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Full Spectrum 4 edited by Lou Aronica, Amy Stout, and Betsy Mitchell. New York: Bantam Books, 1993; 482 pp. $12.95.
Full Spectrum 4
(Note: this review was commissioned for, but rejected by, The New York Review of Science Fiction for two reasons: first, the review devoted insufficient attention to the individual stories in the anthology; second, the review was unacceptably premised on the "assertion that new ideas are the lifeblood of science fiction" which, one editor said, "has never been true, in our experience.")

Science Fiction Considered as a Spectrum of Semi-Precious Stones.

Once upon a time there was a mine filled with many strange and beautiful gems. At first, only a few people knew about the mine, and knew how to find and excavate its jewels. Later, as the news spread, more and more miners came to the mine, and fewer and fewer jewels were discovered. Then, people with other talents started coming to the mine: skilled artisans, who picked up discarded jewels, cut them, polished them, placed them in elaborate new settings, and made them look much more beautiful than they had before.

Full Spectrum 4, edited by Lou Aronica, Amy Stout, and Betsy Mitchell, is an anthology of beautiful stories. Almost all of them offer impeccably crafted prose, evocative descriptions, well-developed characters, carefully embedded structures of deeper meanings, and powerful appeals to the emotions. Stories in this anthology will be nominated for major awards and may deservedly win them. I could say that this anthology represents the future of science fiction, and that would be taken as a compliment.

And yet—few if any of these stories offers the science fiction reader anything that is genuinely new. Ray Aldridge's "The Beauty Addict," about a strange living lake that generates incredibly beautiful creatures called sylphs that delight—and eventually destroy—the humans who seek them? A take on Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. L. Timmel Duchamp's "Motherhood, Etc.," describing an idyllic race of alien hermaphrodites? See Theodore Sturgeon's Venus plus X and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Kevin J. Anderson's "Human, Martian—One, Two, Three," about people cruelly transformed to survive in the harsh environment of Mars? Previously discussed in Frederik Pohl's Man-Plus. A story about aliens disguised as humans living on Earth (Mark Rich's "Foreigners"), about a rock star who sells his soul to the Devil (Elizabeth Hand's "The Erl-King"), about a computer jockey who confronts the vast secret conspiracies of governments and multinational corporations (Howard V. Hendrix's "Ah! Bright Wings")? Antecedents too numerous to name. For anyone familiar with the history of science fiction, almost all of these stories inexorably suggest a list of Works Cited. In short, they have never looked prettier, but we have all seen these jewels before.

The End of the Rainbow.

When authors are imaginative in developing ideas, but not in generating ideas, there may be a deeper problem, once discussed by David Brin in "Running Out of Speculative Niches? A Crisis for Hard Science Fiction" (published in George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin's anthology Hard Science Fiction). There is no reason to believe that the number of exciting new ideas is unlimited; perhaps, Brin suggests, science fiction has almost exhausted the supply. Just as advancing scientific research has filled in most of the gaps in our knowledge of the past and present, it may be that advancing scientific speculation has more or less mapped all of our possible futures, so writers now have nothing to do but re-visit and improve upon the works of their predecessors, and readers can expect the jolt of true novelty only occasionally, in concepts like black holes or cyberspace.

Or perhaps the new ideas now generated by science, involving the inconceivable vastness of the cosmos or the inconceivable smallness of subatomic particles, are no longer useful for writers. Consider Brin's own contribution to this volume, "What Continues, What Fails," which posits that all black holes represent the births of new universes, and that like biological evolution, cosmic evolution is a learning process, as new universes incorporate and replicate the best features of their predecessors. It is a fascinating concept, cleverly juxtaposed with the story of a pregnant woman, about to give birth to her own clone, who is observing one new universe within a black hole. But how many other stories can grow out of that idea? As science increasingly moves beyond the human perspective, and as literature understandably clings to the human perspective, the interface between new science and new literature may inexorably shrink, driving new science fiction writers back into old futures.

If this is the fate of science fiction, then the genre will be better served by the writers in this volume than by their less scrupulous colleagues who churn out derivative and repetitive novels that improve very little on the original models. Norman Spinrad tells an interesting anecdote about the Full Spectrum volumes: he once wrote an extensive story outline for a hard-hitting, explicit novel about AIDS in the near future; his agent told him that no publisher would buy it, and his agent was right; but Lou Aronica agreed to publish the outline as a novella in one Full Spectrum anthology. These anthologies, then, are where Lou Aronica publishes stories that he feels would not be commercially viable as separate books in today's market. To put it another way, they represent Aronica's investment in the long-term future of science fiction, a way to nurture and support writers who can appeal to college professors and reviewers for The New Yorker, writers who may be necessary for the survival of the genre in a coming era when Star Trek novels and fantasy trilogies go the way of Forever Amber and Fu Manchu adventures.

Writers of the Future.

The skills of these new authors will necessarily differ from those of their predecessors. Of the writers represented in Full Spectrum 4, only David Brin and Howard V. Hendrix report or display any scientific background, and others manifest conspicuous scientific ignorance. Duchamp's "Motherhood, Etc." features a woman infected by her alien boyfriend who develops not two X chromosomes but two pairs of XY chromosomes, thus making her a hermaphrodite. But my friend the biology professor tells me that people with two pairs of XY chromosomes would actually exhibit Kleinfelter's Syndrome—and be sterile males. Another story, Del Stone Jr.'s "The Googleplex Comes and Goes," depicts a strange alien artifact called the "Googleplex" which mysteriously appears in a Wisconsin town. But that name makes no sense: the author does not know either the correct spelling or correct meaning of the word (a "googol" is a 1 followed by 100 zeroes; a "googolplex" is a 1 followed by a googol of zeroes). But such complaints would be the irrelevant carping of an antiquated purist; these writers are cutting and polishing science fiction, not creating it, and hence do not require any scientific knowledge.

Still, having a background in Creative Writing instead of Chemistry may be influencing these writers in certain troublesome ways. Anderson's story virtually stands alone as a straightforward saga of active heroism, a woman's successful struggle to save the life of the first baby born on Mars from the attacks of a demented fanatic. Other stories feature prisoners, victims, a simple-minded woman manipulated by a evil sorcerer, men enthralled by beautiful but deadly parasites—passive, helpless people controlled by others. The writers in Full Spectrum 4 may be responding to the influence of contemporary aesthetic opinion which holds, in defiance of millennia of literary history, than only tragic stories of doomed victims constitute True Literature; but their stories may also reflect the sense that they are trafficking in concepts and tropes that they really do not understand. Jewelers who cannot find their own gems, who must depend on the gems discovered by others, might feel a bit helpless, and might be inclined to tell stories about helpless people.

What Continues, What Fails.

Forms of literature appear, flourish, decline, and finally vanish, and there is no reason to believe that science fiction will be immune to the process. Aldridge's "The Beauty Addict"—which may be the most beautiful story in this collection of beautiful stories—also serves as eloquent commentary on the impulses that drive this volume. People who are concerned only with observing beauty, creating beauty, or possessing beauty are destined to wither away and die like the victims of the sylphs; the same is true of literary genres. Once upon a time, science fiction had other concerns.

Original publication in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, No. 60 (Spring 1994), 118–121.

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