Fiction Reviews

The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Science Fiction

First published as The Science Fiction Century (1997), Tor (US) Books

(2003 UK edition) David G. Hartwell (ed), Robinson, 6.99, trd pbk, 586 pp, ISBN 1-841-19513-8
(2004 UK edition) David G. Hartwell (ed), Robinson, 7.99, trd pbk, 617 pp, ISBN 1-841-19514-6


David G. Hartwell has compiled in two volumes a fine transect of largely US SF of the twentieth century. Importantly the work includes a few stories that are often considered an author's flag ship short or have subsequently flowered into novels: Kress' Beggars in Spain being one such. Regular Anglophone genre readers will recognise many of the writers represented: Blish, Farmer, Ellison etc. Yet more recent genre travellers have the delight of discovering the likes of: William Tenn, James Tiptree jr., van Vogt and John Wyndham. Meanwhile there are two or three contributions from those perhaps more often associated with so-called 'mainstream' writing especially: Rudyard Kipling and Jack London. However for me the positive delight comes with the inclusion of non-Anglophone SF from: Lino Aldani (Italy); Dino Buzzati (Italy) - a charming hard SF, pity about the relativity; Wolfgang Jeschke (Germany), a nineteenth(!) century story from J. H. Rosny Aine (Belgium), and Alexander Kuprin (Russia).

Therefore as such serious SF readers will welcome these volumes on their bookshelves.

Broad review over - which is all you really need to judge to see if it is seeking out this compilation - on with a more in depth critique.

First up, the cover with two Joe Roberts paintings for the price of... well ... two volumes. Joe seems to be continuing Chris Foss territory. Solid stuff.

Second, Hartwell's methodology of compilation. There are two introductions (one for each volume) and an acknowledgement (reprinted in each). Importantly the acknowledgement makes it clear that Hartwell has omitted authors who appeared in his other collections The World Treasury of Science Fiction and The Ascent of Wonder, which is a bit of a bummer for a book entitled The Mammoth Book of 20th Century SF as this suggests a comprehensive sampling of the greatest, and that some of these have already been taken for use elsewhere by these other compilations produced by other publishing houses means that Robinson's Mammoth series has arguably lost out. What is particularly strange is that Hartwell, in a number of his short introductions to the stories, refers to H. G. Wells and this highlights that author's absence. Don't get me wrong. The collection as an historic sampling of SF is great but the title is a little, well, hype. But perhaps, given the literally gargantuan size of the task, this is inevitable?

Third, while I am immensely thankful that Hartwell has included non-Anglophone SF, his introduction strangely includes the statement that: "After the Second World War... American SF became the primary model for the genre outside of its own national boundaries." Really! Really? Well I would gently suggest that there are a number of factors that indicate that this may not be quite true. First, the of the size of Anglophone SF market on aggregate is larger outside the US than within. If my memory serves (so allow a generous margin of error) in terms of the number of books sold the British Isles (UK, Ireland and the semi-autonomous islands to use the correct term) represents a quarter two a third of the US market. The Canadian market purely on a pro rata per capita basis is broadly a tenth of the US', and on a similar basis Australasia a twentieth to a fifteenth. Already without breaking a sweat we have a non-US Anglophone market size of around 40-45% that of the US and we have not even begun to include the other British Commonwealth Anglophone potential. Second there is the size of the non-Anglophone SF market. Well you have to touch it to believe it. However Concatenation's news page being posted along with this review hints at this, with the sad news of Russian writer Andrei Belyanin's son, that the sales of some of Belyanin's individual fantasy novels alone run into millions of copies and the Russian SF market is broadly as big. A lot of people read non-Anglophone genre. Finally, a comparison of the proportion of people in the World that speak English is a minority (a smidgen over 6% implying that 94% do not) which in turn suggests that the non-Anglophone market is much, much bigger. Indeed even as an historically dominant language since the middle of the last century only around 9% of the planet spoke English. Further, in the near future the proportion of the World speaking Spanish will over take us (Science, 2004, vol 303, pp 1329-1331). Now while any one of the afore may be discounted, taken together I find it more than a little difficult to accept David Hartwell's assertion of US SF being the primary model for the rest of the World without some sort of validation: a bald statement simply does not cut it. (Don't worry David, the standard of your introduction is easily on a par with that of many (ahem) SF academics; just that generally SF academia - as welcome as it may be - has a hell of a long way to go before its debate becomes robust.)

I was also struck by Hartwell's statement that: "The SF megatext is an allegory of faith in science," and which, "confirms faith in science and reason." Now actually I go along with this (hardly surprising since this is the Science Fact & Fiction Concatenation) but it does depend how you define SF. I note that the volumes also have two introductory quotes of which the one from Brian Aldiss comments of SF that, "most frequently, the scientific dressing clothes fantasy." Personally I feel that this sits uneasily with Hartwell's other statement though I do understand, and even appreciate, what is being meant. The reason of my discomfort being that SF that really is 'fantasy that uses scientific dressing' really cannot be SF but something else: it really is 'fantasy' or because of the scientific dressing 'science fantasy'. Fantasy is not SF. Maybe this line of reasoning is too pure, hence unacceptable to many, especially those who like both allied genres. Or maybe I'm just narrow minded, but please note that I am not de-valuing fantasy, just distinguishing it from SF. People can like both but in my book the two are not largely synonymous. Hartwell's introduction with regards to science, and Aldiss' quote of fantasy in science, suggests to me that Hartwell is trying to have his cake and eat it. Were his collection entitled '20th Century Speculative Fiction' or some such, then I would feel happier with the analytical comments made. Nonetheless the book would still need to have many more volumes or else stick to short, short stories.

So where does that leave us with regards 20th Century SF? Well as previously alluded, it is as good a collection as good collections go: and this really is a good collection. (You had my endorsement at this review's beginning.) But I would not really go along with the publisher's cover claim of it being the 'best science fiction anthology ever published'. Come on, do they really need to insult our intelligence, or mar Joe Roberts' art with such simplistic hype to sell copies? (Sigh, I guess you do as the publishers are professional money makers and so have an idea as to how the market works.)

Having criticised aspects of this compilation it is only courteous of me to finish up by saying what I would have done if I were a commissioning editor (of SF that is, as I was for the best part of a decade a commissioner of science fact), and I wanted to represent Earth's 20th century SF. I would... i) Compile shorts and include only one novelette if I really had to and no novellas as I'd want to make space for a greater diversity of styles, ideas and representation for my allocated page count. (Yes, this is more work for the compiler but nobody said that life was fair.) ii) I would try to get a better balance through the century. Yes, the market was smaller at the century's start but to counter that proportionally to the market at the time, more of quality has been lost (gone out of print) from back then than recently. Hartwell has over a quarter of his compilation from the last fifth of the century, and over four-fifths of the stories from its last half of the century; though I do accept that there may be difficulty in getting earlier material (but nobody said that life was...). Finally, iii) I would put more effort into getting the best from across the globe. A tall order? Well, maybe (but nobody said that life was..). Impossible? No. Could I compile it? No. Who might compile it? Brian Aldiss along with Sam Lundwell. Well, a guy can dream can't he?

Though not perfect, this is a great a collection as such collections go. And while the editor could arguably have done better, few could do as good as this. It is a volume that SF aficionados will welcome.

Jonathan Cowie

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