The Science Fiction Century edited by David G Hartwell (Robinson, £14.99, 1005 pages, paperback. Published 29 January 1998.)
Bookshop shelves groan under the weight of 'theme' and 'definitive' anthologies of science fiction, so it would be easy to dismiss this latest heavyweight contender as yet another early candidate for the remainder bin, particularly in terms of its catch-all title. But given the pedigree of its editor (an award winner at Tor Books and renowned anthologist) and the sheer scale and value of forty-five stories and authors spread over 1005 pages, it deserves a closer inspection. Hartwell has produced a work which literally spans a hundred years in which, as he points out in his introduction, "Science fiction is the characteristic literary genre of the century."
The expected stories are here - Harlan Ellison's '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said The Ticktockman', Gibson's 'Johnny Mnemonic', Sterling's 'Swarm', but there are some unusual inclusions and omissions, and it is in each of these characteristics that this book stands head and shoulders over the short shelf-life, thrown-together reprint anthologies that clog the shops...
There is, for example, nothing by Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke, but Hartwell is savvy enough to realise that such glaring omissions cannot go undefended (like compiling a history of rock and roll without Elvis and Beatles tracks) and pays tribute to the influence of the Big Three in a short note, even though he chooses not to include any of their work. Instead, there are a number of works by authors whose predominance in other genres generally precludes them from appearances in sf anthologies, including EM Forster ('The Machine Stops'), CS Lewis (an absolute gem called 'Ministering Angels') and Rudyard Kipling ('As Easy as ABC').
Forty-five stories and an editor with an unusually attuned eye is bound to produce an interesting book, yet you have to wonder at Hartwell's motives for including certain stories (James Tiptree Jnr's 'Beam Us Home', for one). It is not a book with which to introduce someone to science fiction - the sheer weight of ideas would be overwhelming, I feel - nor is it a book to read from cover to cover in a short space of time (as I had to for this review!). It is a book to keep on the shelf and to sample at leisure, picking out well-known authors and sampling ones that possibly you have never read before. Recommended.
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© Noel K Hannan 28 March 1998