Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Few Terrific Old Science Fiction Grab-Bag Anthologies

    Life may not be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, but anthologies are -- every story a new little fictional universe unto itself, and you never know what you're going to get.
    When I started reading science fiction, back in the early 60s, anthologies were plentiful.  The library had a good run of the early Bleiler-Dikty year's best collections, and Judith Merril's year's best volumes appeared regularly in the drug store spinner racks.  Damon Knight's A Century of Science Fiction was there.  You couldn't walk near the drug store racks without tripping over one or two anthologies edited by Groff Conklin.  Among the Science Fiction Book Club's regular offerings was the 2-volume Treasury of Great Science Fiction edited by Anthony Boucher.  Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond Healy & J. Francis McComas, perhaps the definitive anthology from the heyday of John Campbell's Astounding Stories, was still around.  Isaac Asimov edited a few volumes collecting the short fiction Hugo Award winners.  Some years later, the Science Fiction Writers of America offered The Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections, Damon Knight edited A Science Fiction Argosy, and James Gunn began his 5-volume Road to Science Fiction.
    Most of these collections mined the magazine work from the 30s through the 60s, so unless you were looking at a year's best collection, any anthology you picked up was a grab-bag of stories that spanned 40 years.  That was fine with me and with other readers.  Someone once observed that science fiction is a genre in which people read back as well as forward.  A year's best is current material, but the others mentioned above are not.  Of those books, most are out of print.  The SF Hall of Fame volumes are still available; so is James Gunn's Road to Science Fiction, but Gunn's volumes are now published by a library reprint house and priced out of the reach of most readers.
    These days, the closest equivalent I've seen to the Boucher or the Knight or the Healy-McComas is probably a collection edited by Orson Scott Card called Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the 20th Century.  Any serious reader of science fiction will note the absence from that book of writers like Tiptree, Ballard, and Zelazny, but there's a lot of excellent work in that volume; if you were going to hand a new reader of sf some good representative anthologies, Card's collection should be in the stack.  Unlike any of the others mentioned here, Masterpieces is available as an ebook.
    While the year's best collections edited by Gardner Dozois and others are released as ebooks, those older collections never have been; it seems to me that some of those publishers are missing a bet.  Collections like Knight's Argosy, Boucher's Treasury, and Adventures in Time and Space are filled with stories (and in the cases of the Knight and the Boucher, novels as well) that are still essential reading for the science fiction fan.  I would hope that the only thing in the way of ebook reissue of these collections is difficulty in getting digital rights from some of the authors or their estates.  If it's because the publishers simply aren't interested in reissuing them at all, that would be a bad sign -- it would mean they were losing sight of the fact that sf readers read back as well as forward.
    Time was, you could find collections like Gunn's or Knight's Century or Asimov's Hugo Winners anthologies in your neighborhood drug store spinner rack.  Not any more.  I don't believe the SF Book Club has offered the Boucher or Knight's Argosy or Adventures in Time and Space in a decade, maybe longer.  How many libraries these days have, as my neighborhood library did when I was 13, a good run of the Bleiler-Dikty or the Judith Merril year's best collections?  It's not quite as easy to read back these days as it used to be.  You can still find single-author collections, but those big spectacular grab-bags, those wonderful boxes of chocolates where you never knew what you were going to get but you knew you'd probably like it -- those seem to be getting fewer and farther between, and the older ones are now easily available only from used book dealers and on some library shelves.  Pity.
    And if you want to see just what kinds of treasure chests were out there on the drug store racks and from low-cost sources like the SF Book Club, check out the contents pages of a few of them.  (The links below are to the Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections web site, and if you ever need to track down a book containing a particular sf short story this is a terrific source.)

Damon Knight: A Century of Science Fiction 
Damon Knight: A Science Fiction Argosy 
Raymond Healy & J. Francis McComas: Adventures in Time and Space 
Anthony Boucher: A Treasury of Great Science Fiction 

  At the moment (and I think through the end of May), Open Road will be offering some of their short story collections at bargain prices.  You can pick up ebooks of Theodore Sturgeon's Selected Stories, Irwin Shaw's Short Stories: Five Decades, Jonathan Carroll's The Woman Who Married a Cloud, and collections by Octavia Butler, Budd Schulberg, Stanley Elkin, Robert McCammon, and others, for a song.  Run, do not walk.

And a brief commercial: my most recent short story collection, Vanishing Acts, is now available from the Amazon Kindle store and at Smashwords (and from Smashwords it should soon be released for Sony, the iBookstore, and other retailers).  Four stories, 99 cents.  Give it a look when you get a chance.