One of the sadder things about the science fiction and fantasy genre is that readers often overlook older stories and novels, choosing to chase new releases instead. This anthology, edited by Gordon Van Gelder, seeks to right that wrong by reprinting stories that were originally published between 1956-2011. (For the most part, they’re closer to 1956.)
Some of the stories are hilarious, some are great, some aren’t. This anthology is an excellent way to get to know great authors from the decades past, but a few of the stories leave a lot to be desired, which is why I’m giving it only 4 stars instead of 5.
Brief story synopses:
“The Third Level” by Jack Finney: an average Joe time-travels when he discovers a hidden third level of the Grand Central Station. A fun story that shows not all time travel fiction needs to be complicated.
“The Cosmic Charge Account” by C. M. Kornbluth: a little old lady with latent psychic abilities reads a self-help book and decides to change her universe. Literally. The book’s pompous writer and a young publisher head out to stop the disaster in this hilarious, quirky and surreal story that has many genuinely “laugh out loud” moments.
“The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight: the world’s last sociopath is all alone in the futuristic utopia. An unusual, sad and tragic short story.
“The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson: a teacher gets curious when one of her first-graders spends all her time playing with an invisible magic box. A “soft” sci-fi story that explores the human nature instead of science or technology.
“The Prize of Peril” by Robert Sheckley: in a world where new laws make it legal for reality TV shows to kill their contestants for the promise of prize money, one man is on the run from a gang of murderers while the country cheers on. An excellent story that combines “The running man” and “Hunger games.”
“—All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein: A man in charge of resolving temporal paradoxes gets assigned a particularly challenging case… This story gets better each time you read it – the time travel paradox it describes is one of the best I’ve seen yet!
“A Kind of Artistry” by Brian W. Aldiss: In the strange distant future with its matriarchal society, genetic engineering and space exploration, one man is trying to do his best. A fairly long and disturbing story that features the mother of all Oedipus complexes. Probably my least favorite in this anthology.
“Green Magic” by Jack Vance: In a world where magic is commonplace and anyone can study it, one man wants even more as he follows his great uncle’s research on a new type of magic. A well written cautionary tale that reminds us all to be careful what we wish for.
“Narrow Valley” by R. A. Lafferty: a Native American enchants his tiny plot of land to make it inaccessible by just about anybody – as an enterprising 20th-century family is about to find out. A goofy story that makes fun of just about everything under the sun.
“Sundance” by Robert Silverberg: a human scientist that’s supposed to eradicate an entire species of cute little creatures to terraform a new planet begins to have his doubts… An unusually written, deep and truly intelligent short story about the morality of terraforming and the dangers of the human-centered worldview.
“The Attack of the Giant Baby” by Kit Reed: A baby starts to grow bigger and bigger after its scientist father screws up. A goofy story that’s a lot like the movie “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.”
“The Hundredth Dove” by Jane Yolen: A story about a fowl keeper, a king and his enchanted bride. To me, this seems more like an old-fashioned fairy tale than a fantasy story, but to each their own, I suppose…
“Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison: What happens to a child that stops aging (both physically and mentally) at the age of five? A very serious (and somewhat sad) take on this very strange concept from the point of view of a childhood friend who grows up.
“Salvador” by Lucius Shepard: American soldiers fighting in El Salvador are given drugs that make them stronger, faster, meaner – at the cost of their sanity. A very bloody, disturbing but well written story that was doubtlessly inspired by the horrors of the Vietnam War.
“The Aliens Who Knew, I mean, Everything” by George Alec Effinger: A not-too-bright U.S. President describes the planet’s first contact with friendly but insufferably pedantic aliens. A hilarious take on the usually scary “first contact” trope.
“Rat” by J. P. Kelly: In a dark cyberpunk world of the future, a super-intelligent rat is dealing drugs and staying one step ahead of the authorities. Definitely an unusual premise and very well written with more action than most other stories in this anthology.
“The Friendship Light” by Gene Wolfe: A handyman uses his skills to destroy the lives of his sister and her husband. A fairly complex horror story that features low-tech mischief instead of high-tech space-age devices usually found in science fiction.
“The Bone Woman” by Charles de Lint: What if creatures from Native American myths were real and still roamed the earth? The protagonist follows a strange homeless woman who collects bones for some mysterious purpose. A very interesting story that reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.”
“The Lincoln Train” by Maureen F. McHugh: In this alternate universe, Lincoln barely survives the assassination attempt and his administration strikes back by forcibly relocating former slaveholders. The protagonist is a young woman that’s about to be relocated with her elderly mother. A great story that would make an amazing novel.
“Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling: In a futuristic Japan where a self-aware computer network operates a complex system based on gifts and favors from millions of people, an American FBI agent gets in a world of trouble when she tries to play by the book. A quirky and satirical story with an unusual premise.
“Winemaster” by Robert Reed: When people learn to transmute their minds into nanobots and code, the physical world loses its greatest minds, as well as most of its population. A prototypical “hard” sci-fi story that features everything from the nature of consciousness to corrupt genocidal governments to visitors from other worlds.
“Suicide Coast” by M. John Harrison: In a world with highly addictive virtual reality games, the protagonist is stuck in a love triangle with his daredevil friend and the friend’s wife. Or is he? A definitely unusual story that’s very meta, if you like big plot twists.
“Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman: A story of a fashion designer who lives in the last village in the world to go online. A human interest story about life in the middle of nowhere and the stereotypical plucky provincial characters who are about to have their lives changed forever.
“The People of Sand & Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi: When the world becomes a toxic dump, what should genetically modified creatures (who can eat trash and plastic, among other things) do when they find a bona fide biological dog on the loose? An immensely interesting (if slightly disturbing) story set in a dysfunctional world. (Just like all of Bacigalupi’s fiction, really.)
“Echo” by Liz Hand: After an unknown disaster destroys the world as we know it, a woman waits for her lover on an uninhabited island, with only her dog as her company. A sad tale that provides the human angle that’s so often missing from “end of the world” stories.
“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King: A man killed in a plane crash finds a way to call his wife. Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen King’s fiction, you’re guaranteed to like this story.
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu: The son of a Chinese mail-order bride turns his back on his heritage and his mother’s magic origami toys. If you like human interest stories with just a touch of science fiction, you’ll love this one.
Score: 4 stars