Monday, September 28, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology feels like a literature textbook in the sense that it features authors who are relevant to the genre, both old and new. From Alfred Bester to Ted Chiang, this book is comprehensive and could easily be a primer given to undergraduate students who are curious about the field. And it's a testament to Fantasy and Science Fiction's long history and quality that it has published such authors and their short stories. If there's any doubt as to the contributions of the magazine to speculative fiction, the table of contents easily assuages one's doubts, with the inclusion of classics like "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes and "The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr., to modern favorites like "Creation" by Jeffrey Ford and "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang.

While this is a thick book, editor Gordon Van Gelder admits in the introduction that this anthology isn't as complete as one would expect from a publication of Fantasy & Science Fiction's longevity. There's too much ground to cover and only so much space. Still, Van Gelder does a good job of cramming as much as he can and one is treated to twenty-three stories that most would consider outstanding. As I said before, this would make a great reference material when it comes to the field of fantasy and science fiction--or at least the short story form. The roster assembled here is impressive and provides an overview of its history. While there are a lot of famous authors included in this book, what's featured isn't necessarily their best, but those that were published in the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction. That's both good and bad, depending on how exposed you are to the said author's works.

Personally, the anthology felt like it could be divided into two parts. I consider myself a modern reader and the first half of the book feels dated, and rightly so considering that it covers material published as early as 1951 until 1978. For example, as respected as Shirley Jackson is (and her "Lottery" retaining its potency), her story in this book, "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts", feels too reliant on the punchline at the end. I'm sure it was a sophisticated piece of fiction back in 1955 (and probably a lot of fiction I'm currently reading owes a lot to it), but compared to what's being done today, is lackluster and feels more apt as flash fiction. The authors also have a particular writing style that makes their narratives seem old--or at least not modern--although that's doesn't necessarily detract from the story, as is the case in "Of Time and Third Avenue" by Alfred Bester or "The Electric Ant" by Philip K. Dick. Still, there were stories in that batch that doesn't fail to impress and is still, in certain ways, remains cutting edge such as "The Deathbird" by Harlan Ellison and "I See You" by Damon Knight.

If I was critical of the first half, then the second half is pure thrill and enjoyment, with no mediocre story in sight. It begins with "The Dark" by Karen Joy Fowler, originally published in 1999, and progresses until 2007 with "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang (and somewhere in between we sneak in "Buffalo" by John Kessel, published in 1991, "Solitude" by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 1994, and "Mother Grasshopper" by Michael Swanwick, published in 1998). Here, my biases come into play and despite their length, manages to enthrall me with both their characterization and technical skill. In fact, the last ten stories alone are worth the price of admission, in my opinion, especially with "Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle or "Journey into the Kingdom" by M. Rickert.

With The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology, I have two perspectives on the final verdict. If it's just down to personal tastes, sure, there are some stories that aren't winners to me, but there's more than enough to satiate my cravings. Evaluating it from a more holistic perspective however, whether it's as a scholar, writer, or simply a genre fan, this is a rare treasure that compiles some of the best genre stories over the past six decades, and through it, we witness the field's history and growth.

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