The Big Book of Science Fiction
I received Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Big Book of Science Fiction the week I landed a science fiction class at Hunter College. The timing couldn’t be more uncanny or perfect, as I was pondering how to supplement the novels we were going to cover. By drawing from 20th-century works from local and international authors, the VanderMeer’s extraordinary compilation questions the clichéd boundaries around what is considered “literary” or “science fiction.” While many will recognized the authors in the anthology—Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula Le Guin—I had no idea that W. E. B. Du Bois wrote not one sci-fi story, but several. Likewise, the international scope of the book is breathtaking (twenty-nine countries represented) and displays just how vibrant the genre is becoming, no matter what literary boundaries gatekeepers tried to erect around it. The introduction alone is worth the purchase price, as it dissects common misconceptions regarding science fiction’s origins and its “golden age” and makes an intriguing argument for why the genre should be studied with more rigor in academic circles. In a time of great social, cultural, and political upheaval, there is no better time to look at a genre that “allows us to dream of a better world.”
Nancy Hightower (Rail): You and Ann have published large compilations before (close to 1,000 pages), from your anthology The Weird (2012), to Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (2013) and The Time Traveler’s Almanac (2014). What was so appealing about making a “big book” of science fiction, as opposed to creating smaller anthologies divided up by time periods the way, say, the Norton anthologies are? The question is quite self-serving, as I would love to order the book if I ever teach a science fiction class again (like I am right now), but I am a bit intimidated by the idea of my students having to bring such a large book to class. Do you see it, then, as more of a commercial book, or one that could, and should, be used in the classroom? Would you ever create supplemental teaching tools to go along with the book?
Ann VanderMeer: This is a book for a general reading audience and could quite easily be used as a text in any college or high school course. We wanted to make sure that this anthology clearly showed all the different forms of science fiction rather than get stuck in only one or two. And in order to do that, it was important to have the space to publish all different kinds of stories from all over the world. To the general reader, when you say “science fiction,” they may think of just a few authors—like Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Le Guin, or something along the lines of Star Wars or Star Trek. And this is also why it was imperative for us to seek out stories from other countries, cultures, and languages. The world is a big place and science fiction, as fiction of the future, should include the whole world.
Jeff VanderMeer: Oh, they’ll get used to it. It’s less than five pounds. But seriously, there’s a deep value in having it all in one place and not spread out in separate volumes. Another advantage is quite simply that these books get more attention because of their scope, and that means some of the authors who are lesser known get more attention than if we did several volumes. There’s also the practical consideration that it would wear us out to go through the whole publishing lifecycle with a multi-volume set.
Rail: In your introduction, you cite the conte philosophique as a tradition that “infiltrates” science fiction in various ways. I found this connection to the philosophical stories and fantastic journeys of Voltaire, Kepler, and Bacon particularly fecund to explore, as it places the genre closer to other long standing literary traditions. This kind of unique historical context also helps break science fiction out of what you have termed as “the tyranny of typecasting,” both from within and outside the genre. How did having this kind of literary outlook shift your own thinking about science fiction and your choice of stories?
Ann VanderMeer: This philosophy gave us the language to use when describing what we set out to accomplish with this book. What we’re doing here isn’t really new (mixing so many types of fiction styles in one anthology), but the modern reader doesn’t always know about the history that went before.
Jeff VanderMeer: We’ve been ignoring the border between genre publishing and mainstream literary publishing our entire careers. We do it because we found it exasperating early on that speculative stories on one side of the divide were rendered invisible to readers on the other side, and vice versa, even though the similarities in terms of the actual fiction were quite compelling. As an editor, whenever you come across an artificial divide, or one based more on accidents of birth and marketplace divisions, it’s important to recognize that and act accordingly. This affects issues like recognition for women writers—The Big Book of SF includes a fair number of Latin-American women writers who are generally considered literary but who write science fiction too. We wanted to make them visible in this context. I will say this job is getting easier, either because people expect it from us or the landscape is changing. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, you wouldn’t believe the resistance to the idea of this kind of repatriation. Reading Judith Merril’s essays and notes about similar resistance in the 1950s and 1960s—to her doing best-of anthologies where she was picking stories from Amazing Stories and the New Yorker and getting flack for it—was very instructional. But you just keep pushing ahead, unsure if it will get easier, yet knowing that it’s the best path for you.
Rail: This question is a follow up to the previous one, as I have reviewed authors who don’t consider their book “science fiction” when they discover my review. In a similar vein, some authors whom you have included, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, are primarily known for genres other than science fiction. Why did you feel it important to include their stories? Do you envision seeing some of these stories added to the science fiction canon?
Ann VanderMeer: Again, going back to our original goal—to show the reading audience what science fiction truly is in all of its forms. Yes, we realize that many writers may not consider their work to fit to parameters of what science fiction is, and yet those stories show a different version of a possible future—so what else can it be? Just because a story is considered “literary” doesn’t mean that it can’t also be a joy and pleasure to read. And just because something is marketing as “genre” doesn’t mean it isn’t an important literary find.
Jeff VanderMeer: W. E. B. Du Bois should’ve been part of the SF canon since the Dark Matter anthologies, which is where we found that piece. Just because something hasn’t been in conversation with the “genre” doesn’t mean it can’t begin to be when placed in the right context. Not to mention that we get a very narrow slice of the discussion and debate and influence going on in the field from the introductions to anthologies of various periods and essays and year-end round-ups. A fair amount of this “obscure” stuff may very well have influenced writers much earlier than thought. You never can tell. One reason we raised the point about the contes philosophiques is that they represent a definite long-term conversation between writers, and it’s interesting to see where that conversation or influence may also have included the SF community. The other thing is that anthologies are never passive acts. An anthology that only reaffirms the dominant narrative by mostly reprinting stories already seen as central and classic is making a statement as definitively or more so than an anthology that ventures farther afield.
Rail: What were your biggest surprises in putting together this anthology? How would you have done it differently, if you could do it all over again?
Ann VanderMeer: Well, as large as this book is, we really wish we had more room—don’t laugh, it’s true. Given more time, money, and space, we could have included stories from other countries that we missed in this volume. I think one of the biggest surprises for me was just how humorous some of the Eastern-European literature was. I expected it to be dire and dark and yes, some of it is, but there is also a wonderful dark humor to much of that fiction as well.
Jeff VanderMeer: You do your best, work as hard as you can, delve as deep as you can in the very liberating knowledge that there’s no such thing as a perfect anthology. And at the end, it’s very important to limit your regrets and move on to the next thing—but at the same time taking on board internal and external analysis that helps you refine your process. There are stories we couldn’t get because permissions weren’t available, for one thing. There was so much information coming in about Russian and Latin-American stories that it took time away from focusing on some other parts of the world. So one note is to make sure to focus on what we weren’t able to this time in the next big anthology we do. The thing is, often someone will ask why we didn’t have such-and-such or so-and-so, and most of the time they are on our list but we envision them as being best suited to a different context. For example, some of the “science fiction” writers left out of Big Book are going to be surprised when they get a request for a reprint to our next project, a big book of fantasy. Sometimes you don’t get to a writer for years and it doesn’t mean you don’t like their work. For example, we only just reprinted Harry Turtledove recently, for The Time Traveler’s Almanac, and this applies to a fair number of other writers.