Jeff VanderMeer explains what it's like to edit The Big Book of Science Fiction
It may be hard to believe in our world of Apple Watches and space travel, but science fiction is a genre with a surprisingly long history. For the first time, Hugo Award winner Ann VanderMeer and New York Times best-selling author Jeff VanderMeer have compiled a canon-defining anthology of science fiction dating from the late 1800s to the present, featuring works by writers like Silvina Ocampo that have never before been translated into English, as well as genre mainstays like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury.
The Big Book of Science Fiction, as the anthology is aptly named, will be released in July 2016 — but EW is proud to exclusively reveal its cover below, as well as an essay from Jeff VanderMeer describing the surprising and fascinating process of collecting these brilliant sci-fi stories from around the world.
Jeff VanderMeer on THE BIG BOOK OF SCIENCE FICTION
Sometimes an anthology editor is like a detective assigned to cold cases. Only instead of trying to solve a decades-old murder you’re trying to unearth stories and bring them back to the reading public. If you’re editing a really large anthology like The Big Book of Science Fiction, one that spans the twentieth century, your task can take you across continents and lead through multiple other languages. As often happens with detectives pursuing a case, there are twists and turns that can’t be anticipated, and yet, no matter what, you have to go where the evidence leads you.
Along the way, you talk to eyewitnesses and possible suspects—translators and other editors and stern old gatekeepers of knowledge who live at the top of metaphorical mountains—and wind up looking through moldy old pulp magazines or, less glamorously, eyeballing thousand-page PDFs. One day you’re gently coaxing an out-of-print story from an estate’s protective hands. The next day you’re pursuing leads through Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, and Moscow—only to go off on a different trajectory when someone says, “You know Kojo Laing writes science fiction?” Then the next day, after the exhilaration of reading Laing’s work, you might be back in the mundane world, both feet planted on the ground, passionately but respectfully explaining to an heir that, no, not allowing publication in anthologies won’t increase the chance of movie producers being interested in the work. That, no, keeping a writer’s short stories unpublished is not like hoarding stock options.
During one part of our research, we even had to contact the Czech ambassador to the Philippines for intel on particular authors; in another life this man had been the editor of a Czech science-fiction magazine that, before the Wall came down, paid Western writers in items like books of surreal erotic photography. He had become an expert, due to his travels, on fiction in many countries. From him we received a flurry of photocopies and advice that will likely inform future projects. It’s a small world, but also a big, complex one, too.
You also find yourself getting side-tracked by juicy information—like finding out Philip K. Dick reported Stanislaw Lem to the FBI. Or reading through all the (sometimes useful, sometimes horrifying) arguments running through publications in the 1970s about whether the great science-fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., was actually a woman (she was). Discovering that even back in the day, Ursula K. Le Guin was not just a mighty talent but a bad-ass, and never backed off for a moment in arguing against sexism and for diversity in science fiction. Or how David R. Bunch’s Moderan stories about a dystopian cyborg future were too strong for readers of the 1960s, who often wrote in to plead with magazine editors to never publish him again. (And wait—why did a famous editor wear a diving helmet and breathing apparatus while editing?)
Eventually, if you’re honest, you realize you’re not a cold-case detective so much as a historian or really obsessed researcher—but the excitement at discovering something new is still an adrenaline rush. If you love books and you love storytelling, how could it not be? When the translators Marian and James Womack first sent us science-fiction stories by two Latin American icons, Silvina Ocampo and Angelica Gorodischer that had never before translated into English…well, that moment was worth all the hours of trudge-and-drudge. It was also a moment of trepidation. Commissioning a translation based on a summary is a risk. What if the stories didn’t hold up? And yet they did, and are among the strongest in The Big Book of Science Fiction. At moments like that, you feel like you’ve stumbled across something remarkable and beautiful and rare.
After that glow wears off, though, you look up again and what you see is that maybe rather than being a cold-case detective or enthusiastic researcher…you’re half-way to being re-classified as a hoarder. The physical detritus accumulates because you become obsessed with going after everything. Part of that occurs via email, part through packages in the mail, and part through pilgrimages to places like Chamblin’s Book Mine in Jacksonville, Florida, where you basically strap on an IV for sustenance and spend six or seven or eight hours searching through the stacks. (And, yes—it is like a mine, down to the iffy supporting beams and getting lost in dark, labyrinthine passageways.)
By the end, the mountain of books we acquired made walking through our living room difficult. Especially with a giant wooden dragon head also taking up space (don’t ask). Thankfully, this was all in aid of creating an actual anthology because otherwise we’d have entered the same territory as Richard Dreyfuss with his mountain of mash potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
So, in the end, after two years of research, where did the evidence lead? Well, for one thing we found that early science fiction by W.E.B DuBois, Paul Scheerbart, and H.G. Wells contained the seeds of truly imaginative and serious inquiry—going well beyond the “sense of wonder” the field is known for—and, along with early science fiction by women like Rokeya Shekhawat Hossein, Leslie F. Stone, and Clare Winger Harris, really did try to look at the world in a radically different way.
Meanwhile, teetering on the cusp of Marxist revolution in 1918, we discovered Yefim Zozulya, an amazing Russian author not previously translated into English, and this led us to unearthing a strong vein of Russian and Ukrainian science fiction. In addition to Latin American science fiction, we also found wonderful Chinese science fiction stories from the recent boom, by surrealist Han Song and Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin. Yet, too, a core of traditional science fiction from the U.S. and U.K. is represented, and still holds up today—iconic stories by writers like Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and more. Throughout the century, we found strands of “literary” and “pulp” science fiction, all of it thought-provoking and also entertaining. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of humor in science fiction, going well beyond Douglas Adams. A full third of our selections are on the funny end of the spectrum.
In the end, then, work on this anthology had all of the thrill of the chase you might expect and all of the satisfaction, too. With anthologies, even if you never quite get your perp, you still get a sense of fulfillment if you solve enough mysteries, if you delve deep enough, and then you see it all within the covers of one book.
The fact is, at over 700,000 words The Big Book of Science Fiction may be the largest science-fiction anthology ever published in one volume. It may also be the most diverse, in the sense that we’ve included work from writers from almost 30 countries. We hope what we’re presenting to readers is lively and various enough to ignite discussion, argument, and re-evaluation. We also hope readers find it as fun to read as we found it fun to research.