BOOK REVIEW / Lost in deep space with a load of Borons: 'The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories' - Ed. Tom Shippey: Oxford, 16.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
THERE are many problems with The Oxford Book of Science Fiction. The anthology represents only a narrow range of 'hard' or 'cyberpunkish' science fiction, stories more concerned with machinery than with people. It includes no literature in translation, and only two and a half of its 30 stories are by women (one a collaboration between C L Moore and her husband, Henry Kuttner, under the pseudonym of 'Lewis Padgett'). In addition, Tom Shippey's convoluted introduction spends a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to define what the term 'science fiction' means, and very little time recounting the genre's institutional history.

With the exception of a highly questionable bibliography of recommended reading, the Oxford book gives almost no sense of the breadth, energy and sheer contradictoriness of contemporary science fiction. A genre that was once regarded as little more than power-fantasy food for lonely male adolescents has, in recent years, graduated to the status of literature in the works of writers such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and Angela Carter. But despite the spillover of science fiction tropes into mainstream literature and then back again, Shippey chooses no stories published outside the traditional (and often extremely trashy) pulp magazines - Astounding Science Fiction, say, or Amazing Stories.

Commercial science fiction is among the least imaginative types of contemporary fiction. It is fiction for control-freaks, people who don't want to believe there are places in the universe where reason might fail to operate. In a typical story, space ships really travel through outer space, Martians really come from Mars, and death rays really . . . well, just don't be getting any funny ideas, buster. And while all the scientific hyperbole is flying about, human beings serve only one important narrative function: to explain to each other What's Going On.

Usually you can expect a lot of stilted dialogue about what occurred during the Mutant Years, or why the new Asteroid Drill just went on the fritz. And buried among these explanations lurks the belief that rational men always triumph over an irrational universe. Meanwhile, the irrational (but loving) wives stay home and barbecue steaks over the neutron-grill. 'Sure, Betty,' the typical male protagonist might sum up, 'that's why the Borons couldn't win, you see? Back on their world of Boronia they've never even seen a time-condenser, let alone learnt how to operate one. This is because their race is subservient to a highly communistical Plutonian emperor who doesn't allow free enterprise to flourish. In other words, the Borons didn't stand a chance because, well, because we're Americans]'

But while this collection displays very little sense of science fiction's complexity, it does provide a number of funny and eccentric stories. Shippey makes room for excellent tales by new writers such as George R R Martin and Paul J McAuley, as well as interesting and odd stories by minor old writers such as James H Schmitz and Frank L Pollack.

And if you don't listen too hard to the inevitable explanations, even conventional science fiction contains a lot of deeply strange and wildly perilous poetry. In Walter M Miller Jnr's 'Crucifixus Etiam' and Clifford D Simak's 'Desertion', humans reshape interplanetary environments while those environments radically reshape them. In Brian Aldiss's 'Who Can Replace a Man?' and John W Campbell's 'Night', machines outlast their creators, eternally whirring away into the darkness. And in Frederick Pohl's brilliant and hilarious 'The Tunnel Under the World', people reawaken every morning to a world ruled by advertising, where all human existence has been reduced to a constant, plaintive jingle:

Feckle Freezers]

Feckle Freezers]

Gotta have a

Feckle Freezer]

Feckle, Feckle, Feckle,

Feckle, Feckle, Feckle

At its best, science fiction doesn't describe new worlds and inventions that haven't happened yet but rather old ones that may never stop happening. Not ever.

Feckle Feckle.