Sometimes at odd moments I enjoy looking over the books on my shelves. I don’t have a large collection; there’s probably not more than two or three hundred books in it, but those books hold many precious reading memories. I was pulling short story anthologies off the shelves and perusing the tables of contents. I came across The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction and as I read the titles I thought: what a wonderful group of stories! I considered that a nostalgic trip to the past in the form of some speculative fiction classics might be just what I need in these trying times.
Let me begin by saying that for me at least the quality level in this anthology is consistently higher than I’ve found in any recent best-of-the-year collections. Naming the “best” is subjective, of course, as evidenced by the fact that though there are several anthologies each year that purport to have the “best” there is generally very little overlap.
Never mind all that. This anthology came out in 2009; the oldest story in it goes all the way back to 1951, and the newest is from 2007. Van Gelder had decades of stories to choose from. All of the selections are worth reading, but I’ll mention just some of them that particularly impressed me this time around.
“A Touch of Strange” is a wondrously subtle love story by Theodore Sturgeon. Two humans, a woman and a man, meet on a rock out in the ocean. It turns out that they are both waiting for their lovers, a merman and a mermaid. The sea dwellers never show up, though, and the man and woman fall in love. The amazing thing is how Sturgeon tells a story about mermen and mermaids without ever introducing them directly into the story – their reality is only implied in the dialog of the humans.
“Eastward Ho” by William Tenn is set in a far future in which Native Americans have taken over North America and white people are treated as inferiors and slowly and inexorably driven off the land. When I finished it, I wondered how it would be received in this modern era, since the story was first published in 1958. I wasn’t sure. Then I thought of my old friend and Clarion West classmate, the late Russell Bates, a full-blooded Kiowa Indian. We met each other now and then after the workshop, corresponded for awhile, and even roomed together for a few months in Los Angeles. During that time, we would discuss literature and Russ would give me his views on good novels and stories about Native Americans. I think he would have liked this one; at least he would have had a good laugh over it. Enough said.
“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes is one of the most famous stories in this collection. It is a near-perfect gem of a tale, so well-crafted that Keyes is known almost exclusively for this one story and its expansion into a novel.
“This Moment of the Storm” is by the late great Roger Zelazny, whose literary style is unique and dazzling. It is certainly worthy of inclusion here, though if I were to choose an F&SF Zelazny story for this anthology, I probably would have gone with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” or “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” both of which Van Gelder refers to in the story’s introduction.
“The Deathbird” is a classic novelette by my old Clarion West teacher, the late Harlan Ellison. I don’t think it is one of his best stories, but in that assessment I am only comparing him with himself. It shines far brighter than most stories of any type or genre. It’s an experimental piece, a collage of different bits that manages to weave various love stories together into an ode and a dirge for the planet Earth.
“The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for the late Alice Sheldon) is one of my favorite science fiction stories and what I consider one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time. The amazing thing about this novelette-length tale is that it mostly consists of a fascinating buildup and the aliens only show up in the last few pages.
“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King is a novella, the longest story in the collection. This absorbing tale is the very first entry in the lengthy Dark Tower series of stories and novels.
“Solitude” by another of my Clarion West teachers, the late Ursula K. Le Guin, is a fascinating first person account of absorption into a very different alien culture. An excellent character study.
“Two Hearts” is by yet another of my Clarion West teachers, Peter Beagle. It is a beautifully-written fantasy about an elderly king who goes forth to slay a deadly Griffin, a sequel to Beagle’s classic fantasy novel The Last Unicorn. As I read this story, I recalled a magical evening over four decades ago when Beagle read a section from The Last Unicorn to his students and other visitors. A wonderful experience!
“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang is written in precise and elegant prose, as is all of his work, and the main characters are the ideas and concepts that Chiang presents.