The Very Best Of Fantasy & Science Fiction Volume 2 edited by Gordon Van Gelder (book review).

May 24, 2016 | By | Reply More

‘The Very Best Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume Two’ came out in 2014 and is part of a long series of anthologies of classic stories from the pages of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’. Volume One, which I reviewed here in 2009, came out to mark the sixtieth year of the magazine’s publication. This one came out five years later to mark another milestone in MF&SF’s existence. It includes twenty-seven stories published across every decade from the 1950s to the present day and authored by such genre luminaries as Robert Heinlein, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Gene Wolfe, Damon Knight and Brian Aldiss, to name but a selection. Most are short stories although the longest, strictly speaking, qualify as novelettes.

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I haven’t got the time or space to summarise every single story here. Instead I’ll focus on my personal favourites and highlight a couple of examples that I was less sure about.

My favourite story in the book is Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2004 SF story, ‘The People Of Sand And Slag’. Set on Earth, many decades in our future, when much of the environment has been destroyed by large-scale industrial mining, the story follows the exploits of Chen, Lisa and Jaak, three soldiers who have been heavily genetically engineered so that they can eat polluted mud and regrow destroyed limbs. They are guarding a mine from intruders when they come across something none of them have seen in their entire lives, a real live dog! What should they do with it? As he does in most of his work, Bacigalupi paints a radically different model of humanity’s future here. He then illustrates just how awful it is by inserting an ordinary dog into this Brave New World and letting us see how the humans react to it. The three lead characters are convincing, despite their radical physiology and the way they deal with the dog’s intrusion into what is otherwise a largely inorganic world is enthralling. I found this story and, particularly the ending, thought-provoking and highly effective.

‘The Country Of The Kind’, by award-winning SF author and critic Damon Knight, was published in 1956. It is set in a future America which has abolished almost all crime and violence. However, the unnamed viewpoint character somehow missed out on whatever conditioning everyone else receives and, as he grows up, becomes more and more alienated from those around him, eventually murdering his girlfriend at the age of fifteen when she tries to break up with him. His crime is so unusual that the State has no suitable sanctions available, so they expel him from polite society, having first ensured that he won’t be able to harm other human beings again. The story examines what his life is like after thirty years of this enforced isolation and provides a powerful critique of the limitations of a supposedly humane society. Although many of the details of the story now come across as dated, the point it makes is as valid today as it was sixty years ago when it first came out.

Zenna Henderson’s fantasy story ‘The Anything Box’, also from 1956, is a quiet, understated and deeply touching story about the relationship between a sensitive child and her teacher. It illustrates the power of children’s imaginations and the damage that we, as adults, can do to them when we try to make young people grow up too early.

The immortal Robert A. Heinlein is represented here by his 1959 time travel paradox story “‘–All You Zombies–‘”, translated to the silver screen in 2014 as the acclaimed film ‘Predestination’. If you haven’t read the story yet, you really should. It’s a classic. Some aspects of the setting and dialogue may seem a little dated now but the plotting is brilliant and the execution flawless.

‘The Hundredth Dove’ is a classic fairy story from Jane Yolen that reads as if it must have existed forever but was actually published for the first time in 1977. It is one of the shorter stories in the anthology and proves beyond doubt that it’s not the number of words in a story that counts but what you do with them.

The penultimate story in the anthology is a 2008 supernatural fantasy from living legend Stephen King. ‘The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates’ shows us what happens when newly widowed Anne Driscoll gets a phone call from her supposedly dead husband. This is a perfect example of King’s strengths as a storyteller, marrying a clear and intriguing plot with engaging characters through spare, precise prose.

The anthology closes with the first story ever to win the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. Ken Liu’s ‘The Paper Menagerie’, published in 2011, explores the troubled relationship between an American boy and his Chinese mother. When he is little, he loves her and the little origami animals that she makes for him, animals that are animated by her breath and that move around and play with him. As he gets older, though, he starts to resent his half-Chinese appearance, which marks him out as different at school and the fact that his mother never learns to speak English fluently. As time goes on, he speaks to her less and less frequently until, eventually, their relationship breaks down completely. This story is extremely powerful and has interesting things to say, not only about what it is like to grow up as an outsider in Western society but also about the increasing commercialisation of childhood as the little boy’s origami toys, made from scraps of wrapping paper, are replaced by expensive plastic action figures. The conclusion is absolutely tragic and had me in tears when I first read it. The story is a very worthy award-winner and an excellent way in which to conclude this anthology.

A few of the stories weren’t really my cup of tea, although they may well appeal to other readers. I’ll mention three examples. ‘A Kind Of Artistry’ by Brian Aldiss is a 1962 story about the distant future of humanity, whose main characters came across to me as both dull and unsympathetic, leaving me entirely uninterested in their fate.

Maureen F. McHugh’s ‘The Lincoln Train’ (1995) is an alternate history of one moment during the American Civil War. As a non-American, I must admit to a limited interest in such stories in general. However, this one was killed for me by the passivity of the female protagonist, who seemed to me, to have no agency from the beginning of the story right through to its end.

‘Winemaster’ by Robert Reed is a 1999 story about the emerging conflict between digitally uploaded post-humans and the resentful and angry flesh and blood brothers and sisters they have left behind. It’s a fascinating premise but I found the plot rather convoluted and too few of the characters sparked enough of my interest for me to care what happened to them.

One aspect of the anthology that I was a little disappointed by was the small number of stories by female authors. In a volume containing 27 stories, it seems a shame that only five are by women. While such a low proportion of stories by women would be understandable in the first half of the book, given that so few women were able to get stories published in the pulps during their early history, I would have hoped to have seen some compensation for this in the second half, recognising the large number of excellent stories by women that F&SF has published in recent decades.

On the other hand, the book contains a broad range of different types of SF and fantasy stories from across the last six decades, many of which will repay repeated readings into the future, I am sure. As Michael Dirda says in his introductory essay, the anthology demonstrates a ‘continuity of excellence’ in the stories that have been published by MF&SF over the years. If you like quality short fiction and you’re looking for an anthology that collects together stories both old and new, I’d warmly recommend that you check out ‘The Very Best Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume Two’.

Patrick Mahon

May 2016

(pub: Tachyon Publications 2014. 419 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $15.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61696-163-3)

check out website: www.tachyonpublications.com

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Category: Books, Fantasy, Scifi

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