Something for everyone: 5 essential science fiction anthologies you must read

Gautham Shenoy June 16, 2018

If you’re someone with a passing interest in science fiction who’d like to know the genre better or would like to experience all the many splendours it has to offer without having to read 300-page novels, one of the best ways is through an anthology. If you’re a hardcore science fiction reader who wants to discover new authors or get deeper into the genre’s history and trends, one of the best ways is through an anthology.

Here then, are five essential science fiction anthologies that will appeal to – and are recommended for – both, the seasoned sci-fi fan, and the casual reader who’d really like to know what the big fuss about science fiction really is. Whatever it is that you’re looking for – spaceships and robots, interstellar travel or the future of humankind, feminist stories, swashbuckling adventures, stories about love and loss, funny stories, stories to make you ponder, about politics, economics, about culture(s), stories about the future that are really a commentary on our present, stories about technology done right, of technology gone wrong – they’re all in here, and then some.

Dangerous Visions

Disruption is a word that is used (overused and abused) all too often, for things that don’t even remotely deserve this adjective. This path-breaking anthology from 1967 isn’t one of them. Edited by the legendary Harlan Ellison, who broke from tradition right from the beginning, by commissioning all-new stories for this anthology rather than follow the prevailing practice of just collecting stories already published elsewhere. The people who Ellison approached to write for Dangerous Visions had but a simple mandate: to confront taboos, and challenge established attitudes and values. The result was an anthology that pushed the boundaries of what science fiction could do and be, and changed the way people looked at the genre. With an introduction by Isaac Asimov, the anthology featured a veritable who’s who of 20th century SF, from Brian Aldiss, Samuel R. Delaney and Norman Spinrad, to JG Ballard, Lester Del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick and more. Dangerous Visions would be highly acclaimed on its release, and many of the individual stories written for this anthology going on to win many an award. Dangerous Visions would also become the only anthology to be published under the SF Masterworks line from Gollancz decades after it first came out, a testament to its status as a landmark sci-fi book and its contemporary relevance.  They say anthologies rarely make history. Well, this one did.

Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology

Cyberpunk is in. Some would say it never went out. And yes, there’s more to cyberpunk than bright neon lights cutting through the darkness and moody anti-heroes walking in the rain amidst the urban squalor of a near-future metropolis (trench coats optional). And to get a definitive overview of all the myriad shades of cyberpunk, look no further than the genre’s definitive anthology, Mirrorshades, edited by none other than Bruce Sterling, one of the architects – and the chief ideologue – of cyberpunk. Sterling’s introduction to the anthology in itself worth the price of admission, as are his introductions to each individual story in the collection, and each story followed by a short afterword by its author. From William Gibson, Pat Cadigan and John Shirley to Greg Bear, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling himself, and other fine authors who were part of this movement in the 80s, each story in this anthology touches upon and gives its own take in one way or the other on one tenet, one feature or a marker of cyberpunk – be it post-humanism, hackers, the isolated loner in a connected world, biohacking, cybernetic people, sex, drugs and rock & roll. The oft-quoted definition of cyberpunk, ‘Low life, high tech’ is nice, but is just the beginning, as you will see when you read Mirrorshades.

Also read: History’s Alternatives: Five stories about all the worlds that might’ve been (Part I)

It Happened Tomorrow

This is perhaps the smallest anthology in this list, but one that is nonetheless essential for an understanding of the development of science fiction in India. Steeped in Indian culture, and many addressing what can be called ‘Indian’ concerns, It Happened Tomorrow collects 19 stories – many translated from regional Indian languages including Kannada, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi and Bengali – carefully chosen by Bal Phondke ((the nom-de-plume of the scientist, Dr Gajanan Phondke). It would be apt to call these stories ‘scientifiction’, a term coined by pioneering sci-fi editor Hugo Gernsback who defined it thus, “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, HG Wells…type of a story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact …Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. They supply knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain—and they supply it in a very palatable form.” Each of the stories in this anthology fit this definition, and not surprisingly so since most of them have been written by scientists and scholars. Included in the anthology are stories by Jayant Narlikar, a rare English translation of a Tamil sci-fi story by the prolific Sujatha, tales from Rabhoo (aka Rajashekhar Bhoosnurmath), Subodh Jawadekar, Anish Deb, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Mukul Sharma and others. For an anthology published in 1993, the stories have aged quite well, at least technologically speaking, especially given that they are in themselves a throwback to the ‘golden age’ kind of stories. And irrespective of how it holds up against western science fiction of that time, It Happened Tomorrow is recommended for people who love simple sci-fi stories, simply told, and for a better understanding of how science fiction was (and in many cases, is) approached in India, especially in bhasha literature.

Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy

As the anthology listed above shows, science fiction is not exclusively a western pursuit, and with more diverse voices from non-western cultures making their way boldly into the mainstream and taking centerstage, this anthology is a good place to start exploring Asian SF/F, with the SF standing for science fiction or speculative fiction as the case may be, with genres spanning from cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic fiction to space opera and folklore-inspired tales. An all-original anthology, Where The Stars Rise collects 23 stories from authors who use all the tools and tropes that we’re familiar with and recontextualise them fantastically to fit their own unique cultural milieu. Edited by Lucas K. Law and Derwin Mak (whose afterword is in itself a gem of a guide to further explorations into Asian SF), Where the Stars Rise features stories by S.B. Divya, Deepack Bharatan, Rati Mehrotra, Priya Sridhar, Fonda Lee, Jeremy Szal, Pamela Fernandes, Naru Dames Sundar, and more, many of whom I was read for the first time in this anthology. Don’t worry if none of the names sound familiar (many weren’t to me either), pick this anthology up to see how diverse voices are enriching the genre, bringing to the fore cultures that were long under-represented in this fine genre, but mostly because the tales – all short stories – are such fun to read.

Also read: Rendezvous with Rama: Speculative Fiction inspired by the Ramayana

The Big Book of Science Fiction

Last, but definitely not the least, the BIG Book of Science Fiction, yes, it’s an anthology but a better description would be ‘a grand tour through the history of science fiction itself’. And the word ‘big’ in the title is completely apt, very well-deserved, because The Big Book of Science Fiction is not just big in size (clocking in at almost 1,200 pages) but big in content (almost 100 short stories, but each less than ) and big in scope, with writers from almost 30 countries represented in the anthology, many of them translated into English for the first time, just for this project.

A labour of love from the editors, Ann Vandermeer & Jeff Vandeermeer, both authors themselves, this is truly the finest ‘survey anthology’ of science fiction in the longest time, going back as it does to the genre’s roots with the first story being from the late 1800s, and from there on covering all the major trends, sub-genres and all the great authors – both grandmasters from the past and contemporary masters of the craft– and choosing one representative short story, up to modern times, that will give both the dedicated sci-fi fan and the generally-interested reader hours of sheer reading pleasure. A lot of care has gone into the selection of stories to make it truly representative, and I for one was thrilled to see Begum Rokeya’s Sultana’s Dream in this anthology. All SF greats are here, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, the Strugatsky Brothers, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, Iain M. Banks, Ray Bradbury, Bruce Sterling, Michael Moorcock, Goerge RR Martin, rubbing shoulders with contemporary greats like Ted Chiang, Cory Doctorow and Cixin Liu. Whatever the sub-genre – cyberpunk, new wave, feminist, aliens, space opera, robots, hard SF, soft SF– and whatever the topic, you are sure to find it in this anthology. And yes, a lot of humour, with at least a dozen of the short stories tending to be on the funny side of the spectrum. The book starts with a detailed introduction from Vandermeer about the definition and the history of science fiction, which is quite the must-red on its own. And on the back cover of The Big Book of Science Fiction, it’s described boldly as, ‘Quite possibly the greatest science fiction collection of all time – past, present and future!’. I haven’t seen the future, but as of today, as of now, I’d tend to agree with that description. If you had to choose but one anthology to gift someone who you’d want to introduce science fiction to – or a long-time SF reader who wants to journey through the history of his beloved genre, this book would be it.

And on that note, I sign off for this week and hope to see you here again next weekend for another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live long and prosper!


Lead Image: Detail from the cover of Dangerous Visions, the SF Masterworks edition from Gollancz.