You Should Read: THE 1977 ANNUAL WORLD’S BEST SF anthology

I picked this up at a library book sale a year or so ago, and promptly forgot all about it. If I had read the table of contents, I would have sat down and read the book immediately. Joanna Russ! Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”! Tiptree! It wasn’t until I bought new bookshelves and rearranged my collection that I realized what my spare dollar had gotten me.

  • Introduction (Donald A. Wollheim) – Is pretentious too strong a word to use for this guy? From his intro to the blurbs he puts at the beginning of each story, as if having to defend why he chose to reprint it, he comes off as thinking his readers don’t know as much as he does, which is always off-putting (and usually wrong). Ignore him.
  • “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss – I thought this story worked a little too hard to make a point about the ways in which we fail as humans today, by showing what the future (65,000 years into the future) version of us would think of us. The current us is a long-dead specimen, an ugly point on the physical evolution of humanity, a museum piece. From this perspective, future-human sees our flaws and waxes philosphical about them. The story did bring up some interesting ideas about umwalt and the potential for humans to be influenced by outside sources; I’ll file some of them away for later.
  • “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” (John Varley) – I liked this quite a bit. The odd things throughout the story were suitably explained by the end, and I can see it as a precurser to a lot of cyber-fiction I like from more recent authors. Fun settings, from the “Kenya Disneyland” on the moon to the world the main character creates for himself in his head.
  • “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” (Michael G. Coney) – The narrator here is hard to like. He’s telling an anecdote from his youth, but he doesn’t have positive things to say about anyone it. He essentially just bitches about his old friends until we catch up to him in present day, where he has an opportunity to reconnect with one of the people he’s been talking about – but chooses not to, on the grounds that they have nothing to say to each other. So, we just have to listen to you bitch, and there’s no character arc, no resolution at the end? Eh.
  • “The Hertford Manuscript” (Richard Cowper) – Maybe if I cared more about HG Well’s Time Machine, or hadn’t already seen/read a million adaptations from that story, I’d have been more impressed. This goes along with a few others as being probably innovative in 1977, but boring today. It’s not badly written but the framework of the story – an old book handed down by a dead aunt with a secret inside – wasn’t original even in 1977.
  • “Natural Advantage” (Lester del Rey) – Wonderful. It presents aliens as the main characters, with Earth/humanity as an outside force that is met and re-met, but doesn’t go on the journey. It has a little of that “humans are teh awesome and will always win” propaganda common from the time, but it doesn’t overwhelm the heart of the tale. The way that the aliens cherish humanity is what gives the story its emotional weight. To be seen, from the outside, as worth remembering, worth missing … that feeling makes the last paragraph of the story work.
  • “The Bicentennial Man” (Isaac Asimov) – I’d seen the movie but hadn’t read the story until now. I liked it! I can see why it was so influential, and it’s one of those classic tales that, if you like robot stories, you’re going to want to have read.
  • “The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” (Barrington J. Bayley) – This story tried to do so much. It introduced several novel ideas, but in the end the author chose the easy out of tossing the main character into a void so none of the science had to be explained, or, you know, work. It felt lazy.
  • “My Boat” (Joanna Russ) – Like Coney’s story, this one has a narrator recounting an incident from his teen years, but not only is the anecdote far more interesting (even though it coves many of the same themes, including a male friend leaving him to spend time with a new female) but it also has a conclusion that leaves the reader hopeful and enchanted. It’s one of the best pieces in the book.
  • “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (James Tiptree, Jr.) – I had to try to forget everything that came after this story because by now I’ve seen it redone a hundred times, but looking at it by itself, it’s quite good. It has a very strong opinion about the (assumed) primal dominance of men and the utopia of a women-only society, which I don’t actually agree with, but the philosophy is present inside of strong storytelling. There are definite bad guys but there’s also a mostly harmless guy to show the range of male personalities, instead of simply writing them all off. I’m also not sure if I agree with the idea that the main society in the story would actually have slowed way down the way it did, but I liked that the author took the future to the logical conclusion for the rules she set for it. Bonus points for logical follow-through, always.
  • I See You” (Damon Knight) – I rarely like second-person perspective, but it fits the story here. The author alternates between 2nd per, talking to you, and third-person, talking about the inventor of a device which changes people’s perspective, and is what makes the way he talks to you make sense. It isn’t the best story in the collection but it is a solid way to end the book. Definitely recommend to people who are interested in that kind of PoV shifting. The science isn’t as novel as the storytelling, but with an author this deft, it doesn’t need to be.

Overall, there was more to like than dislike, and at least half of the stories stood the test of time. If you see it, read it.

Note: My personal library has a decent-sized stack of “classic” science fiction, most of which I’ve read. There are a few recently acquired works, like this one, which I hadn’t read until this week. They range from truly “classic” era SF (40s and 50s) to late 70s “it’s not new so it’s old and it’s kind of important so we’ll call it classic“. I will continue to review the modern titles which I think you should be reading, but I because I think it’s important to know the books which influenced contemporary writers – including myself – I am going to start reviewing the older books too. You can find them under the classic fiction tag.

You Should Read: Aimee Bender’s THE GIRL IN THE FLAMMABLE SKIRT

I find myself wondering what genre Aimee Bender’s work falls into. Perhaps not all of her writing, but this collection of short stories. It is literary in the sense that she writes with an eye to the experience of having read her work, in addition to telling a story. There are elements of weird fiction, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, and other hints of genre in the stories, as if her writing is a bumper car and she’s bouncing off the edges of genre, trading paint. There are whispers of genre, where she never comes right out with it.

Like Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler, nearly all of her protagonists are women. Is it feminist fiction, then? I don’t think so, no more than anyone else who writes a female main character could be labeled as such. Her women are by turns lost and needy and heartbroken and seeking male approval and inappropriately sexual (and, also, sexy and smart and loving and warm and witty). It’s a collection of stories about a range of people who happen to be, mostly, women.

There is an intimate quality to Bender’s stories, as if we’re being let in on secrets. We’re reminded of the time that we, too, were empty or lost or aching to be touched, and it seems that we can only be reminded of those feelings by someone who has been there as well. Bender reads as a comrade. A fellow wounded soldier, marching on, because the only way is forward.

I think Bender falls under that umbrella we’re calling “magic realism” these days. You can determine the difference between magic realism, fantasy, and paranormal*, by the reaction of others to the weird events which are occurring. In a fantasy setting, magic occurs naturally. It may not be everywhere, but the world at large is not surprised by its existence. It is a thing that happens.

A paranormal or weird fiction story also features creatures or powers or events, such as a haunting or a mutant child or a werewolf running loose. However, society deems this strange. Government agencies get involved, or the townspeople hide the weird out of fear of reprisal. Everyone knows this should not be.

In a magic realism story, a weird thing happens, and everyone thinks it’s wrong, but no one does anything about it. The weird event serves to teach the main character something or to unsettle the reader. It doesn’t change the world but it may change the life of one little girl.

Bender’s collection is full of these stories. A woman whose boyfriend devolves, taking the evolutionary path back to the ocean. The authorities don’t get involved. He isn’t taken by a research center. His friends and coworkers stop calling to ask about him because she asks them to stop – simple as that. She watches him become ape, baboon, turtle, salamander, and yet, the story isn’t about his change. It’s about her discovery of what she can live with, and what she can’t – a theme I see time and time again in Bender’s work. In another example, a woman gives birth to her own (elderly, previously dead) mother, and the obstetrician, once he gets over his surprise, sends them all home. The story here is about letting go of the people you’ve lost, and the consequences of not letting go enough. It isn’t about the impossibility of having given birth to a full grown woman. That’s just the thing that happens in the midst of everything else.

I loved this collection. It’s another one that I have to pause while reading, to come up for air. Each story is its own moment and has to be felt as an individual experience. They’re moving, carrying themselves forward, taking you along for a stroll. You can’t stop the effect it will have on you once the story has started, and I’m certain that’s a good thing. It’s important to be powerless in the face of your fiction sometimes. We need to let go. It refreshes our brains and reboots our spirits and we can carry on with our own lives, a little changed, a little bit bigger than we were before. “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt” is a walk worth taking.

* I would argue that you can use “urban fantasy” instead of “paranormal” in most cases.

You Should Read: Karen Joy Fowler’s WHAT I DIDN’T SEE, AND OTHER STORIES

I read something new because I liked a previous book enough to get another by the same author, or because I want something fun and quick enough to shut my brain off for a few hours and the cover (or blurb) suggest to me that this book will be worth the risk, or because it was suggested to me as a “must read” by someone I trust (though there are very few of those). Fowler’s collection of short stories was one that was recommended to me, and I am now in the position of both appreciating the suggestion and passing it along to you.

I’d read at least one of her stories online, the one about the woman whose daughter is dating the vampire, which is called “Younger Women” and can be read online for free. That story was wonderful. That story isn’t in this book, having been written after, but you can see the bones of it in what Fowler has done before. The subtlety of a story told without any unnecessary bits shoved in to make it this genre or that. The hint of sadness that is visible but presented as if the bearer isn’t sure yet whether they have reason enough to be sad, and are leaving up to you to decide for them.

There are times that she takes inspiration from other stories, mostly fairy tales, but instead of retelling them she shows you the most important moments of someone who was only peripherally affected by the story you might have heard before. “Halfway People” does this, with its swan brother and the woman who knew him for a short time; “The Dark” does it too, with plague and rats and the piper that always hangs around where those things intersect.

Some of the tales she retells aren’t yet fantastical enough to interest Grimm but are, at least in the US, just as well known. Fowler gives John Wilkes Booth a literary half-life with both “Booth’s Ghost” and “Standing Room Only”, the second being (I think) her most “genre” story of the bunch, when you figure out the twist I don’t plan to spoil for you.

According to Wikipedia there is some controversy over whether Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” deserved the Nebula award it won, on the grounds that it was neither fantasy nor science fiction and therefore didn’t meet the genre requirements for the award. I can’t say whether it should have won under that criteria, because it didn’t feel like either of those things to me, but I have been thinking lately that both sf and fantasy are settings, not genres, and real genres are things like “adventure” and “romance” and “thriller” and “alternate history political intrigue”. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t much matter what the setting is because the story is moving and beautiful and questioning its own sadness, as Fowler’s stories tend to do.

And if it must be genre, in this instance, we can call it alternate history (because what is told is a fiction that never happened exactly that way in real life) or feminist pulp adventure tale (because it is most definitely that) or literary fantasy, because what happens in the story is not magical but is fantastical. Good enough for me.

I liked every story in the book. I thought “The Pelican Bar” was cruel in that it revealed something heartless and yet unsurprising – the way people can abandon the children they don’t understand. It was brilliant in that it didn’t falter in the telling. No words out of place or misused, no sentiment awkwardly stuffed in without need. But then I think all of her stories are the same way, which is why I adore Fowler’s writing, and this book, and these stories.

“Always” made sense, again. We must all have those moments where we slow down, quiet our internal selves, and feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. How else can a story about living forever seem so familiar? “The Marianas Islands” had the same sense of comfortable relation, as if the narrator is a distant cousin telling family tales we’ve heard before but weren’t there to experience first hand.

My favorite, in that it was heartbreaking and immediately grabbed me and made me cry, was the final piece in the book, “King Rat”. It reads as if it’s non-fiction, and I know that I could look it up (the Internet is full of facts like these) but I wouldn’t want to know if it wasn’t.

Reading the book took most of a day because, like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link’s work, Fowler’s stories are too much to read without pausing in between like a marathoner grabbing water every few miles. He’d never make it to the end without refreshing himself and neither should you barrel through a collection like this without stopping to let your brain breathe. At 200 pages, it’s hardly long, but certainly long enough.

Go, read. I’d hate for you to have missed out on knowing what it feels like to have read it.

* Note: I bought my copy from Small Beer Press, and you should too.

My (Science-loving, Steam-Powered) Heart Beats For Atomic Robo

Sometimes a girl needs a little fun in her life. A moment to enjoy some good old fashioned science-fuled ass kicking. A happy ending would be nice too. So, what’s a girl to do? I got my hands on volume 2 and 3 of the Atomic Robo trade paperbacks.

If you haven’t heard of Atomic Robo, go read my review of the first book.

This series is written like someone handed Brian Clevinger a list of all the things that make my heart sing. Tesla, mad science, heroic action, Carl Sagan, giant robots, evil Nazis, and Scott Wegener’s adorable art style? Oh, pitter patter.

Vol. 2, Atomic Robo and the Dogs of War, collects the five-issue mini-series, complete with cover gallery, pin-ups, and bonus stories. It shows more of Robo’s adventures in World War II, introduces a plucky British heroine, and there’s some evil genius-designed weather cannons.

It also has a brief appearance by James “Scottie” Milligan, a Scotsman and a hero. He was Scott Wegener’s grandfather.

That the creators of this comic wrote in Wegener’s grandfather, in order to allow him to live again in Atomic Robo, is the biggest part of why I adore this book. It’s written and drawn by people who want to be a part of this world, so much that they will populate it with their favorite things, their joys and sorrows and loved ones. This is he one great power we have as writers – the ability to remake the world in whatever image we want, to fix its flaws, to ressurect the dead, to make it right. When it’s done well, as it is in this case, it’s breathtaking.

Vol 3, Atomic Robo and The Shadow From Beyond Time, combines AR with my other great love: HP Lovecraft. I did tell you they write this series just for me, didn’t I? Let’s start with the fact that “Tesla Heavy Industries” had, in 1926, a storefront office with “Science While You Wait!” painted on the window. Throw in the Tunguska blast, Howard P Lovecraft babbling like a mad man, Carl Sagan, lightning guns, tentacles, and … I don’t want to give away the rest of the story but if you like that sort of thing, this is the book for you.

Oh, and Robo’s wearing argyle socks. I’m just saying.

You Should Read: Brian Wood’s DMZ (graphic novels 1-3)

    

Set in a near future where a second American civil war rages, a lone journalist is stranded in the middle of New York City, now a brutal no-man’s-land. Mirroring current events, DMZ is an unforgiving look at what a ‘war on terror’ can do to a civilian population.

I’ve been told that I need to start reading Brian Wood’s Vertigo series, DMZ. I meant to, I really did. From what I heard, it was exactly the kind of book I like: dark, gritty, urban, bleak, yet full of unexpected hope. I looked forward to it, but wasn’t certain when I’d find the time. Now that it’s coming to an end, I finally picked up the first three graphic novels, which collect issues 1 to 17, and … it’s everything I was told to expect.

The story begins with Matty Roth, photo intern, being dropped into the middle of a war zone. As if being left behind weren’t bad enough, he’s got people shooting at him and strange girls pointing guns in his face and an alarming tendency to faint under pressure. Poor Matty. He can get out or he can bunker down and turn his misfortune into a chance at the big time, a chance to be the only working journalist in the DMZ. Which just happens to be Manhattan, caught in the crossfire between what’s left of the USA and the “Free States” currently occupying New Jersey and points west.

Wood shows a NYC we can imagine without having to squint too hard. It’s a brilliant premise, turning a city with as much cultural weight as NYC has into a hotly contested battle zone. It turns familiar territory into a whole new world, an alternate history two steps to the right of where we are now. To say that Wood loves this city is an understatement – it serves as both backdrop and character for two of his other titles, New York Four/Five and The Couriers, and he lives in Brooklyn – but in DMZ it’s transformed.

There are all kinds of little bits of fun in the book too, meant for people who have a vague idea of what New York is, as both a historical landmark and a place where the cutting edge is sharpest. Central Park? The Zoo? The Flatiron Building? They’re in the books. Art installations and vegan restaurants and Chinese gangsters and tattooed girls whose thong underwear is visible over their low-rise jeans? Here. All the bits of truth that become ideas when they filter out of the city and into popular media can be found, eventually, in DMZ, but they serve as anchors, pulling the book back into our world, and giving us landmarks to guide us along the way.

Wood has to be given credit for another bit of world building – even though the book is marketed at an arguably male (and white male, at that) audience, because that’s still the bulk of the comic book buying population, his characters are not only white or male. His main character is, sure, because we have to give the reader a person to identify with, but most of the other white males in the book are military, soldiers. Matty’s friends and neighbors are the people you’d expect to see living in New York today. To have whitewashed the city would have been an unforgivable sin, and one I’m glad Wood didn’t make. In addition, he gives us the full range of humanity’s potential, so that it isn’t just the white men who save the day, but the black architecture student, the hispanic female med student, the elderly Chinese “grandfather”, and so on.

Yes, of course, there are the punks and the thieves and the whores. It is still New York.

What makes DMZ work for me is that while there is a big war going on, and Matty, as the “outsider” does have to reflect on why it started and where it’s going, the bulk of the people in the story don’t have time for that kind of philosophizing. It’s not a book where people sit around a diner talking out their big ideas on long swathes of dialogue. There’s running and hiding and exploding bombs and dying children and conspiracies and fucking and making mistakes and trying not to die. A lot of simply trying not to die. It gives the story a frenetic layer of action on top of which can be thrown a little heavy thinking, if there’s time.

There are 72 issues in the series, before it ends, and I think I’m going to have to read them all.

Cover illustrations: Brian Wood, John Paul Leon
Colorist: Jeromy Cox 
Lettering: Jared K. Fletcher
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo
DMZ is co-created by Riccardo Burchielli

On the Ground. Collects Issues 1-5. ISBN 1-4012-10627
Body of a Journalist. Collects Issues 6-12. ISBN 1-4012-12476
Public Works. Collects Issues 13-17. ISBN 1-4012-14762