Three New Original Anthologies
Reviewed by Rich Horton
Polyphony, Volume 1, Jay Lake, fiction editor, Deborah Layne, publisher and managing editor
(Wheatland Press, Wilsonville, OR, 2002, 218 pp, US$16.95, 0-9720547-0-7)
- Agog! Fantastic Fiction, edited by Cat Sparks
(Agog! Press, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia, 2002, 286 pp, Aus$21.95, 0-958056-70-6)
- Redsine, Issue Eight, April 2002, edited by Trent Jamieson and Garry Nurrish
(Redsine Magazine: Toowong, Queensland, Australia. Published by Prime Books, Canton, Ohio, USA, 2002, 139 pages, US$6, 1-894815-01-7)
At various times in the history of SF original anthologies have been a major source of new short fiction. One recalls the early '70s, with such continuing series as Orbit, New Dimensions, Universe, Quark, Infinity, and Nova, and with a variety of themed anthologies from the likes of Robert Silverberg, Roger Elwood, and others. One remembers the many shared-world anthologies of a decade or so past. (One thinks of Elwood and of shared-world anthologies and one also thinks "mixed blessing"!) Even in recent years there was a spate of Alternate History anthologies to fill the shelves of bookstores. These past few years, however, seem to have been a down time for original anthologies from major publishers. Yes, Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Starlight, from Tor, has managed three excellent volumes, at almost but not quite one every two years. And, yes, Al Sarrantonio has put out two huge anthologies from Avon/Eos, one horror, one SF (999 and Redshift). And, yes, DAW has continued to feature themed anthologies, mostly with Martin H. Greenberg's help, at a rate of several per year. Still, to my mind the original anthology, over the last couple of years, has been in a down cycle, both in terms of quality and of quantity.
But there is another source for original anthologies than the major publishers, one that seems increasingly important in recent years: the small press. This year we have already seen an outstanding anthology from a small press: Leviathan Three, edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Forrest Aguirre. Now three more books have come my way from small presses: Polyphony, the first of a new anthology series, from Wheatland Press in Oregon, Agog!, from a new press also called Agog!, in Australia; and the eighth issue of Redsine, a dark fantasy oriented product that straddles the border between book and magazine, edited from Australia but published in the US by Prime Books of Ohio (which also had a hand in publishing Leviathan).
The introduction to Volume 1 of Polyphony makes no bones about the sort of fiction they plan to publish: slipstream. Stories that, in editor Jay Lake's words, "shoot off into the darkness of the cracks between literary categories." Lake has recently participated in a heated online debate (at the Tangent Online newsgroup on SFF.Net) about the propriety of SF venues publishing stories that aren't clearly SF. He's put his editorial hat where his pixels were in that debate: Polyphony features mostly stories with a mild fantastical bent, against mostly "mainstream" backgrounds, along with a couple of stories that don't seem fantastical at all, but straight mainstream.
How does this work? Pretty well without exception the stories here are well-done. I was interested throughout, I respected each story. But you know what? After finishing the book I wanted nothing more than a big ol' slug of real, honest-to-goodness, science fiction, be it a piece of Analog-style engineering fiction; Planet Stories-style Space Opera, or Greg Eganesque mind-blowing extrapolation. (I'm reading Alastair Reynolds' new novel Redemption Ark just now and I'm happy to report that it's filling the bill quite well!) OK, such cavils are unfair Polyphony delivers exactly what it promises, and it never promised straightforward Science Fiction.
The table of contents is very impressive, with names like Andy Duncan, Lucius Shepard, Carol Emshwiller, Maureen McHugh, and Bruce Holland Rogers among others. But there are also two first sales, both fine work, one really impressive. Vandana Singh's "The Room on the Roof" is a nice story, about a young woman artist in a city in India, and the older man who dominates the art department at her school. Even better is Victoria Elisabeth Garcia's "Anthropology", an utterly wacky story about a woman setting her cap for a distinguished anthropologist. It's quite funny and quite clever, a very fine first story.
Maybe the best story in the book, however, is by one of the most prominent names: Maureen McHugh's "Laika Comes Back Safe". This is pure McHugh, a quiet story about a girl growing up, and her best friend, who turns out to be a werewolf. Lots of SF is to some extent "about" the extrapolative idea; the rest (or most of the rest) is "about" the people in the story, with the extrapolative idea used to illuminate the characters and lives of those people. Naturally enough, I would think, most "slipstream" fiction falls in this second category certainly this is the case with McHugh's story, which subtly and heartbreakingly portrays the narrator's quietly desperate adolescence amid a slowly decaying home life.
What else impressed me? Lucius Shepard's "How Lonesome Heartbreak Changed His Life" is a fun quasi-thriller about an American drifting through Vietnam with his junky girlfriend, and his encounter with an older journalist, a Japanese musician mourning his dead lover, and a scary drug dealer. Ray Vukcevich contributes a short but sweet "Love Story" about a couple of middle-aged folks and their children and grandchildren. And Leslie What's "Blind Date with the Invisible Man" recounts exactly what its title claims clever, snarky stuff.
The other stories, as I said above, are all fine work I came away pleased with the craft displayed, unable to seriously dispute any of the editorial selections and looking for some real SF, darnit!
Which, I will say up front, was readily available in Agog! Fantastic Fiction, a large anthology (29 stories) of new fiction by Australian writers, edited by Cat Sparks. The book features several quite prominent Down-Under writers Damien Broderick, Terry Dowling, Kate Orman, Stephen Dedman (as well as Sean Williams, who contributed the Introduction). It also features quite a few names unfamiliar to me. There's a lot of stuff here, some disappointing, but several very nice stories. All in all, a sturdy and interesting collection.
Do I want to draw any sweeping conclusion about the state of Australian SF from this book? Well, no. (Coward!) There is perhaps a slight tendency towards ideas that seem a bit old-fashioned take Dirk Flinthart's "The Ballad of Farther-On Jones", about the first human to take to the stars, and how he paved the way for the rest of the race. It reminded me oddly of an L. Ron Hubbard story, of all things ("The Conroy Diary", as by Rene Lafayette, from the May 1949 Astounding). That said, it was quite effective a nice, moving, story. Less effective, similarly old-fashioned, was Chuck McKenzie's "Incident at Five-Mile Creek", which has Ned Kelly encountering H. G. Wells's Martians, and quite unconvincingly being inspired by them. But this tendency applies only to a few stories in the book and against them we must set such stories as Damien Broderick's impressive "Schrodinger's Catch", in which unexpected quantum level effects of an experiment with a mentally-damaged man seem to endanger all humanity.
What else did I like? Tansy Rayner Roberts's "Delta Void and the Clockwork Man" is cute, breezy, fast-moving fun, about a woman named Delta Void with multiple personalities, who must deliver a robotic bodyguard as a gift for the new Jarl of Axegaard. Nothing at all profound, but pleasant reading. Geoffrey Maloney's "The Imperfect Instantaneous People Mover" recalls Robert Sheckley generally a good sign, that. It's a wild ride, about a conceptualist named Jack Merriwether, a couple of beautiful women, a powerful executive, and aliens on the back side of the Moon who can turn any "concept" into reality. Kate Orman's "Ticket to Backwards" is a striking and somewhat different time travel story certain people are apparently destined to be snatched back to the time of the Incas can the narrator leave a message for the future? Simon Brown's "Teacher of Righteousness" is an interesting take on the results of a DNA analysis of some Essene scrolls. And Robin Pen's "Auf Wiedersehen Berlin" is another quite wacky story, about King Kong, Peter Lorre, Maureen O'Sullivan, and others in a desperate battle against Dr. Mabuse.
Agog! Fantastic Fiction, then, is a pretty solid collection of new Australian SF, with some fantasy and some outlandish stuff. But it fits pretty well in the center of the genre. Another Australian publication fits rather closer to one of the boundaries the dark fantasy/horror boundary.
This is Redsine, a small press magazine that looks rather like a book (and has an ISBN rather than an ISSN). Issue 8, dated April 2002, has 14 stories, mostly somewhat short (the total wordcount is perhaps 45,000), as well as an interview with Tim Powers, conducted by Nick Gevers.
Though it's edited out of Australia (and published in the US), Redsine features work from all around the world. I freely confess that dark fantasy and horror aren't really my cup of tea. Still, I think the stories here vary widely in quality a couple didn't really seem worthy of publishing, many were well enough done stories that presumably push the buttons of horror readers but didn't push my buttons, and a couple I quite enjoyed.
My favorite was the one story that doesn't seem to fit as horror or dark fantasy, Rhys Hughes's wild "Robin Hood's New Mother", a revisionist take on the Robin Hood legends, featuring Robin's unfortunate encounter with Nina, the Queen of the Amazons. Mostly, I giggled which I think makes the story a success. I also liked Geoffrey Maloney's "Elecktra Dreams", which is pure dark fantasy, about a man's encounter with the mysterious title woman at his father's graveside. (This story and "The Imperfect Instantaneous People Mover" from Agog! are the first I've seen from Maloney enough to put him on my list of people to watch.) And Michael Kaufmann and Mark McLaughlin, who contributed a decent collaborative effort to the most recent Black Gate, contribute another offbeat horror story, "Wake When Some Vile Thing is Near", about a horror writer who finds a new agent, perhaps not in the end to his benefit.
So, if you look hard enough, you can still find original anthologies publishing worthwhile new SF some are still published by the major publishers (see DAW's two anniversary anthologies this year, as well as their Peter Crowther anthology Mars Probes), but for some you'll have to look to the small presses. Sometimes these books are hard to find in bookstores, so check the websites: Wheatland Press (publisher of Polyphony) is at www.wheatlandpress.com, Redsine's site is www.redsine.com, and Agog! Press is at www.catsparks.net/agogpress/. (Agog! Fantastic Fiction is also available at the Australian Online Bookshop.)