What if there was no boundary between the lands of literary fiction and science fiction? The premise of this anthology is to collect stories that straddle that frontier, and that perhaps stand as evidence that the line separating the two lands is fading out of existence. Thus, some of the authors in the volume are mainstream writers who have ventured into science fiction, while others are generally identified as SF writers even though their work has those qualities more often found in literary fiction: concentration on character and a graceful, sophisticated writing style.
This isn't an altogether new idea. Judith Merril's Year's Best SF series, which ran (under varying titles) from 1956 to 1968, was noted for including stories from writers outside traditional SF circles: John Steinbeck, Bernard Malamud, James T. Farrell, Isaac Bashevis Singer, to name a few.
Likewise, the hope that "the walls that separate the mainstream from science fiction are, in fact, crumbling" (to quote this book's introduction), is a hope with a long lineage. But whether or not that hope is finally coming true, the real "point" of this anthology is simply that it contains some darned-well-written SF.
Some notes on a few selected stories:
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. LeGuin is something of a classic, and has been reprinted in high profile mainstream collections such as The Art of the Short Story. And it's deservedly a classic; bold in style and chilling in content.
"Ladies and Gentlemen This Is Your Crisis" by Kate Wilhelm presents an interesting question: Can absolutely stellar writing -- up to the best standards of any literary fiction -- make a good story out of a tired old SF idea? The tired old idea here is reality TV in which contestants fight for their lives, and for me, the answer to the question is a reluctant "no".
"Standing Room Only" by Karen Joy Fowler is a story about some of the people involved in the assasination of Abraham Lincoln, with whisper-subtle hints of time-traveling tourists. So that's an example of one way that literary fiction can blend with SF: turn down the volume on the SF elements and let the human story come to the foreground. It's a workable plan, though in this case I found the human story rather unengaging.
George Saunders (recently a resident of best-seller lists with his Tenth of December) is a mainstream literary writer whose short stories are often unabashed SF. "93990" is one such story, and is typical for him in its excellent writing and its brutal, even repellent, darkness.
"Frankenstein's Daughter" by Maureen F. McHugh was the real "find" in this anthology for me. A story that at first seems a straightforward piece of modern SF, as it goes along it soars into realms of sensitivity and hard-hitting emotional honesty that are rarely, if ever, seen in the work of any other SF writer. After reading this I sought out more of McHugh's work, and my opinion of her has only increased.
"Schwarzschild Radius" by Connie Willis is, on the surface, simply a piece of historical fiction, obliquely touching on a few moments in the life of the physicist of the title. But in reality it's a work of intelligence, power, and stunning artistry; a story of gem-like perfection.
"The Ziggurat" by Gene Wolfe strikes me as an example of how mixing SF and literary fiction can go wrong. A man is going through an acrimonious divorce when his life is further complicated by some trigger-happy time travelers. Thanks to clumsy writing, the "mix" works out something like stirring paint into cake batter -- the two things have nothing to do with each other and the result is a mess.
So as you can see, there were some hits and some misses in this anthology for me. But overall I thought the book was an eminently worthwhile read. It provides a fascinating view of this mingling-point between two branches of literature, and it contains some darn good stories too.