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The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology
edited by Edward L. Ferman and Gordon Van Gelder
Tor Books, 384 pages
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: October/November 1999

The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology
The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, founded in 1949, is the award-winning SF magazine which is the original publisher of SF classics like Stephen King's Dark Tower, Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Each 160-page issue offers compelling short stories and novellas by writers such as Ray Bradbury, Ben Bova, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mike Resnick, Terry Bisson and many others, along with the science fiction field's most respected and outspoken opinions on books, films and science.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

There are only two things you could find fault with in this Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction anthology. The first is that you might expect a volume that celebrates the magazine's 50th Anniversary to be a retrospective of that whole history, not just the last five years. F&SF editor Gordon Van Gelder anticipates this objection by explaining in his introduction the feeling he shared with Edward L. Ferman (the magazine's former editor and current publisher) that, "too many of the magazine's greatest stories are anthologized regularly and... there are too many excellent uncollected stories since the last 'Best of' anthology" in 1994. Yearly editions ceased after the 1971 volume; I'd like to think that the current five year publication interval is more a concession to the ground covered by the two heavyweight annuals of Gardner Dozois and David Hartwell than it is to the lack of suitable material.

The other thing that might put some readers off stems from the reason why "Fantasy" is listed before "Science Fiction" (indeed, "Science Fiction" was added to the magazine's title with the second issue). Although a first glance at the book jacket cover of a 40s-inspired depiction of a rocket ship (an icon repeated on the title page of each story) might lead you to expect otherwise, there are only two stories that are remotely related to space settings. John Crowley's "Gone" is a funny inversion of the invaders from outer space theme in which the primary threat from aliens is that they are a pain-in-the-ass. In "Solitude," anthropologists studying another world serve primarily to make points about gender roles, a not unexpected topic from Ursula K. Le Guin. And while there are stories here that have science fictional elements -- e.g., Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko" provides a chillingly accurate depiction of dehumanization in the age of technological convenience, while in "Sins of the Mother" S.N. Dyer examines the darker implications of artificial insemination and human irresponsibility -- the tone of all these stories is rooted more in the fantastical.

Indeed, Van Gelder notes that the only thing linking these stories is that "they all have some element of the unreal and they're very good reading." Which is why I heartily recommend this collection even if your taste is more towards the hard end of the SF spectrum, because this is very good reading indeed, and who cares if it's from the last five years or fifty years.

Actually, the retro "space-ship" graphic motif that could make you expect a survey of Golden Age SF isn't all that misleading -- it epitomizes the then-fantastical speculation about the idea of space travel, as opposed to the actual science of it, back in the era of F&SF's founding. The squat, finned spacecraft that took off in writers' imaginations had little to do with the "make-do" engineering that eventually came to characterize the first "Spam in a Can" Mercury flights, not to mention the clumsy looking lunar landing module. Which is why it struck me how often this anthology's various authors, writing at a time when space flight is part of a forgotten history rather than an exciting prospect, echo the pioneering work of long-time F&SF contributor and master fabulist whose work is often called, somewhat inaccurately I think, science fiction. I am, of course, referring to Ray Bradbury.

Consider how the aforementioned Sterling's depiction of people whose lives are literally directed by their "pokecons" -- a device that the Palm Pilot is not that far away from becoming -- reminds you of the folks in Fahrenheit 451 enraptured by their electronic seashells. The haunting "Quinn's Way" by Dale Baily evokes Something Wicked This Way Comes with its enigmatic ringmaster of a mysterious travelling circus. Here's a story about child abuse that could work purged of its fantastical element, but would not be quite as powerful. And Robert Reed's marvelous "First Tuesday" is less about projecting the political power of technology than it is about the unanticipated wonders of the world. In true Bradburian fashion, Reed's protagonist is a boy on the eve of discovering not just the wonders of technology, but the wonders of future existence.

Similarly, although different stylistically, Elizabeth Hand proves herself a daughter of Bradbury in her coming of age tale, "Last Summer at Mars Hill." The ground covered here will be familiar to her fans: adolescents on the verge of adulthood dealing with the shortcomings of bohemian parents who just happen to have certain mystical connections. This time Hand is concerned with how two children handle dying parents, with interesting twists on the decisions of how to confront mortality by all involved. This story was both a World Fantasy and Nebula Award-winner, and sets the high standard met by the succeeding selections. Other award-gathering stories collected here include Maureen McHugh's Hugo-winning "The Lincoln Train," an alternate Civil War history in which a new freedom train, albeit one less sympathetic for its victims, is conducted for defeated white Southern slave-owners oppressed by a victorious North. Crowley's "Gone" was a Locus Award-winner, with Nebula winners represented by: the Le Guin selection; "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea" by Bruce Holland Rogers, which is a grim look at scientific efforts to defeat the grim reaper; and Esther M. Friesner's "A Birthday."

The latter is yet another example of how the genre F&SF champions is shortchanged by the "serious mainstream." This fable about the oppression of women hinges on a technological solution that serves as a compromise to "solve" the abortion debate. Such a story is fantasy rather than science fiction because even if it were technologically achievable, the premise is politically implausible. It is highly unlikely, as well as insulting to suggest otherwise, that the majority of women with all the gains made by the feminist movement in this country would lie down for such a plan. Yet because Friesner is writing fantasy, the likelihood of the premise is irrelevant. What matters is the poignant allegory of the social pressures that exacerbate the psychic pain of women who've undergone abortions, and the oftentimes dire consequences. In contrast, Margaret Atwood's equally implausible The Handmaid's Tale is widely acclaimed and read, despite a flawed premise that seems to suggest that American women were ever actually in any danger of widespread subjugation by religious wackos. (That Clinton survived potential impeachment with relatively little moral outrage demonstrates how little a threat the Religious Right represents, at least on a national level.)

I've only been able to skim the top of the cream here. And as if that weren't rich enough for you, if you're going to help F&SF celebrate its half-century, you should also check out the special October/November double issue anniversary edition of brand new stories. Like the book, there's not a bad story here (although I confess to being puzzled by Carol Emshwiller's off-the-wall "Acceptance Speech"; I'm not sure if she's being weird for the sake of being weird or if I've missed some larger meaning).

For whatever reason, some authors appear in both volumes. Kate Wilhelm's "The Happiest Day of Her Life" is actually a follow-up to a story in the anthology called "Forget Luck." I preferred the sequel to the original, when in other situations usually I've found the opposite to be true, although that may have as much to do with my reading it first. Paul DiFilippo's offbeat Plummage from Pegasus column of "in-jokes" about the genre also makes dual appearances. And Le Guin offers a sweet story about making the right decisions for yourself, "Darkrose and Diamond," which I gather is set in her Earthsea universe.

I'd be surprised if Terry Bisson's "MACS" doesn't wind up on some award short list -- this examination of revenge for the families of the Oklahoma City bombing is powerful stuff, much more so than Partial People, the vignette in the "Best From" that pales in comparison. Speaking of award candidates, Lucius Shepard's contribution to the magazine, "Crocodile Rock," is certainly deserving of some year-end recognition (and maybe the next "Best From" anthology), despite its unfortunate connotation of a particularly insipid Elton John song of the same name. Shepard considers the fine line, without exactly defining it, of where our personal demons might merge into otherwordly demons, and what control, if any, we have over either.

The magazine pays tribute to its past by publishing letters between the legendary anthologizer Judith Merril and the equally legendary Theodore Sturgeon. There's also the delightful "How Heather Moon Kept My Life From Getting Fouled Up Again" by long-time contributor, but perhaps not as well-known, Ron Goulart, who offers the sort of whimsical tale that makes fantasy so attractive. And even the casual fan will recognize such "names" as Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, and Jonathan Carroll, among others.

Speaking of legendary, there's also Harlan Ellison, whose towering reputation in the field is akin to that of Bradbury's, though of course we're talking two different styles. While Bradbury's reference points are the hopes of Depression-era boys and the dangers lurking beneath the prosperity of post-WWII Eisenhower America, Ellison's are the 60s non-conformity flipping the bird to whatever authority figure happens to fall in the line of fire. I have to say that Ellison and Bradbury were both more impressive to me as a younger reader just discovering this stuff than they are now to my middle-aged sensibilities. Both Ellison's "Objects of Desire Are Closer Than They Appear" that appears in the magazine as well as his "Sensible City" in the anthology have a Twilight-Zone feel that writing guidelines in the genre typically disdain. That said, the reason Ellison gets away with this is his singular "bad ass" attitude -- no one else writes like Ellison, which makes a thin plotline or a vignette masquerading as a short story besides the point. He's still fun as all hell to read.

Which brings us full circle to the notion that got me started here. It all comes back to Bradbury, whose unique worldview, like Ellison's, usually overcomes a story's mechanical deficiencies (something that crops up frequently in Bradbury's later work). Take the "Best From" selection of Bradbury's about the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy returning to a famous scene in which they repeatedly fail to transport a piano up a steep set of stairs. It's fluff, but it's enchanting fluff, imbued with the author's boyish "geewhizness" he's managed to maintain through his long career. What's perhaps a bit sad is that while a reader under a certain age will "get" what's going on in the works by Bradbury's various "children," unfamiliarity with comedians whose heyday was in the 30s -- way before DVD and home theatres, let alone television -- may put them at something of a loss to determine why the author of such a tale typically evokes such reverence.

For the magazine itself, Bradbury contributes a "non-fiction" (though with Ray it's always hard to tell where his imagination and experience actually dovetail) piece called "I Was There the Day the World Ended, I Was There the World Began." Few writers today have the perspective of this wide-eyed Illinois boy who lived when a moving picture transmitted through the air first heralded the wonders -- and dangers -- of the modern age, who survives today in the Internet Age still marvelling at the times he lives in. Fittingly, the many varied and excellent stories to be found in both the Best From F&SF and the 50th Anniversary issue pay appropriate homage to his substantial legacy.

Copyright © 1999 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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