“Don’t drop it on your foot,” says Ann Vandermeer cheerfully from the home she shares with husband Jeff Vandermeer in Florida. She’s not kidding. In front of me is a slab of science fiction, The Big Book of Science Fiction, a collection that covers the medium in breathtaking diversity—but at 1,200 pages, the anthology also weighs more than three pounds. It has taken years of their lives to edit and this week, it hits bookstore shelves.
It’s also the best word-for-word value in speculative fiction readers may ever find. Ranging from the earliest story in H.G. Wells’ “The Star” from 1897 and leading up to the turn of the century with leading contemporary writers like Karen Joy Fowler, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Connie Willis, the anthology is an incredible collection of both classic science fiction and overlooked gems.
“The process pretty much breaks down to going back to the classics but not being afraid to re-evaluate those classics in a modern context,” Jeff explains. “We went back to the iconic anthologies not only to see which stories were picked but what stories each author might have written that were not chosen. We were also looking at both the mainstream and genre sources. Often you find writers who are not considered to be science fiction writers but who wrote great science fiction stories.”
The anthology differs greatly from more traditional science fiction collections in the depth and breadth that Ann and Jeff have brought to the project, not only in terms of themes but also in the stories’ global origins.
“We are taking a look at science fiction as something that belongs to the entire world,” says Ann. “It’s not just central to the United States and the United Kingdom. We were taking a look at how everyone in the world plays with science fiction themes. This was important, because if you think about it, science fiction is simply fiction about the future and the what-ifs and the possibilities, good or bad. In addition to the classic stories and writers, we were also diving deeper to discover what their influences were. Sometimes a writer’s influences can be very surprising, so we wanted to cast as wide a net as we possibly could.”
The responsibility of editing and curating this type of anthology can also be challenging because it organically forces the editors to make some hard choices as to what science fiction “is.”
“I think that we wanted to define it broadly because in the past, there has been a tendency for gatekeepers to try to forego material by creating a more specific definition,” Jeff explains. “Really, we had our own criteria. First of all, broadly speaking, science fiction is fiction that takes place in the future, whether it’s 10 seconds in the future or 1,000 years. Within that context, though, there are certain types of stories that are definitely playing more with fantasy tropes than with science fiction tropes. That’s where we came to exclude writers like Jack Vance, who we love, and mediums like steampunk because they’re working more from a fantasy aesthetic. It’s just the fact of life that you have to apply some constraints or your book would be five million pages long. We’re also hopefully going to be doing a Big Book of Fantasy, so that’s where stories that are indistinguishable from fantasy or magic will land.”
One useful tactic was to attack science fiction by eras, rather than trying to shoehorn in individual writers. This allowed the Vandermeers to ensure that periods like the Golden Age, the pulp tradition, feminist sci-fi, and other eras are covered by the stories they selected.
“It depends on which era you’re examining,” says Jeff. “Early on, the optimistic science fiction just looks very naïve today because it’s also lacking in being up to date about technology. Conversely, most of the early stories were a little more cautionary. I also think it makes a difference that these stories were written toward the start of the industrial revolution, where there were a lot of real conversations going on about changes in technology and society. It’s definitely something we combated with humor. There is a strong tradition in science fiction of using humor, whether it’s for satire or simply for its own sake. It’s a tradition that goes way beyond The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In some ways, instead of thinking we had to balance more dystopian stories with stories about a more positive future, we just made sure we included a lot of great, funny stories.”
While the anthology clearly illustrates the arc of science fiction, it’s not a cutting-edge collection, as it stops with Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s novelette “Baby Doll,” from 2007.
“It was important for us to have enough distance because it’s very easy to look at stories that have been published in the last five or 10 years and think they’re the end-all and be-all,” Ann says. “I wanted us to have enough distance from the stories to be able to make the right decisions. I also wanted to read these stories and be able to consider them in the context of all the other stories we were looking at.”
The anthology really is extraordinary in the amount of international stories that have been included. The collection encompasses not only well-known international writers of science fiction but even stories that the editors had translated or even re-translated to give them contemporary context.
“Because we have done these large anthologies, we have great relationships with translators we trust,” Ann explains. “There were cases where the translations were 50 or 60 years old, so we thought they could be re-freshened with a new translation. The way I feel is that if someone picks up our book and they find the familiar stories they love but they also discover a story they had never been given the opportunity to experience, I feel like I’ve done my job.”
The Big Book of Science Fiction spans over 700,000 words and each story invites readers to relish, re-evaluate, and rediscover this fantastic medium.
“I think people are still interested in the future,” says Ann. “I think they’re always curious about it. Really good science fiction is commenting on the present at the same time it’s talking about tomorrow. I think that’s why it will always endure in one form or another. It’s the great question: ‘What if?’ ”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based near San Francisco, California.