Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review of The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 2 ed. by Gordon van Gelder



Fantasy & Science Fiction, published since 1949, is one of the most recognized and long-lasting magazine in the speculative fiction field.  Racking up an incredible list of awarded authors and stories in the decades that have passed, in 2009 they gleaned their backlists and produced The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology.  The number of stories qualifying for the moniker spilling over, in 2014 the magazine decided to publish a second group of stories as ‘the very best of’, naming it Volume 2.  The first an all-star anthology, the second, also edited by Gordon van Gelder, possesses just as much impact, history, and sheer enjoyability, and is a welcome retrospective of one of the genre’s bastions.  Arranged chronologically, the following are brief summaries of the twenty-seven stories selected.

The charmingly genre “The Third Level” by Jack Finney opens the anthology.  One man’s recollection of a time he accidentally wandered in to the supposedly non-existent third level of New York’s Central Station, it’s a suitably nostalgic mood on which to start the journey.  But C.M. Kornbluth’s black comedy “The Cosmic Charge Account”, with its strong dose of the surreal, is what gets the anthology moving.  Kornbluth an amazing stylist, few writers have been able to capture such a voice.  The story of a journey taken by two ostensibly senile men (a publisher and his writer), the pair ends up escorting a little old lady who believes the world can be her oyster after reading a self-help book.  Hilarity ensues.  “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight is a very peculiar, very mercurial, troubling story that never quite settles in the mind.  About a man isolated from the world by his anti-social (to put it lightly) behavior, his attempts at existence simultaneously invoke empathy and abhorrence—not an easy trick to pull off for a writer, and perhaps the reason the story is reprinted to this day.  An innocent drop of youthful imagination, “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson is the amiable story of a teacher, her young student, and the secret that arises between them in the classroom one school year.

Featuring reality tv more than forty years before it became a phenomenon, “The Prize of Peril” by Robert Sheckley is also a precursor to Stephen King’s “The Running Man”.  A man contracted to escape death on a series of tv shows, the story possesses drama and an agenda: Sheckley is too good a writer not to have a point.  “—All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein, despite having a strangely formatted title, is a straight-forward time travel story.  A one-off, it may be of most interest to those who enjoy a good paradox—of the transsexual variety.  “A Kind of Artistry” by Brian Aldiss is a more rich, substantive piece whose delicate fingers pluck at broader questions regarding life and existence.  Though technically a planetary adventure, Aldiss endows the story of Derek Ende, a man escaping life on Earth to research an alien civilization, with an affective sense of melancholy.  Suffering an existential crisis of sorts, his ensuing journey is more than the ticket to self-knowledge.  “Green Magic” by Jack Vance, though told in Dying Earth style, is not a story in that setting.  Having a go at answering the question whether ignorance is indeed bliss and knowledge a burden, the result is mature, understated story that is uncharacteristically sublime for Vance—but remains a great pick for a Vance story.  “The Doors of His Face, Lamps of His Mouth” is classic Roger Zelazny.  About a man who is commissioned to go to Venus and be filmed catching a sea monster, it possesses all the suave and cool of the Zelazny hero—an outpouring of coffee, cigarettes, broken relationships, and personal reflection are needed to catch the massive fish.  The “Narrow Valley” by R.A. Lafferty is quintessential Lafferty, though to be fair, connoisseurs of the eclectic writer may say otherwise.  The story of a Native American who casts a spell on his land, things don’t become strange until sometime later when a white family decides to pick up the parcel from tax wavers.  Slyly humorous, the shrunken piece of property defies description—an aspect of writing Lafferty excels at.

Written alternately in the first, second, and third person, “Sundance” by Robert Silverberg is not as muddled as one might think.  Working from a simple premise (a group are tasked with wiping out an innocuous herbivore prior to human settlement of aplanet), Silverberg slowly utilizes the three perspectives to layer the protagonists psychological makeup. An interesting and interestingly told story the result, it feels as much a precursor to the environmental/spiritual themes of Downward to the Earth as a unique work in its own right.  A piece in dialogue with Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, Kit Reed’s “Attack of the Giant Baby” satirizes the phenomena, deftly.  “The Hundredth Dove” by Jane Yolen is a timeless story written in an elegant hand.  Hugh, master fowler for the kingdom, is tasked with capturing 100 doves for the king’s upcoming wedding. But in the forest, a mysterious white dove haunts the hunt.  Determined to catch it, he gets more than he bargained in pursuit.  Seeming to capture perfectly its last breath—that moment of realization, “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison is a story about the life and death of America’s Golden Age.  Written with an amazing ear for the flow of words, it is the story of a man and his young whose neighbor doesn’t grow old.  More literary than fantasy, it is a look at America’s loss of innocence post-WWII, but remains more nostalgia than outright paean of bygone days.

Featuring the same setting as his classic novella R&R, Lucius Shepard’s “Salvador” is the story of John Dantzler, an American soldier fighting in El Salvador.  Led by a maniacal captain named DT, Dantzler pops pills to take the existential edge off combat, distract himself from the exigencies of war, and focus on the killing.  His unit dysfunctional, things come to a head camped on a hillside one evening.  A short but affective piece with strong echoes of the Vietnam War, Shepard slowly spins hallucination and reality into an ever tightening spiral of quality fiction.  Nicely humorous and nicely plotted, “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” by George Alec Effinger contains a breadth of wit and wisdom in a memorable story that exceeds mere comedy.  What can anyone say about “Rat” by James Patrick Kelly?  Any two sentence summary selling the piece short, it’s dynamic imagination, surreal noir, and bio/cyberpunk all chopped in a fine line of future drugs, ready to snort—or absorb, as in the case of our four-legged, beady-eyed miscreant anti-hero.  Not chainsaw massacre, “The Friendship Light” by Gene Wolfe is mature horror that requires re-reading (like most of Wolfe’s fiction) to come to a clear understanding.  Images flitting across the page, begging for explanation, the story once again proves he is a master horror writer. “The Bone Woman” by Charles de Lint is urban fantasy about a strange woman who wanders town, seemingly delusional, and the fat woman who collects bones from trash cans in her wake.  “The Lincoln Train” by Maureen McHugh is a Civil War story about a girl forced to move west with her mother after the North has won the war.  Not McHugh’s best story, nor anything new thematically, it nevertheless is written in McHugh’s confident, minimalist hand. 

A one-off about the Asian cat sitting at the cash register of businesses worldwide, “Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling is the story of Tsuyoshi, a video renovator, who thinks nothing of posting snippets of interesting old video onto the web.  Though he doesn’t know who is behind it, he always gets something free in return, that is, as long as he’s willing to follow a few simple steps.  Helping his wife deliver a maneki neko one day, all hell breaks loose after blindly following the instructions.  A satirical take on modern life does, Sterling explains how the cats ended up scattered around the world.  “Winemaster” by Robert Reed is an interesting concept housed in a conventional story.  Humans able to transmute themselves into virtual form, the US government outlaws the technology save collective Nests where thousands and millions of “individuals” exist. One man attempting to smuggle a gaggle of souls to Canada, he’s shadowed every step of the way by someone who may or may not be a government agent.  “Suicide Coast” is the inimitable M. JohnHarrison’s dip into cyberpunk land—roughly fifteen years after the fact.  The story of a writer living amongst a group of VR junkies, it’s the sci-fi version of Kerouac’s One the Road. “Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman, later expanded into the novel Air, is a sensitive yet imaginative story of a fictional Eurasian country where a new technology is introduced.  Ryman’s prose of subtle import, he too tells a cyberpunk tale but in sheep’s clothes. “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi tells of security people at an isolated mine in Montana hunting a bio-creature on the loose.  Humanity having mastered the arts of healing and regeneration until injury and loss of limb mean nothing, the hunt does not go as any in the 20 th century would.  Though unforgivably gruesome toward the end (sex during amputation, c’mon), the tale remains relevant for its questions regarding the sacredness of the corporeal.  The story of a woman living alone on a small island off the coast of Maine, “Echo” by Elizabeth Hand is a beautifully poignant piece that touches something emotionally deep.  Hand is generally an excellent prose artist, but “Echo” may be among her best, producing a resonate, affective piece. (I may be wrong, but given the similarities, this story may have been redeveloped as “The Saffron Gatherers”.)  The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King is a rather straight-forward afterlife story of a woman contacted by her dead husband, but written in King’s polished hand.  “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu plays the pity card on the last round, but plays it with dignity and real emotion.  The story of a boy born to an American man and Chinese woman, the resulting culture conflict plays itself out in poignant, and at least initially, playful terms toward its relevant, weighty conclusion.

In the end, The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 2 is every bit as good as the (unofficially named) first volume. The history of the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction brimming with quality, award-winning stories, I wouldn’t be surprised if they could put out a third volume equally as impressive.  Covering the decades the magazine has been in publication (and centuries, 20th and 21st), as well as the breadth of sub-genres speculative fiction boasts, it’s a welcome retrospective, as much as an appreciated effort to keep the quality stories from the history of the genre in print.  Individual readers will inevitably bounce off some stories and fall helplessly in love with others, but each will remain well written, and for the ideas instilled, unique.

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