Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame

The Fantasy Hall of Fame The Fantasy Hall of Fame by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's inevitable with any anthology that I'll like some stories more than others, and in most cases I end up not liking some at all. I shouldn't have been surprised that this was still true even of an anthology that wasn't chosen by a single editor, but by vote of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America membership (as at about 1992, when the "and Fantasy" part was added to the organisation's title).

There are 30 stories. The rules limited each author to being represented by only one story, whichever one of theirs received the most votes, although in several cases there were multiple stories by the same author nominated. They're presented in chronological order, from 1939 (when Unknown magazine was founded as a venue for fantasy as we now know it) to 1990. Inevitably, most are famous classics in the field, and in many cases I've read them in other collections, but it's good to have them all in one place.

**** "Trouble With Water," H.L. Gold: as the editor notes, Campbell's Unknown published stories that - like the SF stories appearing in his better-known magazine Astounding - rigorously worked out the consequences of a single difference in the world, but chose a magical difference instead of a scientific difference. In this story, the protagonist is cursed by a water gnome to be unable to do anything with water (wash, drink, or touch). The characters are all stereotypes, mostly Jewish apart from the Irish cop, but they're affectionate stereotypes, and manage to have some dimension to them. It's amusing.

**** "Nothing In the Rules," L. Sprague de Camp: here, it's a mermaid in a swimming competition. It's a decent story, with comedy, drama and a touch of frustrated romance.

** "Fruit of Knowledge," C.L. Moore: I'm a big Moore fan, but I couldn't finish this story based on the Garden of Eden and the character Lilith from Jewish mythology. I found it heavy going, tedious even. Surely there's a better Moore story than this that could have been included; one of the Jirel of Joiry tales, for example. Though there was a hard limit of 17,500 words, and perhaps those stories are longer.

** "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Jorge Luis Borges: I didn't finish this one either. It's about a fictional encyclopaedia that somehow becomes factual, but a lot of it is just infodump of the contents of the encyclopaedia, and it didn't keep my interest.

**** "The Compleat Werewolf," Anthony Boucher: a story from 1942 filled with humour and romance and action, it stands up well more than 70 years later.

"The Small Assassin," Ray Bradbury: I skipped this one, because although I admire Bradbury as a writer, I'm not actually much of a fan of his stories, if that makes any sense at all. I glanced at enough of it to decide that it was more or less horror, and I wasn't in the mood.

"The Lottery," Shirley Jackson: I skipped this one too, having read it before and not particularly wanting to read it again. It's a brilliant story, but dark.

**** "Our Fair City," Robert A. Heinlein: I'd just recently read this in another collection, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't want to read it again so soon. Humour, corrupt politicians, the citizens standing up against them, all good stuff.

**** "There Shall Be No Darkness," James Blish: another werewolf story, which I didn't feel belonged in this collection. The mood is horror, and the in-world explanation is SF; where's the fantasy? It's a decent enough story, though.

** "The Loom of Darkness," Jack Vance: I'm no fan of Vance's overwrought prose and distant, unemotional and unlikeable characters, so I didn't enjoy this particularly. Sword and sorcery, a rogue, but not a loveable one.

**** "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," Margaret St Clair: again, more horror than fantasy, to me, but a good story that sustains a mocking, almost light tone against very dark events.

***** "The Silken-Swift," Theodore Sturgeon: I'd read this recently in the same collection as the Heinlein, so I didn't reread it, though it's an excellent story, emotionally powerful and beautifully written.

**** "The Golem," Avram Davidson: another Jewish author playing with Jewish stereotypes in a warm and affectionate way. The mundanity of the elderly couple plays against what I'm tempted to call the attempted darkness of the 'golem' - which is technological rather than magical, so this is, again, arguably SF, not fantasy.

**** "Operation Afreet," Poul Anderson: recently read in the other collection, not reread, and another werewolf story (making three werewolves in this volume). Again, too, humour and romance and action, and a well-written piece.

**** "That Hell-Bound Train," Robert Bloch: a deal-with-the-devil story, another common fantasy trope, particularly well executed by this master of the creepy, and closely approaching horror.

**** "The Bazaar of the Bizarre," Fritz Lieber: although I find the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, of which this is one, darker and grittier than I usually prefer, I still enjoy them because they're so well done and so atmospheric. Lieber was excellent at evoking the strange and sinister in a sword & sorcery setting, and that ability is on full display here.

**** "Come Lady Death," Peter S. Beagle: I've just read Beagle's latest novel, and it's interesting to compare it to this story from more than 50 years ago, early in his career. The story is much more mannered, with strong hints of literary descent from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," but it's still powerful, and worthy of its inclusion here.

*** "The Drowned Giant," J.G. Ballard: a style of fantasy I don't have much time for, in which the fantastic enters the mundane world and is treated mundanely. Also a 'story' which is a description of a series of observations, not plotted, and on the whole I prefer even short stories to have a plot unless they're spectacular in some other way. This isn't.

*** "Narrow Valley," R.A. Lafferty: I'm not sure why this is the Lafferty story that always gets collected. He wrote others, I'm sure, just as good. But it's a quintessential Lafferty story: surreal characters and events, perhaps a bit flat, amusing in an offbeat way.

*** "Faith of Our Fathers," Philip K. Dick: like basically every Dick story ever, it's about what is real, and the untrustworthiness of perception and consciousness. The setting, in a world taken over by the Communist powers, is interesting, but I'm afraid I'm just not a big fan of this author's work. (Originally appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology.)

**** "The Ghost of a Model T," Clifford D. Simak: a beautiful example of a story without much in the way of a plot, that's more about a character's realisations - and, in this case, memories and perspective on life - than any events or struggle, but nevertheless works. Simak evokes the setting so extremely well that a plot isn't really necessary.

**** "The Demoness," Tanith Lee: I'm not a particular fan of Lee's dark, sex-soaked stories, but she does them well, and this is a classic example of one. It did leave me with sympathy for the title character, which was quite an achievement, all things considered, so she gets a fourth star.

***** "Jeffty is Five," Harlan Ellison: a fine story, which I'd read before recently enough that I didn't reread it. Very human and moving.

*** "The Detective of Dreams," Gene Wolfe: I can hardly cavil at this being the story that represents Wolfe, since it's the only one of his I feel I mostly understand, and even sort of like a bit. What surprises me is that, apparently, a lot of other people like it too, despite its overt religious message. The 19th-century voice is beautifully and expertly done, though.

**** "Unicorn Variations," Roger Zelazny: I'm a huge Zelazny fan, though more of his novels than his short stories - not that his short stories aren't good, but the longer works give me more time to sink into his powerfully imaginative settings. This one isn't, maybe, as imaginative a setting as some, but the story of a chess game for high stakes is enjoyable, and the touches of whimsy are classic Zelazny.

*** "Basileus," Robert Silverberg: another author whose craft I appreciate but whose actual stories are not my favourites; there's something dark and cynical and alienated at the heart of them that puts me off. This tale of a programmer who fills his computer with angels is no exception.

**** "The Jaguar Hunter," Lucius Shepard: I haven't read a lot of Shepard, but this is an impressive story, with a lot of depth to it. It uses a South American setting to compare and contrast Western consumerism with the older ways, more in tune with nature, but also more violent and savage.

*** "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight," Ursula K. Le Guin: I am a Le Guin fan, but more of some of her other work than of this. It's beautifully done, and incorporates rich material from Native American legend, but sometimes her stories lack story, to their detriment - at least in my eyes - and this is one of those.

*** "Bears Discover Fire," Terry Bisson: much awarded and frequently collected, but I've never quite seen what the fuss was about. Another more-or-less plotless story; a series of events happen, but for me they don't cohere together into an effective whole. I'm probably missing something.

**** "Tower of Babylon," Ted Chiang: with this story we are, in a sense, back at the beginning, because, like the stories in Campbell's Unknown magazine, it's a rigorously worked out exploration of a fantastical speculation, in this case about the structure of the universe (what if it was as some ancient civilisations believed?) The main character is somewhat flat, and largely there as an observer, but the working out of the premise is well enough done that I enjoyed it.

I don't know if there's an overall conclusion to be drawn from such a diverse collection stretching over more than 50 years. Early 90s SFF writers liked funny, action-packed werewolf stories? Stories can work without a plot if you do something else amazing? Rich description is a big help, but isn't essential? SF and horror stories sometimes get called fantasy? There's no one common factor in great fantasy stories? All of those seem to be true.

For me, some of these were amazing, others disappointing, but on average, they were fine, enjoyable pieces showcasing the considerable talents of their authors.

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