Astral Weeks: A year’s worth of sci-fi, one week at a time

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Special to the Los Angeles Times

If you’re still looking for a reading strategy for the new year, might I suggest reading a science fiction story a week? The best way to do this is to get “The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction” ( Wesleyan University Press: 767 pp., $39.95 paper), which conveniently offers 52 stories for your 2011 self-improvement regimen. It’s more than just an ideal survey of the genre, reaching from the 19th century (Hawthorne, Verne, Wells) through the pulps, new wave, cyberpunk and the too-soon-to-classify morsels of the decade that just ended. This big book is both a thrilling entertainment and a convincing argument for the way SF can refresh the mind, play boldly with form and reflect its era creatively — in other words, what all good literature should do.

Put together by the editors of the academic journal Science Fiction Studies, the Wesleyan anthology has a hand-holding function, beckoning those who might still sniff at the genre to take a closer look. (Hey, E.M. Forster’s in here — nothing to be afraid of!)

Individual introductions give useful biographical information and connect each story to what’s called the “sf megatext,” a “fictive universe that includes all the sf stories that have ever been told … a place of shared images, situations, plots, characters, settings, and themes generated across a multiplicity of media.”


But for maximum enjoyment, just jump in. You might hit Kate Wilhelm’s “Forever Yours, Anna” (1987) or Robert A. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies — “(1959), two extremely satisfying time-travel excursions; or Frederick Pohl’s “Day Million” (1966), which levels a weirdly withering (yet exciting) tone at the modern reader: “Oh, I can see you now, you eaters of charcoal-broiled steak, scratching an incipient bunion with one hand and holding this story with the other.… You don’t believe a word of it, do you?”

There are gems from giants. Encountering “Fondly Fahrenheit” (1954), Alfred Bester’s robots-and-murder meditation, for the first time, I reread a stretch of it over and over, thinking that surely a printing error had been made. By collapsing the first-person voice — aggressively mingling two “I” points of view — Bester flouts the rules of narrative to show a meltdown of authority between a master and his android. It’s a joy to find Philip K. Dick’s 1966 “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the basis for the Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Total Recall,” in all its brisk, blunt glory: I love both the carpet-pulling, memory-versus-implant plot and the doofus-y futuristic touches like the robot taxicab driver who says “Yes, sir or madam,” the fashionably topless receptionist and a drug called “narkidrine.”

The stories are arranged chronologically, but the editors include a thematic listings of stories — those concerning alien encounters, for example, or “Artificial/Posthuman Life-forms.” You get nine anthologies for the price of one.

And it must be said there’s one more anthology here that’s not spelled out: You get at least the outline of a lineage of female (and generally feminist) science fiction writers — 14 in all, both the famous and unsung. James Tiptree Jr.’s entry, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1972), is a tour de force, unfolding almost entirely in dialogue and concerned exclusively with the phenomenon of having sex with aliens; it’s a devastating demolition of the hypermasculine yen for conquest that often accompanies the genre’s sense of wonder, a critique made all the more fascinating because readers at the time had no idea Tiptree was a woman (Alice Bradley). Also not to be missed are Nancy Kress’ low-key blue collar/blue alien story “Out of All Them Bright Stars” (1985) and Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967), a tableau of despair and domesticity that ropes in the cosmos to hit you right in the heart.

Actually, none of this book should be missed, as you read your way through 2011. It ends with “Exhalation,” a mind-blowing 2008 story by Ted Chiang. Driven by curiosity, a mechanical being dissects its own metal head, discovering that one structure “was not so much a machine as it was a page on which the machine was written, and on which the machine itself ceaselessly wrote.” Chiang’s patient, resplendent prose becomes a metaphor for the scientific process itself, and a clear affirmation that the genre is as healthy as it ever was.

Park is the author of the novel “Personal Days.”