Monday, 30 June 2014

Review: The Secret History of Fantasy

The Secret History of Fantasy
The Secret History of Fantasy by Peter S. Beagle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another anthology I picked up on the recommendation of Charlie Jane Anders.

Up to the Michael Swanwick story, I found all these stories at least vaguely familiar, which suggests I've read this collection before (at least that far). I may have stopped after the Swanwick because I disliked it. Although not every story in this volume was to my taste - something that's unlikely to happen unless I edit an anthology myself - there were still some fine ones.

The basic premise of the Secret History anthologies (there's also a science fiction one, [b:The Secret History of Science Fiction|6458631|The Secret History of Science Fiction|James Patrick Kelly||6649005], which I haven't read) is that there's a type of writing that got missed or buried because other things were more popular, more commercial, or dodged the spec-fic labelling. Certainly that's the thrust of Peter S. Beagle's introduction, and the two other non-fiction pieces by Ursula K. Le Guin (herself one of SFF's strongest arguments for being counted as serious literature) and editor David G. Hartwell.

In the case of fantasy, this type of writing is somewhere between fairy tale and magical realism, or so the selections in this volume suggest. Mainstream commercial fantasy, despite its frequent derivation from Tolkien, lacks his deep background in traditional story, and often ends up with an explicable world that happens to have magic as part of the explanation. These stories don't. Things just happen that aren't explained. At the fairy-tale end of the spectrum, that's often the jumping-off point for the story, somebody having to deal with this unexplained magical thing. At the magical-realism end are at least a couple of stories that suggest that it makes very little difference, that people will just continue as they would have anyway, working around the magical thing as best they can.

Those are generalisations, and it's difficult to generalise about this collection without immediately thinking of exceptions. It's diverse and wide-ranging. Let's go piece by piece.

Peter S. Beagle's introduction talks about how works and writers that we now place in the "fantasy" ghetto used to just be literature, even up to the early 1960s, when his own books were seriously discussed in the New York Times. He blames commercial Tolkienesque fantasy, starting with Terry Brooks' Shannara, for a shift in perception that put fantasy in a category where it wasn't taken seriously from the late 1970s. It's a theme that Hartwell takes up and expands on in his later piece.

Maureen F. McHugh's story "Ancestor Money" depicts a woman in an afterlife which is similar to her earthly life in 1920s Kentucky, but less complicated. Her routine is disturbed when her granddaughter, for reasons which are never completely clear, makes an ancestor offering for her in Hong Kong. She has to travel to the Hong Kong afterlife to collect it. I'm not familiar with the details of the Chinese conception of the afterlife, so I'll assume that McHugh gets it right. For some reason, the Chinese afterlife is pretty much the way the Chinese think it is, but the afterlife for the main character, who's Baptist, is completely different from what she expects. The point of the story, if there is one, seems to be that nothing matters, which isn't a satisfactory ending to me.

"Scarecrow" by Gregory Maguire is set in his re-envisioned version of Oz (it may even be part of Wicked; I didn't read very far in that book because it was too dark and cynical for my taste, but this story isn't). It explores ideas of what we know and how we know it, how we make decisions, what is the good. The Scarecrow is, of course, the philosopher of Oz.

"Lady of the Skulls" by Patricia A. McKillip is the kind of beautifully-told, slightly disturbing tale I expect from that author. The question behind the story is "What is most valuable?"

T.C. Boyle's "We are Norsemen" didn't seem, to me, to have much point except to perpetuate stereotypes of Vikings (including horned helmets and senseless violence). I wasn't a fan.

Steven Millhauser's "The Barnum Museum" is a beautiful piece about the sense of wonder, itself at the heart of SFF. It has only one named character, and only briefly, but she, like everything else described in this piece, is there to evoke a place and a mood, not to participate in a story. It is possible to write an effective short fiction piece that isn't a story, though it's more difficult than most people who attempt it think, and this is a fine example of doing it well.

"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" by Stephen King is much more a story, though the narrator is not the protagonist (speaking of things that are difficult to pull off effectively). It reminded me of Nnedi Okorafor's "Kabu-Kabu", or, for that matter, of the hellrides in Roger Zelazny's Amber series in its conceit of a woman obsessed with shortcuts who finds one through... other places. It sits near the intersection of an old-style weird tale, urban fantasy and magical realism, and is beautifully told.

"Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson is a story I've seen in a couple of different collections. It's in the magical-realist camp by virtue of the fact that something odd happens (the title tells you what), and it's more or less incorporated into people's everyday lives without a great deal of surprise. Well written, but not a particularly strong plotline, in common with most other stories in this volume.

"Bones" by Francesca Lia Block is explicitly based on a fairytale (Bluebeard) but given a strong and clearly spelled-out twist. It isn't, to my mind, particularly fantastic; there's no counterfactual, it's only the reference to the fairy tale that gives it any claim to be in an anthology of fantasy, and its tone is more psychological horror.

"Snow, Glass, Apples" by Neil Gaiman is the usual Gaiman, which is to say beautifully written, something that nobody else could think of and yet which makes perfect sense, and disturbing in a way that, for some reason I don't fully understand, I don't mind. I usually dislike disturbing stories, but Gaiman tells his with such a depth of humanity (or something) that I'm usually glad I've read them even though they give me the grues. Here his chain of association seems to have started with Snow White and gone: "What other fantasy creature has very pale skin, black hair, and rises from a coffin?" It's an inversion of the well-known fairy story, in which the traditional antagonist becomes the protagonist and vice versa (as with Wicked and, in a different way, Maleficent).

"Fruit and Words" by Aimee Bender is definitely on the magical-realist side, with the roadside stall selling both fruit and also words made out of what they represent. It's a playing with an idea more than it is a story.

Jeffrey Ford's "The Empire of Ice Cream" is more storylike, though still magical-realist. A musician with synesthesia discovers he can see a girl, an artist, when he eats coffee-flavoured ice cream, which as a child he's forbidden to do for health-related reasons. When he grows up and drinks coffee for the first time, they're able to interact. Not only is the premise inexplicable, the ending is, too, but that's part of the brilliance. It doesn't have to make logical sense; that's why it's in this book.

As I mentioned, Michael Swanwick's "The Edge of the World" didn't appeal to me. A vast abyss exists in an unnamed Middle Eastern emirate, currently the site of a US military base, but in the past held by Napoleon, the Russians and others. The alienated, bored children of military personnel go to see it, and despite the fact that this is a genuine site of wonder and magic, with a history including real dragons and demons, this makes no positive difference to their dreary lives. The emirate's decaying factories dump chemical waste over the Edge. This is the kind of pessimistic, world-weary fiction that I particularly dislike. I haven't read any other Swanwick since reading The Iron Dragon's Daughter many years ago, and this story reminds me why.

Jonathan Lethem's "Super Goat Man" is similarly, if less persistently, dreary and pointless. In a world with superheroes, human stupidity and pettiness go along pretty much as usual.

I read "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner" as part of Susanna Clark's collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoyed it on a reread. It has a lot of the flavour of a traditional British folktale, but with more humour. And what story isn't improved by a pig?

Octavia E. Butler's "The Book of Martha" is, I suppose, a kind of puzzle story. The puzzle is this: if God came to you and gave you the power to make one change to improve the lot of humanity, what would you choose? It made me think of the conclusion to Sherry Tepper's Gibbons Decline and Fall, except that here the protagonist makes the choice before the end of the story. We don't get to see the results, only to see speculation about what they might be. It's a long time since I read Octavia Butler, and this story reminds me why she's so highly regarded.

"The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company" by Yann Martel is, underneath the spec-fic element of a mirror-making machine that runs partly on words, a meditation on how we don't value old people's stories. It's beautifully done.

"Sleight of Hand" by Peter S. Beagle is another "what if you could" story, in this case, "what if you could go back and change one event in the past?" It involves a magician, is more storylike than most of these pieces, and, of course, given that it's by Beagle, it's beautifully written and moving.

"Mythago Wood" by Robert Holdstock is another piece that reminds me of the old-style weird tales, particularly because of its setting in an ancestral house near an ancient woodland. It reminds us that the legends of our most ancient ancestors are not kindly ones.

"26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson is in the inexplicable-thing-in-the-otherwise-normal-world group. In this case, it's a troupe of monkeys which are part of an act, and which vanish from a bathtub as the climax of that act. I much prefer the way Kij Johnson plays it to the way that, say, Michael Swanwick plays it: that an encounter with the inexplicable improves our lives, that that may even be what it's there for. The piece has a gentle, lovely humour and is a great choice to close the collection.

But wait! There are two appendices.

"The Critics, the Monsters and the Fantasists" by Ursula Le Guin plays, in its title, with the title of Tolkien's essay "The Monsters and the Critics". Like Tolkien, she takes literary critics to task for not understanding the roots of what they're writing about. She points out at the beginning that when Harry Potter emerged into public consciousness there was a lot of noise about how unprecedented and original it was, which simply wasn't true (she herself had written a magical school in the 1960s, and there wasn't much else unprecedented about it either). Rather, the critics had been ignoring fantasy so assiduously that they had managed to become completely ignorant of it.

She makes some wonderful points about the limitations of literary fiction (which takes it as read that "the proper study of mankind is man" and anthropocentrically excludes the Other), and how nobody will ever understand fantasy by attempting to treat it in the same way as lit fic, or as allegory, or as politics, or as symbolism. It's about opening up the imagination, in her view.

A kind of closing down of imagination is part of the theme of the other essay, David G. Hartwell's "The Making of the American Fantasy Genre". Hartwell, an experienced editor, traces the 19th-century banishment of the fantastic to children's literature, the early-20th-century yoking to science fiction, the mid-century magazines - mostly running what we now think of as "urban fantasy" rather than secondary-world fantasy, and mostly for a male audience - the breakout publication of The Lord of the Rings (and T.H. White's Once and Future King, originally released as general fiction since there wasn't a fantasy book category) in the 1950s, and the "genrefication" of fantasy in the 1970s. His argument is that for fantasy to become successful on a large scale it had to become a predictable, reproducible commodity; to sell what had long been children's literature or short-form fiction to adults as novels, you had to have a formula. He suggests that it was, essentially, a revival of the utopian Plantation Novel of the old South, "nostalgic, conservative, pastoral, and optimistic... life is rich and good, the lower classes are happy in their place and sing a lot, and evil resides in the technological North". While the literary novel was plunging inwards, into the inner lives of characters who, outwardly, do almost nothing, the fantasy novel externalised and concretised struggle in stories that were all about character action in a morally unambiguous universe.

That certainly doesn't describe the stories in this volume, hence the "secret history" label. I agree that it would be a great loss if genre fantasy was the whole of the literature of the fantastic. I don't think it's necessary for fantasy to take on the alienation and cynicism, and the lack of plot, of literary fiction, though. Somewhere, there's a balance where beautifully written, moving stories have a beginning, middle and end and where the fantastic transforms the ordinary. Some of these stories hit that balance point, and some don't.

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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Review: Stolen Dreams

Stolen Dreams
Stolen Dreams by Christine Amsden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've liked the earlier books in the Cassie Scot series, and I have to admit that I didn't enjoy this one quite as much. If I was giving each book a rating out of 10, though, they would be 8, 9, 8, 7, so I'm by no means saying I hated this, just that the others were better.

It opens with several passages of telling rather than showing to catch us up on events since the last book. (This is the kind of series that has to be read in order, or else it's incomprehensible, by the way. There's very little "who are these people and why are they fighting" recap, and even having read the third book relatively recently, I was flailing slightly for a while there until my memory caught up.) It soon settles down, though, and moves forward at a similar pace to the previous books.

It's difficult to critique the rest of the book without spoilers. I'll just say that I felt that the author, who usually manages to dodge romantic cliches, didn't dodge quite as well in this volume. At least the characters did talk to one another, but then, they had to in order to get to the resolution. That resolution, I thought, was a little too neat and pat in the end, and required the series' main character and narrator to give up several desires and several attitudes that she had been hanging onto very firmly up until that point. The changes were justified within the story, but I didn't quite have the sense that she had won all the respect she deserved in the end to make up for her losses and concessions.

Again, let me say that this is very much an above-average book, and I did enjoy it. It just suffered in comparison to the earlier books in the series.

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Sunday, 22 June 2014

Review: Quantum Zoo

Quantum Zoo
Quantum Zoo by D.J. Gelner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book for purposes of review via one of the authors, A.C. Smyth.

I've been reading and reviewing a lot of anthologies lately, mostly Best Of collections of classic or recent SFF, so I was pleased to find that these stories mostly stood up pretty well in comparison. As in any anthology, some worked better than others, and some had more editing issues than others, but overall it was a good collection. All of the stories had narrative arcs and endings, which is not inevitable these days, but which I personally prefer.

The theme is simply "zoo". Given such a broad theme, the contributors have come up with remarkably varied stories, mostly science fiction but a couple of fantasies. There are some very general commonalities; the contributors seem united in their view that being in a zoo is not a good thing, and nobody really emphasised the conservation aspect of zoos, which surprised me slightly.

The opening story, "A King in Exile" by Bridget McKenna, was a good choice for the opening. A Victorian tale of the last T-Rex intertwined with the frustrated love of a couple kept separated by social convention, it was moving and well-told, with no glitches to take me out of the period or the plot.

"Echoes of Earth" by D.J. Gelner (one of the two editors) was less successful for me. It contained the old trope, old even when Isaac Asimov parodied it in "Playboy and the Slime God" in 1961, of the earthman kidnapped by aliens who is joined by a beautiful woman; he immediately forgets about his wife and family, she is immediately attracted to him, and they pair up without, apparently, any thought about children born in captivity. Also, the first-person narrator refers to "this journal" without any indication of how he has a journal to write in or something to write with (he's keeping track of days by scratching marks on the wall with his fingernails), and the ending is such that the journal idea is inexplicable. It's been a very long time since first-person narration needed such framing devices. These days it's enough to just narrate in first person without implying an audience or a transmission medium.

I enjoyed "Bestiarium" by Sarah Stegall. Its theme of the transmission of tradition from one generation to another and the importance of a connection to nature - not just for reasons of humanity, but as a necessity for survival in the future - worked well, and the generation-ship setting was sketched competently.

"Ignoble Deeds" by A.C. Smyth is the first story in the collection that isn't straight science fiction in its premise, though the fascinating idea of a "ghost zoo" is treated science-fictionally. I was completely blindsided by the twist, and thought it might have been over-enthusiastically hidden by the author, but looking at the opening quotation again reminds me that it was, in fact, signalled in advance.

"At Home in the Stars" by S.E. Batt sets out to be humour in the vein of Fredric Brown, but for me fell a little short, in part because I was distracted by several typos, and by odd phrasings that made me wonder if English is a second language for the author. The joke itself is a mild and predictable one, but it was somewhat entertaining.

"The Most Dangerous Lies" by Ken Furie has the "zoo" inhabited by great tyrants and serial killers from the past, abducted through a handwaved technology. The premise is an interesting one, marred for me by the fact that the central character is Jack the Ripper, and the author doesn't seem to have spent much time familiarising himself with the actual Jack the Ripper case, or with other historical points. For example, a woman wouldn't be addressed as "Gov'ness" in the same way a man was called "Gov'nor". At one point, Jack "knew that adrenaline coursed through her body," which seems slightly unlikely given that the earliest usage of the word "adrenaline" occurs several years after the Ripper murders ceased, and Jack is depicted as uneducated. Possible, I suppose, but not likely. If one ignores these research issues, though, the story itself is a good one.

"Playing Man" by Scott Dyson is set on a voluntarily depopulated Earth, with most of the human race living off-planet, and is the classic story of the clash of large corporate interests with ecological concerns. I enjoyed it, and liked the protagonist.

"You'll Be So Happy, My Dear" by John Hindmarsh is science-fictional horror, not my favourite thing. It's in second person, which can be a gimmick, but here is justified. The link to the theme of "zoo" is tenuous.

"Skipdrive" by Morgan Johnson manages to invoke the Cthulhu Mythos without once mentioning it or using any of its key terms, for which alone it deserves applause. I found some of the incidental ideas implausible: that someone could be so badly injured that half their brain needed replacing with computer circuitry and still survive; that this could be done with no change to personality or loss of memory or need for long-term rehab; and that the victim (who had also lost an arm and a leg) would be, not just allowed, but more or less forced back into the military afterwards. However, setting those issues aside, I found the arc of the story held my attention well and enjoyed the way in which it was told.

"Demon Rising" by R.S. McCoy is a strange little story, in mostly a good way. The themes of loss of innocence and shapist prejudice are well handled, and the connection to the theme is clear. I liked the protagonist, too.

"Your Day at the Zoo" by Frances Stewart was doing something that I never quite figured out. Something to do with the continuity between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, I think. It was beautifully described, though, and enjoyable.

"Serpent's Foe" by J.M. Ney-Grimm (the second of the two editors) was unfortunately afflicted with multiple typos and some needless pseudo-archaisms. I didn't feel that the viewpoint character had much protagonism; she suffered through a number of events and learned a lesson, but made few meaningful choices other than to accept the lesson. It could also have been trimmed slightly. This is the risk when a contributor is also an editor, and this is why professional anthologies usually keep the two roles separate: we are never as hard on our own work.

Overall, though, Quantum Zoo is a collection of good writing from authors you've probably never heard of. In a number of cases, it's well worth your while to hear of them so you can track down some of their other work (which the editors make easy by providing links after each story, as well as collecting them all at the back). While I had some quibbles with several of the stories, there weren't any that I outright disliked - not the case with several of the pro anthologies I've read recently - and some of them were very good indeed.

On my 10-point scale within the four-star range, where 0 is "just above mediocre" and 9 is "just below amazing", I place Quantum Zoo around the middle at a four or a five.

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Saturday, 21 June 2014

Review: The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2
The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 by Gordon Van Gelder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first volume ([b:The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology|6661321|The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology|Gordon Van Gelder||6856092], published 2009) before I tackled this one. It's only been five years, but I detected a darkening of the tone. Maybe I'm imagining it, maybe it's just me, but it seemed to me that the earlier volume contained stories that set out to go to strange places and, as a consequence, were sometimes disturbing, while this one contained stories that set out to be disturbing.

Consequently, given that "dark and disturbing" isn't my preference, I very nearly gave this one three stars instead of four - reflecting my reduced enjoyment, not reduced quality. These are still fine stories from multiple decades of F&SF; I just didn't like them, overall, as much as the ones in Volume 1.

Looking over the table of contents, there are actually several humorous stories early on: Kornbluth's "The Cosmic Charge Account" with its parody of self-help books (and the publishing industry), Lafferty's "Narrow Valley," Kit Reed's "Attack of the Giant Baby," "The Aliens Who Knew, I mean, Everything" by George Alec Effinger. The problem is that, while they're a bit funny, they're not very funny, certainly not enough to balance out the extreme darkness of "The Hundredth Dove," "Salvador," "Rat," "The Lincoln Train," "Suicide Coast" or "The People of Sand & Slag," with their alienated protagonists afflicted with meaningless tragedy.

For my taste, any collection with stories by Ursula Le Guin and Neil Gaiman (like the first one) is thereby made more enjoyable, and any collection with stories by Gene Wolfe, Charles de Lint or M. John Harrison (like the second one) is thereby made less enjoyable. But that's just me.

Harlan Ellison and Stephen King are, I think, the only writers with stories in both volumes (the contents listed above includes Roger Zelazny's "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth," but it wasn't in the version I reviewed, at least). I actually thought their stories in this volume were better than those in the first, and if the Zelazny story had been included the same would be true. In both cases, the stories felt more intimate, closer to the main characters, and were, therefore, more touching.

Also touching was Ken Liu's beautiful "The Paper Menagerie". I love how Liu explores issues of family and human relationships with a spec-fic thread running through, and it was probably the choice of this as the closing story that tipped me, barely, over to giving the book four stars.

I received a copy via NetGalley for purposes of review.

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Friday, 13 June 2014

Review: The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology
The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology by Gordon Van Gelder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some true classics here, along with stories I don't remember hearing of or reading before. As with any anthology, it's Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, and only the editor will love every one of the stories, but by and large these stories demonstrate why F&SF has been so successful for so long. They aren't, for the most part, trotting out the tropes, even to play with them or subvert them; they're taking SFF to strange and wonderful new places.

There's also a visible shift over time in the kind of stories that get written. All of them exhibit high-quality writing and clever ideas, but what that means changes from decade to decade. The earlier stories often rely on a twist at the end for their impact, and are more likely to be tropish, even gimmicky, with one simple "what-if" pushed to sometimes absurd lengths. "Harrison Bergeron," for example, Kurt Vonnegut's story from 1961, is an absurdist story about a society that achieves equality by handicapping anyone with talent down to the level of mediocrity or below.

The later stories take you more deeply into the human heart. They may still only have a single "what-if", but they speculate more about how that would affect people, and show us those people experiencing those effects. The later stories also sometimes call the speculative element into question within the story, so we're not sure whether the narrator is unreliable (or deceived, or mistaken, or insane), as in Karen Joy Fowler's "The Dark" or M. Rickert's horrifying "Journey into the Kingdom".

I won't go through every story, but I'll mention some highlights, and a lowlight or two.

Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" has been one of my favourite stories since I read it as a teenager, because its heartwrenching effect is achieved largely by use of language. For part of my Master's degree, I analysed the novel expansion linguistically, and even though that was 25 years ago (oof), when I re-read this original version I could still remember which parts the author developed further. Wisely, he chose the relationship between the narrator and his teacher as one of those parts. This story is an exception to the "more heart later in the book" trend I mentioned above; it's all heart. I have to say that, now that I know a little more about human trials and the rules for them than I did when I first read it, its main conceit seems completely unlikely, but I forgive it because of how good it is.

"The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) is another classic, still, sadly, relevant in its suggestion that women don't do terribly well in our culture, or any culture, and have to keep their heads down in order to be a little safer (but not really safe).

"The Gunslinger," by Stephen King, is part of his Dark Tower series, and struck me as overwritten and not complete in itself. It started out slow-moving and then became dark and tragic, neither of which I find appealing, before stopping without an ending.

"Buffalo" by John Kessel isn't, to me, speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is part of what it's about - it involves Kessel's father's encounter with H.G. Wells, which he says twice in the story never actually happened, and they discuss spec-fic briefly and unsatisfactorily - but it boils down to "both Wells and my father had sucky lives". Not a favourite.

"Solitude" by Ursula K. Le Guin is another that I remember, I think from Le Guin's own collection, and it has the anthropological insight that only Le Guin can do so well. Its message is that there are many ways of being human, and someone who only knows one way may not be able to appreciate the strengths of another way.

"Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle takes characters from his novel The Last Unicorn and places them in a new situation many years later, and for someone like me who either hasn't read the novel, or has read it so long ago he's forgotten it, that's less than completely successful, though the story is good enough to work on its own terms.

The book closes with Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," a beautiful story involving time travel in an Arabian Nights setting.

Volume 2 is coming out soon, and I have the e-ARC from Netgalley, so that's what I'll be reading next. It'll be interesting to compare the two.

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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Review: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
Twenty-First Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charlie Jane Anders recommended this, along with a number of other anthologies, on i09, and I can see why. It's packed full of excellent science fiction stories. I've been reading anthologies lately, partly to improve my own short story writing, and this is the best I've found so far.

With two exceptions, which I'll talk about in a moment, the 34 stories in this volume reminded me of how I first encountered SF while growing up: mind-expanding, excellently written, absorbing, thought-provoking, putting the "speculative" in "speculative fiction". They mostly take current science as a starting point and ask an intriguing "what if", at the same time telling an engaging human story - even if the main characters often aren't, by our current definitions, human. We have androids, AIs, an enhanced ape, posthumans and aliens here, and they're delightful.

Although I wouldn't call most of the stories optimistic, they're not the SF equivalent of grimdark fantasy either. SF can all too easily go down the dystopian and alienated route to nihilism, which isn't a kind of story I enjoy. Even when things go terribly wrong - and they do - these stories retain, if not hope exactly, at least a commitment to the idea that life is somehow meaningful, that connection to other beings exists and is worthwhile.

SF has become deeper and wider since the old days, and there's now a strong "literary" wing, represented by magazines like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld. For my taste, those magazines often go too far towards lit-fic, at the cost of story, character and meaning (and speculativeness, frequently). The stories in this collection seem to be mainly up at the other end of the spectrum. The editors don't tell us where most of them were originally published, which I feel is an unfortunate omission that makes it harder for readers to find other, similar stories, but I would bet that a lot of them came to us first via Asimov's, F&SF, Analog and

Although the approach to story is, in most cases, the more classical one in which characters with agency face conflict and there's some sort of resolution at the end, these are not, by any means, throwback stories which could have been written 50 years ago (a type of story which Asimov's, for one, tends to publish). For one thing, contemporary science is often key to the story problem. Contemporary issues, too, are visible in many of the stories, though few of them deal with issues of race, sexuality or gender identity, something which is more common on the Lightspeed/Clarkesworld end of the SF spectrum. We do get terrorism, advertising, privacy, increasing integration of human life with technology, and other such themes.

I mentioned that there were two stories that didn't work so well for me. The first was John Scalzi's "The Tale of the Wicked". I read Scalzi's blog sometimes, and I generally agree with what he says, though sometimes how he says it could do with some extra thought. I'm no fan of his fiction, though, and this story epitomises why. Although some of his characters have women's names, and some of them have non-Western names, they are the opposite of "diverse": they're indistinguishable. Every character of Scalzi's, in anything I've read of his (one novel, one novella, and this short story), sounds completely identical, sounds, in fact, exactly like Scalzi does on his blog. Since he never describes anyone even with a single word, they might as well look identical as well. Far from having cultural differences, they don't even have individual differences; they're not just cardboard cutouts, they're multiple copies of the same cardboard cutout. Their environment is equally undescribed and generic. And this story, along with most of his others, employs a trope that was old and tired before Scalzi was born: interstellar war against the aliens.

It's also the only story in the volume in which I noticed more than one copy editing error. Some of the other stories have errors that are worse (one has "breaking" instead of "braking", while the errors here are more sloppy typos and the occasional tense issue), but this one story contains more than half of the errors I noticed in the whole volume, despite making up about 4% of the page count.

The other story that didn't work for me is "How to Become a Mars Overlord" by Catherynne M. Valente. It's possible to write a short piece that doesn't have an actual story and make it work; Yoon Ha Lee does it in this volume, in "A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel". But "Mars Overlord" doesn't pull it off. It has references to multiple stories, which sound interesting, but they're not told, just alluded to, and the whole thing is so weighted down with self-consciously evocative language that I ended up skipping to the end, or, more accurately, to the point at which it stopped. No other piece in this volume even tempted me to skim, but this one I wish I'd skipped altogether.

If we ignore those two, there are 32 excellent stories in this collection, more than the average number for an anthology, and certainly far better than the average story. It made me enthusiastic about SF again, and confident that the field is in vigorous health and excellent hands.

I got it from my local library, because the Kindle edition is $14.44 on Amazon. That's an absurd price for an ebook, but this collection is almost worth it.

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