The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. 2

Drifting genres…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the very best of fantasy and science fictionThis is an anthology of twenty-seven stories first published in the long-running magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction and includes tales from some very well-known names – Robert A Heinlein, Brian W Aldiss etc. The stories are very evenly spaced over the last sixty years, with roughly a two or three year gap between each. This means it really gives a good impression of how the genre has developed over time, which oddly is both the main strength and main weakness of the book. Because what it seems to show is that somewhere round about the late ’70s/early ’80s, sci-fi morphed into fantasy and then gradually splintered off into subgenres like cyberpunk and even, to my great sadness, the hideousness of ‘magical realism’ (a term that should be taken out and shot at dawn for allowing authors to resolve plot problems by waving a literary magic wand and spouting a bit of mumbo-jumbo). Now, that’s all very well if you like that kind of thing, but frankly I don’t (as the discerning amongst you may already have spotted), and as a result I became increasingly disappointed as the book went on. Some of the stories were so far from being sci-fi or even fantasy that had they not been collected under this umbrella I’d have found it hard to classify them at all.

That’s not to say the stories are bad. A few of them are excellent and many are good. But a few are a bit dull and several seemed to me to be far too long for their content – perhaps a throwback to the days when writers were paid to write to a given length. A couple of the more modern ones I abandoned as we gradually sank into the modern habit of replacing adjectives with profanities and imagination with drugs and violence.

There are some standout stories in the collection, including CM Kornbluth’s The Cosmic Expense Account, which I have reviewed separately as a Transwarp Tuesday! story. Here’s a flavour of a few of the other goodies –

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind is a dark story about a society where no-one commits crime any longer – except for one man, our narrator. The society has developed to think that traditional punishments are abhorrent, but the method they find to control the criminal through total social isolation drives him to extreme lengths to find company in his criminality…

Robert A Heinlein’s All You Zombies is considered a classic of time-travel paradox stories. Clever and complicated, Heinlein uses the paradox to take a sideways look at what it is to be ‘different’ in society. If you can get past the sexism and near-misogyny, this is a well written and thought-provoking story.

Sundance by Robert Silverberg is a fabulous story, showing man repeating the horrors of the real-life destructions of aboriginal races as they begin to colonise new planets. But it’s done imaginatively – he alternates between first, second and third person, he blurs the lines between reality and insanity, he gives us lots of symbolism, but he leaves the central questions unanswered – the reader has to decide. Brilliantly written and intensely moving, and a fine example of how transplanting a story to a sci-fi setting can give an author room to explore a deeply human question.

So there’s plenty of good stuff in here, but overall the variability in quality combined with the drift in genres as it progresses means I find it hard to recommend it wholeheartedly. Interesting to die-hard sci-fi/fantasy fans or for someone like myself who’s looking to see what happened to the genre over the years, but I’m not convinced by the ‘Very Best’ claim – there’s plenty of older stuff that’s better than most of this and I’m still hoping to find better new stuff too.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Tachyon Publications.

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26 thoughts on “The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. 2

  1. FictionFan – Sounds like rather a mixed bag. I’m glad you found some to like though, and I know what you mean about stories that go on for too long. Thanks, as ever, for your candid and thoughtful review.

    • Yes, this was definitely a variable collection. And while I wasn’t thrilled by a lot of the stories it was interesting to see the development of the genre over the years.

  2. You have picked out two of my favourites: the Heinlein and the Silverberg, but I haven’t read any Knight that I remember, so I’ll look out for him. I’m sure that SF morphed into fantasy when more people began to understand science, and it developed so fast – this made it more difficult for authors to write anything that wouldn’t be superseded before publication date, whereas fantasy only has to be self-consistent.
    Anthologies, particularly chronological ones, are quite often a mixed bag, so I am glad you found some goodies in it.

    • Yes, I think that is probably most of the reason – though to be honest I think laziness and a desire for publication above all else contributes too. It seems to me most of the ‘earlies’ were trying to say something about society, speculating about the pitfalls that increasing science and technology might bring. The later stuff is shoot-em-up cheap thrills with the get out of ‘magic’ – so says nothing much about anything. Entertaining for people who enjoy it (which I don’t, often, unless it’s really well done) but fairly meaningless, and often pretty badly written.

  3. I’m glad you found some you liked in this book, unfortunate that your preference meant your interest waned as the book progressed. I also smiled at your assessment of the choices the compilers made.

  4. Sorry FF, but the words that lit little fuses for me, and had me crying ‘yes!’ ‘yes’ were in Big Sister’s comments:

    I’m sure that SF morphed into fantasy when more people began to understand science, and it developed so fast – this made it more difficult for authors to write anything that wouldn’t be superseded before publication date, whereas fantasy only has to be self-consistent.

    Fantasy is a wide bag really – I don’t particularly get off on the dragons and olde mysty Celtyc with added unicorn factor, but i do like magic realism – as long as it is, as Big Sister suggests, self-consistent, and some of the magic realism stuff like for example the South Americans are not at all Sci Fi.

    I guess genres have been blurred I like the dystopian stuff particularly, more than the science aspects (FF mutters darkly about some people’s true fancifull nature)

    Hmm – just reading your comment on one of those stories ‘if you can get past the sexism and near mysogyny’ – its mirroring the Anti-Semitism in some of those classic WRITERS of the 30s just before the Second World War

    • Well, I won’t pretend to be surprised that you’re defending ‘magic realism’, but I fear we part company there. Fantasy is one thing – if it’s well done it can be enjoyable and even insightful (though of course mostly it’s just people wearing very little shooting each other with great big guns and falling in love). But ‘magical realism’ is one of these fashionable terms that’s so conveniently indefinable you can bung any old nonsense into it. Can’t think of an ending? Bung in a parallel universe, or as in one of these stories, a magical origami animal(!), and call it ‘magical realism’. Harumphh!!! And I’m afraid most dystopian stuff just bores me – real life is miserable enough!

      Yes, anti-semitism pervades much pre-war writing, but yes too – so does sexism, misogyny, class hatred, contempt of blacks, Arabs, Scotsmen, Irishmen and the French! And a lot of these things still appear today, especially our new-minted term of Islamophobia…

    • Yep, over 60 years! I often think of subscribing to one of the sci-fi mags, but any time I look, for every good story there’s several weak ones. I’d rather go for ‘best of’ anthologies usually.

  5. Sorry I’m so late!

    Well…it is a wonder, you know. I would have thought you would have loved the volume lots. (Are we still doing “God Of Mars”? I’m just waiting for another book to come out on Amazon and then I’ll order. Don’t start without me!)

    • Missed you! *puts pea-shooter away*

      I hoped I would but magical origami tigers and drug-dealing rats were too much for me. Haha! I bet you like the sound of that! (Indeed yes, if you want to! Let me know when you get it and we can set a date. What book? Which reminds me – did you read the Artemis Fowl one?)

      • You know, I really need a pea-shooter. I can’t find one here.

        Drug-dealing rats sounds awesome. *laughs* Don’t you think I may be one?

        (I really want to! Well…as soon as that book gets it’s slow behind on Amazon! Seriously, I’ve been waiting for it. It’s actually a book that used some of this professor’s arrangements from another book! So, sorta mine! I did read Artemis Fowl. That was the one with the gnome language in it. Umm…I laughed. Would rather have no leprechauns and such. Arty was kinda funny. You wouldn’t like it.)

        • You’d have to be careful with that whole circular breathing thing though…

          *shock* Good noodles, no!!! I’m sure it would be against the Samurai code!

          (Musical arrangements? Well…how exciting! In fact, awesome!! What a multi-talented Professor you are, C-W-W! *mega-proud face* D’you know, I’d give up chocolate for a week to hear you play some day. No, a month. *laughing lots* Leprechauns? Seriously?? Oh my! I think you’re right…)

          • *laughs* Good point. I didn’t know pea shooters were open…in the back!

            Oh yes, another good point. I wouldn’t be able to go on secret missions then.

            (Really? Aw! I’m honored, really. I’d love to play for you! One day it will happen. Nah! Not talented. I think it’s all part of the same package: entertainment. Or something like that. Musical arrangements are such fun to put together. And there’s a market for guitar arrangements, which is just perfect. *smiles happily* Yes, but you know, I used to like Leprechauns.)

            • Stick to the katana – probably safer!

              Ooh, what kind of secret missions do you get to go on?

              (Don’t argue with me! If I say you’re talented, then you’re talented! OK?? *fierce PEP face* But yes, I’d say all the creative stuff is probably linked – though there’s loads of musicians who couldn’t do the humour stuff, and vice versa. And then there’s the video stuff… Specific leprechauns or just in general? *chuckles*)

            • Who this professor? I go on missions all the time! Can’t say they’re real fun…but…don’t you think I should get more into the market?

              *laughing* Yes, ma’am! Well…in general, I think. It all had to do with St. Patty’s day, I think. I mean, I still think they’re cool–in a way.

            • Very mysterious! I don’t know…are they dangerous? Do they have anything to do with aliens?

              That’s better! *smiles ma’amishly* I see! Well, that’s just so…American…of you! *chuckles*

  6. Interesting! I know some sci- fi fan who collect old stories to see whether any of the ideas have been developed – like teleportation. I’m waiting on that one. My kids and I want to be ‘Jumpers’ – how cool would that be.

    • Cool…but not as cool as time-travel! I want to be able to go both backwards and forwards – see Dickens do a reading, and then find out what happens in the future (will Rowling ever write another Potter, for instance?)…

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