Every five or ten years, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine is poring over its backlog and publishing a fresh ‘best of’. The first several editions edited by Edward L. Ferman, in the late 90s the magazine underwent transition, and Gordon van Gelder was added to editing duties. But 1999’s Fiftieth Anniversary edition is different in more than just terms of editor. The backlog search limited to the decade, The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary anthology features only stories published in the 90s. Moreover, where the later anthologies (the 60th Anniversary and the Very Best of Vol. 2), contain stories by authors the majority of readers are familiar with, the fiftieth goes a more esoteric route. Sharon Farber, Bruce Holland Rogers, Ray Vukcevich, Esther M. Friesner, Dale Bailey, and Michael Blumlein are generally authors known only to those deeply involved in speculative fiction. The quality of their stories, however, is another matter. Popularity not always equalling excellence, the lesser known names add an air of originality for unfamiliar readers, making the anthology an unexpected but no less enjoyable selection of stories from the Magazine.
Kicking things off is Elizabeth Hand’s touching novella “Last Summer at Mars Hill”. About two teens dealing with their parent’s health problems during a summer holiday in Maine, it is paranormal fantasy (the fantasy sparing in its use) which touches upon terminal illness in poignant fashion. “Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling is a one-off about the Asian cat sitting at the cash register of businesses worldwide. Tsuyoshi, a video renovator, thinks nothing of passing along snippets of interesting old video onto the web when asked. Helping his wife deliver a maneki neko one day, all hell breaks loose after following one instruction on his smartphone. Sterling’s satirical take on modern life does explain how all of the cats ended up scattered around the world, but goes little further. “No Planets Strike” by Gene Wolfe is a tale that, when divided into its component parts (alien planet, Shakespeare, talking barnyard animals, bad fairies, and Christian mythology), simply should not work. Wolfe turning it all into a delight, the story becomes one of the most unique in the anthology. “Sins of the Mothers” by Sharon N. Farber is a story that brings adoption and gene technology into sharp focus. The story of an adopted man who finds his birth mother later in life, his reasons for seeking her out are not precisely altruistic.
Irreverently irresistible, “The Finger” by Ray Vukcevich is the story of a boy whose middle finger has special power; flipping the bird leads him straight to manhood. A delight, this is storytelling to be enjoyed for masterful language and the fun and nostalgia (at least for boys) of the premise. “Lifeboat on a Burning Sea” by Bruce Holland Rogers is about a man working on a project to create A.I. Projecting life beyond the grave, the project is called TOS (The Other Side), but goes on to have effect on this side. “Gone” by John Crowley is a moody, minimalist piece about a woman whose partner has run away with their children in a world where a space ship orbits the Earth and peace loving Elmer robots do housework and common chores. A bizarre story for the robot premise, it nevertheless manages to draw mysterious emotions from within. “First Tuesday” by Robert Reed is the story of one evening a Stefan’s house. The dreadlocked president campaigning at their home virtually, all manner of topics are raised, from the father’s racism to the progress of society, and culminates in yet another quality Reed story. The fool who was not a fool, the magic stick the brothers fall for, and the princess who loves books, “The Fool, the Stick, and the Princess” by Rachel Pollack is a parable about the wisdom of ignorance. Oh, and ogres attack.
Regardless of one’s stance on abortion, Esther M. Friesner’s “A Birthday” is an affective piece. Set in a world where women can follow the virtual lives of the children they chose to abort, it is the story of a woman given the day off on her aborted daughter’s birthday. Powerful, thought-provoking material. Not Harlan Ellison’s most well-known story, “Sensible City” nevertheless captures a spark of the man’s dynamite in Twilight Zone fashion. The tale of two ruthless cops on the run, they encounter an evil they may not be prepared for. Tanith Lee’s “All the Birds of Hell” is a novelette masterpiece. Imagery and mood seeping off the page, the story of a museum curator watching over two corpses in a frozen Siberia is light though deceivingly rich material that eases its weight onto the mind effortlessly. “We Love Lydia Love” is a premise that could have been fleshed out by Pat Caidgan, but was instead by Bradley Denton. The story of a dead pop star’s image used to voice new music, transhumanism’s the gig. “Paul and Me” by Michael Blumlein revisions the Paul Bunyan myth in surprisingly poignant terms.
“Have Gun, Will Edit” by Paul Di Filippo, part of his Plumage for Pegasus stories, is the highly satirical tale of a world wherein aging science fiction writers have no qualms having their younger competition taken out mafia-style. The boat plying both sides of the river, however, they can likewise be bought for a price. An homage to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, “Quinn's Way” by Dale Bailey is a more contemporary tale of two boys. Their fathers not the American Golden Age ideal Bradbury portrayed, the two boys face even more difficult choices when a circus comes to town. Homage a dodgy literary niche, Bailey makes his work very well.
“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 the author’s confident, minimalist hand. The penultimate story is Ray Bradbury’s fantastical homage to Laurel and Hardy. Likewise not Bradbury’s best story, it nevertheless is enjoyable. And the final story is “Solitude” by Ursula Le Guin. Set in her Hainish universe, in particular a society with strong taboos regarding contact and communication between men and women, it results in a world where the two sexes live apart, meeting only in secret rendezvous to carry on the species. A subtly powerful story about the desire for solitude and the desire for companionship, Le Guin strikes a perfect, bittersweet note between the two.
In the end, The Best From Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology is, as one would expect given the success of the Magazine, a quality and varied selection of stories from the archives of Fantasy & Science Fiction. All stories published in the final decade of the 20th century, many of the authors are not known from best-seller lists, but nevertheless offer excellent pieces of work. The stories that meet that standard naturally dependent on the reader’s expectations, it’s safe to say, however, they won’t find fault in the basics—prose, plotting, and voicing all up to snuff, making for yet another winning set of stories from the history of the Magazine.
The following is the table of contents for the anthology:
Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand
Maneki Neko by Bruce Sterling
No Planets Strike by Gene Wolfe
Sins of the Mothers by Sharon N. Farber (as S.N. Dyer)
The Finger by Ray Vukcevich
Lifeboat on a Burning Sea by Bruce Holland Rogers
Gone by John Crowley
First Tuesday by Robert Reed
The Fool, the Stick, and the Princess by Rachel Pollack
A Birthday by Esther M. Friesner
Sensible City by Harlan Ellison
All the Birds of Hell by Tanith Lee
We Love Lydia Love by Bradley Denton
Paul and Me by Michael Blumlein
Have Gun, Will Edit by Paul Di Filippo
Forget Luck by Kate Wilhelm
Quinn's Way by Dale Bailey
Partial People by Terry Bisson
The Lincoln Train by Maureen F. McHugh
Another Fine Mess by Ray Bradbury
Solitude by Ursula K. Le Guin