As the title suggests, The Big Book of Science Fiction is a big book. I haven’t felt this sorry for mail carriers since the last Harry Potter novel came out. Weighing in at over 1,100 pages of fiction and commentary, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s massive tome is an important contribution to the larger conversation about science fiction, and it’s coming at the perfect time.
The definition of science fiction has long been debated
The Vandermeers catalog the ups and downs of the genre’s history in broad strokes in their introduction, taking readers through the various modern movements, efforts to include more women and authors of color, and the growing international movements that told the same stories. They note that in the three years that they worked on the project, they read though thousands of stories from across the genre’s history, and in doing so, essentially come to the conclusion that the simplest and most foolproof definition of the genre is that it’s any story that deals with the events of the future, whether that’s five minutes or a thousand years.
The Big Book of Science Fiction is a survey anthology, a book that seeks to cover a wide swath of the genre’s canon by going back through its history and selecting a representative sample. There have been other such survey anthologies before: The Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ursula K. LeGuin and Brian Attebery is a wonderful and in-depth volume that covers the latter half of the 20th century. Another is The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, edited by Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Carol McGuirk, and Rob Latham, which covers the entirety of the last century and a half.
From the start, the Vandermeers outline that they’re looking to set up a better definition for science fiction. This isn’t a trivial task; it’s a question that’s long been debated in conventions, academic journals, and marketing departments at bookstores. They outline some of the deepest roots of the modern genre: Mary Shelley with Frankenstein, Jules Verne with his romantic adventures, and H.G. Wells with his own scientific stories, each of which form a complicated structure for the modern literary canon.
Science fiction is also saddled with a perception problem, stemming from the tradition of amateur and pulpy stories that were so popular in the early 20th century, even as authors and editors worked to continually improve the writing and quality of the stories in novels and magazines.
A definitive and authoritative survey of the genre is important now, as science fiction has found itself as a sort of crossroads. All of those separate movements and styles have attracted their own followings, and with every passing year, continue to grow under the same umbrella term "science fiction." Over the years, this has caused some considerable drama between fans and writers of various sides, each trying to claim that their own tastes are the "definitive" type of story in science fiction. Most recently, a controversy over the Hugo Awards ballot have resurfaced older arguments.
The Vandermeer anthology is a partial answer to this quandary, laying out the broad strokes of the genre’s history, starting in 1897 and running all the way up through 2002. Many of the genre’s best authors are included here: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, C.J. Cherryh, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others, as well as new authors such as Ted Chiang, Cixin Liu and Corey Doctorow. There's some real gems here: Wells' story The Star is an absolute early classic of the genre; Ted Chiang's first contact story The Story of Your Life is regarded as one of the greatest works of fiction ever written. (It's also being made into a film titled Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, later this year.)
This anthology recognizes that science fiction is an international body of literature
Nor do they ignore the larger science fiction world. There’s plenty of stories that have been translated for the first time in English. This sets The Big Book of Science Fiction apart from just about every other anthology because it’s recognizing that science fiction isn’t beholden to the tastes of US and UK readers: it’s truly an international body of literature.
This is a big book, and it’s an essential tome for readers who are dedicated SF fans or casual newcomers alike. Do they manage to redefine science fiction? I think so: the selection of stories comes from the broad umbrella of science fiction. It won’t settle the argument, but that’s an argument that will continue until the end of time.