REVIEW: The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy
Unthemed anthologies really are a beautiful thing. And The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen “the queen of anthology editors in America” Datlow, despite bearing a rather generic title, is a pristine example. The sixteen short stories within are accessible and enjoyable, covering a wide range of topics and beguiling ideas from well-known authors like Elizabeth Bear, Laird Barron, and Jeffrey Ford, as well as upcoming writers in the field, namely Lavie Tidhar and Anna Tambour.
Click below for my thoughts on all sixteen stories…
“The Elephant Ironclads” by Jason Stoddard is a fantastical piece of alternative universe fiction, replete with armored elephants and airships. The focus is on two teenage boys, Wallace Chee and his best friend Niyol Chavez, who get themselves hired as extra help at the Albuquerque airport by a gaggle of white men in search of uranium. The two boys quickly learn that they’ve gotten themselves involved with dangerous people and make an attempt to escape and warn those they can. It’s a strong opener, with great characters and an extreme air of wonder to it, and I found Wallace to be a kid worth pulling for despite the skeletons in his closet. Sure, much like in later stories, some of the nods to history went over my head, but that’s more my fault than that of the author’s. The ending, however, is a bit disappointing, especially after the buildup. Wallace accepts his fate too dispassionately, and I blame it on the prettiness of elephants.
Lucy Sussex, whose previously work “Frozen Charlottes” and “Absolute Uncertainty” blew me up and away, offers us “Ardent Clouds” here, which is a story of volcanoes and one woman’s lust for them and the photo opportunities they offer her career. Bet gets tips from her wheelchair bound partner Spider about early seismological disturbances and then she’s off to snap some candid, award-worthy shots. Unfortunately, one trip to the legendary volcano Chillipepper results in something a bit more unexpected. It’s a heavy trip, with vibrant characters, Bet especially, which makes the eruptive ending even more heartbreaking when it unfolds. Not really fantasy or science fiction…or even speculative at all, but gripping in its own rights.
“Gather” by Christopher Rowe focuses on the titular young boy that enjoys, well, gathering coins. It all takes place in a reconfigured Kentucky where God can appear anywhere and on anything. The whole issue of what Gather will spend his coins on his soon tossed to the wayside as Miss Charlie snatches up the boy as her personal assistant in a scientific experiment that would, if discovered, bring everyone in town to their very knees. It’s an interesting story that never really became anything more than an interesting story for me. The language and Gather’s interactions with the other children stand out in my mind, but the point of all the science and hush-hush remain a mystery.
“Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” by Elizabeth Bear is an emotional behind-the-scenes look at the legendary heavyweight fighter’s tolls and times, both in and out of the ring, after being forced into throwing the fight against Cassius Clay by the mob. The voice of the piece is its strongest feature, working marvelously to drive home the story of a man down on his luck and himself. How it comes to be in an anthology of science fiction and fantasy isn’t exactly clear to me, as it feels like a straight piece of literary faux-biography, or rather as the book’s subtitle hints at speculative fiction, but it’s a wonderful read nonetheless. According to Bear’s online journal, it is a Promethean Age story, set in the same world as her novels Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water, Ink and Steel, and Hell and Earth. Huh, I completely missed that.
Nathan Ballingrud explores the world of tangible and internal demons in “North American Lake Monsters,” which is set somewhere along the Blue Ridge Mountains. The protagonist of the story is a man recently released from prison, and upon returning home he discovers his wife is an alcoholic and his estranged daughter has silver rings all over her face. Plus, something foul and monstrous has washed ashore, causing friction between everyone. It at first appears to be the somewhat standard take on the type of “freedom” released prisoners feel once they’ve paid their dues, but Ballingrud instead offers these little moments where our leading man must decide if he is stable enough to be where he is, out in the open, or if he’s no different than the thing that won’t go back into the lake. Not at all sprightly, but a fantastical look at something quite dark.
“All Washed Up While Looking for a Better World” by Carol Emshwiller was in the limelight to be my favorite story of the entire anthology, but then it ended. And ended badly. It turned out that Emshwiller hid the fact that our protagonist, a nondescript woman who has wished herself to be washed up on some unknown island replete with crazy critters and uncertainty, is a man-hating feminist. The whole time I thought she just wanted a new life, a new place to be, no matter how strange or uninviting, but really she only wanted to avoid that which is man. I loved the alien beings on the beach, the mundane look at dragging one’s self to safety, the wondrous unknown, but the ending didn’t resolve effectively enough to make me care whether or not Brad was angry that Melody stole his boat. I mean, if she didn’t care, why should I?
Taking place in a not-too-futuristic China, “Special Economics” by Maureen McHugh follows a young girl named Jeiling on the search for work within the city’s limits. The company called New Life takes her under their employ, but she soon falls into trouble with them, acquiring too much debt that leave her stuck in place. Before hopelessness can set in, she attempts to escape and meets Mr. Wei who, at first, remains nothing more than a mystery to her. This layered, coming-of-age tale is fun and deftly-paced, and the China that Jeiling soon has to survive in is interestingly constructed. Definitely the sort of short fiction I enjoy: energetic, poignant, and moving.
The backdrop for “Aka St. Mark’s Place” by Richard Bowes is around the downtown area of Greenwich Village and the East Village. Places I’ve never been or experienced. It’s a bit unclear, but Bobby Danton (BD) works for some sort of organization that specializes in returning runaways to their natural habitats. Wherever that is, I guess. This is all fine and dandy until the moment where BD severs the relationship of one Ray Light and Judy by stealing one of them away. It’s an action-heavy tale, what with all the chases and emotional outbursts, but the prose came off too slight at times for me to really get what was happening. I liked learning about Judy and Ray’s relationship, and I especially liked learning BD’s thoughts on the girl as well, but I had trouble engaging with the plot. Much like a number of tales within the anthology, it is also slight on being speculative fiction. Swing and a miss, despite how visceral it actually is now that it is starting to resonate with me a bit more.
“The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan is a disturbing followup to the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel. To be honest, I’m a wee bit nervous to be reviewing her piece. I’ve seen her reactions to other reviews, reviews that I thought were fairly glowing and well-meant, and she comes across as very unsatisfied. Either way, “The Goosle” has a lot of creepy things in it: acts of cannibalism, sexual slavery, dirt for lunch, witchcraft, and abuse galore. It’s told from the perspective of a young boy, which makes everything happening more intense, and the outcome completely surprised me. It was great, viscous and unrelenting to the end, with strong images like the mudwife’s house and the stars in the sky. The story is still quite clear in my mind. Truth be told, it was the first one I read when I got the book.
I struggled with “Shira” by Lavie Tidhar. It’s a piece of alternate history, and because of my lack of knowledge in said subject—yes, I’m admitting here for you all that I’m an idiot—I probably had no idea about what was really being looked at in the story. Anyways, Nur is traveling by train to conduct some research about the poet Lior Tirosh. His work has encircled every part of her life, and on this journey of hers she’ll learn something rather surprising about the man. It’s certainly well-written and well-imagined, but without the weight of what had been altered in the past it didn’t hit home for me. Fans of Adam Roberts or Robert Charles Wilson will definitely like this one.
“The Passion of Azazel” by Barry N. Malzberg also didn’t win me over. Schmuel’s therapist believes that, in another life, he was a scapegoat. Then, um, strange shit happens, and Schmuel becomes a goat himself, more a golem than anything else and he recounts the stories of old. I don’t know. He goes back to school or something. I was lost before the Word was with God and the Word was God. Being completely ignorant of Judiac religion, I’m positive this one went over my head—and fast.
“The Lagerstätte” by Laird Barron is a horrific story of loss. Danni’s husband and son meet a tragic end in a plane crash, and the reader is taken by the hand on a trip through her attempts to understand this—as well as overcome it. It’s written in short, episodic bursts that alternate between different time periods, with the occasional psychiatrist session showing its face. Some of the prose ran a bit heavy for me, making my mind wander or just jarring me momentarily, but I found it hard to stop reading. It’s clear why Barron is such a house name for horror; he builds strong, sympathetic characters and then completely fucks up their lives, tempting them to the edge of reason and saneness. Certainly not wistful, but completely worth a read.
“Gladiolus Exposed” by Anna Tambour is a rather dark story of a shaky couple that tries to escape their problems by visiting Thoreau’s Retreat for a weekend. While out wandering the neighboring woods, the husband of the couple discovers a bone in the dirt. Not just any ol’ thing either—a gladiolus bone. Or, in simple terms, the central part of the human breastbone. Finding this brings out hidden problems in the couple’s relationship, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what per say those quandaries were. I guess I can see the parallels between the two—the broken marriage and the broken bone—but it never gelled or came together as clear as I’d have liked.
“Daltharee” by Jeffrey Ford, perhaps the most pristine piece of The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy that ensnares the best of both science fiction and fantasy, is a voyeuristic gaze at many, many worlds. The first world, created thanks to the ever-popular shrinking ray, exists in a milk bottle. The next few worlds are layered one on top of the other, sometimes in the most surprising of places, each inhabited by their own sets of people. Eventually, the narrator of our tale begins to discern conversations among the natives of these worlds.
The Jimmy in “Jimmy” by Pat Cadigan is a character everyone has known at least once in their life. He’s the boy no one likes, the boy with a family that hates him and wants nothing to do with him, the troublemaker without a cause. Unfortunately for him, something does want him—the sinuous shadowcreepers living under the bridge nearby. They want to tell him everything. This is a fine story of two children living around the time that JFK was assassinated. The search for Jimmy and the secrets he knows are rather haunting, and I absolutely loved the vagueness of the shadowy creatures and why they were doing what they were. It’s one of the longer stories in the book, but the pacing is so smooth that you’d never know it.
“Prisoners of the Action” by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman, a somewhat silly and somber novella, closes the anthology. It’s an alien contact story, sort of, and has some of the tropes along to back it up: military men, conspiracies, and misunderstandings. In here, otherworldly aliens (is that redundant?) are treated as terrorists—and tortured as such. It’s a bit drawn out, but contains several moments that will actually make the reader chuckle out loud—unless they are in a coma, which, if they are, is probably not the right state of being to be reading in—and yet it really raises some ethical questions. I very much enjoyed the characters in this one, as they all either had an amusing quip or brought to the clearly SFnal story a bit of stark realism. An excellent ending to a strong gathering of unthemed stories indeed.
Definitely pick the book up because there are more great stories here than good stories, as well as more good stories than mediocre ones. Get what I’m saying, people? It’s worth the money and your time.