Edited By, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Subterranean 978-1596069671, 632pp, $45, hardcover) September 2020.
When does one properly offer a career retrospective for a creative person? Certainly it’s safe to issue one when the creator is dead. Then the career is etched in stone, with no further additions possible, and also with no dissents or quibbles from the creator! And if enough time goes by between the creator’s passing and the publication of the commemorative volume, the compiler gains the critical shaping perspectives provided by hindsight.
On the other hand, if some wunderkind gets a “best of” monument too early in their career, it might looks premature or silly or vain or incomplete.
So maybe somewhere past the presumed midpoint of a career is best. Time enough for the creator to rack up substantial accomplishments, but early enough so that the creator can still be seen as vibrant and active, and still be present to appreciate the tribute.
Thus in 1987, we were treated to The Essential Ellison: A 35-Year Retrospective, which got updated 15 years later to The Essential Ellison: A 50-Year Retrospective. And of course, Ellison continued to write for nearly another two decades beyond that!
So by these metrics, I think the new volume Edited By, a celebration of Ellen Datlow’s nearly 30 years of anthology production, arrives at a very good juncture. Although she might be past the midpoint of her career—another 30 years assembling TOCs? Well, why not!—Datlow is still heartily and healthily and insightfully putting books together. This big new celebration reminds us of what she’s done so well, and also serves as a signpost towards what we can expect from her in the future.
By the way: I said it was her 30th anniversary as editor, but that only involves anthologies. She began magazine editing ten years prior, in 1981, and so we must happily forecast another 40 years for her of wielding her red pencil!
In any case, this massive compilation serves not only as a record of Datlow’s tastes and triumphs, but also as an outline of where fantastika has ventured over the past three decades, an encyclopedia of themes and treatments. I can easily imagine this anthology of anthologies being deployed in classrooms and read by fans who want an overview of the recent field.
The 30 stories range chronologically from 1991 to 2017 (they are presented out of order for greater effects and variety), and feature names which cover the territory from near-Grandmaster—Lucius Shepard—to that of talented newcomer (Priya Sharma). One can in fact see the whole table of contents at the site of the publisher, the fabled Subterranean Press.
Some are very well-known—Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” and Howard Waldrop’s “The Sawing Boys”—while others are buried gems—Elizabeth Hand’s “In the Month of Athyr” and Richard Bowes’s “The Office of Doom”. It would be beyond my capacity and space to synopsize all of them here, so maybe it would be better to use them to examine Datlow’s editorial predilections and intuitions.
Having fashioned several books devoted to erotic fantastika, Datlow shows a unique openness to that subject matter which is often excluded from the genre. We see this in Hand’s entry, but also in “Some Strange Desire” by Ian McDonald and Jane Yolen’s “Bird Count”.
Along with co-editor Terri Windling, Datlow is responsible for the resurgence of myths and fairy tales being retold or reimagined in modern ways. We encounter this in “A Delicate Architecture” by Catherynne M. Valente and Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle”, among others.
The stories in this volume would seem to indicate that Datlow definitely prefers storytelling that is linear and straightforward, certainly not old-fashioned, but classical rather. Beginning, middle, climax, and end. And yet an occasional entry such as Carol Emshwiller’s “Overlooking”, John Lanagan’s “Technicolor”, and Elizabeth Bear’s “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” approach New Wave-levels of experimentation.
As one of the editors responsible for the birth and flourishing of cyberpunk, Datlow seems less inclined in her independent projects to foster such near-future scenarios and styles. But such are not completely absent. Pat Murphy’s “Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates” is a hardcore cyber-apocalypse, while “Anamorphosis” by Caitlín R. Kiernan offers the kind of down and dirty, gritty street life we have come to associate with cyberpunk. And of course, one of the original cyberpunks, Pat Cadigan, does honor to the mode in a surreal way with “Home by the Sea”.
Not many of the tales in this book could be construed as humorous, but Datlow is certainly not without a sense of comedy, as evidenced by Kelly Link’s “The Hortlak” and the Waldrop fable.
Datlow also favors stories with meticulously rendered contemporary settings—almost a K-mart naturalism—by which the intrusion of the occult and weird achieve even greater prominence. Laird Barron’s “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven”, Jeffery Ford’s “The Bedroom Light”, Kathe Koja’s “Teratisms”, and Sharma’s “The Crow Palace”.
It is also interesting to see what types of story are missing from this book. No real Hard SF nor Splatterpunk. No Epic Fantasy or Steampunk. No Grimdark or Military SF. It seems safe to say that if Datlow were enamored of these other modes, she would have found a way to put together a book or books featuring such tales by now. Yet, I would not completely eliminate the possibility of someday seeing, say, Ellen Datlow’s Big Book of SF-Crime Hybrids. Her tastes are large, and she contains multitudes.
A perceptive introduction by Gary Wolfe and a deft interview conducted by Gwenda Bond bracket the stories, and we get Datlow’s anecdotes about publishing each piece in the form of afterwords. Good solid armature for the fiction.
The field of fantastika is justifiably proud of, and thankful for, the many editors who have shaped its lineaments and tenaciously extracted work from the temperamental writers who gravitate toward this genre. Will there someday be an award given in Datlow’s name to honor such toilers? Well, maybe after she’s really established her chops with another three decades or so of demanding yet joyous work!
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