“With 21st Century Science Fiction, David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden give us a vivid snapshot of the fast-changing world of SF. Long recognised as trusted arbiters of the genre, these multiple award-winning editors showcase recent stories by science fiction’s brightest up-and-coming talents…”
Back in the 20th century, Hartwell and Hayden were interviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, and both identified (in 1991) a somewhat unprofitable frontier in science fiction, and they described it this way:
“I’m sometimes a little reluctant to let on that a given writer has ‘considerable literary quality,’” [Nielsen Hayden] explains. “The sales apparatus knows what that means: it means it doesn’t sell very many copies.”
Hartwell extended the sentiment: “It’s not where the sales are, not at all, but it is where the evolution of the field is taking place.”
20 years later these two recognized and trusted arbiters of science fiction came up with 21st Century Science Fiction, highlighting many of the brightest science fiction stories to pass through traditional publishing. I read the first 10 stories in the anthology for these mini-reviews: hoping that they might fairly represent the breadth of all 33 tales.
Of the ten selected here, Strood, despite some clear lapses in logic (religious terrorists continue to attack the beloved and welcomed aliens, despite the fact that their attacks are 100% thwarted by superior alien technology, and the terrorists themselves are insta-killed – rendering the entire motivation for terrorism moot), is probably the strongest of the ten in regards to SF content.
Infinities, despite being miscategorized as SF, is very solid literary fiction about the relationship between mystical Islam, infidel religions and reason. Stross’ contribution is SF, but is disappointing, as it pales in humor and ideas in comparison to his other work. Most of the others are either set in the present day, a near future nearly identical to the present day, or, like Tk’Tk’Tk’ use an alien society as a direct proxy for commentary on some modern occupation.
The only one with a space ship is an extended joke about over-technologized cubicle work. When science or scientific ideas appear in these stories, it is either as a critique of science, or as a metaphor for relationships.
Based on the first third of the anthology, the book is grossly miscategorized. That would not be a crime, necessarily, were it not for the fact that, in combination with declining sales and existing reader confusion, portraying this book as among the best adjudicated Science Fiction anthologies is a disservice to the market. Any SF fan coming from a visual space, for example, is unlikely to hit a single story of resonance: nothing remotely resembling or inspired by Mass Effect, Interstellar, Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, Looper or even Divergent or Big Hero 6 or any other form of popular Science Fiction can be found among this literature.
Worse, going by this sample, the “literature of ideas” is plum out of them. For an industry whose highest award symbol is a golden age rocket, there is a decided dearth of analysis of current or speculated engineering, AI, DNA research, or any of the science headlines of the day.
There has been a clear commercial push for products that few are interested in. It isn’t that Pink SF and non-SF doesn’t sell at all, it is that it doesn’t sell enough to stand on its own in the SF market.
Overall, if this is the freshest new science fiction of the 21st Century, it is remarkably stale and uniform. Don’t get me wrong: there are flashes of good literature, and at least one – maybe even two – sparks of good science fiction in this sampling (not one fully realized and complete SF story that I would recommend, however), but they never overlap, and aside from the exception, never develop. But the simple fact is that this beefy anthology gathers a decade’s perceived best, is of more recent publication and still gets destroyed in sales by the roughly similar Science Fiction Hall of Fame through 1964. While Hall collects the best candidates from 30+ years, the lion’s share of selections are from between the years 1954 and 1964. The old stories are, on balance, significantly more fun…and more deep!…than the new crop.
Tk’Tk’Tk is informative at the metafictional level. It is hard not to imagine Hartwell and Hayden’s despairing words (above) on the state of sales, in the mouth of the protagonist, a salesman who ultimately becomes disillusioned by his forefathers’ legacy in sales and by the corporate pressure to expand his market to a thriving customer base, and chooses to go begging instead.
21st Century Science Fiction is available at Amazon for $24.95 in hardcover, or $9.99 as an e-book.