BOOK REVIEW / When Blastberg meets Manbreaker: 'The Norton Book of Science Fiction' - Ursula K Le Guin, Brian Attebery: Norton, pounds 22

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IT IS tempting (for non-fans) to think that science fiction must surely have run out of steam by now - or is it cybersteam? We live in knowing times, and do not astonish easily. The days when we could be amazed by flying saucers, submarines, extra-terrestrials or time travel are long gone; and even the most modern gadgetry cannot bring them back. But science fiction has proved to be durable and inventive. It is the dominant inspiration behind video games, and remains a mega-huge attraction at the cinema (Jurassic Park, Robocop, Schwarzenegger and so on).

In literary terms, though - much to the fury of connoisseurs - it is still a poor relation. This is partly because of a snob-literary reflex by which all the science fiction that anyone likes is classified as serious literature and sent to a plusher part of the bookshop. There is a class of science fiction that has, as it were, been to university and knows how to do up a bow-tie; but for some reason we are reluctant to let these works give science fiction a good name. Science fiction is, in effect, the word we use when we mean bad science fiction.

The Norton Book is a high-density anthology of American stories. It is good fun flipping back through time and space, all the way to stories where strange Sixties Earth creatures say things like 'I love ya all' and 'Such a fearless calm in the face of the ever-lurking Disaster is surely the Beauty I have sought'. But only the most redoubtable categoriser could read all these and still have the cheek to lump them together under a single catch-all label. There are stories about children and stories about parents; stories about war and peace; stories about love and death and memory and guilt and sex. There are stories, in short, about pretty much everything that inspires literature of any sort. What makes them science fiction is a certain engagement with recent breakthroughs in human knowledge - but this is really no more than a way of saying that these stories are modern.

The best of them soar above the stereotypes. Philip K Dick is represented by a tale about a man who has been cryogenically frozen and is on his way to a distant planet. He has read all the brochures, and the new planet sounds great. The flight takes 10 years, but passes in the blink of an eye when you are frozen stiff. Unfortunately, there's a cryogenic fault: the man retains consciousness. There is no oxygen for him to breathe or food for him to eat, so he can do nothing but remain inert. The 16 pages of 'Frozen Journey' that follow - with their tense description of his 10 self-conscious years, are as sharp as anything. Ursula K Le Guin remarks in her introduction, reading Philip K Dick is 'like losing your footing on a scree slope', and she's right.

It's rude to make light of people's names, but . . . what is it with those K's? Are they medallions for the best science fiction writers, or what? I only mention this because names play an important role in science fiction. Flipping through the 67 stories in this collection we find ourselves spending time with people called Dialta, Klimp, Tandy, Ilf, Auris, Rigrol, Kugus, Ulla, Heave Huckle, Blastberg, Manbreaker, Mazundar, Dondiil, Quoquo, Obsidian, Hurn, January, Dunyasha Bernadettesdaughter, and many, many more. They visit tedious-sounding places called Earthport, Titan, Proavitus, Newland, Kirinyaga, Whileaway, the Valley of Witch, and the Trembly Country of Fear (honestly).

It is an enormous relief to turn to Frederick Pohl's clever satire 'Day Million' and find a woman called Dora. At last, we think, a real humanoid] But then it turns out that Dora is actually short for 'omicron-Di-base seven- group-totter-oot S Doradus 5314'. Pohl doesn't tell us, but I bet her friends call her Omi.

What on earth - or in space - do these names mean? Anyone who thinks that science fiction is for people with knobs and aerials will feel vindicated by the thinness of these coinages. One woman rummages in her first- aid kit for a 'viro-genetic imprinter' and a 'Y- alyser'. Great literature finds simple words for strange things; too many of these stories merely stick strange terms on to simple things. There is a funny zero-gravity sensation in the language - the sprightly inventiveness of the concepts injures the richness of the vocabulary by making everything newly minted and transparent.

Still, the book is well-stocked with highlights. Margaret Atwood's alien visits Earth and declares: 'I come from another planet. But I will never say to you, Take me to your leaders. Even I - unused to your ways though I am - would never make that mistake. Instead I will say, take me to your trees. Take me to your breakfasts, your sunsets. . .'

There are nifty stories, also, by Bruce Sterling, Ursula K Le Guin, William Gibson and Robert Silverberg. Greg Bear's 'Schrodinger's Plague' features a mad scientist, who decides to test out Schrodinger's cat theory with a real-life experiment involving a lethal virus and his colleagues. This shares with 'Frozen Journey' a delicious improvisatory feeling. Novel ideas - cryogenics, quantum experiments - trigger plausible narratives.

There is another word for this - magic realism - and there are times in the Norton book when you think of Borges, Orwell, Kafka or Calvino, and wonder exactly why they seem not to count as science fiction. It is quite striking how little there is that seems allegorical. A severe critic might even think this a reason why many of the stories run out of phaser- power just short of being literature.

They identify with their settings more than their characters, and are often easy vehicles for ditzy right-on politics, but hardly any of them carry a poetic truth that relates to everyday life as we know it. Orwell, Kafka and Calvino share a delicate and tender concern for human nature which is largely absent in this book.

At the end of Frederick Pohl's 'Day Million' the author dares the reader to find his futuristic sex program ludicrous. 'And you,' he says, 'with your after-shave lotion and your little red car, pushing papers across the desk all day and chasing tail by night'. Many readers - the ones without little red cars, the ones without office jobs, the women - will be looking over their shoulders at this point. Who is this guy talking about? Does he mean me? The desire to be analytical can often end up being merely reductive and trite.

Ursula K Le Guin's introduction is a rather wonderful, if solemn, lecture on science fiction's literary status. She concedes the point about allegory, admitting that there are quite a few aliens, but not much alienation. Indeed she indicates that metaphor sits uneasily in science fiction - you have to be careful talking about a man absorbed in a landscape in a universe where the landscape has teeth, and absorbs people all the time.

This is a sharp and damaging concession. Anxious not to sound flippant, she makes science fiction seem a touch humourless. She is very good, though, on the matter of science fiction's engagement with reality: 'Reporting and history deal with what happened; realistic fiction, with what could have happened; fantastic fiction, with what could not have happened. And science fiction deals with what has not happened.' Many readers who think they don't like science fiction will be surprised to find nothing remotely monstrous and corny in her selection. But there is quite a lot of remoteness, all the same. It goes with the territory.