Monday, September 29, 2014

2014 read #92: The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Gordon Van Gelder.

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology, edited by Gordon Van Gelder
475 pages
Published 2009
Read from September 23 to September 29
Rating: ★★★★½ out of 5

"Of Time and Third Avenue" by Alfred Bester (1951). Mid-century time travel stories have a certain rigid, sonnet-like formality, presenting a neat paradox or a neat way out of paradox or a small neat logic puzzle, with little ornamentation beyond a tendency toward comic peculiarities in the men visiting from the future. This structure is not without its charms, but my own future-dulled senses find such stories less than satisfying. This one feels even more insubstantial than most, rushing through the time traveler's "You wouldn't really want to profit from knowledge of the future, would you?" pitch as if Bester had somewhere else he had to be that day.

"All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury (1954). Beautiful and terrible, chilling and heartbreaking and aching with childhood in its cruelties and its animal joy, classic Bradbury in a tight and efficient seven pages. Now I wish there were a Venusian companion to The Martian Chronicles, so I could savor this tiny glimpse of a world and a people for a couple hundred more pages.

"One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts" by Shirley Jackson (1955). A cheerful and elegantly understated ditty about the small actions that can make your day -- or ruin it.

"A Touch of Strange" by Theodore Sturgeon (1958). A sweetly awkward (but in the end kind of predictable) love story, a couple brought together by a "touch of strange" in their otherwise plain, boring, average lives. It isn't hard to see this as an allegorical endorsement of genre fiction, really.

"Eastward Ho!" by William Tenn (1958). Despite the basic and wholly undisguised allegory -- what if the tables were turned between Indians and white men?? -- this may be my new favorite post-apocalyptic story of all time. It's just so damn clever, laugh out loud funny, and yet still somehow tense and exciting. Outstanding.

"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes (1959). With classics, there's a good chance that the gist of the story will have been spoiled for you by cultural osmosis. A classic worthy of the name, however, will knock you down and pummel your heart regardless. I haven't read the novel or seen any film adaptations (though I have the novel checked out and will probably read it next month), yet of course I knew the general course of events; the story struck me hard all the same. The loss of intelligence, knowledge, and thought, whether through senility, disease, or some other factor, is one of my deepest anxieties, so Charlie's decline had a personal edge for me. Devastating and superlative fiction.

"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut (1961). Reading this through my own socially progressive, socialistic filter, I find it hard to believe that anyone could see "Harrison Bergeron" as anything other than a lampoon of the Randian ideal, a piss-take cartoon of that evil overbearing liberal government trying its best to keep the superhuman Atlas locked down. The sheer earnest absurdity of it all -- capped with the evil bureaucrat busting down doors with a double barreled shotgun -- seems to preclude any other interpretation. Yet I have heard rumors that some people understand it to mean the exact opposite, which makes me wonder -- did we read the same thing?

"This Moment of the Storm" by Roger Zelazny (1966). Read and reviewed in Modern Classics of Science Fiction. There I said "This story wasn't a total wash (heh, I made a pun), but modern classic? I think not."

"The Electric Ant" by Philip K. Dick (1969). Something else (seemingly) everyone is aware of through cultural osmosis, even if they've never experienced it, is the drug trip, as well as its corollary, the concept of drug-expanded consciousness. Especially if you have a mushroom-head or an LSD fan among your Facebook friends. This is, essentially, a well-written drug trip presented with minimal science-fictiony set-dressings -- all talk of subjective consciousness and solipsism and opening the mind, so to speak, to the universe of sensory stimuli. As a well-written drug trip, I found it quaintly earnest but ultimately disposable.

"The Deathbird" by Harlan Ellison® (1973). Lol. Yes, Harlan Ellison®. The dude seriously trademarked his name. Seriously. Good for him, I guess? Anyway. (Fucking Harlan Ellison®, man. I don't think I'll ever write his name another way from now on.) I imagine there are people who pick up a piece of postmodern fiction -- a story, say, presented as a test packet, a story chopped up and interspersed with seemingly unrelated essays and bible verses and test questions -- and toss it aside as pretentious garbage. My whole life I've had something of the opposite problem: I've always had a tendency to see difficult, nontraditional fiction as automatically profound and brilliant, scaling proportionally to the opacity of the storytelling. Neither extreme holds merit. Opacity for the sake of opacity is a bore, yes, but opacity in service to a higher point -- giving just enough material for the reader to construct their own edifice of meaning -- is an effective and admirable technique, provided it is employed with skill and purpose. Based on that criterion, "The Deathbird" is pretty good, an interesting (and possibly original for its time, for all I know, though it doesn't feel original nowadays) take on Zoroastrian or Gnostic dualism, slithering from an interplanetary judiciary ruling before the Garden of Eden all the way to a post-nuclear hellscape Earth a quarter of a million years from now. But it isn't great. The "sustained shout" of Harlan Ellison®'s style here feels overbearing and bluntly manipulative, without truly moving me.

"The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr. (1976). I felt some trepidation when I reached this story. Tiptree is one of my favorite authors, on the strength of just one story: "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever," the most devastating nine pages I'd ever read. What if this story wasn't up to that impossible standard? Or -- and it's kind of silly to fear this -- what if it was every bit as devastating? I had no cause to worry, on either count. "Women" is undeniably brilliant, but the emotion it evokes is not so much devastating as it is chilling, both from the events of the story itself and from what Tiptree has to say about gender, society, and survival in the hidden spaces between the two. In 27 pages, Tiptree delivers a '70s feminist wallop with more skill and insight than Joanna Russ managed in the entirety of The Female Man, and also the most original and socially meaningful alien encounter story I can remember reading.

"I See You" by Damon Knight (1976). Rapid-sketch parable of a fantastic technology's effect on society and humanity -- a "Utopia was achieved, but at what price?" sort of thing. Good for what it is, brisk and, in its own way, almost poetic.

"The Gunslinger" by Stephen King (1978). When you pen something as mythological, as monolithic as the first "Gunslinger" story, there's nowhere to go but down. The last three books in the Dark Tower series nosedived so hard and so fast, it can be difficult to remember how singular and brilliant The Gunslinger had been, and this novelette is the apotheosis of the entire series, the original and perfect distillation of its mood, scene, and esthetic, everything that made the rest of us endure seven volumes of increasingly bastardized and blunted attempts to turn the spark into a blaze. Maybe I'm being harsh on the ensuing novels, but reassessing "The Gunslinger" here, in isolation from the bloated mess it would lead to, just shows how King hit the bullseye with this story, and maybe should have stopped winging wildly at the target after this.

"The Dark" by Karen Joy Fowler (1991). Did we just skip the entirety of the 1980s? I mean, '80s fantasy can be a mixed bag to be sure, but I was looking forward to something that could have been a companion piece to James P. Blaylock's "Paper Dragons," a brilliant and dream-haunting mood piece printed by F&SF in 1985 (and anthologized in Modern Classics of Fantasy). Leaving out an entire decade is just harsh, dude. Anyway, "The Dark" is an elliptical tale that hints at one direction and ends up going another, from disappearing families in Yosemite, and "phantoms in human form" transmitting plague in the historical accounts of Procopius, to a feral boy, tunnel warfare in Vietnam, and a phantom savior of the tunnel rats. Fowler makes only the slenderest thematic links between the topics, leaving you to work out much of her meaning; the story is better for it, though somewhat insubstantial.

"Buffalo" by John Kessel (1991). An odd, slight story about a fictive encounter between two people facing despondence and disappointment in 1934: H.G. Wells, watching his dreams of a sane socialist future wither away in his old age, and the author's own father, reaching the end of his youth and realizing that his own dreams of making it big may be foolish and naive. It's an intimate but antiseptic piece, a curiosity nearly matching the mood of Bruce Sterling's "Dori Bangs," but little more.

"Solitude" by Ursula K. Le Guin (1994). An elegant masterpiece of soft science fiction that should be on reading lists for cultural anthropology courses. Full of the quiet dignity and beauty that is Le Guin at her best. In any lesser anthology this would be my hands-down favorite, but I can tell it will be impossible to pick a clear favorite from this book.

"Mother Grasshopper" by Michael Swanwick (1998). Pure Swanwickian whatthefuckery, a Malthusian fable of immortality set inside the eye of a grasshopper as big as several planets put together. It doesn't come together exactly right, the way my favorite Swanwick stories do; there's no emotional punch hidden behind the conceptual mastery. Terrific all the same.

"macs" by Terry Bisson (1999). A merciless skewering of the death penalty and the hallowed "Closure" it's supposed to bring. 167 rapid-grown clones are made of Timothy McVeigh and, along with "the real McCoy," are distributed via lottery to the families of his 168 victims, so each family may personally execute one. The ending was obvious a long way off, so the story is only of conceptual interest.

"Creation" by Jeffrey Ford (2002). Another quietly perfect Jeffrey Ford story. The thematic gist -- fathers and sons, god and man, the responsibilities inherent in each act of creation -- is obvious stuff, but the story is no less magical for it.

"Other People" by Neil Gaiman (2001). Another "obvious" topic that still has a surprising amount of juice in it, surprisingly moving for a story only three pages long.

"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle (2005). After the last Schmendrick story I read ("The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon," reviewed in Sleight of Hand) proved to be little more than a trifling morsel, I expected little of this installment. Instead it is a rich and moving novelette that supplies much of the charm and sad grace of The Last Unicorn. Excellent.

"Journey into the Kingdom" by M. Rickert (2006). Read and reviewed in Fantasy: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition. I called it "A low-key and quite seductive ghost story that abruptly and violently goes places I wasn't expecting."

 "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang (2007). An engaging series of clever time travel vignettes set in medieval Cairo and Baghdad. A sweet and gentle finale to a lovely collection of stories.

This anthology is unique: I didn't dislike a single story here. "macs" and "Buffalo" were middling efforts, I felt, but overall this is the finest and most consistent set of stories I've encountered thus far. I may be overrating it a tad bit, but if any anthology deserves almost unlimited praise, it's this one. Even my wish that it were longer is assuaged by the fact that there's a second volume, one I've already ordered from the library system.

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