Book Review: The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Normally as a prelude to or in the midst of a review of a short story anthology, I make it clear that in any collection of stories there are always a few superlative ones, some good ones, some mediocre ones, and some bad ones.  It’s a matter of taste, after all.  Editors have their subjective opinions just like anyone else.  But I have to admit that this is the first anthology I have read in a long, long time in which there are no bad or even mediocre stories.  There are a few that I wouldn’t have included in a best of the best collection, as well as a few glaring oversights.  Didn’t Robert Silverberg’s story “Sundance” first appear in an issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction?  I think so.  If it did, it certainly deserves a place here.  Or at least something by Silverberg does.  Perhaps “Born With the Dead,” which first appeared in a special F&SF Robert Silverberg issue.

But these are quibbles.  F&SF has published so many great stories over the years that it would have been impossible to honor them all in one volume.  What we have here, though, is a great collection of fiction, each story well worth reading.  It starts with Alfred Bester’s story “Of Time and Third Avenue,” first published in 1951, and ends with Ted Chiang’s story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which was first published in 2007.  In between, it includes classics, as well as personal favorites of mine, such as “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, “This Moment of the Storm” by Roger Zelazny, and “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr.  This is a good story collection to dive into and get a good representative look at some of the best writing done in the genre of science fiction and fantasy.

A number of the stories I had read before, but a good number were new to me as well.  Two of the stories deeply touched me, perhaps because they resonate with what I am going through at this time.  One is “Buffalo” by John Kessel.  It’s a story about an imaginary meeting between the author’s father and the famous science fiction writer H.G. Wells, and it touched me because of the way that Kessel describes how the meeting affected them both.  Each in his own way is living in disappointment and self-doubt, but Kessel, through both examples, brings home the point of the value of art and of a life that may not have been a fulfillment of every dream but is still worthwhile.  I needed to hear that, and I read the last few paragraphs of this story over and over.

The other story that touched me personally is “Solitude” by Ursula K. Le Guin.  It’s a very deeply nuanced story about a mother and her two children who settle on a planet for several years to study a human culture that has evolved to be very different from the one to which they are accustomed.  The mother and the older brother cannot adapt to the change, but for the young daughter, the ways of the new world become irrevocably her own.  Adults on this world live lives in which they spend much of their time alone, but their solitude is enmeshed in a complex web of tradition, culture, and religion.  The story is told in the first person, and the narrator’s explanation near the end of the story of the value of solitude resonated with me.  I have my bouts with loneliness.  Once I wrote an essay on the difference between solitude and loneliness.  When you’re going through it the differences can be hard to discern sometimes.

All in all, this is an excellent collection and well worthy of a read both for those who are new to the field and those familiar with it who want to reread some of their old favorites.

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