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The Best of Crank!
edited by Bryan Cholfin
Tor Books, 320 pages

Art: Pangorda
The Best of Crank!
Bryan Cholfin
Bryan Cholfin is an editorial assistant at Tor Books, in New York. This involves tracking manuscripts, copy, and other assorted materials through the book production process to make sure that books happen on schedule. As well, he reads a lot of unsolicited manuscripts and writes some of the jacket and catalogue copy. Some recent novels that include his work are The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce and Darker Angels by S.P. Somtow.

Crank! Magazine
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Tooth Fairy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

"This is art," the professor for my science fiction graduate seminar had once proclaimed about the subject we were studying, even as he felt compelled to add, "though some of my colleagues in the English Department wouldn't agree."

Just as Frankenstein rejected his monster in the novel widely regarded as the progenitor of the form, high brow literary types have looked down upon science fiction as the bastard child of literature: something patched together from inferior stock and unworthy for anything but escapist entertainment for lesser minds.

As science fiction evolved as a, yes, art form, afficionados have resorted to various arguments to assuage their inferiority complexes, the two classic responses being:

"Okay, so it's not Shakespeare. But, it examines the socio-political ramifications of the industrial revolution and humanity's technical achievements and potential."
"Oh, yeah? If science fiction is such junk, what about 1984 and Brave New World, huh? What do you call that?"

Those kinds of arguments certainly had relevance during the tremendous technical innovations of the mid-20th century, particularly as they were applied to weapons of mass destruction and political control (remember that the wings of the space program were borne to flight on the work of Nazi scientists and specious fear of what would happen if the Russians got there first). However, the end of the Cold War made global nuclear destruction seemingly less of a threat while we got bored watching men landing on the Moon, so you don't hear the first argument so much any more. So-called legitimate authors continue to use SF tropes (e.g., Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale and, more recently, Gore Vidal in Smithsonian and newcomer Kirsten Bakis in Lives of the Monster Dogs) without increasing respect for the genre because they are marketed under different categories (e.g. "dystopia" or "post-modern" or "feminist"), just as Frankenstein gets into the canon because it's "gothic."

What's really killing SF today are actually two things:
If, as is generally theorized, SF first attracts (usually male) readers at the "Age of Wonder" (around 12), the problem is that the modern computer and the technologies it unleashed provide more literal devices of wonder than most tired tales of space opera.
Star Trek -- need I say more?

All of which brings us to The Best of Crank!

Crank! is an irregularly published magazine edited by Bryan Choflin. As someone who works in the publishing business, Choflin knows full well the problems confronting SF, which he describes in his introduction to this important volume:

"...if SF is going to continue in the long run, it needs to find a way to move forward, out of the (historically unprecedented) stagnant morass it is now. It is clear that clinging tightly to old ideas of genre is not going to work."
A good place to start looking for that new launch pad is in the pages of The Best of Crank! The not inconsiderable obstacle that Choflin faces, however, becomes immediate apparent upon scanning the table of contents. Although some of the names may be familiar to SF fans (most notably, Ursula K. Le Guin and Brain Aldiss), many won't (just who is Eliot Fintushel?). The great irony is that even the "name" authors might not have so much as a single representative volume shelved on their behalf in the mall bookstore, or even in the mega-chain, while entire sections are devoted to Star Trek and X-Files spin-offs. As Choflin puts it:
"In spite of (or even because of) the enormous success of the SF-derived mass entertainments of the movies and television, SF books still remain below the radar of many readers and reviewers of non-SF books. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the number of books published outside the SF category that are essentially SF books, making use of conceits that have been common currency in SF for decades. But the publishers are reputable literary houses, and the books are simply published as 'fiction'... if these same books were published under an SF imprint, they would also be ignored."
By thinking solely in terms of genre, readers who limit themselves to the familiar are stuck with a lot of junk, unaware of the richness of new authors and literary innovations; by the same token, the mainstream ignores quality work if it is called SF.

Choflin says to hell with all that. "The stories in this book reflect [my] esthetic agenda [of] a deliberately anti-generic selection." Indeed, much of this is more fantasy than SF, though even that distinction is kind of meaningless. What's here is literature. At times it annoyed me, puzzled me, frustrated me. But, above all, it made me think.

The cream here is Michael Bishop's "I, Iscariot," in which Judas is "virtually resurrected" and put on trial as a mass entertainment. Turns out that Judas got a bum deal because he kind of liked Jesus's bum, and although the real perpetrator is fingered in the end, just as Jesus found in taking the walk to the cross, fate cannot be escaped. It's no wonder that this story appears in the one back issue of Crank! that is no longer in print. You could justify buying The Best of Crank! for this story alone.

Keeping with the eschatological theme, almost as intriguing is "Homage" by A.M. Dellamonica, in which the God of Entertainment assumes the throne of Hades by enticing souls through a popular medium. A.A. Attanasio's "The Dark One: Amythograph" also explores the meaning of existence, although with an outcome that struck me as typical of the genre. Along the same lines, although I liked Le Guin's "The Matter of Seggri," the subject matter may have been avant-garde during the New Wave, but the point about sexual roles has been made repeatedly, the author herself being one of the pioneers of feminist SF. Maybe the point is that even after all these years, the point still has to be made.

Choflin seems to favor fables, exemplified by the tales of Jonathan Lethem (who accounts for three stories, as well as another written with Carter Scholz). My favorite of these Lethem tales is "The Happy Prince," which recounts the ill-fated love affair between a handsome and well-endowed servitor robot and a swallow (yes, you read that right). The titles "Nixon in Space" and "Santacide" give fair warning about just how weird some of this gets. Even that may not prepare you for "Food Man," in which Lisa Tuttle puts a spin on an eating disorder that could possibly lead to literally eating your heart out. Another example of weird excellence is the modern morality tale by Gwyneth Jones.  In her "The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle," a disturbed young woman finally manages to find her Prince Charming with a happy ending that maybe can happen not just in fairy tales. And then there's Robert Deveraux' "Clap If You Believe," about a young man who asks a father for the hand of a pixie (as in Tinkerbell) in marriage -- if you're wondering how such a relationship can be consummated, Deveraux gives you an idea.

Weird for the sake of weird doesn't always work, however. Karen Jay Fowler tries to dress up the Le Guin theme from a post-modernist perspective in "The Elizabeth Complex" by trying to echo the story of Henry VIII's daughter with a series of contemporary Lizzies. This is the one story that just doesn't work at any level for me. Similarly, David Bunch's "The Soul Shortchanges" strikes me as kind of retread territory, even though I liked its smart-ass attitude.

Choflin is a champion of the writer R. A. Lafferty, whose "I Don't Care Who Keeps the Cows" -- a parable of how we got so smart and why we're not as smart as we used to be -- is included here. Another on Choflin's list of admired writers is Gene Wolfe, whose "Empires of Foliage and Flower" presents yet another fable about the absurdity of war.

Just as I got The Best of Crank! to review, I happily received the long-awaited latest issue of Crank! For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Choflin is a solo publisher without university affiliation, arts grants, or a staff of gophers, two years have passed between issues. Choflin promises to get back on the quarterly track, with a redesigned logo that drops reference to "science fiction or fantasy" -- Choflin prefers to present Crank! simply as a literary magazine, albeit one with a bizarre bent. Just to drive home the point, the first story, Carol Emshwiller's "A is for Abel, B is For Bird," about how a strange pair of misfits get stuck to one another, is not science fiction though, perhaps, it is borderline fantasy. Also, while Eliot Fintushel's hilarious "Galactic Business" deals with time travel and threats to the end of the universe, I don't know if SF has ever used masturbation as a story idea. In any event, this story gets my nomination for inclusion in the next Best of Crank! volume. Finally, long-time subscribers will be pleased to at last read the final installment of James Blaycock's novel, The Magic Spectacles, the first part having been published in the winter of 1996!

Choflin is a man with a mission, and, like most missionaries, the experience has not made him richer. He needs your help. Science fiction as literature needs your help. Subscribe to Crank! (have you figured out by now why it's called this?) -- a measly $15 for four issues. (By the way, I'm a subscriber and am not just getting reviewer copies, so I put my money where my mouth is.) If you're interested in the Best of Crank!, buy it directly from Choflin rather than through the chains or the Internet book stores -- Cholfin makes a bigger profit when you skip the retailers, and can pour more of those profits into sustaining the magazine.

Go ahead. Do it. You'll feel much better for it for doing your part to help ensure that the literature of the future has one.

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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