BOOK REVIEW: The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. 2

I’m just trying to drive Robert A. Heinlein aficionados crazy by postponing the final part(s) of my Heinlein YA review! No, seriously; do you have any idea how long it takes to reread all those books critically? When reading for pleasure, I usually read about 1200 w.p.m.; but when reading critically I’m a turtle and have to plod along checking this, that and the other, switching back and forth among several books for various reasons. So it will come, and soon, but not right away. (Rick Blaine [Humphrey Bogart] in Casablanca: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life.”)

One of my very favourite SF/F types of book is the anthology; whether it’s a Year’s Best SF, edited by Judy Merril, Gardner Dozois, Fred Pohl, David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, Ted Dikty and Everett Bleiler; or a Year’s Best Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, Lin Carter or any of a hundred SF/F/Horror anthologies, it’s a way to find some of the best writing ever to grace our genre. You can bet that, no matter who edited it, the anthology—even if it’s a one-person anthology—some professional editor(s) spent a lot of time reading, evaluating and selecting stories for your—the reader’s—benefit. (My personal faves have always included—and I can’t mention every book, as I read hundreds of books/stories a year—anything edited by [in no particular order] the people named above, the Star Science Fiction series, the Best of F&SF series, and the Galaxy SF anthologies.) What a terrific way (especially if you follow Dozois, Datlow and Hartwell/Cramer) to keep up with a field’s short fiction—especially ours, which is chock-a-block full of new and old writers and new magazines (print and e-magazine)! (And don’t assume that because I didn’t mention someone’s name or anthology they’re not worthwhile… I can’t cover everyone!)

Figure 1 - F&SF Very Best Vol. 2 Cover by Thomas Canty

Figure 1 – F&SF Very Best Vol. 2 Cover by Thomas Canty

So today I’m privileged to review an upcoming book—July 15, give or take a few days, is the official release date. From Gordon Van Gelder (Figure 2)* and Tachyon Publications comes The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 2. This magazine is one of the older extant SF/F magazines in the world, being only a year or so younger than I… Amazing Stories (1926) is the oldest—if you count all its incarnations; followed by Analog Science Fiction & Fact (1930), which was Astounding Science Fiction once upon a time, and then came (in 1948) The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (figure 4), which started as The Magazine of Fantasy (Figure 3) but incorporated Science Fiction into its name and logo beginning with issue number two! (I came along in 1947, just to keep the record straight.) There have been hiatuses (hiatii?) in publishing—short ones—for Amazing Stories and Analog, sometimes when the magazines passed from one chain to another, but we’re the clear winner here!

When it comes to explicitly publishing science fiction, Analog is the “grand old man” of magazine publishing here in North America. (In order to keep some kind of rein on how far afield I must go, I’m only talking about North American magazines today, okay?) Although Amazing Stories began by publishing science fiction, I think there have been times when some non-SF types of story crept in; I don’t know that Analog has ever slipped from its intention of publishing SF. Of course, when John W. Campbell, Jr. was the editor, a lot of *ahem!* pseudo-science was allowed to pass unheeded. (I refer to the Hieronymous Machine, the Dean Drive and several other wacky ideas… when I was a kid, I bought into those things and couldn’t figure out why—for example—the Heironymous Machine didn’t work for me. I just thought it was my failure, because surely Analog wouldn’t knowingly publish anything that wasn’t real science as its “science feature,” would it? Ah, the innocence of youth. Otherwise known as the “You’ll believe anything, won’t you?” years.) But I digress.

Figure 2 - Gordon Van Gelder photo from Odyssey Workshop interview

Figure 2 – Gordon Van Gelder photo ©2012 by Ellen Datlow

Thanks to our publisher-cum-editor Steve Davidson, Amazing Stories is explicitly a science fiction (SF) fantasy and horror magazine (SF/F/H); the lines between SF and fantasy—not to mention horror—often blur. (I offer a couple of very recent exchanges from Facebook between me and a couple of friends as evidence:

Friend 1: I want to argue that some of these are not what I’d call science fiction.
Friend 2: Friend 1 – agreed. A Handmaid’s Tale is a story about a future, but I’m not sure I’d call it “science fiction.” Steve Fahnestalk: Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian SF, but it’s been done several times before in similar fashion. I found it dreary and not terribly well done. It’s good she denies she writes SF, but I’d disagree. She writes SF, just not well-done SF!
Friend 2: Steve, maybe I’m not recalling all aspects of the book, but I’m wondering what aspect made it “science” fiction. Although, now that I think about it, they included 1984, and what I’m thinking of would lump that in with Handmaid’s Tale.
Steve Fahnestalk: It’s a dystopian future, Friend 2. As is 1984. Both of those make it SF.
Friend 1: I hate dystopian, and I disagree that its being set in the “future” automatically makes it SF.
Steve Fahnestalk: Actually, Friend 1, for many years being set in the future was the cornerstone of SF. But you’re free to disagree; it’s more or less a free country.
Friend 1: But… isn’t there supposed to be some kind of actual science in science fiction?
Steve Fahnestalk: Hardly ever, historically. Lots of pseudo-science; a few actual scientists write it and put in science (Harry “Hal Clement” Stubbs, the Benford boys and so on); otherwise, the genre is mostly non-mainstream fiction that isn’t defined as “fantasy” or “horror.” SF should be things that *could possibly* happen as opposed to things that couldn’t ever happen. Like, f’rinstance, Hogwarts as a real school of magic.
Friend 3: I’m pretty old-school. Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, etc. While these three all had more-or-less scientific backgrounds, there was very little real “science” in any of their stuff—they were just really good at making their speculation sound like it was scientifically plausible. Futurescaping social commentary may make the cut, à la A Canticle for Lieboweitz, but it seems to me to lack that science fiction-y feel. The social commentary is valid, but it makes the future setting seem a little contrived.
Friend 2: Friend 3, the writers you mentioned did often include futuristic technology in their works. 1984, considering when it was written, I guess could have been considered to have “futuristic technology,” though not by much. That’s what I was thinking about when I mentioned some SF not having “science” in them. A Handmaid’s Tale, if memory serves, has none.
The above is an actual—the names have been changed to protect the guilty—conversation on Facebook!

Figure 3 - Magazine of Fantasy (F&SF) issue 1 Cover by Bill Stone

Figure 3 – Magazine of Fantasy (F&SF) issue 1 Cover by Bill Stone

If you look at issue 1 of what’s now called The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF to all us long-time readers), you’ll see there’s a notable omission—there’s no “Science Fiction” in the title! That omission was rectified by the very next issue; Figure 4 shows that the title is what solidified as the long-term name of the magazine. F&SF has, for 66 years, published some of the best SF/F that the field has seen, under the editorship of Healy & McComas, Boucher, Mills, Davidson, Ferman, Rusch and now, Gordon Van Gelder. And if you want to talk about anthologies—be sure to watch for our upcoming “Best of,” by the way—every editor named has done at least one F&SF anthology, and every anthology has been a high-water mark in both fantasy and science fiction. Well, Gordon Van Gelder, the editor since 1997 (and also the publisher since 2000) has upped the ante with two, count ‘em two, “Very Best of” anthologies, and this is volume two. Volume one came out five years ago; it contained many lesser-known gems by well-known names instead of trotting out the “usual suspects.”

Well, as of July 15, The Very Best of F&SF Vol. 2 will be available from Amazon and other places for—I think–$15.95 plus shipping. And it’s a doozy! I count 26 stories, ranging in age from 1950 to 2011; and of them, the only ones I remembered reading were published before—yes, I’m way behind in my magazine reading—1984! And if your reading hasn’t included such gems as Robert A. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies,” Zenna Henderson’s “The Anything Box,” Damon Knight’s “The Country of the Kind” and Harlan Ellison’s® “Jeffty is Five”**—and these are just some of the pre-1984 stories—as well as the post-’84 stories like Lucius Shepard’s “Salvador,” Maureen F. McHugh’s “The Lincoln Train,” Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag” or Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie,” then your reading is farther behind than mine! (And I haven’t even mentioned such gems as Kit Reed’s “Attack of the Giant Baby” or Stephen King’sThe New York Times at Special Bargain Rates”!)

To be fair, not every story is an actual gem; the lead story is Jack Finney’s “The Third Level,” which is more an SF trope than an actual story—you get a sense of time/place, but not a whole lot of character. (His Time And Again is a fuller story.) Still, it’s worth reading if you’ve not done so before. Stories that hit me, emotionally—which to me are the best kinds of SF/F—include Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie,” with its half-Asian protagonist desperately trying to fit into Western society, while his mother tries just as desperately to connect with her son; or Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” whose protagonists are soldiers—similar to Lucius Shepard’s—in a war that never ends, trying to comprehend what drove “pre-science” humanity, a group they barely belong to any more. Or Shepard’s “Salvador,” like Joe Haldeman’s Forever War before it, about soldiers embroiled in a conflict they can neither understand nor control. Maureen McHugh’s “The Lincoln Train” is set in an alternate post-Civil War (or “War of Northern Agression,” if you’re a Southerner) where Lincoln survived the assassin’s bullet (barely) and reprisals are being taken against the families of Southern soldiers who remained behind—if they hadn’t freed their slaves and servants. Chilling.

Figure 4 - F&SF Issue 2 Cover by George Salter

Figure 4 – F&SF Issue 2 Cover by George Salter

Robert Sheckley’s “The Prize of Peril” is kind of a prelude to his novel (made into a movie with Ursula Andress, if memory serves) The Tenth Victim; Bruce Sterling finally gives me the name for those little cats with one paw raised in “Maneki Neko,” a story set in a near-future Japan. (But Japan changes much more quickly than North America—especially in electronics and morés—and who’s to say it’s not a present-day version of Japan?) Kit Reed’s “The Attack of the Giant Baby” is a playful takeoff on the “giant monster movies” of the late ‘50s, early ‘60s; Stephen King offers us another view of the afterlife—or is it the antechamber to the afterlife?—in “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates.” Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy “The Bone Woman” shows us that the inner city can be another wilderness area, with its own legends and legendary people; M. John Harrison offers us yet another reason that VR might not be all that it’s cracked up to be in a few years with “Suicide Coast” and obsessive types who really want to “get into the scene.” And I haven’t even mentioned James Patrick Kelly’s “Rat” which, although published in 1986, seems to still be forecasting a dark future for us. All in all—and I’ve read this anthology more than once—I can’t say that there are any bad stories in it; Gordon Van Gelder has proved himself, in a time when there must be many more submissions than in any other editor’s tenure, to be not only a competent editor, but a talented one as well. I can’t wait to see what diamonds he mines from the 66 years (plus!) of F&SF’s history for the next “Very Best Of” anthology!

*By the way, there was no photographic credit on the Odyssey Workshop’s interview photo of Gordon Van Gelder, so I hope I’m not stepping on any toes by using it here. I hope the “fair usage” clause covers it, and apologies in advance to the photographer. Changed to ©2012 by Ellen Datlow on information from Gordon Van Gelder!

**Yes, Harlan has registered the name “Harlan Ellison®” as a “mark.”

Please comment, especially if you find a factual error, on this week’s column/blog entry—you can either register here, if you haven’t already (it’s free, and only takes a moment) to do so—or comment on my Facebook page; or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link. All your comments—whether you agree with me or not—are welcome! Feel free to disagree; my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors and publishers. See you next week!

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