EVEN IGNORING TELEVISION series, the public has been so inundated with Star Wars, Superman, Buck Rogers, and Alien that science fiction may still conjure up a too-fixed and narrow image, one based on space heroes and bug-eyed monsters. Perhaps only Close Encounters of the Third Kind hints at greater depths. Such a limited view is unfortunate because it ignores both the wide variety of subject matter and high literary quality of which SF is capable.
For example, The Best of Hal Clement (Del Rey/Ballantine, $1.95), a paperback anthology and the most recent in a fine series, represents "classic science fiction" as published during the past 30 years. In an "Author's Afterword," Clement, the pseudonym of Harry Clement Stubbs, declares that "the ideal science-fiction story (is) one packed with adventure in unfamiliar environments, with an ending which any educated adult could kick himself for not foreseeing." Clement's definition is significant because it relates his technological science fiction -- exemplified by his famous novel, Mission of Gravity -- to the detective story, both giving the protagonist a puzzle to solve.
In contrast to such tales with a hard science bent is the pure adventure fantasy of Poul Anderson's The Merman's Children (Berkley-/Putnam, $11.95), a quest narrative set in the 13th century when seven mer-children (half merman, half human) range from Greenland and Vinland to the Mediterranean. Using the church as a symbol for the rise of the modern world. The Merman's Children dramatizes the inevitable passing of all Faerie. "Magic is dying out of Creation," laments one character, and the modern world will be the poorer for it. Just as Clement insisted that his stories were based upon known science, so in an "Author's Note" Anderson explains that his epic fantasy grew out of his close reading of Danish folk ballads. (Incidentally, to unsettle those who might too sharply differentiate science fiction from fantasy, Pocket Books has recently issued The Best of Poul Anderson: The Greatest Science Fiction Adventurer for $2.25.)
Science fiction is usually set in the distant future (or past) and in the far reaches of space, but it is not limited by such conventions. For example, Ben Bova's Kinsman (Quantum/Dial, $9.95) concentrates upon a character study of Chet Kinsman during the last years of this century. Bova's protagonist enters the present Air Force Academy, hoping to become an astronaut, even though he is a Quaker who must break with family tradition to achieve his ambition. In the course of his career, he is forced to kill a Russian cosmonaut during hand-to-hand combat in space, is threatened with grounding as a result of his reactions and must undergo therapy. His major achievement comes, however, when he is instrumental in persuading American businessmen and congressional legislators to finance Moonbase -- and have that colony be something other than simply a military base. In Kinsman , Bova -- an editor of Omni -- again voices that dram of reaching outward to the stars which has so deeply motivated the American space program.
But science fiction also has its antiheroes, especially since the 1960s New Wave, represented by writers such as Norman Spinrad and J. G. Ballard. A major achievement of these writers is their reflection of America's complex attitudes toward science and technology -- and the future itself. Among the outstanding practitioners of this often pessimistic sub-genre is Thomas M. Disch, perhpas best known for his novel Camp Concentration . The dramatic conflict of his latest novel, On Wings of Song (St. Martin's, $10), rises from man's desire to transcend limitations, in this case both of physical being and entrapment in an America of the virtual police state. By achieving inner harmony (here represented by the act of singing) an individual can literally leave his body in a comatose state; he can "fly." The action centers upon Daniel Weinreb, whose driving ambition is to fly; the initial setting is Iowa, a particularly repressive state dominated by "undergoders," for whom flying is not only a sin but a crime. Unlike Clement or Bova, Disch neither creates nor emphasizes an elaborate background; he includes only sufficient detail to show that in the future things have changed: Famines are mentioned, and people must pass through a border patrol to enter Minnesota. The narrative develops after Weinreb falls in love with and marries the wealthy Boadicea Whiting, who flies on the attempt they undertake together on the eve of their honeymoon. Weinreb unfortunately does not. Perhaps the novel's only weakness is the lengths at which Disch portrays a decadent New York during the 12-year period when Weinreb cares for his wife's body and attempts to join her in flight. Still, the novel builds to an ambiguous and memorable climax.
The impact of science fiction can perhaps best be measured by the number of writers not usually associated with the field who have made use of it. Such is the case of Robie Macauley, former editor of The Kenyon Review and Playboy . His A History of Time to Come (Knopf, $9.95) may gain more attention than any of the novels thus far mentioned because of its material. But the book seems flawed because Macauley (perhaps intentionally) does not fulfill the expectations he sets up. To begin with, his first narrator, living in what was the Chicago area, gives an account of an apocalyptic war between black and white Americans which reduces the land to barbarism. The narrative then switches to an unspecified future where the main hero, Kinkaid, following an old Esso map, journeys through the forests and past the ruins of his forefathers in an attempt to reach "Haven," probably Grand Haven on the Lake Michigan shore. (This section calls to mind Stephen Vincent Benet's famous story, "By the Waters of Babylon"  as Kinkaid several times expresses his hope for rebuilding.) His quest is interrupted, however, when the daughter of Haven's governor is kidnapped by raiders and taken South. At this point the novel switches to an account of the attempt to rescue her from the "Southrons," who intend to hold a slave auction of their prisoners. Despite the emotional and intellectual impact of A Secret History , Maccauley oddly refuses to bring his action, especially regarding Kinkaid, to any true resolution.
The range of vision suggested by these novels is augmented by Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year, edited by Gardner Dozois (Dutton, $9.95). Representing works from 1978, the stories include John Varley's Nebula-award-winning "The Persistence of Vision," whose characters seek to find lasting values in a commune of deaf mutes; Phyllis Eisenstein's "Lost and Found," a too-brief but delightful intrusion of time-travelers into the present; and Gene Wolfe's "Seven American Nights," the witty and piercing fragmentary manuscript diary of an Iranian visitor to a future American which has destroyed itself through its own excesses.