BOOK REVIEW: The Science Fiction Century ed, by David G. Hartwell

Hmm.  I can’t, for the life of me, remember how I got this book.  Clearly, it was well-read and well-loved before I got it.  It was missing its dust cover, and had some water damage, but it was readable.

It’s possible I got The Science Fiction Century from the “Take a Book/Leave a Book” spot in my former hometown.  It’s just a small, rotating wire rack at the train station.  People traveling in and out of NYC can share reading material. 

I think places like that are amazeballs and should be everywhere.

On more than one occasion, I’ve left the station with a backpack jammed with books.  I’ve hurt my back, but I still had the biggest smile ever.


This behemoth book – almost 1,000 pages – is a collection of 45 short stories.  In his introduction, editor David G. Hartwell praises the work of science fiction legends, like Isaac Asimov.  Then, he explains why he chose to highlight other, “lesser-known” authors. 

And yet, the book still has some notable names.  Writers like C.S. Lewis and Jack London contributed stories.

The “century” Hartwell refers to in the title is the 1900s.  He believes the modern genre of science fiction began in the late 1800s (despite some debate in the literary community), with authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  So, the 20th century saw the genre come into its own.

Also, the industrial revolution opened a lot of people’s eyes to the possibilities of the future.

Few people in the “literary community” cared for the new genre. Critics really saw Sci-fi as trash writing, according to the editor.  They thought it was pulp, meaningless fiction, only fit for cheap magazines. 

Still, the writers used (and still use) the subject to discuss serious social concerns.  Thoughts on gender, class, the environment, and racism appear throughout the book.  Hidden under the far-out settings and alien activities are deep moral and ethical discussions.

I think Hartwell tried to show the genre’s evolution.  To be honest, I think he did a so-so job.  But the book was published almost 30 years ago, and that does affect my view. 

I thought I’d share some stories that stood out, for better or worse:

  • The Music Master of Babylon by Edgar Pangborn.  This first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in November 1954. A man, surviving in the aftermath of a catastrophic flood struggles to keep music alive. To me, it’s a warning against climate change and losing art to time. It has a beautiful, philosophical bent.
  • The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster.  Humans are completely sedentary, dependent on a machine they’ve created for survival and communication.  In my head, I had flashes of Wall-E and the fat-people chairs… only, here, people live in complete isolation.  They communicate only through their screens.  A cautionary tale against instant gratification, the loss of direct experience, and human dependence on technology.  It was sad, and scary, and familiar.  AND IT WAS WRITTEN IN 1909.
  • 2066: Election Day by Michael Shaara.  First published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in December 1956, the editor claims this story still rang true in 1997.  Parts of it are still reasonable and worrisome today.  The U.S. depends on a super-computer, U.N.C.L.E. S.A.M., to “elect the best qualified man” (emphasis mine) as president.  Seeing no race or religion (but still a “man”), S.A.M. chooses our leaders based on intense psychological and educational exams.  Until it doesn’t.  The message may still be meaningful, but the computer’s name is cheesy.  It irked me.  Also, the plot depends on S.A.M.’s inability to tell the difference between two people with the same name.  Still, the characters find peace believing a machine will pick honest, intelligent, and peace-minded leaders.  I think that alone speaks to me right now – having a machine pick our leaders would solve a lot of problems…. Or would it cause them?
  • Veritas by James Morrow.  Synergy: New Science Fiction, #1 was a semiannual journal that published this story in 1987.  In this world, humanity has given up the ability to lie.  Children undergo a “brainburn” at age 13, a traumatic and painful rite of passage.  With great celebration, the author/characters compare it to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony.  But, in a world without lies, what do we give up?  Make-up?  A lie.  Privacy?  A lie.  Fictional writing?  A lie.  The premise is intriguing, but the ending is muddled in my opinion.  I may need to read this one again – I both liked it and felt disturbed by it.    
  • Consider Her Ways by John Wyndham.  Hartwell says this was “a surprisingly advanced presentation of gender politics.  I’m sure it was when it first appeared (in the anthology Sometime, Never) in 1956.  But…HOLY MOLEY!!  As a woman, reading this story was like consuming an eight-course meal of fat-shaming.  The main character wakes to find herself in a world where all men have died out.  When she realizes she’s an obese, pampered, baby-machine, who’s constantly fed and scientifically impregnated, she passes right back out.  Throughout the text, fat is described as “disgusting,” a source of “panic,” with revulsion, and as a “travesty.”  But, that’s not the “advanced presentation of gender politics.”  That seems to be the plot’s understanding of women as “consumers,” “spenders,” and the property of men before they died out.  That led to the downfall of civilization.  Without men, mining, manufacturing, production – they all failed.  The ending was clunky and left open-ended. I think this is another story that needs multiple readings. Especially if, like me, the story’s fat fixation distracts you the first time around.
  • Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson.  You may have heard of this title.  Hollywood made it into a movie in 1995, starring Keanu Reeves.  I haven’t seen it, but it’s usually the case that I read a book and don’t see a movie.  William Gibson wrote this story in the four years prior to its publication in Omni magazine in 1981.  While Hartwell speculates that movies like “Tron” and “Bladerunner” inspired this story, they didn’t come out until 1982.  But, they all share an ‘80s, futuristic style, often called “cyberpunk.”  These settings are computer-dominated and the title character in Johnny Mnemonic is, himself, a living external hard-drive.  Gibson even created the word to describe the place people go when connected to others on Internet – Cyberspace.  The story itself is gritty and the violence is somehow more inventive than in other chapters.  Still, the characters’ names are so stereotypically sci-fi cheesy, it hurts.  The exploits of the model, Ralfi Face, the money-chaser, Molly Millions, and the memory bank, Johnny Mnemonic, are too good to just watch on-screen.  Read this story!
  • “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison.  This may be my favorite piece in the anthology.  It first appeared in Galaxy magazine in December 1965.  Here we see the antics of Everett – AKA the Harlequin – in a world where being late is illegal.  He openly rebels, impishly upsetting the rich and powerful. That makes him a target for the Master Timekeeper (AKA Ticktockman).  It’s a fun display of futuristic civil disobedience and a clever commentary about its subtle influences.

Each story is its own chapter, and no author appears twice. Hartwell introduces each of the writers with biographical details and their thoughts on the genre. These were invaluable.

I hadn’t read most of the authors. Having an idea of what their thoughts on sci-fi were helped me to better understand their piece and its place in the genre.

Hartwell says that science fiction always has a “hopeful gaze” towards the future and its technology, despite the pitfalls.  I find it interesting how, since the late ‘90s, that the genre has gone from “hopeful” to “dystopian.” 

You gotta admit – Science fiction stories have gotten dark. 

Final Score:

2.5 – 3 out of 5 stars!  I think Hartwell tried to bite off more than he could chew, but he made a valiant effort.  Essentially, he tried to capture an entire genre in The Science Fiction Century. 

“Sci-fi” is a relatively new genre, when we consider how long fiction has been around.  Elements of it appear in literature from around the world before the 1900s, but only came into its own in the 20th century.

Some of the stories, perhaps, haven’t aged well.  Some were poorly written.  However, there are more good stories than bad!


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