My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What does it mean to write science fiction? On some level, it means writing stories that get published in magazines featuring artistically-depicted spaceships and robots on their covers. It’s creating content involving science or at least scientific ideas playing out in new and interesting directions. It remains relevant because of the ways science continues to inform who we are, what we’re doing, and where we’re going.
Who’s writing important science fiction today? Things get a bit fuzzier here, because though there are certainly people (a lot of people) doing wonderful, interesting things inside the genre universe, sometimes it seems very few of them bleed out into more mainstream or “literary” waters—by which I mean publishing works in broader magazines or winning literary prizes not named after celestial objects or science fiction editors.
It’s a bit easier to see things going the other direction: important literary or mainstream authors venturing into genre territory. That’s what makes a collection like Jacob Weisman’s Invaders possible. If you think you know science fiction, or you want to get to know science fiction, or you want a new, sophisticated take on some of the angles you’ve poured over in the pulps, here’s an anthology to note.
Invaders encompasses twenty-two short stories, only a few of which are by established genre writers or originally appeared in genre magazines but all of which explore familiar aspects of science fiction in original ways. The tropes are all here—mad scientists, alien encounters, post-apocalyptic wastelands, sex-bots—borrowed from the pages of the pulps and filtered through the imaginations of some of the top mainstream writers working today. (I started to make a list of all the different awards listed in these author bios—because a guy likes to dream, you know?—and had reached forty before the list was complete.)
These stories are better than good. They’re sharp, subtle, and unfailingly well-crafted. Sure, some lack the excitement and straightforward pizzaz you might expect from magazines in which the editors are tasked primarily to entertain. Yet even these, such as J. Robert Lennon’s “Portal,” Max Apple’s “The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky,” and Kelly Luce’s “Amorometer” are still lovely and mysterious. There are think pieces in here as well, like Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness” or Steven Millhauser’s “A Precursor of the Cinema”. There are also two stories that take what may be the most tired science fiction trope of all, the alien encounter, and make it something new without actually doing anything different but by writing with a style that makes them positively luminous. I’m thinking, of course, of “Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss and “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” by Robert Olen Butler.
This stuff is science fiction as literature. These are stories written by artists who have abducted the genre for their own designs. They’re haunting, pristine, and sometimes devastating.
And then there are the pieces that are a whole lot better than good. Even if every other story in this collection had been a dud (and none of them are), four stories in here would still make Invaders completely worth the read. I’m thinking here specifically of Julia Elliott’s “LIMBs,” which tells a smart and heart-breaking story of geriatrics and technological advance, as well as love and aging; Deji Bryce Olukotun’s “We Are the Olfanauts,” a piece about personal sacrifice and the cost of success in a bizarre but strangely believable interpretation of the internet; and “Monstro” by Junot Diaz, which is somehow Akira meets Attack on Titan set in the Caribbean and told with a linguistic flare I could never hope to emulate or capture.
Finally, there is George Saunder’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” which wherever it was published (it was the New Yorker), genre or not, embodies what makes both great science fiction and great storytelling. It’s clean, simple, and as brutally efficient as a razor. I think, from now on, my writing prayer might simply be, “God, help me write a story as good as this one.” “Spiderhead” is the story of an idea just over tomorrow’s horizon taken to its unexpected and yet in retrospect unavoidable conclusion in language spare and merciless with characters simple and agonizingly real.
If you like science fiction that makes you think, and if you like stories told by writers who are masters of their craft, who use language as both a tool and a palette, this is the anthology you’ve been looking for.
If you’re already familiar with great science fiction authors who fit this description but are looking to expand your horizons further, you’re also looking for this book.
Now, my question: would it be possible to do this trick backward? That is, could you create an anthology of “genre” authors, writers who primarily work in science fiction and are not well known beyond it, that contains works of theirs falling outside the traditional boundaries of science fiction? Invaders is an anthology of literary authors writing science fiction; could we have a similar anthology of science fiction authors writing literature? (I think we could, and I can name a few writers who would almost certainly be in it, but I’ll save that for another post.)