Saturday, 22 November 2014
Review: Fantastic Stories Presents: Science Fiction Super Pack #1
Fantastic Stories Presents: Science Fiction Super Pack #1 by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In brief: The story selection is excellent. The copy-editing, however, is nonexistent. I marked 180 errors, which even in such a long book is a great many - far too many.
Like the companion fantasy volume, it only has one story I didn't think was good, and again, it's a piece of Lovecraft fanfiction. Lovecraft's overwrought prose doesn't do much for me even when Lovecraft himself writes it, and much less so when it's attempted by imitators. And Lovecraft's stories at least have something frightening that happens in them; these two stories (in this volume and the other) only have visions of aspects of the Mythos and crazy people ranting, which isn't scary or interesting.
Everything else was good, occasionally even amazing.
Again like the fantasy volume, it more or less alternates between recent stories and classics by the greats of the field. Unlike the fantasy volume, it contains at least two (and perhaps three or four) stories which I'd read before. It's a rare pleasure, though, to find this many excellent stories that are new to me. I do tend to prefer fantasy to SF, and maybe that's why I preferred the other volume slightly, but I enjoyed this too.
"The Cold Calculations" by Michael A. Burstein is a sad story of an AI whose life is messed up by a human. There's a clear nod to "The Cold Equations".
"They Twinkled Like Jewels" by Philip Jose Farmer starts out dystopian and ends up sci-fi horror. It's well told.
"Lingua Franca" by Carole McDonnell is a lovely social SF story which takes as its springboard the way that some people in the deaf community feel about hearing restoration and its impact on their culture.
"Dawn of Flame" by Stanley G. Weinbaum is post-apocalyptic, far from my favourite subgenre, and the protagonist is pigheadedly fighting against a warlord who seems to be doing a pretty good job of reunifying people and creating peace. It uses the trope of a woman so beautiful that men constantly fail their Stupidity save around her, which annoys me.
"Don't Jump" by Warren Lapine is a classic asteroid-miner tale, the kind of "clever engineer" story that dominated the field for so long, but with a post-New-Wave second layer about what's truly important in life. I think it succeeds, despite the occasional comma splice and other editing issues (Warren Lapine is the editor of the book, and reading this helped me realise why the copy editing has so many problems).
"Youth" by Isaac Asimov is one that I think I've read before, many years ago (I read a lot of Asimov as a teenager, and that's now 30 years in the past). I certainly tumbled to the twist ending very early on. Asimov has to maneuver awkwardly around his exposition in order to avoid giving the twist away too soon, and I didn't think it was a great story.
"Digger Don't Take No Requests" by John Teehan is in the blue-collar SF subgenre dominated by Allen Steele. The main character kind of gets his resolution handed to him, rather than achieving them through his own cleverness and effort, which reduces the effectiveness of a story with an enjoyable voice.
"Lighter Than You Think" by Nelson Bond is the story I've definitely read before, a jokey mad-science-gizmo-goes-wrong tale in the tradition of Fredric Brown. It was a bit of light fun.
"Garden of Souls" by M. Turville Heitz is a medium-future-Earth tale which asks some good questions about home and family.
"The Variable Man" by Philip K. Dick is set against an interstellar war, but is basically a mad-science-gizmo/clever-engineer story with a bit of politics thrown in. It's better than that makes it sound.
"Starwisps" by Edward J. McFadden III is a kind of psychic/magic powers story, rather a lovely one, though I thought the ending came a bit too easily and the mixture of names from our world with completely made-up names didn't really work.
"Gorgono and Slith" by Ray Bradbury is a bizarre drug-trip story about the author putting together a magazine. I didn't think much of it.
"I Was There When They Made the Video" by Cynthia Ward is a near-future story, written in that very thin slice of time between people being aware of cyberspace and its possibilities and the demise of CD stores. The music club culture is alien to me, so I didn't identify that well with the characters, but the ideas it raises (but only minimally explores) are good ones to think about.
"The Perfect Host" by Theodore Sturgeon is a brilliant piece of writing, despite, or even because of, the author self-insertion. The voices of the different narrators are distinct (Scalzi should take notes), and the sci-fi horror is genuinely disturbing.
"That Universe We Both Dreamed Of" by Jay O'Connell is a hopeful alien-contact story. I liked it.
"The Lake of Light" by Jack Williamson reads as if it was written based on a pulp cover of a scantily-clad woman singing to lobsterlike monsters while two rugged male adventurers await their chance to rescue her. It's about as good as it sounds. It's followed by a strange nonfiction piece on "The Menace of the Insect" which seems to have been scanned by accident from the same magazine and not edited out.
"Lies, Truth and the Color of Faith" by Gerri Lean is another psychic-powers story, well written and poignant as a woman discovers that her lover is using her on behalf of the enemy.
"The Second Satellite" by Edmond Hamilton is a pulp adventure on an undetected second satellite of Earth (yes, I know, it's really just a device to get the heroes to another world, where they defeat the evil race that looks less like them than the other race). Again, there's what seems to be an accidental scan of another nonfiction piece at the end.
"Hopscotch and Hottentots" by Lou Antonelli shows us a planet colonised by (South African) humans many generations ago, encountering newly arrived people from Earth, and a situation that parallels the history of South Africa - but resolves much more hopefully. I'm generally all for the hopeful ending, but with the setup it had, it fell a bit flat for me.
"No Place to Hide" by James Dorr shows us revenge gone very bad. The science is a bit dubious, but the story is strong.
"Industrial Revolution" by Poul Anderson starts as a club story, becomes the tale of the revolution against the nasty liberal government that hates capitalism, and ends with the hero getting, in my view, the wrong girl.
"The Visitor" by Ann Wilkes manages to do something new with first contact, which is hard. It also has an ending that makes you wonder which parts of the earlier story were accurate.
"Travel Diary" by Alfred Bester is a lovely feat of writing, alternating the kind of dry, high-level political history that you get in academic books with the diary of an oblivious, self-obsessed weathy airhead travelling around and missing or misinterpreting the political events.
"Encounter in Redgunk" by William R. Eakin is a Southern US story with a lot of emotional power.
"The Indecorous Rescue of Clarinda Merwin: Or, Reader, I Laid My Eggs in Him" by Brenda W. Clough combines first contact with the early-19th-century novel and makes it work.
"Lost Paradise" by C.L. Moore is one of her Northwest Smith stories, involving a kind of time travel and the end of a civilization. It's her usual powerful writing and lush description.
"Siblings" by Warren Lapine is another first-contact story, in which first contact almost goes terribly bad and then goes extremely well. It reminded me of Murray Leinster's "The Aliens", one of my favourite classic stories.
"Gun for Hire" by Mack Reynolds is one I may have read before, or the twist at the end may just be that obvious. It's a time-travel story, a mob hit man abducted into a peaceful future.
"The Answer" by H. Beam Piper is a postapocalyptic tragedy, rather beautifully done.
"Pythias" by Frederik Pohl is a scary tale of what happens when a man develops ultimate power.
"Arm of the Law" by Harry Harrison shows a robot cop cleaning up a backwater town on Mars. It's amusing and has its ideals written all over it in big, bold letters, like most Harrison stories.
"The Good Neighbours" by Edgar Pangborn is a story almost entirely in "tell" mode and without any real characters, and given those limitations it's surprisingly successful.
"The Intruder" by Emil Petaja is the Lovecraft fanfic I referred to earlier. The English isn't good, and nor is the story.
"The Six Fingers of Time" by R.A. Lafferty I have read before, fairly recently, so I remembered the ending. The journey was still worthwhile.
"An Ounce of Cure" by Alan Edward Nourse is a satire on medicine and its specialization.
"The Hoofer" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. is a blue-collar-SF tragedy, though the SF part is window dressing, and it would have worked just as well without.
"The Stellar Legion" by Leigh Brackett is good old planetary-romance pulp, basically a British colonial boys'-own-paper tale translated to Venus. For what it is, it's good.
"Year of the Big Thaw" by Marion Zimmer Bradley has hints of the Superman origin story. It finishes with the kind of soft ending that Bradley herself famously condemned, which is an unfortunate way to end the volume, perhaps.
The book closes with some repetitious and typo-ridden boilerplate background on the authors, clearly a rush job.
Now, I face a conflict of interest here, since I aspire to be published in the magazine that's partly funded by sales of this anthology. Having announced that conflict, I'll say: If you can deal with the many editing issues, the stories themselves are, on average, well above average, and they offer a wonderful smorgasbord of SF in many subgenres, representing every decade (except the 1970s) since 1930. There are a lot of them, too, and so I'd say it's worth the price.
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