There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Outside the cognoscenti, sci-fi can seem like niche fiction mostly admired by nerds who dress up as aliens and attend odd conventions. But the short stories in the new Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction are not just for aficionados, nor do they only recount intergalactic space operas in the far future. This anthology offers an overview from the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jules Verne to those of William Gibson—so thorough that with its brief, informative analyses at the start of each story, reading this collection is like taking a course without the bother of tests. In these tales, dystopias abound, genetic engineering is rampant, plagues decimate populations, and the laws of physics are frequently invoked. In the 1995 “Think Like a Dinosaur”—a compact, lapidary little nightmare—a good, innocent woman must be killed “to balance the equation.” The story’s hyperintelligent dinosaurs commit suicide routinely and joyously, for this very reason. In a 1947 story by Theodore Sturgeon, Americans rot from radiation poisoning in the post-apocalyptic landscape frequently depicted in the sci-fi from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, which also owes much to Westerns and horror fiction. There are samples of feminist sci-fi from the ’70s and ’80s cyberpunk, and lively quotes, like one from renowned sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison to the head of Warner Brothers that this mogul had “the intellectual capacity of an artichoke.” Another writer’s work is praised “as a refreshing cocktail of Voltaire-and-soda.” Other stories, like “Cage of Sand” by J.G. Ballard, transcend the genre with a hauntingly beautiful evocation of experiments that have led to failure, “…and then finally coalesced and flooded in a solid wave across the half-submerged hotels. Behind the silent façades, in the tilting sand-filled streets which had once glittered with cocktail bars and restaurants, it was already night. Halos of moonlight…draped the shuttered windows and slipping cornices like a front of frozen gas.” More often these stories have a political edge. “Computer Friendly” presents a very dark future, in which people are linked through computers and some become cyborgs, a world in which troublesome children are euthanized and conformity and mind control rule the day. But in one futuristic tableau, “Invaders,” a time-traveler goes back several centuries to foil the Spanish conquest of Latin America, thus saving the Inca. Time travel, invasion, oppression weave throughout this anthology whether the stories date from the 20th or 21st century. Perhaps “The Liberation of Earth” does it best, portraying our little planet as a bit of conquered territory in a galactic war, “liberated” repeatedly by competing alien armies, until it has been pulverized like Iraq in 2003. “Looking about us,” say the scattered, desperate, mystified and dispossessed inhabitants of Earth, “we can say with pardonable pride that we have been about as thoroughly liberated as it is possible for a race and planet to be.”