Sunday, February 22, 2009


Edited by Brian Aldiss and originally published in the early 1970’s (as The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus), this is the book that turned me into a lifelong fan of speculative fiction. Over the years I’ve owned, lent and lost numerous copies of this book and its reissue by Penguin as part of their Modern Classics imprint is like bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen for ages and finding out that you still have a lot in common.

Although, in this case, the old friend has updated his image somewhat, lost a few endearing character traits and gained a few new ones, which is a roundabout way of saying that the old 70’s edition has been given a quick facelift with some old favourites being dropped in favour of newer stories.

So while things like William Tenn’s brilliantly satirical ‘Eastward Ho’ or Howard Schoenfeld’s postmodern experiment ‘Build Up Logically’ are conspicuous by their absence, their replacements, particularly James Tiptree Jr's ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill’s Side’ or John Crowley’s ‘Great Work of Time’ more than make up for their loss.

Although not a broad overview of science fiction as a literary genre, or indeed a who’s who of SF, ‘A Science Fiction Omnibus’ offers some of the finest speculative fiction written in the English language including such giants of the genre as Isaac Asimov (Nightfall & Jokester), Harry Harrison (An Alien Agony), Robert Sheckley (The Store of the Worlds) Clifford Simak (Skirmish), A.E Van Vogt (Fulfilment), Brian Aldiss himself ( Poor Little Warrior) as well as more modern writers such as Bruce Sterling (Swarm) Greg Bear (Blood Music) and Eliza Blair (Friends In Need).

The stories here range in time, space and theme as well as in their place in the science fiction canon (the earliest being Asimov’s Nightfall, first published in 1941 and the latest being Eliza Blair’s Friends in Need and Garry Kilworth’s Alien Embassy, both published in 2006) to provide as good an anthology as one could wish, showcasing the breadth and range of speculative fiction.

It has been said that, at its best, science fiction holds a mirror up to the world – capturing the hopes, fears and aspirations of the society in which it was produced – and many of the stories here do just that: Ward Moore’s ‘Lot’, for example, is a perfect snapshot of Cold War pragmatism (it is not so much a question of If The Bomb will fall as When it will fall) while Clifford Simak’s ‘Skirmish’, with its insidious invasion from both within and without, echoes the fear of ‘the other’ that pervaded much of Western society in the 1950’s (and for that matter still continues to).

Similarly, stories such as JG Ballard’s ‘Track 12’, Frederick Pohl’s ‘The Tunnel Under The World’ or Damon Knight’s ‘The Country of the Kind’ perfectly illustrate the edgy relationship that science fiction has always had with the march of technology – half celebratory, half cautionary – while others explore a more philosophical territory, asking those Big Questions that more mundane literature simply cannot dare to ask – Harry Harrison’s ‘An Alien Agony’ or, again, Knight’s ‘Country of the Kind’.

Ultimately, of course, all good science fiction is about humanity and each of the stories in this fine collection has at its heart a deeply human strain; there are no thinly veiled wagon trains here, no wish fulfillment stories or polemics that cry ‘humanity uber alles’ but rather a thoughtful and reasoned use of imagination that richly deserves to be called classic.

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus was away too long – it’s good to see it back.

No comments:

Post a Comment