Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In her introduction to Vanishing Acts, Ellen Datlow explains the idea for the anthology came to her when she realized the connection between Suzy McKee Charnas’s story “Listening to Brahms,” Avram Davidson’s tale “Now Let Us Sleep” and “The Girl Who Loved Animals,” by Bruce McAllister. Datlow decided to build an anthology around the theme of endangered species and the result is one of the strongest anthologies to be published in recent years.
Vanishing Acts is not entirely original. It includes the three stories mentioned above as reprints, as well as “Faded Roses,” by Karen Joy Fowler. The majority of the stories, however, are original to this anthology and include stories which may well turn up on the awards ballots in the coming months.
Foremost among the original stories is Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-two Letters.” Chiang is not, unfortunately, a prolific author, but when he does publish a story it includes enough in it that most authors would attempt to stretch the tale to novel length. Instead, Chiang builds a compact work. “Seventy-two Letters” is a look at a Victorian era in which kabalah (mysticism) functions as a science. Chiang’s protagonist, who introduces a social conscience to the kabalistic community, discovers that there is a strong possibility of the human race become extinct. Chiang’s story is gripping and clever and raises questions about both science, society and the way the two work together.
Another story which takes a look at the way science functions is Paul J. McAuley’s “The Rift,” about a scientific expedition’s treacherous descent into an uncharted Amazon valley. Focusing on the disparate personalities and agendas of the participants, the science of the expedition takes a back seat. Nevertheless, the idea of extinctions and rare species, both floral and faunal, charge the entire story.
While nearly all of the stories are successful, perhaps the most disappointing is William Shunn’s impressively named “Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites.” This story is about a species being introduces to a foreign nature preserve. While Shunn’s ideas are intriguing, they are unnecessarily convoluted by a combination of complex politics and annoying invented dialects for his characters. The story is set in the same universe as an earlier story, which may indicate that Shunn intends further exploration of this construct. If he does, the complete works may support the complexity of the situation, which tends to be a little much, even for the longest story in Vanishing Acts.
Brian Stableford attempts to infuse his story, “Tenebrio,” with a sense of realism. Steve Pearlman is an “ecowarrior” fighting to protect tiny Tenebrion Wood and the beetles which live there. Pearlman also indicates to his former professor, John Hazard, that the wood might contain creatures even more rare. Stableford’s story examines what is required in order to try to save a natural habitat and how even people who have an interest in what the habitat contains aren’t always willing to do what needs to be done in order to preserve the environment.
Animals and plants are not the only thing facing extinction. A.R. Morlan creates an extreme case of a language on the verge of extinction in “Fast Glaciers” to demonstrate that communication between cultures can be harmful and lead to the destruction of the smaller culture as surely as a bulldozer can destroy a rare creature’s natural habitat. Whether or not Morlan’s Amazon tribe is human is debatable, but the effects of Western scientists on their culture and language, as well as their physical appearance, is undeniable. Even when Morlan’s narrator works to save the language, she may have inadvertently wound up dooming it to extinction.
Many of the authors whose work appears in Vanishing Acts examine the idea that acts which appear to be merciful turn out to have damaging effects which could not have been foreseen. However, none of the stories come across as preachy, despite the subject matter. In fact, some of the stories, most notably, M. Shayne Bell’s “The Thing About Benny,” have an amusing quality while dealing with the subject in a serious and emotional manner.
Datlow has selected a wide range of quality stories for this anthology. The reprints demonstrate how well they were written by the fact that which stories are reprints are not obvious without checking the copyright page or reading Datlow’s brief introduction to the various stories. This is a anthology which deserves a place of honor in any reader’s collection.
|Suzy McKee Charnas||Listening to Brahms|
|Paul J. McAuley||The Rift|
|Bruce McAllister||The Girl Who Loved Animals|
|William Shunn||Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites|
|David J. Schow||Blessed Event|
|Karen Joy Fowler||Faded Roses|
|Mark W. Tiedemann||Links|
|Daniel Abraham||Chimera 8|
|Michael Cadnum||Bite the Hand|
|M. Shayne Bell||The Thing About Benny|
|A.R. Morlan||Fast Glaciers|
|Avram Davidson||Now Let Us Sleep|
|Ted Chiang||Seventy-two Letters|
|Joe Haldeman||Endangered Species|
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