far as letters and interviews and convention conversations. Now, thanks to the Web, to blogs and Twitter and Facebook, these conversations increasingly default to “public”.
For a reader and fan like me, it’s very interesting to see the author engage in conversation about their works, and other works, with other authors and with fans. Sometimes the conversations get too personal, devolve into attacks on character that become far too heated for civilized discussion. We’re still far from perfect. The recent controversy surrounding the Hugo nominations is a case in point. Yet even these public disagreements are telling. Each time someone says, “No, I will not be silenced,” science fiction becomes stronger for it. The types of conversations we are having about books—about postgender representation in SF, the relevance of biopunk stories to our current global warming crisis, the ups and downs of the Singularity subgenre—are changing. I’m just very interested to see how they shape the next decades of science fiction storytelling.
In contrast, The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels is an artifact from a bygone era. Its stories are “Big Idea”, yes, but they are also steeped in the tropes and prejudices of their time. With a few exceptions—as noted in my review—they tend to concentrate on the “gee wow” confluence of technology and social change, but their explorations of such problems isn’t always as deft or as sensitive to questions of diversity and personhood as we might like.
For hardcore science fiction fans who like reading historical science fiction and examining how it relates to the context of the genre, there is every reason to read this book. For the casual fan, there is less of interest. Although the stories remain thought-provoking, they are also very dated. There is much better science fiction, from all sorts of authors, that has since hit the shelves, and your time is probably better spent elsewhere. I hear that there is a Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women anthology coming out this year….
My full length review exceeds the character limit for Goodreads reviews. You can continue reading it on my website, where you will find a review of the stories I have not reviewed separately.