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September 2007
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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by James Sallis

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, edited by George Mann, Solaris Books, 2006, $7.99.

Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge, edited by Lou Anders, Pyr, 2007, $15.

THERE ARE these windows that open from time to time. The old days of Astounding. Horace Gold with Galaxy, the advent of F&SF itself. Gold Medal Books. Venues that spring up and allow writers a new voice, new freedoms. Serving as amanuensis for those already established, likely as not such venues also help give rise to an entire new population of writers.

One of those windows sprang open in the late sixties and seventies with the proliferation of original anthologies, non-thematic collections of theretofore unpublished stories. Damon Knight's Orbit (twenty-one volumes, 1966-1980) led the pack. Harking back to the original original anthology, Fred Pohl's Star Science Fiction (six volumes, 1953-1959), Orbit was promptly joined by Terry Carr's Universe, Harry Harrison's Nova, and Bob Silverberg's New Dimensions, not to mention the colossus of them all, Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions; there was also a second tier including David Gerrold's Alternities, Delany's and Hacker's Quark and, further along, Roy Torgeson's Chrysalis. Many of my generation cut their teeth as writers on these anthologies; many just a bit younger cut their teeth as readers on them.

All the barricades were down, many of us felt: we could write what and as we wished. And be read.

It could be argued that the market simply was responding to demand, that a new audience had come up, an audience disenchanted with the genre status quo, an audience jonesing for new ideas and new modes of expression.

It could equally be argued that the product was already there—that the dozen or so genre magazines and many other short-story markets publishing sf had stimulated genre growth, with new writers pushing hard at the gates—and that the economics of the time (cheap printing, low overhead, wide distribution) made it practical for publishers to forge these new smitheries.

It is probably no surprise to readers of this magazine that the market for short fiction has since declined, both within the borders of sf and without. Few general-circulation magazines now publish fiction. Most short fiction nowadays finds its home in literary journals of one sort or another or, increasingly, on the Internet. We've but a scant handful of professional-level sf magazines left, these walking a tightrope of ever-diminishing subscriptions, lacunate distribution, and escalating costs. As for anthologies, over the past quarter-century or so the theme anthology has reigned, to the extent that I once proposed a collection of great nose stories, half-fearful that I might be offered a contract.

Whatever the explanation for the purchase those early anthologies found, no recent series—Full Spectrum, the relaunched Universe, or Starlight, among others—has shown the enduring viability or the vitality of older series. Those that have endured the longest, anthologies such as Polyphony (edited by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake) and Leviathan (edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Forrest Aguirre), have come from small independent presses, and from editors eager to broaden the boundaries of the genre.

One likes to believe that we may be poised to see a revival of the original anthology. Here on my desk are two of the latest avatars, both of them, interestingly enough, tied directly to new publishing ventures—proprietary, if you will—and functioning, one must suppose, as de facto manifestos. Both, as well, rather adamantly science fiction anthologies.

George Mann, editor of The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, in speaking of the short story as "the lifeblood of our genre," actually uses the word manifesto. This collection presages, he tells us, what is to come under the Solaris imprint.

And a revival—of the excitement, the ferment, even of the controversies swarming about the original anthology in its heyday—is precisely what editor Lou Anders of Fast Forward 1 calls for. Science fiction he characterizes as "a tool for making sense of a changing world." Anthologies such as his and Mann's, publishers such as Solaris and Pyr, could be the toolboxes.

Not many new names here, in either anthology—mostly well-known writers sidestepping from the current magazines, where their craft was honed.

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction is far the more traditionally biased of the two, and several stories herein, in their dependence on the big idea, their reach for vision, could almost be from the Golden Age—not throwbacks or pastiche, but reimaginings, recreations.

At least three of the stories herein take war as their theme. Many others, even if obliquely rather than patently (as in "Cages" and "The Farewell Party"), center on religious issues. Not surprising, since sf is a literature of extremes, war being the extreme of social polity and religion the extreme of humankind's ontological yearning, but it does cause one to wonder what might be in the air.

The volume opens with a brilliantly written parable of war and human guilt, "In His Sights" by Jeffrey Thomas, the sort of story that only an arealist mode such as science fiction can offer.

The other young returnees kept looking at him, wondering what horrors were concealed by his mask. The mask looked like several layers of black plastic, vacuum-formed to his face, with openings for his eyes, nostrils, and mouth. From his eyes, with their epicanthic folds, they could at least tell that he was of Asian ancestry. But what wounding had he suffered?
A soldier returns from war with the blue-skinned Ha Jiin wearing the face of his last kill, living a shadow life among a society of civilians and able finally to rid himself of that face only by further violence. The ending is powerful, the moral confusion and burden of guilt palpable; and the shifts in point of view precisely mirror the blurring of identities at the very heart of the story.

The volume's sixteen stories continue with (among others) "C-Rock City" by Jay Lake and Greg van Eekhout and "Zora and the Land Ethic Nomads" by Mary Turzillo, both with a fine narrative energy to them; "The Bowdler Strain" by James Lovegrove, a tongue-in-cheek tale of those who would cleanse language (and which reminds me strongly of stories by the great Fritz Leiber); Brian Aldiss's nightmarish fairy tale "Four Ladies of the Apocalypse"; and Neal Asher's "Bioship," with a future Captain Ahab and crew riding, as it were, in the whale.

Paul Di Filippo, with "Personal Jesus," contributes a story that's likely to be remembered and talked about for some time. Scientists, you see, have stumbled onto this chip that, well, channels god? And now everyone carries around a godPod, connected directly to...what? As always, Di Filippo humanizes the story, focusing on poor-pitiful-me Shepherd Crooks (Dickens would have loved that name) before unfolding onto larger vistas. The story's ending, pulled bodily from the cyclorama, could easily have concluded an episode of early TV's Science Fiction Theater.

Ian Watson's "Cages" is one of those stories that proceeds and finds its strength primarily in image. In a single day there appeared tens of millions of hoops, jump points through which came the Varroa, looking like giant bees and infinitely more inscrutable. Shortly behind them, and accomplished within a week, came the impediments now sported by all adults, often in the form of a cage about the knee, head, or genitals, sometimes a living cat attached at the person's elbow, or someone else's eye.

Svelte's hair cascades blackly and the collar of her crimson shirt gapes wide to accommodate a hexagonal neck-curse of brass, which holds her chin high. Her impediment looks the height of funky fashion, something chosen deliberately rather than inflicted upon her.
"Third Person" by Tony Ballantyne is a projection of the idiocies of surgical strikes, targeted weapons, and contained wars. British troops carry on a frantic war as Spanish-speaking civilians go about their daily lives, threatening to sue if impinged upon by the battles raging about them; a drug given to "conscripts" takes away volition, so that they watch what is happening, what they are doing, as if reading about someone else. This is a marvelously paced, visceral story employing point of view to full effect.

Every group, be it musicians, accountants, or physicists, has its own cache of in-jokes. Mike Resnick's and David Gerrold's "Jellyfish," concerning the maladventures of one Dillon K. Filk, science fiction writer, fills the bill for sf. I was reminded again of Fritz Leiber's satires, of John Sladek's juicy pastiches, of the silliness of Harry Harrison at his best. Nor, on another note, could I avoid recalling Barry Malzberg's high comedy Herovit's World.

My personal favorite here has to be Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact," a deeply affecting, bittersweet look at endings. As the universe winds down and gets set literally to dissolve from beneath them, Caitlin and mother Maureen meet and talk of shoes and ships and sealing wax. Some stories seem to reach down to the very bedrock of what we are as humans; this is one. We all know that the sweetness of the world is inextricably mixed with its horrors. We know that all things must end, yet must live, day by day, year after year, as though they will not.

* * *

Fast Forward 1, the edgier of the two anthologies, opens, appropriately enough, with a meditation on dreams and the forging of art, "YFL-500" by Robert Charles Wilson, in which a mediocre, marginal artist goes in search of the woman whose purloined dreams provided inspiration for his single fully realized piece. Wilson allows the reader's emerging perception of the narrative, quest to romance to exploitation, to mirror the protagonist's own shifting comprehension: "Gordo's heart did double beats as he tried to maintain his calm. This, after all, was what he had been seeking for so long. This, or some sense of his own authenticity."

Several names surface in both anthologies: Tony Ballantyne, Paul Di Filippo, Mike Resnick, Mary A. Turzillo, Stephen Baxter. With "No More Stories," Baxter contributes what is essentially another take on his story "Last Contact" from Mann's anthology: quite a different tale, but one with much the same mood and theme, not to mention the same fine writing. This is a story written close to life and, I suspect, close to the author's heart, setting small lives against the cosmic backdrop. Like "YFL-500" it is also a meditation on the power of art, if not to transform, if not to help us understand, then at very least to help us truly experience our own lives and those of others.

"YFL-500" suggests that art may be finally little more than compulsive pattern-making; Justina Robson's "The Girl Hero's Mirror Says He's Not the One" suggests that the manner in which we live our lives may be, or could be, the same.

She is living in a Base Reality not unlike Prime, the original reality old Earthers used to share before Mappa Mundi, except it has fifty more shades of pink and no word for "hate." Her reality is called Rose Tint, and it was the one relatively mild hacker virus she was glad to catch.
A. M. Dellamonica's "Time of the Snake" again takes up war as subject, in this case a civil war fostered by a truly foreign power. Aliens called Squids have occupied Earth, and two factions fight for home/human rule, the Friends of Liberation (Fiends, for short) and the Squid-sponsored Democratic Army (Dems, as in the Fiend slogan "It's Dems or us"). The story begins "My offworlder allies don't trust me." Soon, with a sudden flipflop of plot, it becomes apparent that no one should: "Then she turns back to her work and I start down the ladder, leaving my friends and enemies together, locked in the endless dance of mutual annihilation." As with "Third Person" from Mann's anthology, it's the details, the authenticity of scene, that make the story so effective. Even its plot reversal seems to serve a higher function than simple narrative contrivance; it seems at the very foundation of the story itself.

Ian McDonald's "Sanjeev and Robotwallah" revisits the AI- and contradiction-ridden future India of one of my favorite novels from last year, River of Gods, taking on combat robots, the nature of media-induced heroism, and the loss of idealism. Wars again, small and large.

"Jesus Christ, Reanimator" finds Ken MacLeod in James Morrow territory:

The Second Coming was something of a washout, if you remember. It lit up early-warning radar like a Christmas tree, of course, and the Israeli Air Force gave the heavenly host a respectable F-16 fighter escort to the ground, but that was when they were still treating it as a UFO incident. As soon as their sandals touched the dust, Jesus and the handful of bewildered Copts who'd been caught up to meet him in the air looked about for the armies of the Beast and the kings of the earth.
(Hint: Jesus doesn't do much better this time around.)

Among other standout stories of the twenty-one included in Fast Forward 1 are Di Filippo's wickedly wacky "Wikiworld" ("You probably remember my name from when I ran the country for three days"), John Meaney's gothic-for-our-time "Sideways from Now," Elizabeth Bear's tender "The Something-Dreaming Game" about auto-asphyxiation and the efforts of a dying race not to be forgotten, resident genius Gene Wolfe's "The Hour of the Sheep," and Paolo Bacigalupi's chilling sketch of the sacrifices parents make, "Small Offerings."

Even with its miniature hands and squinched face and little penis, it's nothing. Just a vessel for contaminants. Just something to scour the fat cells of a woman who sits at the top of a poisoned food chain, and who wants to have a baby.
A new breed of original anthologies? Redesigned engines and fresh energies for science fiction as a genre? Too early to say. But one dares hope—right along with George Mann and Lou Anders. And meanwhile, we've thirty-seven excellent new stories.

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