Saw an interesting tweet the other day, of a double page spread from the Galaxy science fiction magazine, circa 1968. On the left hand side, a list of authors supporting America’s presence in Vietnam; on the right, an equally long list of authors opposed to the war. You can predict that the likes of Heinlein, Niven, and Pournelle were on the war-supporting page; while Le Guin, Bradbury, Harrison and Wilhelm were opposed.
I’m not going to pretend to be so right-on that I only liked anti-war writers, but it was interesting to see this fissure in the genre and consider how this ideological split has endured, manifesting itself in the Hugo and Nebula awards controversies in recent times. People have strong opinions about what science fiction should be, and politics, politeness, inclusivity, and identity politics all play their part. Far be it from me to suggest that there are more recognisable names on the right side of history.
A History of Science Fiction Anthologies
Obviously, you can’t move for science fiction (and fantasy) anthologies these days, and in many ways the anthology is the central text for the genre of science fiction. While the fantasy genre lends itself to epically long novels, the ur-form of science fiction is the short story. The best way of spinning out a fresh idea without worrying too much about plot or character development, and science fiction is above all a literature of ideas. So it seems to me that an annual collection, edited by someone with impeccable taste, is an essential primer, allowing readers to discover new writers and follow the trends in the genre as it continues to reflect the times we live in.
Central to my own early experience of science fiction is the Brian Aldiss edited Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, which was last updated in 2006. My edition dates from 1974, however. The Aldiss anthology belongs to a different age: very few women or people of colour were included in that 1974 paperback, and the names mostly came from the “golden age” of the genre.
Alongside that, I was gifted early on the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr — and it was the Carr collections that caught the “new wave” of science fiction from the 1960s onwards. I read the Carr annuals avidly until the 1980s, when the late Gardner Dozois began publishing his enormous annual collections.
Thirty-five years of those St. Martin’s Press anthologies until Dozois died, aged 70, in 2018, leaving a huge hole in the market. Other science fiction anthologies are available, many of them published in parallel with the Dozois editions, but none of them were quite up to the mark. Lots of them also included fantasy, which is not what I’m looking for in my annual purchase.
I had high hopes for the new Saga anthology, which is clearly meant to step into the breach. Jonathan Strahan has experience as an editor and I had every reason to trust that this collection would hit the spot.
That’s how long it took me to get through this, from January when I first downloaded it, to yesterday, when I skim read my way through the last couple of stories. It just did not grab me. There were a few stories that I enjoyed, but far too many that I found to be a bore.
It’s not you, it’s me
I’m prepared to believe that I’ve drifted away from the genre in recent times. Still love it, but the ‘right stuff’ is increasingly hard to find. I’d also say that even the Gardner Dozois collections were disappointing in his last few editions.
Perhaps I’m just too old and too invested in those earlier decades. The genre is about different things now, and while I’d never align myself with the left hand side of that Galaxy page, maybe I’m just not the target audience. I’m a middle aged white male, a tiny demographic group with too much visibility. When I got to the end of the Saga collection, I took a look through the sources from which Strahan had drawn the collection, and here’s the thing.
It’s obvious that Strahan cast his net wide, trying to be as inclusive as possible, and he has successfully drawn in stories from around the globe, from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, from presses large and small, and publications both electronic and print. I absolutely applaud this and have no problem with it.
And it occurred to me that at the peak of the Dozois years, upwards of 50% of the content of his collections might have come from two sources: Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Obviously, these collections were less diverse and less inclusive and it’s way past time for the genre to reflect society more fairly. But it’s also clear to me that – probably – I like that Asimov’s stuff, and I’m a lot less enamoured of the other sources.
In other words, I need to try harder to enjoy the diversity of the field. I didn’t this time, but maybe I’ll try again. Or maybe I’ll just subscribe to Asimov’s. At least he, Isaac Asimov, was against the war.