The Big Book of Science Fiction is a massive tome with an intimidating heft. I dipped in here and there, trying to wrap my head around the evolution of the science fiction genre over time. Nostalgia guided me first, and I re-read stories from Asimov (“The Last Question”) and Bradbury (“September 2005: The Martian”) that I had last seen in childhood. The dated assumptions of male Anglo-hegemony on display in these stories stunned me, though I hadn’t noticed anything amiss when I first encountered them.
I was a pre-teen when I saw Asimov’s “The Last Question” (1956) presented as a piece of theater at Fiske planetarium in Boulder. Afterwards I binged on Asimov, reading everything I could get my hands on in the library and spending all my babysitting money on new magazines and books. Reading the story as an adult, I marvel that I had missed the blatant sexism when I was younger. The big questions were what caught me once upon a time, because I identified with the characters who asked them. Gender didn’t come into it until later in life, when I found myself cast by directors in roles that fit the stereotype of my ingenue body but felt completely alien to my experience as a person. Now viewed through a different lens of experience, the fussing deferential mother and tousled little girls of Asimov's story grate against my ear.
After Asimov and Bradbury, I paged through the collection at random, reading a paragraph here, a biography there, until the non-linearity of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (1998) caught me and held on. Stories do that when you meet them at just the right time.
It was serendipity: all summer I’ve been thinking about how culture shapes the transmission of knowledge and our perception of time. In Chiang’s story a linguist tries to learn the language of aliens recently arrived on Earth. The aliens are heptapods, seven limbed creatures with radial symmetry and no clear front or back. Their understanding of time is encoded in their writing. The heptapods communicate through a mirror and their perception of the world is a wonderland inversion of our own—one physics, two understandings. Sequential experience or simultaneous? If both are valid, what are the implications for free will? Louise, our protagonist, immerses herself so deeply into the alien logos that her perception of time shifts from sequential to simultaneous.
I found myself reading Chiang’s story in non-linear fashion. I started with a bit in the middle where Louise nurses her infant daughter. That struck the first chord. Chiang’s description of an infant’s apparent experience of time, the now and now of a singular present, rang true against my own memories of nursing children.
I went back and read the beginning of the story, then a chunk further on. I noticed that the flow of time was odd. Passages about her daughter were written in second person using the future perfect tense. They wove in and out of the first person present narrative, sometimes meshing with it out of sequence, a dramatization of how Louise’s experience of time has been transformed. My own experience of the story was similarly unconventional. From there, I skipped ahead and read the ending (no spoilers).
Eventually I did read the whole story, and I appreciate more than ever how my experience of time shifts when I have read a story. Now Chiang’s story exists complete and simultaneous in my mind, reflecting the physical marks on a piece of paper I hold in my hand.
I experienced the entire collection in the same way that I read Chiang’s story: unconstrained by the order the stories appeared in the sequential past. The anthology is a gestalt of the conversation science fiction has had with itself over time. I am biased as I read; I see every part through the filter of my own experience of past and present. I feel a little bit lost, like Dr. Louise Banks, trying to grasp the whole of a new language.
In 1970, Joanna Russ took science fiction to task for “accepting societal prejudices and stereotypes without thought or analysis” in its depiction of women, as the VanderMeers write in their introduction to the collection.
The evolution of female representation and women’s voices in science fiction is not a linear thing. In the sequence of time, the trajectory of female characters seems to be from foils and tropes to full fledged human beings. Yet, the idea of a female utopia appears in Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” as early as 1905 (see Ted above). It is repeated with variations on the theme in 1972 with Russ’s “When It Changed,” and inverted in Lisa Tuttle’s “Wives” in 1976. Now it’s 2016 and Tuttle’s story seems sadly prescient in the U.S. presidential election cycle, as Tuttle herself has commented:
Time and space blur in “Schwarzschild Radius” (1987) by Connie Willis. Schwarzschild, the mathematician who predicted black holes, was living in the nightmare of a WWI trench when he made the calculations. In the story, a time traveling Cambridge historian tries to interview an aged wireless operator about the relationship between Einstein and Schwarzschild. But the old man’s memories of Schwarzschild and the discovery of the event horizon manifest into the all consuming darkness of war. The wireless operator cannot send any information out. Bombs explode. The tunnels and trenches collapse. Though the historian interviews the wireless operator about a war long past, the old soldier remains trapped within its horror.
Leena Krohn, a Finnish author, explores questions of free will and fate in her 1993 novel, Mathematical Creatures or Shared Dreams. In the excerpt entitled “Gorgonoids,” she muses about the apparent life of a gorgonoid, which is the visualization of a mathematical model running on a computer. We can see it, but it is not alive. It appears to make choices, but we know what choices it will make. Yet things we cannot see, like dark matter, exist in a state of perfect freedom. Would one say, then, that dark matter is living?
In the excerpt of the 1990 novel Red Spider White Web, by Nogah, the cyberpunk artist Kumo creates virtual worlds of body horror to take revenge on slumming skinheads. The skinheads are real, her vengeance an illusion that is ultimately unsatisfying.
With the exception of Willis, these are voices I had never heard before. The works of Nogah and Krohn have now become an obsession. Their books are not easy to find. Their voices make me hopeful.
Reading the VanderMeers’ anthology sent me back in time to when I was twelve years old: now, as then, I’ve been staying up past my bedtime, caught by stories I can’t put down. My long-suffering spouse snores away next to me in our grown-up present. I try not to disturb him. Last night I found myself reading Ray Bradbury with a flashlight under the covers when I should’ve been asleep.
Excerpted from Fables of Reason, Time and its Discontents, and a Nonlinear Journey: More From "The Big Book of Science Fiction" w/ co-contributors Theodore McCombs, and Mark Springer. To read more please visit FictionUnbound.com