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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