Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The by Van Gelder, Gordon, ed., 2009

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A collection of short stories culled from the last sixty years of the fantastic Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. These stories were chosen by the current editor and owner of the publication, Gordon Van Gelder, and assembled here in anthology form as a celebration of the periodical's sixtieth anniversary. The magazine has always had a reputation for publishing literal science fiction. Van Gelder's editorship has spanned over ten years now, and you can clearly tell that he has upheld the virtues of the prior editors, and continues to do a great job. This is one of the best anthologies - if not the best - of 2009. In fact, if the Hugo people gave away an award for the best anthology, I would have voted for this one. Twice.

Of Time and Third Avenue, by Alfred Bester, 1951, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A unique and well written take on the "time-patrol" motif. Boyne (who speaks an odd variant of the English language) awaits the arrival of Mr. Knight and Mrs. Clinton in a tavern in the 1950s. Mr. Knight recently purchased an almanac, but instead of getting one for the current year, he was given an almanac for the year 1990. How an almanac from 40 years in the future wound up in a 1950 bookstore was not explained, but the story did not suffer for that. Bester did a fine job with the morality of the situation, but an even finer job with the emotional impulses that really created the conflict. Knight knew that the right thing to do would be to give the book back. But he was afraid of not exceeding his competitors; Knight was worried about his survival. He also wanted to know what was in store for his relationship with Mrs. Clinton. But Mrs. Clinton was afraid that what they leaned from the almanac would change them, and those changes would be a form of failure; boredom. She wished for Knight to leave their future unwritten. The story provides an excellent counter-point to the innumerable Back To The Future type of stories out there. But he did a pretty poor job with the linguistics issues. Boyne spoke an "evolved" form of English. All that Bester did to accomplish this was invent a few nouns and change the word order a bit. Not a very effective language, if you asked me. Themes: Science Fiction, Time Patrol, Time Travel, Survival, Linguistics; Rating: 3.5 Stars

All Summer In A Day, by Ray Bradbury, 1954, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A powerful tale of girl who longs for a taste of home, but whose dream is cruelly stifled by her school mates. Margo is an Earth-girl whose family moved unexpectedly to Venus five years prior. On Venus it rains constantly, but like clockwork there is a break in the clouds for one hour every seven years. Margot feels alienated from her schoolmates because she is from Earth, and because one day, she tells them, she will return to the home planet, where the weather is beautiful. The other children decide to play a joke on Margot and lock her in a closet just before the clouds break. When the sun comes out the children and the teachers alike forget about Margot. They go to play in the sun, and don't remember her until the clouds start to form again. Margot comes out of the closet even more homesick. Bradbury is all about the emotional impact. Nobody does it quite like he does. Bradbury infused Margot and the kids alike with hopes, dreams and regrets. The story is amazingly well crafted; bittersweet adn full of crushed dreams. Themes: Science Fiction, Venus, Children Psychology; Rating: 4 Stars

One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson, 1955, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Shirley Jackson was a frequent contributor to the MoF&SF, primarily - it is said - because she pissed off her regular readers in periodicals such as The New Yorker with purely speculative tales. To my eye this one is rather tame, but back in 1955 I suppose I could see how this story would confuse even someone who had enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House. One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts is about a man, Mr. Johnson, who stepped from his house to go to work with pockets full of peanuts and candy. Along the way he stopped to hand out the treats to as many people as he could find, and did good deeds wherever he could. He helped people carry packages and change tires, and he even introduced two strangers who made a love connection. When he got home he compared notes with his wife about the day the each had. Mrs. Johnson had gone out to do as much evil as she could, irritating people, yelling at them, tripping them, and the like, and generally trying to cause mayhem. Before they went to bed they agreed to change roles the next day, so that Mr. Johnson would be the trouble maker, and Mrs. Johnson the saint. I was king of expecting something bad to come of out of Mr. Johnson's efforts to be kind. I was thinking that the peanuts and candy were poisoned, or something like that though, and not what actually happened. Jackson may have written about the dual nature of people here, and even if there were there were some mythological references in the story, Janus was not directly referenced. It's therefore difficult for me to tell if the couple supposed to represent the yin/yang aspect of our personalities, and thus reference psychology, or if they are supposed to be some sort of metaphor for the gods and the good and bad things that they do, and reference nature; some sort of Loki-Thor analogy, perhaps. Either way the story works fine. Themes: Fantasy, Psychology, Gods & Demons; Rating: 4 Stars

A Touch of Strange, by Theodore Sturgeon, 1958, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: This is an amazing love story. John Smith and Jane Dow have each been seduced by different merfolk, and have been bided to show up at midnight on a certain rock down by the surf. They show up nude to frolic and play with their lovers, and are both startled when they realize that the other is there too (they were never ashamed of their nudity, which I thought odd). The two talk and tentatively separate, but something drew them back together. Once they got over their shame of loving something non-human, they began to compare notes about what a love affair with a merfolk is like. They found that they not only had a lot in common, but they appreciated the same things in their relationships with their merfolk mate. I think that Smith and Dow both learned that they were free spirits who felt repressed by the circumstances of their own lives, and could let their hair down with their merfolk lovers. Eventually Smith and Dow decided that they had been stood up by their lovers, and left together.

And John swam in the dark sea slowly, solicitous, and Jane swam, and they separated on the dark beach and dressed, and met again at John's car, and went to the lights where they saw each other at last; and when it was time, they fell well and truly in love, and surely that is the strangest touch of all.

I've heard it said before that every story Sturgeon ever wrote was about love. I think that is an overstatement, but the love stories that Sturgeon did write are some of the best I've ever read in the genre. That last sentence pretty much sums it all up: The everyday emotion of love that we all experience is still stranger than swimming and frolicking with merfolk. He's right. It probably is. A Touch of Strange is sensual and sexual without talking about the act of love. It's quite touching. Themes: Love, Merfolk; Rating: 4 Stars

Eastward Ho!, by William Tenn, 1958, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: William Tenn deserves a better reputation than he's got. Although not ignored, not many people know who he is. "William Tenn" is a pseudonym for Philip Klass. Klass retired as an author relatively early in his career and became a teacher and essayist somewhere in the Midwest. He died recently, leaving behind an impressive body of short work. This story is by no means his best, but make no mistake: It's good enough for any top-of-the-genre list. It's set approximately 100 years after a nuclear war in the New England area between New York State and New Jersey. Jerry Franklin, the son of the senator from Idaho, has been dispatched by the federal government in New York City to travel south with an offer for an invading force. Following the war the native tribes of the Americas, having spent several centuries living in squalor, began to assert themselves and reclaim land from white Americans. In the intervening years the various tribes built up thriving societies, but have been engaged in constant war with whites for land. At the time of the story the federal government of the United States occupies only the ruins of Manhattan south to Trenton, New Jersey. By treaty the land has been set aside for the whites as a kind of "preserve," for their way of life. But recently Trenton has been occupied by an army. The U.S. government is not sure who commands it, but they think it is the Seminole tribe. When they arrive at Trenton they are taken to the leader, a Sioux named Three Hydrogen Bombs and his son, Makes Much Radiation. Franklin went to Trenton to enforce the treaty that kept the U.S. "safe" from Native American incursion. In an ironic twist the Sioux leader promises that he will honor the treaty, but circumstances have required that he take Trenton and push the line back closer to Manhattan. In the spirit of friendship the Sioux give Franklin an Indian made pistol and a box of ammunition; a treasure to Franklin, but a trinket to the powerful Sioux. They also give him a white woman who refuses to acknowledge that she is not Sioux-born. After the parties retire Franklin goes to find his traveling companion so that they can rest, only to find him drunk; the Sioux have given him a bottle of tequila and he has pretty much chugged it and lost control of himself. Soon thereafter Franklin learns that the reason for the Sioux incursion is because the powerful tribes to the North are trying to take over all of former New England. A war breaks out with the U.S. caught in the middle. Franklin does all that he can to reach Asbury Park, New Jersey, where he hires a boat to transport him, the woman and his companion to Europe:

"East, sir? Due east?"

"Due east all the way. To the fabled lands of Europe. To a place where a white man can stand at last on his own two legs. Where he need not fear for persecution. Where he need not fear slavery. Sail east, Admiral, until we discover a new and hopeful world - a world of freedom!"

What I've always found ironic about this story is not so much the reversal in fortune of the native American and the European American standings, as the fact that the European American still has someplace to go at the end. That fact alone differentiates this story from the reality of the plains and Indian wars creates some serious food for thought, but those were not the only ideas worth looking at. The native Americans had lost so much of what they were, that there was raging within their ranks a debate about whether or not they should adopt a "classical" Indian society - as described in textbooks on the subject written by white scholars, years removed from those societies - or come up with something new which would invariably be modeled on the European society that had dominated the Americas for centuries prior to the war.

The Sioux, the Seminole, all the Indian tribes renascent in power and numbers, all bore names garlanded with anachronism. That queer mixture of several levels of the past, overlaid always with the cocky expanding present. Like the rifles and the spears, one for the reality of fighting, the other for the symbol that was more important than the reality. Like the use of wigwams on campaign, when, according to the rumors that drifted smokily across country, their slave artisans could now build the meanest Indian noble a damp-free, draft-proof dwelling such as the President of the United States, lying on his special straw pallet, did not dream about. Like paint-splattered faces peering through newly reinvented, crude microscopes. What had microscopes been like? Jerry tried to remember the Engineering Survey Course he'd taken in his freshman year - and drew a blank. All the same, the Indians were so queer and so awesome. Sometimes you thought that destiny had meant them to be conquerors, with a conqueror's careless inconsistency. Sometimes. . .

The conquerors were becoming caricatures of themselves. This story is genius, and would have made an excellent novel. Themes: Post Apocalypse, War, Nuclear War, Anthropology, Statesmanship, Satire; Rating: 5 Stars

Flowers for Algernon, 1959, by Daniel Keyes, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: When people say that SF is a gloomy body of literature, I think that they have stories like this week's in mind. Flowers for Algernon is not a tale of the failure of science to make people's lives better. The operation that was performed in this story was expected to fail, so what it really is about is how science and scientists treat other humans like lab rats, and the effect that experiments that are not wisely performed can wreck havoc on the lives of the participants. Five out of five stars.

Flowers for Algernon is about a medical experiment, a surgery really, that was designed to make the subject more intelligent. Algernon was a mouse who has been put to the knife, and whose intelligence tripled because of it. Charley was a good natured retarded man with an intelligence of 68. He was so good natured because he was too simple to know that his "friends" spent most of their time making fun of him with idiotic jokes about his mental capacity. The team that operated on Algernon wanted to operate on a human being to see if they could achieve the same effects. Charley was chosen because he was willing to work with the team, and was not angry at the world. The team performed the operation, even though they knew that the boost in intelligence was only going to last for a very short time. That is to say, none of the animal subject to date which had undergone the procedure had retained the intelligence gains past a certain point in time, and nobody expected Charlie to be any different. They just wanted to produce some amazing results so that they could write a paper and become famous.

The story is told in diary format from Charlie’s diary, which at first is called his "progris riprot." Charlie is sweet, kind and very optimistic about the surgery he has been given.

I asked Dr Strauss if Ill beat Algernon in the race after the operashun and he said maybe. If the operashun works Ill show that mouse I can be as smart as he is. maybe smarter. Then Ill be abel to read better and spell the words good and know lots of things and be like other people. I want to be smart like other people. If it works perminint they will make everybody smart all over the wurld.

But as Charlie gets smarter, he realized that for all of his life he actually had been the butt of jokes at the hands of those whom he thought loved him, especially his coworkers. He was a janitor at a mill, and the other employees were always smiling and patting Charlie on the back, so he thought that they were being kind to him. What they were really doing was saying things like "you just pulled a Charlie Gordon," whenever someone screwed up. Charlie just did not understand that they were calling him foolish and stupid. Unfortunately for Charlie, he made this realization just in time to also realize that if they teased in the past him for being stupid, they now feared him for being smart. Some fools even likened his place in the world to that of Eve's, who sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge, and brought sickness, death and pain to the world. Charley developed a strong sense of pride, driven by what he saw as his own foolishness before, laughing with those who laughed at him.

Eventually Charlie became a hermit who just got smarter and smarter. He became so smart that he sometimes lost the ability to communicate the complex concepts he came up with because of the limits of all the languages he had taught himself. Sitting alone all day Charlie became nasty and spiteful, and when his intelligence started to fail, just as Algernon's had, he reverted to his former level of intellect, but kept all the hate and anger in his heart.

I have read this story I don't know how many times in the past; twice this year alone, and it never fails to strike me as one of the most unfair things I have ever experienced. Not only to be given that much intellect, but to have it taken away, with no say or control, and to be left with the core realization that the world is against you, just pounds me in the heart every time. I don't have any trouble seeing how Charlie lost out completely on this one. I do think that sometimes ignorance is bliss, and Charlie had that taken away from him, all for an "experiment" that everyone knew would fail. Science ruined a beautiful soul here, so if you are of the ilk that thinks SF is all about doom and gloom, this one should be your rallying cry.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Harrison Bergeron, 1961, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: I'd like to take a moment here to heap a new honor upon Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Not like needs it, since he's been honored by persons and groups more worthy than I. And because he's dead. But I have never heard anyone say that Vonnegut should be praised for writing the shortest SF masterpiece of all time, Harrison Bergeron. But write it he did, and at six pages its got to be the shortest thing that I come back to again and again. Its a dystopic look at the folly of equality among men, and it is absolutely brilliant. Five out of five stars.

I think one of the peculiar strengths of this work is that it is an evil twist on one of the mantras of this country, and that is that "all men are created equal." We all know that is not the truth; each person has strengths and weaknesses that set him or her apart from others. And anyway, the mantra applies to legal rights, and not personal characteristics. But I think that we all can understand where Vonnegut is coming from here, because at least once in all our lives, I'd wager, we all have said something like "that's not fair!" when someone has a natural advantage over us, such as beauty, or athleticism, or grace. I know that I have, and probably often, and I rarely correct the error in saying it too. Sometimes I honestly believe it. Harrison Bergeron is the story of that notion gone wild. The government in the story has decided to appoint Diana Moon Glampers as the Handicapper General of the nation, and she takes her job very seriously. Everyone who has any desirable characteristic about them also has a man made artifice designed solely to counteract that characteristic. The purpose is to have a population of people who are all equal and have the same chances at success. Well, you can't easily make the stupid smart, so Glampers has chosen the path with the least obstacles and has required all those citizens with fine working brains to wear an ear piece that periodically emits some sort of screeching noise to drive thoughts out of their minds before they can nest and produce anything useful. Ballerinas get bags of buckshot and combat boots. Handsome men get blackened teeth and clown noses. Beautiful women get masks and the strong are weighted down with scrap metal.

The titular character is a seven foot tall Adonis who as been imprisoned for plotting to overthrow the government, but has escaped and has fled to the stage of a televised variety show that his parents happen to be watching at their home. Bergeron breaks in and takes the whole studio hostage, and on camera rips off his impediments and demonstrates his potential on camera.

Harrison placed his big hands on the girl's tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers. And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang! Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well. They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled and spun. They leaped like deer on the moon. The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it. and then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.

Whereupon Glampers burst in and killed them, and then a timed burst of sound erupted in everyone's ear, driving all memory of what they had seen and heard from their brains for good.

Dystopic societies such as this one usually turn up in the literature as the end products of some utopic vision gone bad. Usually the government that is currently repressing the people knows that it is doing that, but "does it for the people's own good." This one is a bit different because they can at least say that equality is an altruistic goal, and in enacting the laws that they have they are guaranteeing survival opportunities for all on an equal level, even if the end result looks like control. Its for this reason that I lament that Vonnegut did not work this one into a full length novel at some point in his life. And even though we have a decent film of the story, starring Sean Astin, it just is not the same.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

This Moment Of The Storm, by Roger Zelazny, 1966, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A heart-felt and touching tale on the meanings of life, longevity and love, as told from the point of view of a man who due to subluminal travel was 500 actual years old, but only 35 years subjective. Juss is a police officer on a remote and under-populated world called Terra del Cygnus (“Land of the Goose"). The world hosts several ravenous, befanged carnivores. Their existence, and the fact that Terra del Cygnus is not a destination point for the starships, has kept the population very low. Several of Juss’ friends lament that in an era of cheap travel they have been nowhere off-planet. They live bored lives on a rough planet, and compare their situations to the Hell-bound dead. The fact that a 100-year storm is ravaging their hemisphere helps not in the least.

Juss however, does not lament his current situation. Juss just thinks that he has not hit his own personal “golden age,” but now that he has a good woman at his side he thinks he just may be headed for one. Things go awry as the cold fingers of reality reach into his little world, grasp him and push him back to the stars. Themes: Love, Immortality, Catastrophe, Death; Rating: 3.5 Stars

The Electric Ant, by Philip K. Dick, 1969, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: This is an unusually linear tale from Dick that dealt with his most favorite of favorite themes, the nature of reality and the individual’s ability to perceive it. The “electric ant” of this story is a term of art to describe a human appearing biological robot who does not know that he is a robot. Poole, the ant in question, woke up in a hospital with no memory of how he had gotten there. He was told by the doctors that were attending to him that they could not help him because he was not human. That was the first Poole had ever heard of that, but since he was worried about his health he went to a repairman. The repairman found a tape reading device inside of Poole. He told Poole that the tape blocked light that was shined up from below, and impressions of light on the reader caused Poole to experience reality in a certain way. Poole figured that if he could remove the tape entirely then he could experience all of creation in one gestalt instant. Too bad doing so had proven fatal in every electric ant that had ever tried it before.

Typical for Dick, there is a corporate malfeasance element to the story. There almost always has to be some evil power broker in every Dick story, but the plot line related to that goes nowhere. I found this one to be fairly typical for Dick, and below the standards of everything else in the book. Themes: Robots, Psychology, Physics, Metaphysics; Rating: 3 Stars

The Deathbird, by Harlan Ellison, 1973, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: This amazing story is a reversal of essentially everything that western philosophy and history tell us about the nature of existence. It is set at both the Alpha and Omega points of human continuity, and along the way re-tells the important stories of our society – such as the stories of creation, temptation, fall and destruction of humanity – through interesting but terse side vignettes. Ellison breaks the fourth wall occasionally to insert pointed queries to the reader about what it is he is really getting at. Because of that, and because those intrusions are given in his typical better-than-it-all voice, the tale has a sharply cynical element to it. But overall its one of the best stories in this book, and it proves, again, why Harlan Ellison is a master storyteller. The mileage that Ellison is able to squeeze out of this minuscule, economy of words is astounding. This one needs to be in college texts. Themes: Religion, Mythology, Gods & Demons, History, Eschatology; Rating: 5 Stars

THE WOMEN MEN DON'T SEE, 1973, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, as by James Tiptree, Jr.: While on vacation in Mexico a man and two women were in a small plane with a local pilot that crashed in a mangrove swamp. The women were quite stoic, and are not really bothered by anything that happens to them; none of the indignities of the swamp concerned them at all. The four spent two days and two nights in the swamp, and nobody came, so the woman, Mrs. Parsons and the man set out in search of drinkable water. The man struck up a conversation with the woman, and came to the conclusion that she was a spy on the run from someone or something. During the night away from the downed plane a group of men in a boat with bright lights set upon them, and the man thought that they were a group of smugglers who had some business with the spy. As the night wore on the man began to think that the woman was an alien. He contemplated his fate at the hands of her friends. I think that this story is really about how males lack the language to describe females, and thus flail around, adopting wild theories about them. Although this one is regarded as a genre-breaker and the one piece that established Tiptree’s reputation as a feminist – at a time when Tiptree was still regarded as male – I did not think that it was so strong, and I will likely never read it again. I’m deathly afraid that I’m missing something here though. Themes: Communication, Aliens, First Contact

I See You, by Damon Knight, 1976, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: This layered story tells of an ambiguous utopia where a technological advance has turned the entire world into a bunch of louts-eaters. An inventor who mourned the loss of his family in a transportation accident sets about inventing a device that will allow him to view scenes remote to him is both time and space. He succeeds and realizes the power and danger of his creation. Rather than destroy the device he copies it out and ships it to television dealers. The world became enthralled virtually overnight. Crime ended because everyone could see what everyone else was doing. Repressive governments toppled once dissidents got hold of one of the devices. Old wrongs were righted once people had the ability to go back and watch old crimes or the beginnings of ancient feuds. Eventually society changed:

The whole world has been at peace for more than a generation. Crime is almost unheard of. Free energy has made the world rich, but the population is stable, even though early detection has wiped out most diseases. Everyone can do whatever he likes, providing his neighbors would not disapprove, and after all, their views are the same as his own.

The prices, of course, are privacy and indivuduality. Which is more important to you? Themes: Scientists, Invention, Remote Time Viewing; Rating: 4 Stars

The Gunslinger, by Stephen King, 1982, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, then in novel form. This is a review of the novel length work: Very few authors evoke the feelings I have for Stephen King. As I've mentioned many times before, when I was younger I thought that there was really nothing that could compare with a Stephen King book. I can easily remember trying to wile away down time between SK publishing events, eagerly awaiting new books from him. I was a little too young for him when Carrie came out, but starting with Night Shift, which I read in summer camp in, I think, 1979, and up until The Tommyknockers was released, I was die hard in my love for his books. Some of the first 1st editions I have in my hardback collection now are from that era of my life. The Gunslinger, to this day, is still one of my favorite books ever written, and if you look at some of the best of lists that are available on the web you will see that some other critics agree with me. Anyway, I’ve always been pretty loyal of speculative fiction, whether its SF, fantasy or horror, but I unfortunately missed the first printings of the stories that make up The Gunslinger (since renamed The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger - please forgive me if I don’t refer to it in this review by its slave name). The Gunslinger (Free at last!) was published serially originally in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction during the Ed Ferman era, between October 1978 and November 1981. The five stories were collected by King and published in an omnibus edition by Grant for the first time in 1982 or so, and I encountered this book in 1985. I have loved it ever since, and frequently try to decide whether I love this one or The Stand more. It took King 12 years altogether to write these stories, and it really shows. For those of you out there that appreciate Dune at least partly for the time and effort that FH obviously put into it, you will be pleasantly surprised with this book. Again, easily, any day of the week, five out of five stars.

As epic fantasy goes, in my opinion, you’re going to find a lot more out there that’s better than this. Tolkein, for instance. Donaldson is supposed to be a good bit better, and from my meager readings of The Ilearth War, I think those reviews are right. Hell, Narnia may be better. But in the closer, tighter sub-genre of dark fantasy, this book (not the whole series) is close to tops. As far as dark-fantasy/SF mix, I cannot think of anything that compares, at all. King has created a very complex and interesting dystopic piece. It’s like the notions of depleted mana, and thus the ending of magic in Niven's The Magic Goes Away, spread past applicability only to magic and touching on the very fabric of reality; on existence itself. One of the reasons that there is so much talk about this series is because King has essentially out-lived something he originally wanted to be his own personal Canterbury Tales, and because the back ground is a very impressive blend of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly mixed with a sword and sorcery/time travel/high technology/alternate reality-jumping/quest story, set in a world that has almost been worn down by entropy to the point of disintegration of reality. And the real magic of it all is that King seemingly has created this world when a 19 year old punk, with a mere wave of his typewriter at some blank paper. I cannot see how anyone reading this thing in the 70's could walk away without being totally blown away.

In the intervening years, King seems to have taken the lessons he taught in these stories to heart, because he’s done his damndest to put elements of this universe into just over 1/3 of the books he’s written. One of King's most important motifs in his entire body of work is entropy. King seems to enjoy investigating what happens when a corrupted element from a foreign universe enters a vibrant one, and then spreads its corruption to kill all that is good and all that works in the world. In many of King's other books, the world in this series is where the corrupted element comes from. In these books though, the invading force works more like a fungus than an army. King essentially wrote these stories early in his career, and then let virtually everything else he has written since come from this one place. And even though he has written and published the seventh and last book in this series, take a look at my review of Cell (published after the final Dark Tower novel) and you will see that his really not done yet. King also puts his greatest villain, Randall Flagg, into this story as well. Flagg is the author’s Imp and has major roles in this series, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Stand and many others.

The Gunslinger, being a very early book for King, is told in a singular voice that is NOT repeated in the following six novels. This novel has the same feel as other early King novels, and is told in a fairly straightforward narrative tone, with understated dialogue, long periods of lull in the plot, and overblown action at intervals. However, by the time King got around to publishing the next book in the series five years later in 1987 (The Drawing of the Three), his style had evolved quite a bit into something I believe is very self-indulgent and difficult to understand. It is for this reason primarily that I cannot stomach many of King's later novels; in my opinion they are just unreadable, dense and if truth be told, have silly and/or stupid plotting and retarded sounding characters. The Drawing of the Three does suffer from some of these problems, but The Gunslinger really does not. It is immediately approachable, and King spent so much of his time devising this world that parts of it will be immediately recognizable even to non-genre readers.

The five stories told in this book do have common threads that tie them all together, but the inner workings, themes, and plots of each are all different. Broadly The Gunslinger is the story of the last surviving knight, Roland Deschain, of a distant land, called Gilead, who is on a quest to catch up to and interrogate a magician named Marten. Marten is a very crafty villain, and leaves traps for the Gunslinger along the way. The Gunslinger knows this, and is constantly on the lookout for the next snare. In the second story we are introduced to Jake, a young man who was murdered by Marten in NYC in our reality, and who woke up in this reality, called Mid-World. Jake represents both Roland's lost childhood (he was brutally groomed to his life as a gunslinger from early years) and the wholesome child that Roland will never allow himself to have in this corrupted world. Roland comes to love Jake in both these ways, and then is asked to sacrifice him in order to catch up to Marten. He does indeed sacrifice Jake for the continuation of his quest. Roland allows some underground “slow mutants” to take, kill and eat Jake so that Roland can catch up to and palaver with Marten, who is his immediate quarry. Of course, the cost even for a little conversation requires him to pay even more than the part of his soul he gave up when he purposefully failed Jake. King reduces Roland to a shell of a man very early in the series.

In addition to being an excellent stand-alone, this book does a very fine job setting up the rest of the series, and foreshadows story elements well into the next three books, even though those books do not stand up to this one in quality. King builds well to the introduction of Roland's Ka-Tet (group bound in fate) in the next book, Eddie, a junkie, Detta/Odetta, a dual personality African-American civil rights worker from the 1950's, Jack Mort, the personification of death who brings the Ka-Tet together, and of course, Jake. At first King treats his new characters as manifestations of some modern and new kind of Id, but before long he does a very good job of breathing individual character traits into each of them, save for Mort, whose time in Mid-World is necessarily short. For those of you who, like me, loved The Stand, Flagg is also alluded to in this book, but does not make an appearance for certain until, I think, Book IV. Marten tells Roland that he must use Jake to get to Flagg, then use flag as a kind of bootstrap to other goals in his quest, ultimately in a hope of reaching the Dark Tower, which is the physical manifestation of the foundation that all the various realities are built on. It is only in the Dark Tower that the corruption that is spreading to various worlds can be cleansed, and Roland has assigned himself the task of doing this, no matter what the cost.

There are quite a few more elements in this story that will appeal to readers of multiple genres. There is palace intrigue, murder plots, political machinations, wars and revolts, falling and crumbling empires, lost loves, gunfights, highly specialized military training, deadly killers, small towns, addicts, magic and spells, ghosts, oracles, succubi, mutants, cybernetics, quests, zombies, cuckolds, whores, donkeys and much more. This really is a book that should not be missed. Unless you are going to read the remaining six books, which you probably are, then you will probably want to pick up the reworked 2003 Revised edition, which in fact goes by its slave name. It really is dark fantasy more than it is SF, but please don’t let that stop you even if you stay away from the former. It is very much worth the effort, and will continue to reward you even after many readings.

Copyright © 2007, 2008, Gregory Tidwell

The Dark, by Karen Joy Fowler, 1991, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Like one of those crazy cooking competition shows where the competitors are given unusual things like guava, habaneros, cod and chocolate and told to whip something up in thirty minutes, this story adds in the ingredients of plagues, feral children, spirit guides and altruism to deliver a tasty supernatural/biology story. The plot is practically indescribable, but I will note that it’s the story of a biologist who has some hair-raising adventures in the backwoods of California parks and Vietnam as a tunnel rat. It’s really about healing and getting over deep injuries of the soul. Themes: Plagues, Medicine, Altruism, Supernatural, Biology; Rating: 4 Stars

Buffalo, by John Kessel, 1991, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A thoroughly delightful piece; this is the author's fictional account of a chance meeting between John Kessel Sr. and H.G. Wells while the author's father was working on the George Washington Parkway in Washington DC for the CCC during the Great Depression. Wells went to D.C. and stayed at the Willard Hotel. While Wells was on the Parkway the next day (doing research on the efficacy of social programs), Kessel Sr. blew his chance to have an actual conversation with Wells, who was one of his heroes. Later that evening Kessel Sr. ran into Wells in a jazz club downtown. After working up his nerve, he tried to start a conversation with him. During it, Kessel Sr. compared Well's SF work with that of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Wells became upset and dismissed the man. They parted, both angry and full of shame over their own inadequacies. The story was set at a time after Wells had stopped writing SF and was instead writing social commentary. Kessel Sr. was a poor man who sent his CCC money back to his family instead of drinking it away like his co-workers. Both seemed so interested in trying to say something intelligent and meaningful, that when they failed, they kind of lost hope in each other. Kessel realized later that it is foolish to try to think of something profound to say in the moment; it's more important to relate and make something worthwhile on a small level than try to change the world with a simple comment. I'm not sure that Wells ever realized that in his own real life. Themes: Themes: Non SF, Family. ; Rating: 4 Stars

Solitude, by Ursula K. LeGuin, 1994, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A mother and her two children, a young boy and a young girl, moved to a planet called Eleven-Soro, which had a Hainish culture. The men and women in this culture were almost completely segregated, save for mating times. The women lived in circular villages and the men lived in hunting camps out in the wilderness. Occasionally a woman would venture out bound until she met a man. They would set up house, but eventually the woman would leave to resume village life where she would raise whatever child came of the union. At first the village shunned the mother, because she knew absolutely nothing of their ways, but they gradually accepted the daughter, Serenity, figuring that her mother was too stupid to teach her how to live properly. Serenity and her brother, Borny, were raised with Soro ways. Their mother was there to catalog the lifestyles of a people who were "once great." As the children aged they came to love the Soro way of life. Borny eventually wandered out to join the men, but Serenity was taken by her mother when the anthropological observation period ended. Serenity went to college on her mother's home planet, but eventually journeyed back to Eleven-Soro to life her life the way she wanted. I think that LeGuin was trying to mystify the Soro coming of age rituals, but I don't think that she did a very good job doing so. She did do a great job showing Serenity's eventual moment of epiphany, when she realized that she was neither of Soro nor the culture of her birth, but both were in her. Themes: Anthropology, Family, Culture, Coming of Age; Rating: 3 Stars

Mother Grasshopper, by Michael Swanwick, 1998, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: An annoyingly obtuse tale of gods and demons who lived in a world on the back of a grasshopper. The main character was kidnapped as a young man and shown how to spread plagues by walking from village to village. The boy eventually stopped doing his job after he bought a sick girl and fell in love. Definitely not my favorite. Imaginative, but overdone. Themes: Gods & Demons, Colonies, Plague; Rating: 1 Star

macs, by Terry Bisson, 1999, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: An amazing post Oklahoma City bombing story about the ways in which people deal with grief and shock. The state government has a sentencing program where criminals convicted of mass murder crimes, such as the Murrow Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City, are cloned and delivered to the families of the victims. The Constitution has been changed to reflect a need for "victim's rights," and "closure," so the families are given a clone of the culprit or culprits and told that whatever they are going to do with the guy, they have 30 days to finish. The hook is that at least one of the clones is the real criminal. Depending on what the host family that gets him does, he could be effectively pardoned. Bisson never uses McVeigh's name, but it's crystal clear that he is the model for the convict who is so delivered in Oklahoma that day. As you can imagine, McVeigh died a thousand nasty deaths, but not every family killed him. Bisson used an interview style to present the moral debate about what should be done in a situation like this.

Some people will always protest and write letters and such. But what about something that was born to be put to death? How can you protest that?

Probably the best and most interesting story in the book. Themes: Law, Revenge, Terrorism; Rating: 5 Stars

Creation, by Jeffrey Ford, 2002, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A young Catholic boy - fixated on the creation myth - went out into the forest one day and made the image of a man out of trash and debris, then spoke a spell and woke him up. The story is about the relationship the two formed before the stick-man died that winter. This is an interesting story; the author exceeds at plopping the reader into the confused mind of a young child. Themes: Children, Frankenstein; Rating: 3 Stars

Other People, by Neil Gaiman, 2001, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Very predictable story about a demon in Hell who tortured the soul of a decent but dead man in increasingly barbaric and painful ways. The pain, though, was not only a means to an end, but maybe an end in and of itself. By stripping away bits of flesh over and over again the demon forced the man to come to realize the damage that he did to other souls on Earth. When it was all done, centuries later, the victim had reconciled the cumulative total of all the little evils he had perpetrated on others while living. After the torture ended the man realized that he and the demon looked very much alike. The demon departed as a fresh soul entered from another door, and it all started over again. The story gives the feeling that Hell is just a way station on the path to someplace much better. Themes: Afterlife, Gods & Demons, Torture; Rating: 3 Stars

Two Hearts, by Peter S. Beagle, 2005, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: This was Beagle’s second Unicorn story. A village is tormented by a griffin that steals small children. The King of the land, Lir, has sent parties of warriors to kill the beast, but none of them have returned from its forest. Sooz, a young villager, is leveled when her best friend is taken by the griffin. Confused why the King will not help her village, she sets off to the place to ask him. Along the way she meets Schmendrick, the wizard, and his companion, Molly. Schmendrick tells Sooz that the King is mighty and brave, and will save her village. Molly warns Sooz that Lir is old, and that Schmendrick sees him as he was years ago, not as he is now.

The three arrive at the castle, and Sooz sees that Lir is feeble and senile, but talks him into helping her out. Lir believes that he can kill the griffin (because he is “the beloved of a unicorn”, and fights with the heart of the unicorn beating in his own breast) and in fact states that doing so is the duty of a King alone. Lir, Schmendrick, Molly and Sooz, along with Molly’s loyal dog, Malka, go to the griffin's wood. A battle ensued and the dog and Lir were bitten in half. Almathea, the unicorn, arrives too late to save either of them, but gores the griffin to death. After the battle Almathea resurrected Malka, but did not bring Lir back. Schmendrick is distraught and cannot understand why Almathea let Lir remain dead. He may have been confused, but I think it was because Almathea understood that Lir was at the end of his road, and that death was the next, best step for him. For that reason I think that this story is about dying with dignity. This is a truly beautiful tale, by a master storyteller, but lacks the poetry and passion of the novel it arose from. Themes: Monsters, Magic, Fate, Gerontology, Resurrection; Rating: 4 Stars

Journey Into The Kingdom, by M. Rickert, 2006, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: An absolute masterpiece of a ghost story. It all started with a book in an art gallery. Alex, a man who recently lost his wife and daughter, found the gallery of a beautiful, young, provincial girl named Agatha. She has written a ghost story and put it out in her gallery for anyone to read. Her story is a about a young girl – Agatha – who lost her father to a storm at sea. Shortly after her father’s death he returned to the family house and brought other ghosts with him. One was a young man who died due to misadventure while he was trying to hide his father’s body after murdering him to escape his dominion. Ezekiel, the ghost, doesn’t seem to know that he is dead. He courts Agatha, who eventually fell in love with him. When Agatha’s mother found out she forbid him to ever allow Ezekiel into their house again; she knew that he was using her to get her breath, which ghosts needed to make their inchoate bodies more concrete and substantial. Agatha did not believe her mother, so she killed herself and went in ghostly form to see Ezekiel at the bottom of the sea. Ezekiel saw here and yelled, “Now you’re of no use to me! You’re dead!”

Forlorn, Agatha fled to the big city where Alex met her. For Alex it was love at first sight. But when he read her story he became convinced that Agatha really was a ghost; he suspected that she kept her side job at Starbucks so that she could suck lingering breath from discarded customer’s cups. Agatha liked the attention and played along, but sent him mixed messages about being a ghost, and her sexual availability. She also stayed chaste, saying that she did not want to ever take the breath from a person again. Alex pushed the issue, trying many times to seduce her. She always pushed him off and denied him sex. Finally Alex had enough. I really cannot tell you anymore, as doing so will deaden a shock that the reader really must have to get this story.

If I’ve said already in this review that some other story was the “best in the book,” please feel free to disregard that. This story is hands down the best here. It’s slightly kink, with a real, heartfelt love element. It’s pure fantasy – which often fails to float my boat – with no SF content at all. Rickert’s technique is amazing; she’s deceitful, without being a liar. She sneaks up on you shocks the hell out of you with one sentence, and turns you into jelly in her hands. She shows the give and take of love in an amazingly clear way, and knows how to turn a phrase. The only problem that I had is that the first half of the story was told as if the characters were living in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, then the last half was in the twentieth, but that’s not fatal at all to the tale. I suppose its possible that Agatha's ghost just lived from one century to the next, but Rickert had nothing to say about it. Themes: Love, Ghosts, Death, Sex, Crimes; Rating: 5 Stars

The Merchant At The Alchemist's Gate, by Ted Chiang, 2007, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A fantastic time travel story told in little vignettes. One day a merchant, Fuwaad ibn Abbas, was perusing the Baghdad bazaar stall of a self-styled alchemist, looking for items for gifts for his friends. Abbas caught the eye of the proprietor, Bashaarat, who showed him the wares he had in the back rooms. Bashaarat showed Abbas a gate of stone that was time travel portal. Abbas – and several other characters – used the gate to travel forwards and backwards in time to meet themselves, or their loved ones. Chiang’s point is to show the immutability of the time stream, but in doing so he also demonstrates that even if you cannot change the past, you can come to know more about it, and possibly be happy with the bad things you have done or that have happened to you. This is not Chiang’s best (that title is still reserved, in my mind at least, for his masterpiece novella, Story of Your Life. But, as with all of his other stories, it’s a damn close call. Themes: Time Travel; Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


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