Ann and I are now in the process of reading for The Big Book of Science Fiction for Vintage, which will appear in 2016. This huge anthology of well over 500,000 words will collect the best and most unusual SF stories from approximately 1900 to 2000. This requires a lot of reading and research. Every so often I will report back about current reading, although not in any systematic way. In fact, almost deliberately not in a systematic way.
When you read for a big anthology, you become a little obsessed with being complete in tracking down “the good stuff.” The definition of “the good stuff” varies for every editor, but for us it tends to be international fiction, fiction that falls between the cracks of “mainstream” and “genre,” and choices that don’t come from the expected sources. That search is, of course, in the context of re-evaluating the classics in a category, in this case science fiction, and anchoring the anthology with the Usual Suspects who are indeed the Usual Suspects because their fiction is excellent.
The search for the good stuff doesn’t always lead to what you’re looking for, even if it often leads you to something great. Take these three anthologies: The Big Aiiieeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States, and Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction From Japan, 1913-1938. I spent a fair amount of my time last week reading just about every bit of fiction and nonfiction in these books, all the while thinking to myself “Please for the love of God, let there be a fucking spaceship in one of these stories.” Just a little spaceship, nothing spectacular. Just a hint of something extraterrestrial going on, maybe. Anything that will give me an excuse to bring it to Ann for further investigation.
But as far as I can tell, there are no spaceships and no aliens in any of these anthologies—although Modanizumu does contain “The Town of Cats” by Hagiwara Sakutaro, which we used for our The Weird compendium. (In the same anthology, there is a store that sells stars in Inagaki Taruho’s “A Shop that Sells Stars,” but alas the star-selling is relegated to a paragraph near the very end and seems almost incidental to the story in general.)
As anthologists, Ann and I want to create an experience that is focused while being broad and deep. We don’t want to do that by extending the boundaries of a category so far that the category becomes meaningless. At the same time, we don’t want to adhere to former borders where they seem narrow, unnecessarily constraining, or based on incomplete maps.
In reading these three anthologies, different feelings warred within me. First, there was the frustration at not finding the aforementioned SF element, which is entirely due to inhabiting the role and function of “anthologist.” When on the hunt, you become excitable and jubilant when quarry is near. But second came the burgeoning satisfaction from reading three wonderful anthologies and allied with that was the all-encompassing contentment from learning something new—much of which is useful to me as a writer, too.
Often, then, the discontent at not being able to advance your primary goal is erased, sometimes obliterated, by the fact that you’ve gained something else entirely. As an anthologist, it’s extremely valuable to gain additional context and layering about the world of fiction. For example, the ways in which Modanizumu touches on the edge of speculative fiction from time to time means that when the editors give readers an education on the origins of modernist fiction in Japan, and its development, that gives me a greater arsenal of ways to read fiction, or, to put it another way, let texts better teach me how to read them. It may even be of use in contextualizing the Japanese science fiction stories that we’re in the process of reading from other sources. And the anthology definitely contains a lot of dark fiction, which may be of use for future anthologies.
The Big Aiiieeeee!’s commitment to extensive nonfiction in addition to its fiction, meanwhile, gave me a much clearer idea of certain aspects of the Chinese-American and Japanese-American experience, while also creating a kind of conversation with a prior great read, the novel I Hotel by Karen Yamashita. (I Hotel doesn’t really have a lick of spec fic in it either, although it boldly experiments with form and voice.) It also just has some really great stories. In some ways, it was almost a relief to read a lot of mainstream realism after having glutted myself on so much science fiction just prior to picking up these books—and to experience a different kind of organization to an anthology, a structure that was itself informative.
Surrealist Subversions, which I had read some of before, crystalized the idea of how important it is to have an awareness of context and layering outside of the parameters of whatever project you’re working on. It’s this anthology, with its feminist and sometimes intersectional underpinnings, that made it so clear that at some point down the road someone needs to do a comprehensive feminist anthology that partakes equally of fantastical/speculative stories and of the surreal and of mainstream realism. Such an anthology would include feminist pulp and hard SF for a fairly long historical period, perhaps 50 or 100 years. (Perhaps that anthology already exists, but I’m too busy reading these 500 anthos right here to find it in this moment.) In the meantime, Surrealist Subversions is a fascinating look at a non-realist fiction tradition and community that has only slightly brushed up against the science fiction and fantasy communities over the years since the 1960s.
There weren’t any damn spaceships in Surrealist Subversions, either, but I’d hardly say it was a waste of my time. In fact, you could say what presumption, in searching for spaceships or other such element. What presumption in having to adhere to these categories in the first place, to place such a value on one thing over another, when there are so many other ways in which fictions speak to each other.
Yet, alas and to its glory, editing an anthology is all about eventually presuming. So we will presume to continue our quixotic quest for fucking spaceships, looking far and wide, come spring and even come summer. Eventually, in June, a book will cohere, assemble, and become clear…but the Anthologies Without Spaceships will not be forgotten.