Building a Reference Library: Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts edited by Heather Masri

The guiding principal behind Heather Masri’s Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts (Compact Edition) is to offer not only a collection of significant short fiction—a sort of retrospective of the genre—but to simultaneously gather critical materials that are relevant to those stories. Each thematic section of the book, like “Alien Encounters” or “Artificial Life,” collects essays and material from theory and scholarship alongside the fiction itself to give a better idea of the surrounding cultural contexts.

It’s worth noting that this book is—as it says in the title—a compact edition of an already-extant collection (also called Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts) edited by Masri that was published in 2008. The primary difference between the two is that this edition has cut some 400 pages and dropped its price to $45; so, the majority of the table of contents is the same otherwise, but this one is more economical—which could be handy for both classroom and personal use.

It’s difficult, in some senses, to review a textbook like this: after all, the stories are inevitably going to be relevant and interesting. So, I suspect the best approach is to compare it to other large retrospective collections that are often used in the classroom, such as The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010, edited by Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham, and Carol McGuirk) or The Norton Book of Science Fiction (1997, edited by Brian Atterbury and Ursula K. Le Guin).

In comparison, it certainly does stack up. The primary difference is that Masri’s book is organized in thematic chunks, while both the Wesleyan and Norton collections run chronologically through their stories. (The Wesleyan, though, does offer groupings by theme at the end for the curious reader or the teacher trying to organize units.) This is an interesting initial approach that I think might make the material a bit more accessible to the casual reader: there’s something a little intimidating about plowing through eighty-plus years of short fiction in order, whereas reading manageable chunks along a guiding theme (like aliens!) is more welcoming. There’s also an alternate-grouping list in the front material that offers themes like “gender,” “race,” and “class,” so that gives yet another potential lens for reading.

As for the particulars: I find the use of critical articles to be an interesting tactic—one that appeals to me, as a giant nerd who likes theoretical reading, and one that also creates a sort of odd and useful echo between the stories and the other material. Because the articles are primarily dealing with theoretical topics, there’s a sort of recursion at play: often critical recognition of social trends lags significantly behind the actual thing itself. And fiction doesn’t lag quite the same way, but it’s also commenting on contemporary issues…

So, in some sense, the fiction is commenting on the same topics the articles are—a useful connection between them, one that helps the reader see how the social world is reflected in both art and theory. As Masri says in her introduction, this can serve as a starting point for research or just as a contextualizing background. Of course, the articles don’t actually offer as much of a context for the fiction as part of a genre, but Masri also does something similar to the Wesleyan book: in addition to the critical articles, she introduces and gives background on each story, forming more of a solid grounding in studying science fiction as an art form. Mostly, I think that the addition of the critical material gives the book a slightly different approach to teaching science fiction than the other collections offer, one that places the stories on equal footing with the academic prose on the same topics. I like that as a thing, really.

For the personal reader, as opposed to the classroom reader, my thoughts are pretty similar: it’s a solid group of stories put together in an interesting way, alongside some pretty neat essays, like Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto.” If you’re just looking to build a reference library, I might suggest shelling out for the 2008 edition—it’s bigger and contains more “old” stories—but if you’re wanting to introduce a new casual reader, this book would definitely work. Masri’s introductory materials are also fairly straightforward; her explanation of what the book means when it says “science fiction” will be familiar to most folks who’ve debated the genre before, and will serve as a perfectly clear introduction to someone who’s curious. The short history she offers is also clear and concise.

Plus, as I said before, the organization of the book makes it easier to read in digestible chunks, so it’s a pretty good opening foray into the genre in that sense too. There’s no lack of background or context, here—Masri is successful in her venture to make things easy to approach and understand. It’s also got names new and old in each section, from Ted Chiang back to Frederick Brown, and it features a decent amount of women writers as well, including some with whom I was actually unfamiliar like Sonya Dorman.

On that note, there are also translations and international stories—something that’s mostly lacking from the other two collections of note. So, that’s a bonus for Masri’s editorial project: it’s a bit more wide-ranging and diverse in some ways. I liked the stories she chose to include, and thought that the vision they offered of the genre was unique and a bit less one-note than some other efforts at teachable collections. There are also, of course, all the old favorites: there’s Russ and Tiptree Jr. and Ellison, Bradbury and Asimov and Dick, et cetera. It’s both a good collection and a fresh collection, balancing the old classics against newer names and critical theory to give a solid sense of the work the genre can do.

Ultimately, the thing I like about Masri’s collection is that it points to the significance of sf as an art and project that’s in dialogue with the times, with issues and concepts integral to the surrounding culture. And that’s neat. So, if you’re looking for a hefty collection of stories and essays that will keep you busy for some while—or for a book to teach out of—I would recommend this one. And the lower price tag makes it a bit more feasible than the bigger edition.

The Compact Edition of Science Fiction Stories and Contexts is available now from Bedford St. Martin’s

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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