Friday, October 24, 2008

The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow

Several months ago, around the time that the debate on the viability of the genre short fiction scene was having its semiannual resurgence, I participated in an SF Signal Mind Meld on the subject. Most of the other participants were authors and editors, which left me as the lone representative of readers, from whose perspective, I wrote, the short fiction market seemed not endangered but fragmented, no longer dominated by three magazines but by a whole host of on- and off-line markets and an ever-growing original story anthology scene. As a possible reason for this fragmentation and for the increasing popularity of these anthologies, I suggested that for younger genre fans
a magazine subscription isn't an automatic, or even reasonable, choice. People who want more bang for their buck are more likely to plop 12-15$ for an anthology published by a recognizable name, and featuring at least three or four authors they know and like, than they are to pay 50$ for a year's subscription that essentially boils down to a monthly gamble.
I had a spontaneous demonstration of the difference between magazines and original story anthologies just last week, when my reading of the Ellen Datlow-edited The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy coincided with that of the September issue of Asimov's. The latter contains one good story: Stephen Baxter's "The Ice War," which takes place in the early 18th century and describes an alien attack through the eyes of a young Englishman who falls in with Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe, and therefore reads a little like a cross between The Baroque Cycle and War of the Worlds. Another story, "Usurpers" by Derek Zumsteg, is stylish and harsh, but the rest of the magazine is dull and underperforming, with the exception of Ian Creasey's "Cut Loose the Bonds of Flesh and Bone," which may very well be the worst story I've read this year that wasn't a major genre award nominee. The Del Rey Book, meanwhile, though obviously not entirely to my taste, is a meaty, impressive anthology, with something to recommend almost every story within it.

The standout story in the anthology, and the one you'll most likely have heard of, is Margo Lanagan's "The Goosle," a sequel of sorts to "Hansel and Gretel" which shot to public attention when Dave Truesdale excoriated it in his review of The Del Rey Book, calling it pornographic and complaining that its darker elements--the story finds Hansel returning to the witch's cottage as the sex slave of a drifter and con man, who engages the witch in a battle of wits while Hansel uncovers evidence of her depravity and the Black Death rages around them--were introduced solely for their 'shock value.' Niall Harrison has already done an excellent job of explaining just how wrongheaded Truesdale's critique is, so I will simply echo the point he makes, that "The Goosle" is a terrifying and absorbing examination of abuse from the victim's perspective, which stresses the importance of isolation and loneliness in perpetuating the abusive relationship. Lanagan's Hansel is starved for affection, and has no one left in the world but his abuser. What keeps him in his situation is not force or even fear, but the willingness to put up with pain and humiliation for just a few moments of what he can pretend is love.

I do, however, have a vague sympathy with Truesdale's accusation that "The Goosle" shocks for the sake of shocking, as at several points throughout the story I found myself thrown out of its world, and its overpowering emotional tone, by Lanagan stepping up the grand guignol--having Hansel lay his head against what he believes to be a pumpkin only for it to turn out to be the skull of one of the witch's victims, or the description of the witch dismembering her latest kill. Elements that should have sunk me further into the story's horrific mode instead came off as over the top, and had me shaking off the story's effect to go 'oh, come on.' This is, however, a minor complaint. "The Goosle" soon recaptured my attention, and its ending manages to introduce a new horror without being hysterical, making for a grim (and yet, in its own way, almost hopeful) conclusion to Hansel's story that is entirely of a piece with the pages preceding it.

Other standout stories in The Del Rey Book include "The Elephant Ironclads" by Jason Stoddard, an impressive and immersive alternate history in which the ubiquitous zeppelins actually have a reason for floating in the sky. Stoddard builds on the urban legend that Siamese king Mongkut offered to provide Abraham Lincoln with elephants with which he might win the civil war (in reality, the elephants were offered to President Buchanan as beasts of burden, but the offer was only received after Lincoln took office) and posits a world in which those elephants were accepted and, after winning the war and being left to wander in the American south-west, rounded up by Native American tribes and used to run white people off their land.

In the present day, the Diné still rely on elephants as beasts of burden, and prefer airships to airplanes because they don't disrupt the landscape with noise and smoke. The society Stoddard describes is dedicated to preserving the status quo--culturally and environmentally--disdaining members who gravitate towards the mechanized, progress-oriented US. Stoddard's juvenile characters find themselves caught in a struggle between those who want progress and those who want to preserve their way of life, and the story emphasizes the thorniness and complexity of this choice. I was also impressed by Maureen McHugh's "Special Economics," in which a young Chinese woman eagerly accepts a job in a factory only to find herself trapped in a modern-day feudal system. It's the sort of story that Paolo Bacigalupi and Geoff Ryman have specialized in in recent years, and therefore feels a little derivative, but McHugh is no less gifted a storyteller than either of them, and no less capable of conveying both the foreignness and familiarity of her characters.

Other stories in the anthology are impressive but somehow unsatisfying. In some cases this is my fault for lacking context or a common cultural vocabulary with the author. Colleen Mondor was blown away by Elizabeth Bear's "Sonny Liston Takes the Fall," in which the titular boxer and one-time opponent of Muhammad Ali is recast as the hero of his tragic life story, which ended with his death from a drug overdose. The problem is that it wasn't until I read that post that I even knew Liston had been a real person, and I certainly don't have the background in either boxing or American race relations in the 60s and 70s that made the story so irresistible to Mondor, a boxing fan (and which the story itself sketches in only faintly). Similarly, Richard Bowes's "Aka Saint Mark's Place" takes place, like his Hugo-nominated story "There's a Hole in the City," in the counter-culture scene of the East Village in the 60s, which is not a setting that speaks very strongly to me.

In other cases, I found myself too close to the subject matter. Lavie Tidhar, an author whose work I've greatly enjoyed in the past, here serves up a piece about a Jordanian scholar who, in a post Arab-Israeli conflict 21st century, travels to Haifa to research a late 20th century Israeli poet. The story makes an unfortunate left turn into cliché when it resolves the protagonist's obsession with her subject by having her go to bed with him, but even more frustrating to me was the fact that "Shira" manages to be simultaneously too Israeli--one of the fictional poet's poems quotes from Hannah Szenes's "Blessed is the Match," but Tidhar's translation completely misses out on the harsh, almost martial cadences that make that poem so powerful in the original Hebrew--and not Israeli enough--Szenes, a writer of doggrel whose poems remain in the public consciousness mainly because of the heroic myth that's sprung up around her and the stirring melodies to which they've been set, is mentioned in the same breath as Yehuda Amichai, possibly the most important Hebrew poet of the 20th century.

The majority of the stories in The Del Rey Book, however, are ones that I'd categorize as 'good, but.' There are only two stories I disliked (Lucy Sussex's "Ardent Clouds," which manages to be dull when talking about people who chase volcano eruptions, and Nathan Ballingrud's "North American Lake Monsters," which is all too obvious in hammering in the point that its protagonist, recently paroled and working hard to alienate and make miserable his entire family while deciding what to do with the creature that's washed up near his house, is the real monster), but the remaining stories do one thing well, and everything else poorly or not at all. Christopher Rowe's "Gather" is set, like his most famous story, "The Voluntary State," in a world that's pitched halfway between futuristic SF and 19th century fantasy. His characters are hemmed in by rigidly defined codes of behavior but, spurred by scientific curiosity, find themselves pushing against the boundaries imposed on them, in the process taking us on a tour of their proscribed world and giving us glimpses of the larger world outside it. It's a great piece of worldbuilding, and its characters are appealing, but not much happens in it. Jeffrey Ford and Carol Emshwiller both deliver enjoyable, whimsically surrealist pieces (though with a dark undercurrent in the latter case) about, respectively, cities in bottles and a shipwrecked librarian, but that whimsy never coalesces into anything substantial. Laird Barron's "The Lagerstätte" is a horror piece about a woman being haunted by either the ghosts or the memory of her husband and son. It successfully describes the stifling despair of a character being forced to choose between accepting her loss and destroying herself through grief and memory (though Barron's frequent recourse to gore achieved the same effect of throwing me out of the story that I experienced when reading "The Goosle," and unlike Lanagan, he wasn't as skilled at luring me back into the narrative), but doesn't go beyond establishing that emotional pitch.

Overall, The Del Rey Book is a good, but only occasionally great, collection. That said, even the worst pieces within it are more professionally put together than so much of what graces the pages of your average Big Three issue. It's obviously unfair to compare an anthology that was probably the better part of a year in the making with any one issue of a magazine which, over the course of that year, publishes four or five times the amount of material Datlow needed to put together, but there's a thinness that characterizes some magazine stories, a willingness to settle for mediocrity on all levels--prose, characterization, plot, worldbuilding--which is entirely, and refreshingly, absent from the anthology. Writing about the slipstream anthology Feeling Very Strange earlier today, Martin Lewis wrote that it is "much like every other SF anthology I have read: a couple of good stories, a couple of rubbish ones and an awful lot of filler," but though I only loved a few of the stories in The Del Rey Book I wouldn't characterize any of them as filler. Each is trying to do something new or interesting or just plain good, and even their failures or incomplete successes are preferable to entries by writers who are either not making that effort or lack the skill to do so creditably, which is the kind of filler one tends to find in magazines. Despite what I said in the SF Signal Mind Meld, it's not cost that makes original story anthologies more appealing than a magazine subscription. I payed for my copy of The Del Rey Book, and was given the September issue of Asimov's, but I resent the time I spent wading through pointless, underwritten pieces to get to the one or two worthy stories.

There's a flipside to this, however, which became apparent when I scanned the author bios in The Del Rey Book and discovered that not a single one of its contributors was a first time writer. The reason that the genre short story scene is still vibrant is that there's a relatively low threshold for entry, with new writers making sales and putting their material before an audience every month. Just as the investment of time and money in original story anthologies dwarfs that afforded to any month's issue of a magazine, so, presumably, do the hurdles first time writers have to clear before they're published in those anthologies become tougher, perhaps even impossible, to overcome. I rarely read magazines for just the reasons stated above--because there's so much dross to wade through, and I'd rather wait for other readers to do that work and discover new voices for me. But if magazines and other venues like them become an endangered species, and original story anthologies become the dominant delivery system for new short fiction, those new voices might peter out. This should not be construed as a specific criticism of Datlow, who as I've said has put together a strong anthology whose table of contents is by no means dominated by heavy hitters, but it is telling that all but two of the contributors to The Del Rey Book were published in SciFiction, and that several of them published their best-know stories and made their reputation there. If it weren't for the webzine, would Datlow have had as varied and talented a stable of authors to approach when she made up The Del Rey Book?

There's been a lot of talk in the last year about the financial realities of publishing in general and short fiction in particular. It's those realities, one assumes, that are the reason monthly magazines pad their issues with forgettable and sometimes unreadable pieces, and which demand that original story anthologies skew towards recognizable, bankable names. When I replied to the SF Signal Mind Meld, I was writing as a reader, who wants the most payoff for the least investment of money, effort, and time. It's hard for a reader to look at a delectable table of contents like that of The Del Rey Book and wish for less familiar, less reliable names on it, but just as we've accepted that it is our role as readers (and consumers) to voice our displeasure at gender and racial inequality in both magazines and anthologies, it should also be our role to encourage editors and publishers to take the long view and foster new voices. The future of short genre fiction may very well be in books like The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, but if it is then it falls to us to make sure that that future consists of more than the names we already know.

2 comments:

Joliet said...

I'd like to comment that Lavie Tidhar's story was originally published in Hebrew, in the Israeli Society for SF&F Online Magazine, which I edited at the time. Here's a link:
http://www.sf-f.org.il/story_761
As far as I know the translation is based upon the already-edited Hebrew version (the original text was somewhat longer), but I'm sure that Ellen Datlow edited it further. I'm curious to see the result.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

That's interesting, because the copyright page lists "Shira" as a 2008 story. Perhaps that's the copyright on the translation, though.

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