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Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century
Reviewed by Mark Finn, ©

Format: Book
By:   Orson Scott Card (editor)
Released:   November 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

With a name like Masterpieces, this large science fiction anthology makes a promise to the reader. With the sub-title The Best Science Fiction of the Century, it issues a dare to itself, and unfortunately, leaves editor Card with his tongue stuck to the proverbial flagpole.

At least, in some respects, he did the presentation up right. The book is broken into three distinct ages: The Golden Age, the New Wave, and the Media Generation. He also provides pointed, informative introductions to each author that are perfect for newbies or nice reminders for old fans who maybe have forgotten that science fiction didn't begin with Neuromancer.

There's no arguing the list of people included: Asimov, Clarke, Gibson, Ellison, Heinlein, le Guin, Pohl, Sturgeon, Bradbury, and Aldiss are the luminaries that immediately jump out at the reader. Even though the stories for these people aren't necessarily the ones I would have included, I won't begrudge the choice too much because the author is represented. That's the point, I think, of these kinds of projects.

Where Card damns himself is in the omissions. Where, for example, is J. G. Ballard? Wither Frederic Brown? Alfred Bester? Phillip K. Dick? Cordwainer Smith? H. Beam Piper? Eric Frank Russell? E. E. Smith? John W. Campbell?

Here's my specific gripe. When I think of the best science fiction of the century, it brings to mind the things that were the first of its kind to come out. The first stories about a future that could very well happen if we keep on doing what we're doing. The stories that got authors in trouble. The stories that caused an uproar when they came out. The stories that influenced people, changed the way they thought.

For every author that Card includes, he excludes two of the people above. Why, for example, isn't "Who Goes There?" in the book? It's the one that's an allegory for the Red Scare of the 1950s. Glancing through the table of contents, I was stunned to find it missing. I'm sure you can think of a dozen others on your own. Whatever just came into your head, don't worry, it's probably not in there, either.

Such a book would have been easy to assemble. Enough scholarship has been generated, both pop cultural and non-, to generate a list as long as my arm. And, while I mean no disrespect to the work of Lloyd Biggle, "Tunesmith" wouldn't be on the list, at all. So, where did Card get his material? This passage is from his introduction to the book:

These are the stories that I loved when I first read them and that, upon rereading, I still love and admire. They are stories that I think appeal to a wide audience of readers, and not just a small group. They are by writers who have mattered in the field, influencing other writers and, more importantly, changing the lived of their readers. I tried to avoid duplications--stories that did the same kind of thing as others in the collection, though of course such stories are completely subjective. Above all, these are stories that I cannot forget.

Ah, now it all makes sense! These aren't the best science fiction stories ever, these are the stories that really turned Orson Scott Card's crank! Well, hell, why didn't they say that in the first place? I'd like to suggest another title for the second edition: My Personal Favorites: the Science Fiction Stories That Made Me Want to go Write Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. With that minor change in place, I'd have no trouble with this collection, as is. But with a name like Masterpieces, the contents run a little light to me.

That's not to say it's a bad collection. Just don't believe the hype on the cover or the inside flap and you'll have some nice stories that are all terrific examples of each author's work. Even Lloyd Biggle.

Mark Finn can also be found at www.clockworkstorybook.com. Gods New and Used available at your local bookstore or from Amazon.com and makes a wonderful present for the geek in your life who has everything. Year of the Hare coming soon!

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