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The Norton Book of Science Fiction

Ursula Le Guin and Brian Attebery (eds)

"Why is the fiction of the impossible the primary form? Perhaps because human thinking is predicated on our capacity (related to our capacity for language?) to conceive of what is not true--and because this faculty (for lying, for imagining) gives us, like all our faculties well used, intense delight and the knowledge of power. Or perhaps because the imagination, by short-circuiting a laborious imitation of the actual, gives us direct access to truths that everyday actuality only masks from us."

Reviewed by David Woodruff

Spanning some eight-hundred and fifty pages, these stories contain enough material to satisfy both the hard-core science fiction buff and the occasional sci-fi reader with an avid taste for well-written literature. And although the subtext here may be science, much attention is paid to its effects on character development and the narrative. One will find here science fiction stalwarts such as Margaret Atwood, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick as well as the lesser known voices of Diane Glancy, John Kessel, and Lisa Goldstein. The Document, for example, a tale told in 200 words but rich in history and incident, or Street Value by Frank Tallis, a robustly entertaining story set in a futuristic London full of glitter and grime. 

Among my favorites was Harlan Ellison’s Strange Wine. In this story of alternate worlds with a moral, (and a take-off on Kafka’s The Trial, where the accused doesn’t know what crime he committed) an alien named Willis Kaw finds himself imprisoned in a human body and cursed with an earthling’s familiar tragedies. His daughter has been killed and his son is now crippled from an accident. He and his wife do not love each other. When Willis sees a psychiatrist, he tells him that he is imprisoned in his body because of a crime he had committed on his mother planet. After the psychiatrist advises him to become institutionalized until his delusions are cured, Willis commits suicide, and is transferred back to his original world.There, he asks a many-legged Consul why was he punished by being sent to a horrible place such as earth where there is only pain. The Consul tells him that on the contrary, he should have felt honored to be sent to earth where life is sweet compared to the sufferings of everywhere else in the universe. Kaw now remembers earth as sweet bliss compared to life on his planet: “He remembered the rain, and the sleep, and the feel of beach sand…Of life as Wilis Kaw, life on the pleasure planet.”

Suffering in the universe may be something quite relative.

Another favorite was Philip K. Dick’s Frozen Journey. In this story, a man lies in cryonic state of sleep aboard an interstellar ship traveling to another planet. The irony here is that the ship possess some computerized form of consciousness while trying to put its human subject, Victor Kemmings, into a suspended state of happy memories before landing. The problem is that Victor keeps contaminating his own memories, often waking up in a fit of agony and despair. In an effort to placate him, the ship arranges for him to meet his ex-wife, Martene. During the reunion, his memories are so jumbled from the botched cryonic sleep, that he can no longer recall anything with accuracy. It’s both a humorous and cautionary tale of the technological manipulation of human subjects and what might go awry.

But by far, my favorite here was Joanna Russ’s A Few Things I Know About Whileaway. Employing the techniques of montage, an interview with an alien subject, and the creation of another world, Russ seems to play with the idea that women need men. On Whileaway, there are no men, only women, and what’s more, they can bear children without impregnation by the opposite sex! With feminist undertones, Russ creates an eerie picture of a world populated by women, who are not only self-sufficient, having their own folklore and traditions, but also who are very solipsistic. But a Whileawayan may say the same about us.

One thing comes across clear while reading these stories: No matter how far we travel into outer space or how sophisticated our computers become, we will always deal with the question of identity--Who am I? What light will space travel or aliens throw on the mystery of my existence?

All in all, these stories represent the best in science fiction writing over the last thirty years of the twentieth century. They also represent not only some fine sci-fi writing, but also great literature no matter the genre.

David Woodruff has had stories and poems published in Verb Sap, Insolent Rudder, Night Train, Apple Valley Review, Armchair Aesthete, Rose and Thorn, and has work in the upcoming Mad Hatter's Review. He lives and works in New Jersey..

PublisherW. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Publication Date: 1993

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First anthology? No

Editors: Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery 

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