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The Big Book of Science Fiction, by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (editors)

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Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have collaborated on several anthologies of speculative fiction, including the excellent The Weird. In The Big Book of Science Fiction, they take on exactly the genre you would expect from the title. At over 1100 pages, this massive tome catalogues sci-fi from H.G. Wells to the early 2000s, by authors from all over the world.

While it’s hard to summarize such a wide-ranging collection, there are a few themes that emerge over the course of the book. One is the concept popularized by the famous Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark”: If we encountered alien life, would we recognize it for what it was? Accordingly, a number of the stories therein, such as Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm,” present truly unique conceptions of extraterrestrial beings.

The Big Book also includes some interesting dystopian stories. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “Standing Woman” posits a society with a strange and grotesque punishment for social dissidents, while Tanith Lee’s “Crying in the Rain” shows us the self-sacrificial love of a mother in a world where the rain is deadly.

Many of the stories are from non-English-speaking authors, and in a few cases, the VanderMeers even commissioned new translations of the works. There seems to be particularly strong representation from Soviet-era Russia.

Even in such a huge volume, it’s obviously not possible to include every significant work. That said, the lack of any pieces by Ken Liu seemed like a glaring omission. His “The Regular” is a masterful near-future detective story and would have been a perfect fit for this anthology.

A few notes on individual stories that I particularly enjoyed:

James H. Schmitz’s “Grandpa” presents a fascinating extraterrestrial ecology, but I wanted to see more of the denouement. Did the events of the story cause the other team members to rethink their view of Cord? And what were the yellowheads getting out of their symbiosis with the rafts?

Damon Knight’s “Stranger Station” is a great example of a dramatic reveal done right. I loved the moment where the reader (and the main character) discover the alien’s motivations and the how/why behind its production of the immortality serum.

I previously knew James Blish as the author of several novelizations of classic Star Trek episodes, and it was a treat to read a piece of his original fiction. “Surface Tension” includes some wonderfully imaginative ideas for the technology and ecology of a microscopic civilization.

Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” is, at its heart, a story about man’s best friend. It also does a great job of illustrating how different species might have wildly divergent views of the same environment.

I loved the variety of alien species in James White’s “Sector General,” as well as the concept of a sci-fi story set in a hospital.

The stories collected in this volume run the gamut in tone. I mentioned a couple of quite dark dystopian stories above; by contrast, Sever Ganovsky’s “A Modest Genius” is a whimsical, heartwarming tale.

I’ve always loved stories about the Fair Folk, so I thoroughly enjoyed James Tiptree Jr.’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” which reads like a sci-fi retelling of a story about a human enthralled by the fey. (While the Wikipedia entry for the story doesn’t explicitly confirm this interpretation, it’s bolstered by the fact that the title is a line from Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.)

One of the joys of reading an anthology is being introduced to authors I haven’t read before. I loved Robert Reed’s “The Remoras” and have since sought out other work in his “Great Ship” series.

I knew something about Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” from the excellent movie Arrival, which is based on it. I’m happy to report that, contrary to Hollywood’s standard practice, they did not butcher the source material.

The Kindle edition of The Big Book of Science Fiction costs about $18, which is pretty steep for an e-book. But for 1100+ pages of mostly good-to-great science fiction, it’s worth every penny.

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