Saturday, November 22, 2014

Review of The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology ed. by Gordon van Gelder

The typical speculative fiction anthology of original material that appears on shelves these days is a selection of stories intended to reach a particular niche of readers while finding as many tangents within that niche as possible to avoid monotony.  The themed anthology self-limiting, rarely do great or superb anthologies appear, average to slightly above average the usual result.  It is the retrospective anthology, with its ability to glean the years for quality stories, that has a chance at greatness.  If you’re the editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, well, the possibilities are all the brighter.  The magazine publishing speculative fiction for more than half a century, and best-of every five to ten years since 1970, in 1999 Gordon van Gelder took the reins from Edward L. Ferman and produced a 50th Anniversary edition from the magazine’s backlog.  A success, he came back with another ‘very best of’ selection of stories in 2009 for the 60th anniversary anthology.  The magazine’s archives deep (perhaps like no other magazine can boast) and van Gelder's editorial skills consistent, the 60th is just as consistently good as the 50th.  (And for the record, so is the 65th.)

The anthology opens on a scattershot shot of color from the genre’s past.  Three stories in a row—rat-a-tat-tat—anticipate the reader’s hopes all will be as good.  “Of Time and Third Avenue” by Alfred Bester is the result of an author trying to write the best time travel story, ever.  A brief few pages, indeed it is a perfect little specimen (for whatever it’s worth) written in Bester’s supremely confident, dynamic hand that captures one magical possibility of time travel.  “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury is a tiny, sparkling jewel of a story.  A breathtaking moment of juxtaposed beauty and pain, the rain does stop falling on Venus—but only for a moment. “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” by Shirley Jackson is a charming and delightful story of a man who… well, it’s best just to read the story and find out.  A bit of post-WWII Americana, its sentiment produces nostalgia for simpler days.

With Theodore Sturgeon’s “A Touch of Strange”, the anthology shifts gears into stories longer in the tooth—and stories that continue to move at different yet complementary wavelengths.  An ordinary man who had previously met a mermaid meets an ordinary woman who had previously met a merman.  As if it could be any other way, their encounter proves mythic yet in a personal way.  “Eastward Ho!” by William Tenn is the wild west coming east—a reverse Manifest Destiny in a post-apocalyptic future.  Like many other Tenn pieces, it is sparkling satire.  The novelette the successful novel would be based on, “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes is the sixth story in the anthology.  Something of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in science fiction form, a man with a low IQ is taken to participate in laboratory experiments that make him smarter.  Smarter he does become, but that is not the end of his heart-touching tale.  Nature makes us different and Kurt Vonnegut made us equal.  In the sardonic “Harrison Bergeron”, a free-wheeling vignette of a truly equal America is portrayed.  Half a poke at political correctness and half socialism, masks are worn by the handsome, bags of lead shot are carried by wives to equal their husband’s weight, and other bizarre accoutrements equalize society physically.  But when a genius super athlete escapes from prison one day, all things lose equality, meaning short, laughable Vonnegut.  

From vintage Vonnegut to vintage Roger Zelazny, “This Moment of the Storm” presents the writer’s classic hero (coffee drinking, cigarette smoking, suave-line uttering, left hook throwing hero) living on a stop-over planet, working as a meteorology monitor. A rain storm unlike the planet has ever seen on the horizon, when it rains, it pours, sweeping up the lives of those around the hero.   In many ways a predecessor to Ted Chiang’s magnificent “Exhalation”, “The Electric Ant” by Philip K. Dick is a more paranoid rendering of a man discovering he’s a robot, and then researching and testing himself to discover the limits of his existence.  Remarkably humanist despite the seemingly cheesy premise (and title), the twenty pages capture much of what made Dick such an intriguing and influential writer.  Myth, experimentation, Faust, mortality, irreverence—such are the variety of terms possible to use in reference to Harlan Ellison’s inimitable “The Deathbird”.  Divided into sections the author states can be read in any order (though not true), it is the other half of the Genesis creation story in all its bittersweet glory.  Ellison is a tour de force, and the novelette is one reason why.

Though its title is direct, the story is not.  “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree Jr. is not a fantasy about invisible ladies, rather, of a fisherman on his way to Belize when he is stranded on a spit of sand on the Yucatan with a mother, daughter and their pilot.  Perhaps a backhanded swipe at Hemingway, what unravels is a bizarre narrative, expertly presented for ‘alien’ impact.  Announced in its title, “I See You” by Damon Knight is a story unusually written in the second person, and given the subject matter, is entirely appropriate for it.  What would the world be like if a device existed, like an iPhone, that could allow a person to see anything they desire past, present, and future?  Knight answers the question.  Expertly crafting a post-apocalyptic western atmosphere, “The Gunslinger” by Stephen King is the second seminal story in the anthology (after Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon”), though in King’s case it would go on to spawn more than just a novel.  Story embedded within story, the lone gunslinger crosses a barren wasteland in search of a man in black, and, after stopping at a corn farmer’s home, tells of the events, and the madness and desolation, that have brought him to his search. 

“The Dark” by Karen Joy Fowler is a genre story through and through.  About the ‘real’ reason for the plague and other mass die-offs of humanity, it is well written but remains rather empty in hindsight. (Yes, there’s a cheesy horror/sci-fi reason lurking behind the die-off.)  Not the animal rather the city, “Buffalo” by John Kessel is the story of America’s “industrial proletariat” pre-WWII.  Free market economy, socialism, H.G. Wells, and a tree-cutting operation round out this well-written and heartfelt immigrant’s tale.  “Solitude” by Ursula Le Guin is story set in her Hainish universe, in particular a society with strong taboos regarding contact and communication between men and women.  Resulting in a world where the two sexes live apart, they meet 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.  Would being able to kill a cloned terrorist to release feelings of vengeance actually satisfy?  That is the premise of Terry Bisson’s “macs”.  Only ten pages, it is a simple but powerful story that says more about human nature than terrorism, and sticks in the reader’s memory whether they want it to or not.

God supposedly made Adam and Eve, Dr. Frankenstein created a monster, and in “Creation” by Jeffrey Ford, a young boy going through catechism decides to bring to life his own stick man in the forest.  A smoothly written piece with a bite of cynicism at the conclusion, Ford does the heritage proud.  “Other People” by Neil Gaiman is an obvious (and very brief) story that, in near Biblical form, rehashes territory rehashed a million times by all genres of literature. A successful follow up to a successful novel, “Two Hearts” by Peter Beagle is a coda, of sorts, to The Last Unicorn.  The story of a young girl who goes into a forest to get revenge on a griffin who has taken her friend, she learns tackling a monster so big is best to go about with friends—powerful friends.  A classically styled fairy tale by a modern writer, the novelette possesses all of the delightful charm of the novel but wants for depth. “Journey into the Kingdom” by Mary Rickert is a love story, but an uncommon one running parallel to the ghostly experiences had by a young girl growing up beside the sea.  Shifting into a present tense narrative, Rickert looks at the expanse and fragility of giving one’s heart over into, yes, a kingdom. And the last story in the anthology, “The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate” by Ted Chiang, is an 1,001 Arabian Nights-esque tale (with suitably embedded tales) about the meaning of regret as seen through the experiences of people traveling through regularly spaced gates in time.

Spanning six decades (1951-2007), The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology is an all-star cast of short stories the genre can be proud of.  Most nominated or winning awards, each possesses some radiance.  Whether the prose, innate storytelling, or profundity, the selections come from speculative fiction’s memory or are becoming part of it, and as such can be enjoyed by genre and non-genre readers alike.  Moreover, for modern readers of speculative fiction who have not dipped into its short fiction history, this is as good a place as any to start.  With names like Bradbury, Le Guin, Ellison, Sturgeon, Zelazny, Tiptree Jr., there’s no shortage of quality starting points that blend with the more modern. 

The following are the twenty-three stories in the anthology:

Of Time and Third Avenue by Alfred Bester
All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury
One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts by Shirley Jackson
Touch of Strange by Theodore Sturgeon
Eastward Ho! by William Tenn
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
This Moment of the Storm by Roger Zelazny
The Electric Ant by Philip K. Dick
The Deathbird by Harlan Ellison
The Women Men Don't See by James Tiptree, Jr.
I See You by Damon Knight
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
The Dark by Karen Joy Fowler
Buffalo by John Kessel
Solitude by Ursula K. Le Guin
Mother Grasshopper by Michael Swanwick
macs by Terry Bisson
Creation by Jeffrey Ford
Other People by Neil Gaiman
Two Hearts by Peter S. Beagle
Journey into the Kingdom by M. Rickert
The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang

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