Anthologizing 100 Years of Science Fiction

How do you even start a project like The Big Book of Science Fiction? Where do you begin and how can you make sure you get it right?

After curating anthologies like The Weird and The Time Traveler’s Almanac, we realized that there is an awful lot of great fiction out there that no one has heard of—at least lately, that is. And, as always, some of the fiction lauded as the best from a certain time period may not hold up for modern readers.

Here are just a few of the ways we tackled this project…

Going back to our childhood favorites: We re-read our favorite authors and our favorite stories. These are the ones that we have such fond memories of—we all have stories that we remember in one way but maybe when you look at them again… not so much. Luckily some of those favorites stood up to the test of time and still take our breath away. But alas, some did not. The things we remembered about those stories that we thought were so wonderful turned out to be childish, too simplistic and in some cases downright embarrassing.

In the former category—the stories of Ray Bradbury. It was wonderful to note that for the most part, those stories held up. But that also meant it was all the more difficult to find just the right one. We decided on a story from the Martian Chronicles (“September 2005: The Martian”) because we felt it was still very powerful. Even after so many re-reads of this same story, what resonates for me is this sad sense of loss. Not just the loss for the main characters, but also for “the Martian” who is just trying to find a way to survive in his new environment. Somehow that also seemed relevant to our modern era.

Checking out award winners through the years: This was relatively easy to do, although there were a lot of stories to consider. We looked up all past Hugo and Nebula winners, and checked out other awards as well, both here and abroad. We took into account the other stories nominated and then compared the honored stories against the author’s other work. That last part is very important. Often we found that the nominated and winning stories may not have been the best, just the most popular at that time among certain elements of the SF subculture.

Among cases where the story held up—Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” which won both the Hugo and the Nebula award. And rightly so. This story is also one of the most anthologized stories in the English language.

Looking over prior well-regarded anthologies (and maybe even more obscure ones as well): You should see the number of books we have in our house! In addition we looked over all of the stories in various anthology series, such as Orbit, Universe, Spectrum, and various year’s best series. We didn’t just read over those stories, we also regarded very carefully each editor’s introduction as well as story notes, if any, about each writer.

“Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” is one of the many stories we came across while combing through older anthologies. This story, written by S.N. Dyer (pseudonym for Sharon Farber), imagines a future where people with terminal illnesses can live longer lives in an off-planet colony orbiting around Earth. Although the medical science in the story may not match up with today’s reality (the story was originally published in the 1970s) the ideas behind how we relate to sickness are universal and unchanging, and we decided it belonged in the anthology.

Reaching out to various friends we’ve made over the years all over the world to make suggestions and show us things we may have missed: In addition to taking recommendations via email, we listened to the recommendations of the contacts we’ve made creating other anthologies. No one, even experts, can’t know about everything about a particular subject or time period, so it is always very important to us to gather as much exterior intel as we can. Yes, that takes a lot of time, but hey! It’s worth it if you want to do this right (or at least as right as you can). The focus was on stories we may have missed as well as stories not originally in English.

We were introduced to the work of French-Canadian writer Élisabeth Vonarburg by a close friend and colleague and through that introduction we found many wonderful stories. For this project we selected “Readers of the Lost Art,” an experimental and unique story that illustrates the strange world of art and criticism.

Exploring international fiction: This was very important to us. In order to offer a complete view of science fiction over the 20th century we knew we needed to take a closer look at what has been published in other countries and other languages. This included receiving summaries of stories not in English and then contracting to have many of them translated for us. This is always a gamble, because you never know how a translation will work out. But we are very fortunate to have so many talented translators working with us. We know we could still do more in this area and we’re expanding our focus to areas of the world not spotlighted in this anthology for our next one.

One of the stories I am most happy about is by Silvina Ocampo—“The Waves.” She was part of a hugely influential Latin American fantastic literature movement along with Jorge Luis Borges and her husband, Adolpho Bioy Cesares. This story has never before been translated into English and our hope is that readers will seek out her other work, too.

So now you have some idea of our methodology for putting this book together. In addition to the research, we did have a goal of making sure all different kinds of science fiction were represented in the anthology, from the pulp era and Golden Age on through the New Wave, the initial influx of feminist SF, Cyberpunk, and beyond. We’ve also thought in terms of different modes, including humor, surrealism, experimentalism, horror, space opera, aliens and first contact, and environmental fiction.

If, in the end, you delight in revisiting old favorites but take equal delight in discovering an author or story you didn’t know about before, we’ve done our job. Enjoy!

Hugo Award winner Ann VanderMeer currently serves as an acquiring fiction editor for Tor.com and was previously the editor-in-chief of Weird Tales for five years. Together with Jeff VanderMeer she has co-edited such anthologies as The Weird, Sisters of the Revolution, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, Best American Fantasy, and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. The Big Book of Science Fiction is available now from Vintage Books.

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