Q&A: Penguin Classics Chooses 6 Timeless Works of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Penguin Classics has released the Penguin Galaxy Collection, a series of classic works of science fiction and fantasy books.  The series, which features an introduction by Neil Gaiman, includes six timeless works: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Frank Herbert’s Dune, William Gibson’s The Neuromancer, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  

The National’s Noah Benjamin-Pollak spoke with John Siciliano, executive editor of Penguin Classics, about how the particular books that made it into the Galaxy Collection were chosen, the place of science fiction in literature, and which recent science fiction and fantasy works might make it into a 2050 Penguin Galaxy collection.

Q: How did the idea for this series come about?  What were you trying to achieve with it?
A: We felt it was high time that science fiction and fantasy be given the Penguin Classics treatment—which is to say that they be recognized as part of the canon, and celebrated among the enduring works of literature and thought whose influence continues to resound over the centuries. In recognition of the extent to which science fiction and fantasy pervade our culture—not only in the realm of popular entertainment but also, and especially, in the realm of everyday life, given the pace of technological change—we wanted to bring these genres from the margins to the mainstream of book culture. It’s a series that we hoped would put science fiction and fantasy in a different light, and Penguin Classics in a different light, and attract new readers to both.
Q: How did you choose what books appear in this set of "great" sci-fi?
A: We compiled a shoot-for-the-moon wish list, and, as you can see, we got there—and to Mars and Winter and Arrakis, too!
Q: Do you plan on expanding the Penguin Galaxy imprint or is this it?
A: It’s possible. What is certain is that we will expand our offerings of science fiction and fantasy in Penguin Classics, regardless of whether we expand this particular hardcover series.
Q: Were rights a challenge when creating Galaxy? Were there other books you wanted to include but couldn't because Penguin didn't hold rights for them? Did you have to negotiate for some of the books?
A: We were lucky to discover that the books highest on our wish list were published by sister Penguin imprints, which were very generous in helping to facilitate the publication in Penguin Classics of deluxe hardcover editions.
Q: The books are visually arresting. Can you explain the decision on these futuristic covers with the playful fonts, rather than a classic Penguin cover? And the decision to offer them as a handsome (and expensive) boxed Lucite set?
A: We wanted to do something special for these books, to elevate a category of fiction that is available largely in disposable mass-market editions by harnessing our tradition of innovation in design [see Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover, a visual celebration of the last ten years of Penguin Classics cover designs] to make these six books collector-worthy—stunning visually in proportion to how stunning they are as works of the imagination. They look nothing like what you typically associate with sci-fi/fantasy, and in honor of their visionary qualities, we also wanted them to look like nothing else you’ve ever seen. As for the Lucite boxed set, it followed from the designs themselves: What the artist, Alex Trochut, and our art director, Paul Buckley, came up with had such a “wow” factor that we wanted a special way to showcase the designs. In the right light, the Lucite box seems to glow (Penguin) orange.
 Q: Pretend you are releasing a new Penguin Galaxy collection in 2050, what 'modern classics from the 2000s and 2010s might you include?
A: Fun question! I’d definitely wager that our series introducer, Neil Gaiman, has a good shot, maybe with American Gods. And also George R. R. Martin, with A Game of Thrones; Margaret Atwood, with Oryx and Crake; Ted Chiang, with Stories of Your Life and Others; John Scalzi, with Old Man’s War; and N. K. Jemisin, with The Fifth Season.

Q: After reading and compiling all of these works, what impressions did it leave you with about what science fiction is about, and what role it plays in literature and in the popular imagination?
A: Thrilling as they are for their sheer ingenuity at charting the frontiers of the imagination, what I’ve come to appreciate above all is the path these novels beat back to our own humanity. In times of disruption, of breakneck technological change and uncertainty about what the future holds, it makes sense that we should reach for science fiction and fantasy to provide a map of alternate realities. But I think the greatest contribution that science fiction and fantasy make is not to entertain us with the novelty of invention but to show us that, against the backdrop of surreal circumstances, of realms that represent a radical shift from what we’re accustomed to, our humanity stands out in greater relief, reminding us of what’s good and constant and shared among us, so that we may thrive in brave new worlds.