Have you read this book?
In recent years the original anthology market seems to have settled on one major, general subject, original SF anthology per year. Thus a few years ago the Bantam anthology Full Spectrum and the Silverberg/Haber revival of Universe published fine collections, in alternate years. But both those series seem defunct (though there are rumors that Avon will publish an anthology similar in spirit to Full Spectrum), and the baton has passed, so to speak, to Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s Starlight series for Tor, with, one hopes, David Garnett’s New Worlds for White Wolf, or the Avon anthology, serving as the alternate year player. (Contrast the years in the ’70s when three major anthology series published issues annually (Orbit, New Dimensions, and Universe, with Orbit occasionally publishing more than one number per year), and when lesser known players such as Roy Torgeson’s Chrysalis popped up on occasion.)
Starlight 1, published in 1996 was an excellent selection, highlighted for me by John M. Ford’s “Erase, Record, Play”. The second in this new series was published in 1999, and it’s another fine book.
To begin at the top, the knockout story is the last and longest, Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life”. Chiang’s career in SF is quite odd: he has published just three previous stories, in the early ’90s, and won a good deal of notice, a Nebula Award (for “Tower of Babylon”) and a John W. Campbell Award (for Best New Writer). He’s been quiet for several years now, but this is a rousing return. This is the clear front runner for my top Hugo vote. It’s an amazing story, about a linguist who is part of the contact team with aliens visiting Earth. She learns their language, and in Sapir-Whorfian fashion, sort of, she finds her perception of time altered by the alien perception of time. This is interwoven with her reminiscences of segments of the life of her daughter, who died in early adulthood. Chiang combines wonderful linguistic speculation with a real portrayal of truly alien aliens (alien for good reason!) with nice scientific underpinnings, with the affecting and effective story of the linguist and her daughter, and makes it all work as a thematically unified whole. It accomplishes the rare feat of combining an interesting bit of SFnal speculation, worth a story on its own merits, with a moving human story, and using the SF ideas to really drive home the human themes. While at the same time maintaining interest as pure SF. I’m fond of saying that there are two types of SF: stories about the science, and stories which use the science to be about people. This is both types in one.
The other longish stories (novelets, by my word count) are all quite interesting. I think I liked Susannah Clarke’s “Mrs. Mabb” the best. The only other thing I’ve seen by Clarke is “The Ladies of Grace Adieu”, from Starlight 1, which is a nice story. This is maybe a bit better. It’s set in Regency or just post-Regency England, and it’s about a young woman saving her fiance from the clutches of Mrs. Mabb. The fantasy element is in who (and what) Mrs. Mabb is, which is easy enough to guess from her name. The story is told with a light touch, some nice humor, and a quite involving main character.
Another novelet is a translation, in a boom year for prominently published translations into English of SF. “The End of a Dynasty” is a (completely free-standing) selection from a novel by Angelica Gorodischer. (The translation from the Spanish is by Ursula K. Le Guin.) It’s the story of a young Prince of a Fantasy Empire and his scheming mother. The setting is on the face of it familiar Fantasy territory, and the plot is fairly predictable as well, but nonetheless Gorodischer makes this new and individual, with details like the ceremonial spitting on the old Emperor’s statue, and like the Prince’s relationship with two mysterious gardeners; as well as with the nicely controlled voice of the storyteller telling this tale.
The third novelet didn’t fully work for me, but it was still interesting and different: this was “Divided by Infinity” by Robert Charles Wilson (useless tidbit of info: one of Ted Chiang’s earlier stories is “Division by Zero”). “Divided by Infinity” is sort of a reworking of the idea behind Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways”: a consideration of the question “How would we react to knowing that the many worlds theory is true, and that for every decision we make, our counterparts in other universes make another decision?” Wilson approaches this idea slowly, with a sixtyish man contemplating suicide after the death of his wife, then encountering mysterious alternate SF books in a used book store, then facing the threat of an asteroid collision with Earth. All this works very nicely, but the finish to the story seemed to go too far afield, and distracted me from the more interesting questions first raised.
My favorite among the shorter works was “Access Fantasy”, a paragraph by Jonathan Lethem. Okay, it’s a 6000 word paragraph, and at first I was in the mood to be annoyed by what seemed to by auctorial grandstanding. But on reflection the trick works, giving the story a certain momentum. It begins in a seemingly hackneyed mode, with the main character living in his car in the midst of a permanent traffic jam, but the interest isn’t in the “car society”, but in the structure of this future, which has the more fortunate people living in Apartments behind a “One Way Permeable barrier”. One temporary way out is to become an Advertisement, and the main character, obsessed with a murder he thinks he has witnessed on a bootleg videotape of Apartment life, finagles his way across the barrier. And the story proceeds in a nicely unpredictable way from there.
Another strong short story is “The House of Expectations” by Martha Soukup. This is a look at male/female relationships, via a man’s experience with a new kind of brothel. The man’s character, and needs, were presented quite convincingly and interestingly, though I felt the end was a bit forced and implausible. There to make the story’s point, not arising naturally from the character and situations.
Also considering gender relationships, and expectations, is “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation”, by Raphael Carter. SF has a long tradition of “pure idea” stories: in which the author riffs on a fascinating extrapolation of current science. Sometimes the author dresses these ideas up with a rudimentary plot: here Carter chooses, wisely, to present an abstracted scientific paper. The idea here is that the ability to distinguish gender is genetic: and that some people cannot tell at all if someone is a man or a woman: what makes this interesting, of course, is the ramifications of the idea, how this makes us think about our usual notions of “Gender Ideation”. It doesn’t matter if the core idea is true, it matters that thinking about it is worthwhile.
One of the most interesting stories is “The Amount to Carry”, by Carter Scholz. Scholz makes use of the fact that Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Ives all worked in the insurance business to place them together at a conference in 1922 or so. It’s not really alternate history, so much as an excuse for a meditation on art and society in this terrible century. The story is not easy to “get”, and I’m not sure I have, but I had fun reading it through twice, picking up the many references to Stevens’ work (with which I am quite familiar, as he is my favorite poet) and also some references to Kafka’s stories. (I’m not very familiar with Ives, and to be sure as a composer his work is a little harder for a writer to directly quote.) In the end Scholz seems to suggest that insurance is no bulwark against the horrors of modern civilization, nor is Stevens’ art about art (“reality is an act of the most august imagination”), nor is Ives’ utopianism. Perhaps only Kafka’s despairing realization of the meaningless of our efforts is appropriate. Or I may be full of it. It’s a nice story, but I confess I suspect it exists partly simply as a bemused response to the coincidence of occupations of these three great artists.
The other stories are well-done, but not up to the standards of the aforementioned. It’s nice to see Ellen Kushner’s “The Death of a Duke”, an atmospheric story set in her Swordspoint universe. I’m not sure, however, that this story would work as well for someone who hadn’t read the novel: for me, it read as an envoy to Swordspoint, and knowing who the main character is, and what he did in Swordspoint, was very important. David Langford’s “A Game of Consequences” was oddly reminiscent of Greg Egan’s novel Distress, as two researchers simulate a model of the “spaces below space”, or the “quantum substrate”. But at that level the observer and the observed begin to meld…. The point is neatly illustrated with telling episodes from the childhood of the main character. “Brown Dust” by Esther Friesner is a fierce look at one of Rio de Janeiro’s street children, one who has a special ability. But is this ability enough in the face of the terrible conditions he lives in? This story was marred for me by an illogical, wish-fulfillment, sort of ending.
Geoffrey Landis’ “Snow” is a brief look at a homeless woman with a secret. I could summarize this story too simply with a single sentence, which I won’t for fear of spoilers. But I didn’t feel there was quite enough there. M. Shayne Bell’s “Lock Down” deals with future time-travelers, something like Leiber’s Spiders and Snakes, or Asimov’s Eternity, trying to “lock down” a stable time stream. In this case they are following Marian Anderson in Utah in the ’40s, as she is mistreated by the hotels she stays at, and as Utah’s governor misses an opportunity to help. The time-travel stuff is incidental to the story, and, as so often with time-travel, not very logical. The rest of the story is basically a lecture, and the fact that the lecturer has his heart in the right place, and that it’s a lecture we can still do with hearing, doesn’t much improve the story as story.
I see that by discussing my favorite stories first I have perhaps closed this review on a negative note. I should emphasize that even the lesser stories here are well done, and the ration of very good stories to just good is quite high. Moreover, any anthology that includes a story like “Story of Your Life” is already a resounding success. We get stories this good perhaps only every three years or so. Highly recommended.