The Norton Book of Science Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery, editors, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. 620 pp. $27.95.
In one of their many meetings, I was once told, Gregory Benford accused John Clute of reviewing a book he had not read, and Clute admitted it was largely true. This sounds like the most unforgivable crime a book reviewer could commit. Yet perhaps this is not always the case; perhaps some books can be properly reviewed without reading them.
Take, for example, The Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery.
Today I received a form letter from Le Guin announcing this book, listing all its contents, and extolling its virtues. By sending in a card stating that "I am seriously considering The Norton Book of Science Fiction for my course," I can receive a free copy; and since I sometimes teach a science fiction class, my acquisitive nature impels me to send in the card and add a free book to my collection. Unfortunately, I cannot in good conscience pretend that I would for a minute consider using that book in a class.
What's wrong with The Norton Book of Science Fiction? For one thing, that title is grossly misleading, since this anthology is actually limited to American and Canadian science fiction stories written between 1960 and 1990. Le Guin's stated justifications for these parameters must be read to be believed. These are "the thirty years during which science fiction came of age as literature"—Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others are thus excluded from the category of True Literature—and America and Canada are "the two countries … in which science fiction is most deeply rooted and most vigorously flourishing"—authors in the British tradition, for example, represented by Brian W. Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, John Brunner, Michael Moorcock, and countless others, will be thrilled to hear that they are insufficiently rooted and insufficiently vigorous to qualify for literary canonization. No graduate student writing a properly supervised dissertation would be permitted to offer such a myopic picture of science fiction; that Le Guin and Attebery have been allowed to do so persuasively demonstrates the Norton editors' ignorance of and indifference to this field (as does the fact that their promotional material misspells the last name of Samuel R. Delany).
Science fiction did not spring full-grown from the brow of the Muse of American Literature on January 1, 1960. Many earlier authors, prominently including Verne and Wells, were and have continued to be a powerful influence on science fiction. The genre itself was forged in the pulp magazines, where the basic nature and techniques of science fiction were discussed, demonstrated, and internalized by writers and readers. From the beginning, English writers like John Wyndham, Eric Frank Russell, and Clarke contributed to this tradition, and writers outside the English language—notably Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers—have also made their presence felt. Almost all of the writers in The Norton Book of Science Fiction grew up reading these authors, and in beginning their careers as science fiction writers, they acknowledged the importance of that tradition in their own writing. Without reference to the writers and ideas that shaped their fiction, these writers simply cannot be understood.
Lacking a literary background, and being a writer by profession, Le Guin cannot be faulted for producing and profiting from any sort of anthology that a company is willing to publish. But a trained critic like Attebery can be held to higher standards. Attebery knows that a proper survey of the novel cannot begin with James Joyce, a proper survey of American literature cannot begin with Herman Melville, and a proper survey of science fiction cannot begin with Damon Knight and Cordwainer Smith. If a theatre critic edited The Norton Book of World Theatre, with selections limited to twentieth-century European dramatists, she would be blasted by waves of derision and outraged protest; if Attebery suffers the same fate, he will only have himself to blame.
Even within their own indefensible parameters, the editors' story selections are, to put it very mildly, bizarre. Out of the dozens of award-winning stories in this period, only three of them appear in The Norton Book of Science Fiction. Robert A. Heinlein, surely one of the most important and influential science fiction writers, is presumably excluded because he produced very little short fiction within the magical time period (thereby proving once again the idiocy of that limitation). Many prominent and award-winning authors who were reasonably prolific short story writers during this time are also excluded, such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, David Brin, George Alec Effinger, Philip José Farmer, George R. R. Martin, and Rudy Rucker. Included authors are often represented by incredible choices: Theodore Sturgeon's "Today's Story"? Fritz Leiber's "The Winter Flies"? James Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See"? Gregory Benford's "Exposures"? Harlan Ellison's "Strange Wine"? Anyone familiar with those authors can easily think of six better selections. Le Guin claims that "Our main criterion was literary merit," but there must be another, ideological agenda governing their choices, one that will have to be deduced by someone masochistic enough to read through the discussions and study questions in Attebery's Teacher's Guide.
Le Guin and Attebery might answer criticisms by maintaining that their anthology is intended to be only one of several classroom texts which would together present a more balanced and accurate picture of science fiction. Nonsense! A book with sixty-seven stories is clearly designed to be the core of a class, not its supplementary text. And as such, the book is a tacit argument: that no science fiction written before 1960 is worth examining, that no science fiction written outside of North America merits serious consideration, that modern American science fiction can be intelligently studied within an arbitrary invented context instead of within its actual context. The book is thus a Big Lie of Orwellian dimensions, useful only to people who wish to falsify and distort science fiction, not those who wish to teach it.
I have met both Ursula K. LeGuin and Brian Attebery, and I have found them to be pleasant people; I am also necessarily unaware of the sorts of editorial input from Norton which may have shaped or influenced their decisions. Nevertheless, it is their names that appear on this final product, and it is a final product that must be forcefully condemned. Frankly, I would argue, any instructor who would "seriously consider" using it as a text has no business teaching science fiction.
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