Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Norton Book of Science Fiction": Review

Having taught at a technical college from this assigned anthology a course in SF, I found a wide range of reactions. When I used it in the late '90s and early '00s, my students--all majoring in non-liberal arts--did not note as much its inclusion of "soft" SF aimed, as co-editor Ursula LeGuin champions in her spirited, quirky introduction, to challenge the canon of "hard" SF with its spacecraft, battles, gadgets, and stoic or sexist men. I was able to balance its editorial tilt with another collection featuring older stories, and an international array of tales. This time, I had no option but to use this text; a decade later, I noticed a far more polarized reaction to its intentions.

Six-sevenths of my class were male, and a couple of my female students told me that it was suited for those who didn't like, or didn't think they'd like, science fiction. One liked it more for precisely that reason, and others may have too. But many students vociferously reacted to the thick book's relative dearth of machines, concepts, and inventions. Too much fiction, not enough science?

The strongest of the dozen stories I used seemed those able to enchant or challenge expectations. Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds" worked well for a class filled with those who knew inner-city Los Angeles well. John Kessel's "Invaders" perplexed with three storylines, but those with Latin American roots welcomed its reversal of New World conquest. Bruce Sterling's "We See Things Differently" for a story from 1989 anticipates post-9/11 attitudes and a sort of Tea Party-meets-Occupy grassroots movement eerily well. These, full of conflict in a weakened America, met with most enthusiasm.

James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See," Margaret Atwood's "Homelanding," Joe Haldeman's "The Private War of Private Jacob," and Cordwainer Smith's "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" sparked imaginations. "Day Million" by Frederik Pohl's very much part of its 1966 air of condescending hipness, but it shows how a writer assumed from his audience what a writer later on would not. Greg Bear's "Schrodinger's Plague" caused many to give up as it was too clever; Michael Swanwick's "The Midwinter's Tale" showed mythic power, while Michael Blumlein's "The Brains of Rats" met with lots of dismissal for its disturbing gender excursions. Post-modernism does not appear to be a favorite among many students more linear-minded.

Other stories are far weaker, or sentimental, frankly. (While neither weak nor sentimental, I don't think Philip K. Dick is best represented by "Frozen Journey," as an aside.) Still, one advantage is that I can test selections in the classroom, and the 850 pages allow enough room for choice. Many stories do seem dated, 1960-1990, all American or Canadian, as the technological shifts towards dystopian apps and pocket or installed devices tracking our every move evident in post-millennial fiction as gathered in John Joseph Adams' great anthology "Brave New Worlds" (reviewed by me in Jan. 2011) seem more appropriate for younger students now then the coke-addled (more than one story!), landline and often pre-PC-toting folks of the pre-Net era found in these pages often, more holdovers from the Aquarian Age than Gen X's children! (8-7-12 to Amazon US)

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