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The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF cover

This book has already had its share of attention: the fact that a volume of 21 stories contains no work by women or by people of colour has caused a good deal of commentary. Ashley is, of course, an anthologist and scholar with a long track record in the field: he has over 100 books to his credit, and he's done some of the most important work in chronicling the history of the SF magazines. So the two questions that any reviewer has to ask are thrown into even sharper relief than usual. Does the book succeed on its own terms, those set out implicitly or explicitly by its author or editor? And what does the reviewer think of those goals?

Ashley's remit for the book, as outlined in a two-page introduction, goes like this. What first attracted him to SF was "the sense of wonder," "the moment when the story flicks a switch in your mind and opens new doors and perceptions, allowing you to appreciate things in a new and remarkable way." Moreover, "it's especially pertinent in demonstrating the potential of science and technology." However (his next regretful paragraph says), "As we all learned with the coming of the nuclear age, science could bring as much horror as it could wonder." Ashley's purpose in compiling the book was to show that "while the spark of wonder may have dimmed in certain regions of science fiction, it has not expired . . . And that's what I wanted to do in this anthology: to show that the spirit of wonder can still be discovered in the science fiction of recent years" (p. ix).

So there are really three propositions there: that the sense of wonder is at the root of Ashley's appreciation of SF; that it's often linked with positive portrayals of science and technology; and that greater pessimism about technology has diminished the amount of SF with this characteristic. Ashley is careful not to couch his argument in terms that would amount to denial of the downsides of technology; but there is at least some wishing for the optimism of earlier years. It's worth noting, too, that the earliest story here is from 1952, well after the start of the nuclear age. If there's a growing sense of pessimism since then about the benefits of technology, other causes—its costs for the environment, say—may need to be adduced.

The first story here is Arthur C. Clarke's "Out of the Sun" (1957), a brief vignette about an observation station on Mercury detecting a strange kind of life in the Sun. Its conclusion has the kind of perspectivising cadences that no one but Clarke can do so well: "We may be both the first and last of all men to see such a fall. Whatever they may be, in their unimaginable world within the sun, our paths and theirs may never cross again" (p. 8). The story doesn't quite have the long run-up it needs to justify that kind of epiphany, but it's perfectly good as a statement of intent for the book. It's followed by an original piece from the writer who, more than anyone else, can be seen as Clarke's successor. Stephen Baxter's "The Pevatron Rats" is one of the most impressive stories here. A schoolgirl on a trip to an scientific research establishment finds a pair of rats in a place it's impossible for them to have got, a sealed particle accelerator. Most of the story is devoted to working out how this can have happened, with rapid flips from particle physics to time paradoxes, a plague of rats, the end of all human life, and a final image that's not merely shocking but also surreal and funny: more like Glen Baxter than Stephen.

There are a number of similarly fine stories in the book, although many of them do not foreground their technological content. Ian Watson's "The Width of the World" (1983), for example, is dense, surreal, metaphysical: this author at his best. Michael Swanwick's "Mother Grasshopper" (1997), taking place on a planet-sized grasshopper, manages to find its way to a mythic conclusion without seeming forced. Terry Bisson's "The Hole in the Hole" (1994) is one of Bisson's finest impossible-conceits-as-tall-tales, this time with equations. Other stories, such as Geoffrey A. Landis's, do seem to better reflect Ashley's definition of sense of wonder. "Vacuum States" (1988) is a standard idea (an impossible Hobson's Choice presented to the narrator, with the last line leaving it up to the reader to decide), but executed economically and slickly. Adam Roberts's "Anhedonia" (2009), as so often with this author, is both a story and a meta-story—in this case, the latter is a sort of commentary on the idea of sense of wonder. On this occasion, thankfully, the author doesn't forget the first while doing the second. But perhaps only Gregory Benford's "A Dance to Strange Musics" (1998), an imaginative and surprising first contact story, is concerned with "demonstrating the potential of science and technology."

There are also a few stories falling into the category "interesting but flawed." Paul Di Filippo's "Waves and Smart Magma" (2009) takes place in a post-singularity (I think) future where the few creatures not "Upflowered" remain on Earth in radically reshaped forms. The story follows one of them, Storm, as he and a gang of comrades battle some sentient lava in Hawaii. It's colourfully and vividly done (given the comic-book mode of telling, and the characters' genetic alterations, I kept imagining an episode of Thundercats), but this reader did pause when encountering a character called Jizogirl. I caught no sign in the story that Di Filippo might register such a name as, uh, unfortunate (or that it's part of some elaborate exercise in irony, or a commentary on sexual subtext, or something). Jizogirl is attractive, omnicompetent, has almost no agency, and seemingly exists in the story so that Storm has someone to kiss in the last paragraph [1]. James Blish's "Bridge" (1952) is fine as it stands, but makes more sense in its eventual context as part of Blish's Cities in Flight series. (And the depiction of female characters—as on, e.g., pp. 341-4—would quite rightly be criticised were the story published today.) G. David Nordley's "Into the Miranda Rift" (1993) is a gripping and imaginative hard-SF adventure on one of the moons of Uranus, spoilt only by the voice of the narrator—who's supposed to be a poet, but sounds exactly like a hard SF writer doing a story for Analog. Peter Crowther's "Palindromic" (1997) sees a rather unusual bunch of aliens touch down in smalltown America. I wasn't sure about the depiction of the townspeople, which tended to matchstick-chewing stereotype, but maybe this is the sort of thing on which Crowther can be allowed the benefit of the doubt. What I was less inclined to forgive was the plausibility issue, that an entire alien language and culture could be decoded from scratch almost literally overnight (even by a "local genius" drinking lots of coffee). And Timothy Zahn's Hugo-winning "Cascade Point" (1983) is one of those stories that there's nothing wrong with except for all the things it doesn't do. The narrator is captain of an interstellar passenger ship which, when it makes the leap between stars, briefly allows its passengers to perceive themselves in alternate realities. Many-worlds stories, I increasingly feel, aren't part of science fiction because of the science, but simply because they make choice storyable: turn right or turn left, and get to see both outcomes. That's more or less what happens here: you don't stop reading, but apart from the SF concept you feel that this could have been set on a cruise-liner.

And, unavoidably, there are several stories here that are pretty weak. Robert Silverberg's "Our Lady of the Sauropods" (1980) is, unusually for this most professional of authors, executed with a sort of slapdash larkiness. From the first paragraph:

Ten minutes since the module meltdown. I can't see the wreckage from here, but I can smell it, bitter and sour against the moist tropical air . . . Sooner or later, I'm going to need food, and then what? I have no weapons. How long can one woman last, stranded and more or less helpless, aboard Dino Island, a habitat unit not quite fifteen hundred meters in diameter that she's sharing with a bunch of active hungry dinosaurs? (p. 422)

—which, for me at least, evoked an exchange of dialogue in the spoof World War II movie Top Secret (1984). Nick Rivers, the hero, says to his mysterious ladyfriend, "Listen to me, Hillary. I'm not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground"; she replies, "I know. It all sounds like some bad movie." (For the record, the bit that tipped the Silverberg over into bathos was the use of "one woman"—I couldn't help but imagine it in the voice of the guy who does trailers for bad movies.)

Similarly weak, I thought, was Ted White and Larry McCombs's "The Peacock King" (1965). It features quite the most unconvincing, dreamy-eyes-and-wish-fulfillment, woman-objectifying, heterosexual relationship I've ever seen in a work of fiction: he's a Harvard philosopher, she's a sometime model for art classes; they get picked for a government experiment into the nature of hyperspace. The story attempts to point to a kind of grand unified theory of psychedelic drugs, Buddhism, and the hyperspace experiment; but all it does is reek of the worst kind of '60s solipsism and remind the reader that the central gimmick was done far better by Bester in The Stars My Destination a decade before. Eric Brown's "The Rest Is Speculation" (2009) is a story that Ashley seems to think very highly of, pronouncing it "a magnificent, Wellsian-like homage to the last days of Earth." My inner copy-editor suspects that at least half of "Wellsian-like" is redundant and that you can't homage something that hasn't happened, but the real problem is the story. It does what Ashley promises: takes a solitary resurrected human around the planet with a group of strange creatures before finally farewelling it. The problem is partly that the writing is just flat: "I felt a welling sadness within me, almost like despair. 'But my memories . . . my loved ones . . . The love I felt, the love I feel!'" (p. 522). And, partly, Brown doesn't take the lesson from Wells, Stapledon, Clarke, or Baxter: a story of abstracts like this has to be rooted in the particular. The human narrator is so generic that it's almost impossible for the reader to do any empathising.

I've gone on at more length about the weaker stories than the stronger ones because I think you should always substantiate a dismissal. To repeat, then, there are several good stories in the book, and even some of the problematic ones like the Clarke or Nordley are worth reading. Taking the book on its own terms, though, I can't really recommend buying it because the hit-rate of stories that work, or successfully carry Ashley's sense of wonder, isn't terribly high.

Then, of course, there's the exercise that everyone undertakes, that of taking the book not on the author's or editor's terms but the reader's. If Ashley's notion of sense-of-wonder as allied to technophilia had been more thoroughly played out in the stories, there might be something to argue with there. However, Ashley's words in the introduction about technology don't really find enough of an echo in the stories. The real problem with the book is that it conforms to one of the stereotypes of SF: that the genre privileges certain kinds of emotionless epiphany over work depicting rounded characters. (That it doesn't often succeed in conveying that kind of epiphany is a separate issue.) Whole worlds of human experience are largely absent from this book—the sexual, the interpersonal, the everyday—and when they're present, like the sexual material in "The Peacock King," they're done badly. To repeat an earlier point, I maintain that these are not worlds absent from, say, Wells and Stapledon. It's just as possible (though maybe not so straightforward) to have mindblowing SF stories that encompass these worlds. It's hard to imagine that this book wouldn't be improved by losing, for starters, the Brown, Silverberg, Crowther, and White/McCombs stories and replacing them with almost anything by Theodore Sturgeon, by Tiptree's "All the Kinds of Yes," by Butler's "Speech Sounds," by Geoff Ryman's "Omnisexual," or, or, or. . . . (And, come to think of it, what's an anthology purporting to contain mindblowing SF doing without work by Ted Chiang, Philip K. Dick, or Greg Egan in it?) But I think Ashley's idea of sense of wonder constrains him more than he knows: he has chosen stories that have the props that make up "sense of wonder" for him. But props don't make a good story, as a piece like the Brown amply demonstrates. This is a book that's chosen to be narrow, and is damaged by its narrowness.

[1] In an email to me after this review was published, Paul di Filippo said that he'd not had any sexual meaning in mind when he'd named Jizogirl, and in fact was thinking of the Jizo Boddhisvata—a Buddhist divinity of which I'd been ignorant. I'm happy to accept that this was a legitimate—and, as he said, sacred—name for the character to bear. My point remains, though: without any cueing in the story that this was how one should understand the character, and without a greater knowledge of Buddhism than can I think be assumed for most readers, I doubt that I'll be the only one who has this problem with his story

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He is editor of Foundation, and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Locus, and Science Fiction Studies.

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2 Oct 2023

How did we end up so far east, on the flanks of a cold beach? You told me you always wanted to see the Pelagio, ever since you were a child. But your skin was never made for water. You shouldn’t have ever learned to swim.
look through the soap, the suds, the sopping wet clothes
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