The Secret History of Science Fiction. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, eds. Tachyon Publications, 2009. 424 pp., $14.95.
Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:12 (#353) in December 2011.]
Despite the intriguing titles, the assembled contributors in these two anthologies from Tachyon Publications do not focus on some irreconcilable or scandalous subject, but champion the idea that genre literature has a broader appeal than is widely known. That what are now called science fiction and fantasy tales were more widely accepted in the past, and that there is still interest in them from the general as well as the literary reader. Look and one will find them, but here, these literary fantastic tales are collected. Many modern superstars of literary fiction, like Michael Chabon, T.C. Boyle, and Jonathan Lethem, have also been writing these genre tales.
Part of the problem that the general reader faces with a fantastic tale—the term fantastic can be broadly applied to both genres because of the kind of creation involved, even if fantasy books are still found in science fiction sections—is the learning of a new world. It takes some effort to remember what “quidditch”, “horcrux”, and Tom Riddle mean. One does not find such difficulties here. These works are more accessible and minimize the challenges for general readers who cannot yet make the commitment necessary to master a new fantastical world, let alone many. As such, these collections have especially great value for “genre newbies”.
Sadly, some of the major names—i.e., those known even by people who don’t read a lot of genre fiction, such as Arthur C. Clarke and J.R.R. Tolkien in particular—are sometimes derided in the editors’ attempts to show that the creative impulse toward the fantastic has grown beyond the dictates of children’s and “mere genre” literature.
The Secret History of Science Fiction can be seen as alternative to the missing homage of the late Arthur C. Clarke, who drew consternation because of his success, yet one may not realize that if they could do it to Arthur, they could do it to his friend C.S. Lewis. Arthur C. Clarke, despite the plots around him, championed the field, and it seems as if his detractors have lessened the acknowledgment of his historical impact on the science fiction field.
Of more concern to mythopoeic fans is The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by famed fantasy writer Peter S. Beagle, who is not so much the Tolkien champion here. But those on the top, like J.R.R. Tolkien was, have all sorts of challengers, as attested in the many wondrous stories collected here. Beagle points out that “Frodo may well live, as the New York subway graffiti of the 1960’s definitely insisted, but other worlds and guests and heroes do too, and not all of them have a thing to do with Armageddon and magic rings” (14). Authors Michael Chabon, T.C. Boyle, and Jonathan Lethem, also show their irreverence to the field of heroic fiction, and maybe even to the idealistic times of the 1960’s when Tolkien reached his zenith, even if they have valid new modern gripes to make.
One cannot help but think of the worm eating its own tail, but then again, times have changed. We may have entered an age where there will never be such towering literary figures as in the past, with even J.K. Rowling being only considered one of your best contemporary choices for fantastic fiction. Those who want more adult fare have other options. Tolkien—unlike Rowling, who unfortunately seems to want out of genre fiction and/or children’s literature—died without all of his Middle-earth tales and early versions being published.
Out with the old and in with the new seems to be part of the impulse here too, but Ursula K. Le Guin does write in a knowledgeable essay included as an appendix to The Secret History of Science Fiction that one needs to read Tolkien to know what fantasy is. Sadly the second-string writer—and most are second-string, because of the long shadows that The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have cast—has to struggle to bring his or her works and worlds to light. The fantasy writing community does seek to keep the flame going, and there would be no field left if not for the imitators, as the tropes of such fantasy works have become so common place.
These books do attempt to make a point, and they will appeal to those who want to explore the field more thoroughly. Some will find new sources of sustenance here, with heroic fiction helping some readers get through there day. David G. Hartwell writes in an article in the appendix of The Secret History of Fantasy: “And now it seems is a bad time for serious adult readers to reject wholesale, the tale of wonder and the illumination of the human condition that fantasy has brought us throughout history” (379). One can get a taste of it with out learning a new world or planet or universe here.
The Mythopoeic reader may appreciate the different flavor of these stories, but The Secret History of Fantasy will likely bring new readers back to J.R.R. Tolkien. Sadly, there is not much mention of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Despite the contrarian sense of these anthologies, the swords are not often drawn.