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The Secret History of Science Fiction
edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Tachyon, 384 pages

The Secret History of Science Fiction
James Patrick Kelly
James Patrick Kelly has been a full-time writer since 1977. He has won Hugo Awards for his stories "Think Like a Dinosaur" (1995) and "1016 to 1" (1999) and a Locus Award for short story "Itsy Bitsy Spider" (1997). He has also published a number of novels, the latest being Wildlife (1994). He lives in Nottingham, New Hampshire, with his wife and children.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Strange But Not A Stranger
SF Site Review: Feeling Very Strange
SF Site Review: Feeling Very Strange
SF Site Review: Strange But Not A Stranger

John Kessel
Multiple-award-winning writer and scholar John Kessel is the author of Another Orphan, Freedom Beach (with James Patrick Kelly) Good News From Outer Space, Meeting In Infinity, and The Pure Product, as well as many short stories, articles and plays.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Corrupting Dr. Nice
SF Site Review: The Pure Product

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

The Secret History of Science Fiction is a very good collection of short stories. It is not, however, a very good anthology.

This is the third in a series of themed anthologies edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel for Tachyon. In each case, the theme has been loose, elusive and not without controversy. Feeling Very Strange (2006) set out to be the definitive slipstream anthology but, in this reviewer's eyes, it is far too partial and parochial to be regarded as such, even taking into account my objection to the definition they use as their starting point. Rewired (2007) tried to pin down the equally slippery concept of post-cyberpunk. Paul Kincaid viewed this as a mixed success in his review for SF Site, describing it as:

  "one of the best reprint anthologies I have encountered in a long time, judged purely on the quality of the stories contained within it. But if we are to take it as in any way defining or illustrating some new sub-category of SF called "post-cyberpunk," it falls woefully short."   

The Secret History of Science Fiction uses Jonathan Lethem's infamous 1998 Village Voice article, "The Squandered Promise Of Science Fiction," as a starting point to discuss literary science fiction. The hyperlink Kelly and Kessel provide to Lethem's article in the book is unfortunately already dead but you should be able to find a mirrored copy, if you search online. In brief, it posits that 1973 was a potential turning point for science fiction and that if Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon had been awarded the Nebula that year (it was shortlisted), science fiction could subsequently have been "gently and lovingly dismantled, and the writers dispersed." Obviously, this didn't happen. Lethem bemoans this as "marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream."

Kelly and Kessel believe Lethem overstates his case (as well they might). They therefore take it as their mission to prove that the promise of science fiction was not, in fact, squandered -- although this title was imposed on Lethem by his subeditors, it was actually originally "Why Can't We All Just Live Together?" -- and that since 1973 great science fiction has come both from within the genre and without:

  On one side of the genre divide, sf was being written at the highest levels of ambition, on the other, writers came to use the materials of sf for their own purposes, writing fiction that is clearly science fiction, but not identified by that name. (p. 8)  

The anthology is a secret history in that it aims to present an alternative chronology of the genre since 1973, one that diverges from the public face of science fiction, one that is more likely to be to Lethem's taste. So it is slightly unfortunate that the editors start the anthology with "Angouleme" by Thomas M. Disch (originally published in 1971) and "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin (listed as 1975 here but actually 1973, revised 2003). The former predates Lethem's cut-off point and is part of the New Wave movement that he explicitly praises in his article (it was included by Michael Moorcock in his definitive 1983 anthology, New Worlds). The latter is hardly a secret, it is one of Le Guin's most famous stories and winner of the 1974 Hugo for best short story. They are both impressive stories but they don't really provide much of counterargument; Lethem is an admirer of both writers and, although he alights on 1973 as a totemic "hidden tombstone" moment in his article, it is clear his problem is mostly with science fiction in the 80s and 90s.

Stories from these decades do, in fact, make up the bulk of The Secret History of Science Fiction. Before these though, there are two more representatives of the 70s: "Ladies And Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis" by Kate Wilhelm (1976) and "Descent Of Man" by T.C. Boyle (1977). Wilhelm's use of reality TV is perhaps overly familiar three decades later, but her focus on two members of the audience rather than the contestants makes her story more memorable than it initially seems. Boyle is the first representative from the other side of the divide, although his story, in which the protagonist unwillingly finds himself competing for the affections of his partner with one of the chimps she studies, is not really science fiction at all. There are some nice moments of body horror but the story is overwhelmed by smugness and smartarsery (the usual complaints levelled at postmodern fiction, in other words). Sometimes this is innocent, as with the pointless factual footnotes, sometimes it is less so, as with the grotesque accent of the only black character (the janitor): "Yo's wonderin what me an Mastuh Konrad was jiving bout up dere, isn't yo?" (p. 64) Clues are lacking, but presumably this is meant to be ironic, as is the caricatured South East Asian accent of Mrs U-Hwak-Lo, because otherwise it would be straight up racist.

Putting the 70s behind us, authorial intent is similarly murky in the other weak link in the collection, "The Ziggurat" by Gene Wolfe (1995), a novella that takes up the largest chunk of the anthology. The issue here is sexism rather than racism; there is no doubt that the central character is a misogynist, what is less clear is how much Wolfe is aware of this. Either way, it is bizarrely paced and plotted and deeply unsatisfying.

The rest of the stories are much better, particularly those by what we like to call mainstream writers. (Kelly and Kessel use this term and, although I am not especially happy with it, I will use it here for ease.) They do share a similarly loose allegiance to science fiction, though. Margaret Atwood's short "Homelanding" (originally 1989 but this version 1994) is notionally a first contact story but is really only directed inwards (rather wonderfully) at the human race. Similarly Don DeLillo's "Human Moments In World War Three" (1983) places his characters in a manned military weapons platform in orbit, allowing them the space and perspective to reflect on life below. "93990" by George Saunders (2000) is as short as Atwood's piece but the opposite in tone: clinical, deadpan and with a punchline at humanity's expense. Carter Scholz's "The Nine Billion Names Of God" (1984) takes the form of a series of letters between a fictional Scholz and the equally fictitious editor of a science fiction magazine who does not take kindly to Scholz submitting the famous Arthur C. Clarke story under his own name. Like Saunders's story, it isn't SF at all, although it could be considered a kind of science fiction criticism:

  This kind of parody is effective with works of a "baroque" nature, that is, works based on the logical, exhaustive permutations of a few principles. Science fiction stories are "baroque" because they are the intellectual children of empiricism, so they tend to offer explanations, and they tend to exhaust a limited repertoire of materials. The ambition of explanations is to be complete, so such systems tend to be closed, and this closure leads naturally to repetition and counterfeiting, endlessly evident in rack after rack of books about plucky young wizards or wisecracking starship tailgunners. The sportive élan of early science fiction has spiraled into an abortive ennui, and its writers face an endgame situation, where the remaining moves are few and predictable. (p. 95)  

It is not just those writing from outside the tradition of science fiction skating the periphery either. Karen Joy Fowler's "Standing Room Only" (1997) is a typical Fowler story in that you can only tell it is science fiction if you know where it was published. It appears at first to be simply historical fiction set in Washington in the period leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but because we read science fiction and because we know it was originally published in Asimov's we understand that the strangers the narrator describes are actually voyeuristic time travellers. Well done us. "Schwarzschild Radius" by Connie Willis (1987) similarly takes its heft from history; in this case, Karl Schwarzchild's time on the Eastern Front in the First World War. There is no time travel here, little SF at all; instead, Willis uses Schwarzchild to create a metaphysical singularity in the centre of her story. It reads more like slipstream than SF and, in fact, it would form a nice companion piece to Fowler's "Lieserl" in Feeling Very Strange.

You will note that I have spent a considerable portion of this review talking about what is and what isn't science fiction. It is often remarked, with some truth, that SF critics get too hung up on taxonomy. At the same time, it is hard to ignore the issue when you are reviewing a book entitled The Secret History of Science Fiction. Even those stories which are unambiguously science fiction tend towards a similar type. Regardless of the background of the writer, familiar tropes such as spaceships are lacking here. Obviously this is a collection of literary SF but the two aren't incompatible (just ask M. John Harrison). Kelly and Kessel acknowledge the lack of the future in their anthology and suggest "one of the consequences of the rapprochement between sf and the literary mainstream is this move to set stories in the present." (p. 16) This is one thing but I would suggest that five stories out of nineteen set not even in present but in the past is far too many; not just any past either but, in four out of five cases, the recent American past. (The exception is Willis's, set on another continent.) Kelly and Kessel's latest effort is as parochial as their previous anthologies. This is really The Secret History of American Science Fiction; Margaret Atwood is the only contributor from outside the US.

And what of the three central writers themselves? Yes, not only is Lethem represented here but Kelly and Kessel have included stories by themselves. This is extremely bad practice, a dereliction of duty and, to an extent, calls their judgement into question. In a comment on the Locus Online review by Paul Witcover which raises the same issue, John Kessel nobly takes the blame for this fact and, less nobly, attempts to justify it. However, it is impossible not to call bullshit on this feeble pretence. His story -- "Buddha Nostril Bird" -- is actually very good (much more so than Kelly's stale take on time travel, nuclear war and nostalgia) but it does not belong here on principle.

As for Lethem, Kelly and Kessel group him with Boyle, Saunders and DeLillo as a postmodernist, a writer whose stories are "not predicated on exploration of character, but instead use sf to explore ideas, make social comments, or play games" (p. 14) Yet on the very next page they say that his story "Hardened Criminals" "literalizes the title's cliché to create a background for the exploration of a son's relationship to his father." (p. 15) That sounds a lot like exploration of character to me and indeed it is. I seem to end up re-reading "Hardened Criminals" (1996) every couple of years and it grows on me more each time, not just as a character study (and Lethem excels at alienated young men) but as it becomes increasingly clear how it has provided some of the first steps towards themes he has later developed in his work.

In this context, I cannot help but compare it to "Light And The Sufferer" (1995), his story which was anthologised in Feeling Very Strange. According to Kelly and Kessel, the former is an exemplar of literary SF whereas the latter is an exemplar of slipstream. I will confess to seeing no meaningful difference between the two stories in terms of their genre. (If anything "Light And The Sufferer" is the more science fictional.) Both are told in the first person by disaffected, under-achieving young men who have casually drifted into trouble after high school, both are set (explicitly or implicitly) in Lethem's native New York and both are heightened by a single intrusion of the fantastic into the world. They paved the way for both his first realist novel of New York, Motherless Brooklyn (1998), and then his most autobiographical novel, Fortress Of Solitude (2003). (Ironically, Fortress Of Solitude is one of the few pieces of Lethem's work, along with As She Climbed Across The Table (1997) -- his tribute to DeLillo -- which I would describe as slipstream.) This comparison between these two Lethem stories empathasises that however good Kelly and Kessel are at identifying fine stories they are much less successful at matching them to the aims of their anthologies. Ultimately, judged against either of the two measures that they suggest in their introduction to The Secret History of Science Fiction, the book is a failure.

Firstly, as a rebuttal to Lethem or an attempt to show continued cross-fertilisation, this anthology is much too late. A response was needed in 1998 and that is what Ray Davis provided in an article for The New York Review Of Science Fiction entitled "Things Are Tough All Over" (it is available on his web site). Davis makes all the obvious rejoinders but also finds much to agree with and, in the exchange which followed, there is a great deal of rapprochement. Kelly and Kessel's introduction follows something of a similar path but to do so from the distance of a decade is deeply disingenuous.

So they are knocking on an open door. Kelly and Kessel admit as much when they remark that "the walls that separate mainstream from science fiction are, in fact, crumbling." (p. 17) The battle has already been won (or, perhaps more accurately, there never was a war). The situation Lethem sought clearly exists:

  Most important, a ragged handful of heroically enduring and ambitious speculative fabulators should have embarked for the rocky realms of midlist, out-of-category fiction.  

Secondly, as an actual history, an attempt to carve out the "Great Books theory of post-1970 SF" Lethem refers to, it is much too thin. A project that grand requires an anthology on the scale of The Norton Book Of Science Fiction, edited by Le Guin and Brian Attebery. (It is worth noting that the Gloss, Willis and Atwood stories collected here all also feature in that volume.) In his comment to Witcover, Kessel notes:

  we had a list of at least 20 other writers we would have liked to include in the book, including most of those you mention as we should have taken. We did not have money or space to include everything we wanted  

This explains but does not excuse. Beyond a wider range of fiction, it is unfortunate that Kelly and Kessel were unable to include the text of Lethem's essay or any of his correspondence with Davis since it is so integral to their project. On the other hand, Kelly and Kessel do like to include interstitial material between the stories in their anthologies which, in this case, means a series of quotes from the contributors on both science fiction and literature in general. However, excepting the name of the author, these quotes are irritatingly unattributed, rendering them devoid of context and diminishing their value. Each of these authors has interesting and important things to say but here they are reduced to sound bites. All taken together this means that despite the obvious quality of The Secret History of Science Fiction's contents it is impossible to shake the feeling that this anthology is far too much of a jobbing work.

Correction: In the original version of this review, Martin Lewis incorrectly stated that James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel included stories by themselves in their anthology Feeling Very Strange. He regrets the error.

Copyright © 2010 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in East London. He is the reviews editor of Vector and also regularly reviews for Strange Horizons. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.

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