The Big Book
of Science Fiction

nolead begins Edited by Ann and

Jeff VanderMeer

Vintage. 1,216 pp. $25.

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Reviewed by

Jim Higgins


Surprisingly, the literary spirit that haunts Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's massive new anthology,

The Big Book of Science Fiction

, isn't Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov or even H.G. Wells.

It's Jorge Luis Borges, the creator of miniature fables of humans' grappling with their double-edged longing for and terror of infinity and omniscience. He's represented by a signature story, name-checked in another one, and appears to influence several more.

A review of a few hundred words can only begin to suggest the content and quality of this excellent collection of short fiction. The VanderMeers sidestep territorial quagmires by defining sci-fi, simply and effectively, as fiction that depicts the future in a stylized or realistic manner. This definition allows them a wide range of choices.

They include writers not normally seen as Team SF, such as Borges, whose brilliant "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940) imagines the complete transformation of reality by a book; African American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois' "The Comet" (1920); and Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno's "Mechanopolis" (1913).

The VanderMeers take an international view of speculative fiction, selecting stories, for example, from Finland, Ghana, India, and Ukraine, as well as from the Anglophone world. In Cixin Liu's amusing (and Borgesian) "The Poetry Cloud" (1997), a godlike being who can transform energy into matter is challenged by a Chinese scholar to write a poem better than Li Bai. Failing in its initial attempts, the being decides to burn out some suns to power the quantum computer it needs to create all possible poems.

Canonical sci-fi writers past (Asimov, Clarke, Octavia E. Butler) and present (William Gibson, Connie Willis) are included, though not necessarily with the obvious story. As this is a finite volume, quibbles are possible. For example, there's no story from Robert Heinlein, due to a rights/permission issue, according to io9.com.

The Big Book of Science Fiction doesn't codify a genre the way the VanderMeers' previous mega-anthology The Weird did. But this collection has a high batting average - fewer than a handful of tales let me down. This book could serve as a portal to years of pleasurable reading.

This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.