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The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Sixteen Original Works by Speculative Fiction's Finest Voices by Ellen Datlow (Editor)
Review by Sam Lubell
Del Rey Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345496324
Date: 29 April 2008 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Ellen Datlow has a long history as a science fiction and fantasy editor going back to the original Omni magazine in 1981 and its online incarnation, the online SCI FICTION, 20 volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and dozens of anthologies. So readers of this volume know they are in good hands. The authors range from veteran writers like Maureen F. McHugh, Barry Malzberg, Pat Cadigan, Carol Emshwiller, Paul McAuley and Kim Newman, to up-and-coming writers like Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Bear, and Christopher Rowe, to several names I did not recognize but doubtlessly will become more familiar in the future. For this book, Datlow has selected stories that emphasize character rather than action or even genre elements -- a few of the stories would not be out-of-place in a mainstream publication.

Several stories are science fiction. Jason Stoddard's "The Elephant Ironclads" is an alternate history story in a universe in which the Dinetah (Navajo) won their independence with the help of Abraham Lincoln's elephants. In it, two Dinetah boys are forced to make a choice between their traditions (symbolized by the elephants) and the white man's ways when they encounter an expedition to find uranium for bombs. This is a fascinating story, rich in character and detail.

Christopher Rowe's "Gather" is an unusual post-apocalyptic in which the priests control the land and burning paper makes pictures of God. Lavie Tidhar's "Shira," set in a future in which the Arabs have conquered Jerusalem, causing a Small Holocaust, is about a graduate student writing a dissertation on an unknown poet whose work seemed to predict the disaster. Investigating the poet in Damascus, she's surprised to learn he had a second career as a pulp science fiction writer and shocked to find that one of the stories is about her.

A highlight of the book is Jeffrey Ford's "Daltharee," about a government official who cleans up after a mad scientist who created a tiny city populated by people the size of crumbs. This has wonderful descriptions and imagery. The final story, "Prisoners of the Action" by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman, combines conspiracy theories, satire and truly alien aliens to good effect. Clearly inspired by some aspects of the recent Abu Ghraib scandal, the writers have a colonel investigate photographs showing torture of captured aliens on a military base where a growing percentage of personnel are going crazy.

Others are fantasy. Elizabeth Bear's "Sonny Liston Takes the Fall" is about the flip side of Muhammad Ali. Narrated by the One-Eyed Jack, the guardian of Las Vegas, this is the story of a boxer who was defeated by Ali and ultimately died so that Ali, who never looked down in the face of the white man, could become a symbol. Carol Emshwiller has an intriguing story, "All Washed Up While Looking for a Better World," about a castaway on a desert island who is unable to convince the people that she is human (or maybe she is transformed into something else).

Richard Bowes' "Aka St. Mark's Place" seems to be a mainstream story about a runaway, his girlfriend, and the undercover spotter who abducts him. Then in the second part, the cop starts having visions, the former runway shows the power to touch the consciousness of a few people and the three form a rock group. Margo Lanagan's horrific and disturbing "The Goosle" is a sequel to the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel in which a mentally handicapped Hansel returns to the mudwife's castle in the company of a con artist who regularly takes sexual advantage of the ignorant Hansel. Another Jewish story, Barry Malzberg's humorous "The Passion of Azazel," is about a student of the kabalah who, believing himself to be the reincarnation of a scapegoat, summons a golem in the form of a goat.

I also liked Pat Cadigan's "Jimmy," whose title character passed from relative to relative and was always blamed for everything that goes wrong. The most interesting element here is his effect on the "good girl" narrator.

Several stories have uncertain genre elements. A key element in Lucy Sussex's excellent and exciting "Ardent Clouds," about a photographer who films exploding volcanoes, is that Professor Sigurrson has a foolproof formula for determining if a volcano is about to go off. But the story is really about the narrator's growing relationship with a Russian volcano lover. Nathan Ballingrud's "North American Lake Monsters," despite a smelly corpse that could be from a lake monster, focuses on the relationship between an ex-jailbird and his wife and daughter. Maureen F. McHugh's "Special Economics" does not seem to be genre at all; it's the story of a Chinese girl exploited by a factory where the wages never catch up to the debt that workers incur for uniforms, food, etc. While there's occasional mention of a battery box that uses bacteria to make electricity, for most of the story they might just as well be stamping out Wal-Mart toys. Laird Barron's "The Lagerstatte" is about a woman who may be haunted by the ghosts of her husband and child, unless this is just in her head. Anna Tambour's "Gladiolus Exposed" is a horror story about a man obsessed with a gladiolus bone exactly the size of his still-living wife's.

None of the stories here fit the Analog mode of hard science fiction. They resemble a cross between Fantasy and Science Fiction and a mainstream/slipstream magazine, should one exist. Readers of science fiction and fantasy who enjoy stories with strong literary values and high levels of characterization will greatly enjoy this volume. Those looking for action adventure -- Star Trek novels and the endless quest for the magic plot coupons -- should look elsewhere.

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