The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
I recently read a short-story collection of recent works from big-name authors that caused me to reflect on what I looked for in the short story. I came to the conclusion that my childhood addiction to Year's Best anthologies left me looking for strange, creative, and memorable stories from a variety of authors, from the neophyte to grand masters. The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 goes one better. Rather than restricting itself to the last year, Van Gelder was free to sift through all of the great authors, and through all of their works, trying to find a single story that exemplified the brilliance and style and mind of that author. The collection that Van Gelder unearthed contains more than its fair share of gems.
The collection consists mostly of stories from the "old guard" of speculative fiction, including memorable stories from big-name authors such as Aldiss and Heinlein, with a judicious mixture of newer award-winning authors. Van Gelder introduces each story with a brief biography of the author in which his admiration is practically tangible. I found some of the biographies to be as readable and interesting, adding a crucial context to the stories. Some of the stories were truly spectacular.
My top picks:
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu was one of the gems of the collection, a magical, bittersweet little story of clashing cultures and parents and being a second-generation American. It is utterly poignant and beautiful, heartbreaking and magical.
“You know what the Chinese think is the saddest feeling in the world? It’s for a child to finally grow the desire to take care of his parents, only to realize that they were long gone.”
“The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi was also brilliant. It takes place in a future in which people have been so altered by "weeviltech" that they can find sustenance in dirt and slag, and can slice off an arm or a leg and have it almost instantly regenerate. A bunch of security guards at a slag heap site stumble upon a "genuine bio-job" dog who has somehow managed to survive in the brave new world of burning acid and toxic slag. The group isn't sure whether they want to keep or eat the dog--after all, it's pathetically weak and can't even regrow its own bones. The story is poignant and grotesque by turns, an exploration of what it means to be human when the term "humanity" has lost all meaning. My favourite quote is from a poem from the early days of weeviltech:
“Cut me and I won’t bleed. Gas me and I won’t breathe.
Stab me, shoot me, slash me, smash me
I have swallowed science
I am God.
“Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling is a lighthearted and enjoyable exploration of what I can only term “automated karma.” In this future, most people in Japan carry pokkecon , small personal computers which can be seen as either turning them into “information criminals” who, zombielike, do whatever the screen tells them to do, helping them to “relate in a much more human way.”
“The Prize of Peril” by Robert Sheckley is a deliciously cynical story in which the media has come up with a lovely method of monetizing the new Voluntary Suicide Act: thrill shows. Like the reality shows of our time, average--or more typically, rather below-average-- people can sign up to do risky and nonsensical things for the audience’s entertainment. Unlike our reality shows, the danger is real: in these elimination shows, elimination is not a figure of speech. Nowadays, this plot isn’t too out of the ordinary, although I think this story executes the idea brilliantly. The impressive bit? The story was written in 1958, long before reality shows had really come into their own.
A few of my favourite quotes:
“Those quiet, mannerly, law-abiding people didn’t want him to escape, Raeder thought sadly. They wanted to see a killing. Or perhaps they wanted to see him narrowly escape a killing.
It came to the same thing, really.”
“Society had woven the noose and put it around his neck, and he was hanging himself with it, and calling it free will.”
The authors include renown greats such as Heinlein as well as authors who have disappeared from the current consciousness. There are quite a few other great stories in the collection, and while some left me unmoved, I didn't actually dislike any of them, which, for me, was a bit of an anomaly. All of them provided an interesting glimpse at the ways in which speculative fiction has evolved over the last few decades. Overall, if you're interested in looking back at some of the specific greats, this collection is definitely worth a look.
~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Tachyon Publications, in exchange for my honest review. ~~
As always with my anthology reviews, I'm going to detail every single story, and I'll do so in rough order of preference. However, in this case, I'm going to divide the remaining stories into three types: comedy, poignant, and driven/grotesque.
=======THE COMEDY COLLECTION=======
Quite a few of the stories were pure entertainment, humorous, ironic, and often absurd.
“The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” by George Alec Effinger is an amusing tale in which the alien nuhp land on Earth to share their knowledge with humans. There’s really only one problem: they believe that all subjective opinions have an absolute answer, they are positive they know what it is, and they’re desperate to share with humanity. After a few months of learning that the score from Ben Hur is the objectively best musical composition, and hollyhocks are the best flowers, and powder blue is the best color, the humans are practically ready to scream. The tale of how the nuhp bring peace to the galaxy is pretty much hilarious.
“Narrow Valley” by R A Lafferty is a weird and entertaining little clash between native peoples and brash American invaders. When the Pawnee Indians are given their small parcels of land, one decides to put a curse on it so that it will remain his. Even a century later, anyone walking on the land experiences strange side effects, so all abandon it, until Mr and Mrs Robert Rampart and their horrifically precocious children decide to take it. Mockery is dealt out to both the Ramparts and Clarence Little-Saddle, the Pawnee living on the land-- but Lafferty also gets in quite a few swipes at the dangers of stereotyping.
“Is there any wild Indians around here?” Fatty Rampart asked.
“No, not really. I go on a bender about every three months and get a little bit wild, and there’s a couple of of Osage boys from the Grey Horse that get noisy sometimes, but that’s about all,” Clarence Little-Saddle said.
“The Cosmic Expense Account” by C M Cornbluth is another amusing little yarn in which a sharp publisher manages to talk a professor into putting his theories of “Functional Epistemology” into a popular self-help book to book. Titled “How to Live on the Cosmic Expense Account,” it sells surprisingly well. The trouble really begins when one strong-minded lady actually reads the book, but unfortunately, she skips “Chapter Nine:’How to be in Utter Harmony with your Environment,’” and resolves to alter her environment to be in harmony with her.
“The Third Level” by Jack Finney is brief, but with an enjoyable ending. A man wanders into Grand Central Station, as you do, and, also as you do, gets a bit lost and ends up in the New York of a century before. As soon as he gets back, to his wife’s eternal dismay, he starts collecting vintage money so he can start a farm in his personal utopia of Galesburg, Illinois.
Several other stories were intended as comedy, but didn't quite manage to find my funny bone. “The Attack of the Giant Baby” by Kit Reed is a short, slapstick story that is exactly what it says on the tin, but felt to me like the beginning of an idea, not one that had come to full fruition. Robert Heinlein’s I-am-my-own-grandpa-style travel story, “--All You Zombies--”, did nothing for me, but then, nothing by Heinlein really ever does.
Some of the stories were less action-heavy and more reflective, creating a new future to look back upon the present.
“Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman is a touching exploration of technological change and its effect on culture. A rural village is about to experience the goodwilled tyranny of the first world as they impose their culture on those they consider the "less fortunate." The story is sweet and thoughtful and, above all, in our days of "internet for all," achingly relevant. A quote:
“How dare they? How dare they call us the have-nots?”
“The Bone Woman” by Charles de Lint is a lovely example of early urban fantasy, intermingling urban life and the legend of La Huesera into a vibrant and poignant story. As the narrator notes, The Bone Woman is a natural inhabitant of the cities, for she collects her bones from the desert, “deserts natural, and those of our own making.”
Several other stories fell into the "poignant" category, providing a refreshing sip of sweetness sandwiched between the weird and grotesque. “The Hundredth Dove” by Jane Yolen is a lovely, lyrical little story that captures both the voice and spirit of the traditional fairy-story. “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson is a sweet little tale about losing--and recovering-- one’s childhood illusions. “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King is a wistful ghost-echo story in which a woman receives a phone call from her husband who died a few days before. Unbelievably, I think I've never read a book by King, so the story gave me a taste of his compulsively readable prose.
“Echo” by Elizabeth Hand is the musings of a woman who lives alone and dreams of the man with whom she corresponds. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much for me; there isn’t much of a plot, and, as far as I could tell, no science fiction or fantasy at all. However, it contains a tangible aching loneliness and is filled with lyrical, poetic writing; for example,
“Words like feathers falling from the sky, black spots on blue.”
========THE IMPASSIONED AND GROTESQUE=========
One of my favourite aspects of speculative fiction is how they can be utilized to question human nature or the norms of society by mirroring the familiar within the strange.
“Sundance” by Robert Silverberg is a perfect example of this. Hallucinatory and memorable, the story of a man who is helping to irradicate the gentle alien “Eaters” from a new planet frontier when he begins to wonder if history is repeating itself, and if he is committing the same atrocities that were once performed against his ancestors, the Sioux Indians. When his comrades attempt to reassure him, he really begins to fall down the rabbit-hole. A few of my favourite quotes:
“The Eaters aren’t intelligent beings. Obviously. Otherwise we wouldn’t be under orders to liquidate them.”
“We never learn a thing, do we? We export all our horrors to the stars.”
“Salvador” by Lucius Shepard is a haunting and occasionally horrific portrayal of a future of super-soldiers and coldly imperialistic wars. The story is chimeric, weaving together phantoms of South American legend with a vivid portrayal of PTSD:
“He knew the people inside did not intend him any harm, but he also knew that places have a way of changing peoples’ intent.”
“The Lincoln Train” by Maureen F McHugh is an uncomfortable alternate reality in which Southerners, rather than forcing the ex-slaves into a new form of slavery via sharecropping, are shipped off on trains that bear a certain resemblance to those that took the Jews in Nazi Germany. I found the story profoundly disagreeable because it casts the perpetrators in the roles of victims, a role that I do not think they deserve because it minimizes the suffering they cause. This discomfort is precisely what the story explores, and it is indeed thought-provoking.
“Suicide Coast” by M John Harrison is an interesting exploration of what happens when virtual reality can supercede reality, and what reality life mean without risk. My favourite quote:
“A life without consequences isn’t a life at all.”
“Rat” by James Patrick Kelly is an early piece of cyberpunk in which the eponymous Rat tries to make his way home while acting as a drug mule for the outfit. The drug he carries is “dust,” a powder that fries the brain, turning the eyes yellow and the world hallucinatory. Dust is so addictive that a single taste is a death sentence, a slow death in which the unthinking craving for dust will drive the victim into desperate, zombielike attacks on everyone around. The most interesting aspect, to me, was the similarity to the “dust” in Kate Griffin’s Minority Council. I suspect it may have been an unconscious inspiration for her version.
“Winemaster” by Robert Reed is as imaginative as I have come to expect of the author, exploring a world in which people can transform themselves into nanocomputers so that a second becomes a year. The story involves beings smaller and greater than humans, and alterations in time. As with the other stories by Reed that I have encountered, it feels oddly half-told, with so much more left to say, but I think it is all the better for it.
The only risk from more serious stories is that their success is much more dependent on the audience. Some of the stories didn't resonate with me, but I found them all readable. Jack Vance’s “Green Magic” is an archetypal fantasy tale that explores the dangers of forbidden knowledge. I quite liked the ending. “A Kind of Artistry” by Brian Aldiss was another weird one, the story of a man bound to a dying culture and a possessive woman. If you’ve never read Aldiss before, his writing style can be rather jarring. I think he uses more em-dashes and exclamation points per page than Anne Shirley. The ending, however, has that lovely creepy weirdness that some of the old scifi stories so effortlessly generate. “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight didn’t do too much for me; it takes place in a society that punishes its deviants via cold-shouldering and ostracisation, rather like Iain M Banks’ Culture. It reminded me a bit of a Star Trek episode. I personally find this kindness a little offputting, as it utterly elminiates the possibility of rehabilitation, turning any criminally into a depressed and lonely sociopath. “The Friendship Light” by Gene Wolfe is gruesome and grotesque, the story of a man who seeks a little revenge upon his deceitful brother-in-law. It struck me as having something of a Poe-like flavour. “Jeffty is Five” by Harlan Ellison also didn’t do much for me; the story is told from the perspective of a young man whose childhood friend never ages and remains five forever. To me, it felt like the bulk of the story was a sentimental collection cultural references to the forties and fifties, leaving me baffled and unimpressed.
If I had to choose my least favourite part of the collection, I think I'd select the forward, written by Michael Dirda. The forward--not written by Van Gelder-- is rather defensive of the "old school" and complains rather petulantly that many of these authors have fallen from favour:
“In recent years some writers and readers have announced that they see no need to be familiar with the works of, say, Robert A Heinlein. One of those old pulp writers, wasn’t he? Misogynistic and militaristic, too. Who needs him?
This is roughly like saying, ‘William Faulkner, didn’t he write about hillbillies and Southern degenerates?’”
Leaving aside my personal issues with Faulkner, I find this rather patronising. Whilst age doesn’t necessarily make a story outdated, it doesn’t imbue some mystic additional value, either. Fortunately, the author of the forward is not the collector of the stories, and the collection is indeed brilliant.
Van Gelder set out to provide a taste of some of the most renowned speculative fiction authors over the last half-century, and he succeeded brilliantly. The stories are funny, thought-provoking, and grotesque by turns, it is truly a magnificent collection.