Lifting the standard of science fiction
'The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology'
Tor Books, $24.95
Review by L.D. Meagher
November 9, 1999
(CNN) -- For half a century, "F&SF" has been one of the best known and most widely respected acronyms in science fiction. "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" is one of the last remaining links to the genre's fabled past. For 50 years, it has endeavored to lift the standard for a type of fiction widely regarded as "low brow."
"The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology" celebrates the writers who currently stand astride the field. It offers stories from stalwarts like Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, cheek by jowl with contributions of newer writers like Robert Reed and Bradley Denton. Their careers span the history of science fiction as a popular art form, even if the stories in this volume do not.
One might grow wistful at the notion of long-time editor and current publisher Edward L. Ferman cracking open the vault and selecting his favorites from the best writing science fiction has seen since 1949. Alas, that's not the way the stories in this edition of "The Best from F&SF" were chosen. "We discussed assembling a big historical anthology representing the magazine's whole five-decade span," explains current editor Gordon Van Gelder in his introduction, "but ultimately we felt that (a) too many of the magazine's greatest stories are anthologized widely already and (b) there are too many excellent uncollected stories since the last 'Best of' anthology five years ago." He has a point. Still, we can dream.
This "Best from F&SF"-- at least the 25th book to carry the name (the numbering got a bit dicey during the 70s) -- is as heterogeneous as its predecessors. The stories range from sorcery to straight s-f, from the homicidally whimsical to the deeply disturbed, from a profane urban fable to a profoundly amusing fairy tale. Van Gelder asserts that the stories don't have much in common, except that they are uncommonly well written. Well, that's not entirely true.
More than half of the stories concern death in one way or another. The first, "Last Summer at Mars Hill" by Elizabeth Hand, focuses on a teenaged girl who learns her mother is dying. Three stories later, "Sins of the Mothers" by S.N. Dyer focuses on a mother who learns her adult son is dying. "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea" by Bruce Holland Rogers and "A Birthday" by Esther N. Friesner examine ways death might lose its sting, thanks to technology. "Paul and Me" by Michael Blumlein tells the story of how a legend died (literally) while Ray Bradbury's "Another Fine Mess" continues the chronicle of two legendary figures beyond the grave.
There is another common element to the entries in "The Best of F&SF." They are generally somber in tone, melancholy in mood, even those stories that don't dwell on death. "The Lincoln Train" by Maureen F. McHugh is downright depressing, and all the more compelling because of it. So be forewarned, don't come to the volume looking for happy endings.
You can look for, and find, richly imagined tales of fantasy and science fiction. You will also find a richness of language and depth of expression that is the hallmark of the best in popular fiction. As has been the case for fifty years, "The Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction" is some of the very best there is.
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