How do you even review a 760-page book comprising 52 short stories that is meant to offer a comprehensive look at the genre for the purposes of teaching? I don’t know.
The Kara of seven years ago would have rated each story out of 5 stars and taken the average, but ain’t nobody got time for that these days. It took me over a year to read this anthology—because if I had torn straight through it, I might have torn out my hair. I’m not built for anthologies; I need the slow, simmering build-up of novels and sweet, sweet payoff of character development. That being said, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the short story form is where one can find some of the best and brightest science fiction. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction certainly proves this.
I could try to highlight my very favourite stories, but that would still probably be excessive. At 52, there is a lot to choose from. There are only 14 women authors in the selection, but I think it’s admirable the editors tried to include several earlier women who were at the forefront of early SF publishing. Moreover, as we get into the 1960s onwards, quite a few more women authors put in an appearance. While I think the editors might have done a little better, this anthology is far from being an all-male panel, and I appreciate that.
Before I get into talking about some of the individual stories, however, I also want to mention that this book comes with two tables of contents. The first is a chronological listing, which is how the stories are organized in the actual text. The second table of contents is a thematic listing, along the lines of “Alien Encounters”, “Apocalypse and Post-apocalypse”, etc. This is a sweet idea, especially because this is obviously a teaching anthology. (The inclusion of a link to a teaching guide helps with that last part, too.) I read the stories chronologically, which has its own benefits, but I could easily see someone choosing to read, say, all the stories about “Time Travel and Alternate History” to get a brief overview of some of those ideas.
The introduction provided before each story is great too. It gives me just enough information about each author, including highlights of their works, without overstaying its welcome. I also like how it introduces the specific piece without spoiling too much. The actual introduction to the overall book is your typical university course textbook introduction: if you are a student of a course, it’s probably something you want to read so you can quote from it in your midterm paper. Otherwise, you are probably wise to skip it. Unless you can’t sleep?
OK, but since you really want to know some favourites….
I liked a lot of the early ones just because I have not read as much early SF, so it was nice to expose myself to these stories and their styles. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is fascinating just because of its age. I am familiar, of course, with the tracing of the provenance of SF back towards Frankenstein, but it was nice to learn about an almost-as-old story I hadn’t heard of. I also enjoyed “Thunder and Roses”, by Theodore Sturgeon, so obviously inspired by the military life during the Second World War.
The collection includes some classics, like Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (which, to be honest, I’m not much of a fan of) and one of my favourite time travel stories, the amazing “‘All You Zombies—’”, by Robert Heinlein, which also features some very interesting titular punctuation. And who can forget “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, by Philip K. Dick?
Maybe one of the more useful aspects of this anthology for someone who is not a student is the exposure to authors I mean to read but haven’t yet. For example, Carol Emshwiller, Pat Cadigan, and Kate Wilhelm are all on my list. Wilhelm’s “Forever Yours, Anna” is a neat time-travel story, and while “‘All You Zombies—’” is an elegant depiction of paradox, there is just something so beautiful about Wilhelm’s time travel mystery/romance. I recall enjoying this story and not wanting it to end, far more so than a lot of the entries in this collection.
I don’t think there are any bad stories in this collection. There are some I didn’t personally like much, but even then I can see their merit as stories and works of literature; it’s just that neither their characters nor their plots held my interest. Perhaps half the fun of this book is arguing with the other people who have read it which stories are the best (the other half being bludgeoning your opponent with the sheer weight of this tome—definitely the definition of a doorstopper).
As a teacher, I love collections like this. It’s well-rounded, clearly carefully curated. I don’t get much of a chance to teach science fiction short stories in my English classes, though I tend to sneak some in there when I can (I love opening a unit on short stories with Vanessa Torline’s “#TrainFightTuesday” just because it is so deliciously atypical in its form). Still, this is a great resource, both in how it augments my understanding of the genre as a whole, and in its ability to offer up story ideas no matter what theme or era I’m interested in covering at the moment.
Definitely recommend for teachers, SF fans who want to dive deeper, and people with doors that keep closing on them.