Another retro review while I work on something for another outlet.
From January 12, 2010 …
Review: DAW 30th Anniversary Science Fiction Anthology, eds. Elizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert, 2002.
Apart from the introductions by Wollheim and Gilbert covering Donald A. Wollheim’s contributions to American publishing culminating with his founding of DAW Books, there’s nothing that makes this book stand out from DAW’s many other anthologies except it doesn’t have a theme. The ratio of good to adequate to bad stories is pretty standard – not nearly high enough for a celebration of 30 years of quality publishing. That’s probably inevitable for a group of all original stories, but this anthology, which features installments in several DAW series, also doesn’t serve as much of an enticing sampler of DAW’s goods.
The two stand out stories are Tad Williams’ “Not With a Whimper, Either” and Ian Watson’s “The Black Wall of Jerusalem”. Williams’ story is told through newsgroup exchanges as various users try to figure out what is behind several disruptions of communications and utilities. It’s a worthy and ambiguous addition to a science fiction tradition of sinister machines including Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands”, Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, and, especially, Frederic Brown’s “Answer”. Watson’s story is surprisingly Lovecraftian in structure and theme. Its poet narrator is troubled by dreams he’s been having since returning from Jerusalem where he went for inspiration to write a William Blake style work of religious mysticism. There he encountered the Black Wall, a gateway that pops up in different parts of the ancient city, and goes beyond it to investigate the lethal beings of another dimension.
These stories have mentions of terrorism hinting at a possible post-Sept. 11th composition. Terrorism – and a stock market bubble – make Brian Stableford’s “The Home Front” even more likely to have been written around then. It’s one of several stories in this collection which is by a favorite author and some how disappoints. Surprisingly, this story of biowarfare – perhaps waged by nations, perhaps by terrorists – and the financial speculation in genetically engineered vegetables that promise immunities – has two uncharacteristic Stableford faults. It seems too technologically conservative for its 2129 date and its theme isn’t stated very clearly. Frederik Pohl’s “A Home for the Old Ones”, part of his Heechee series — specifically, it seems, an excerpt from The Boy Who Would Live Forever — talks about a Kenyan reservation set up for the Old Ones, descendants of australopithecenes taken off earth by the Heechee. It’s pleasant but nothing special. (Pohl seems to be in here not because he was published by DAW but because he was a long time friend of Donald Wollheim.) S. Andrew Swann’s “The Heavens Fall” is the actual reason I bought this book, and the plot, a convicted, simple – in the mental sense, serial killer sentenced to empathy sessions where he must, via virtual reality, relive his victims’ last moments – almost worked. But the skillful prose didn’t quite manage to resolve some logical inconsistencies with the premise. A further disappointment was Charles L. Harness’ “Station Ganymede”. A story of sabotage, blackmail, family conflict, and Harness’ usually well-rationalized fanciful science in the Jovian atmosphere didn’t do much for me.
Beyond disappointment into just plain bad was Ron Goulart’s “Odd Job #213”. Perhaps my tastes have changed in the 15 years since I’ve read Goulart, but I found this installment in a science fiction version of Nick and Nora Charles to be very unfunny. Just creating `70s style names for clothes and material and referring to the People’s Republic of Ohio is not, by itself, funny. While it was the low point of the anthology, a couple of stories disappointed by ultimately not going anywhere new or comprehensible. “Read Only Memory” from eluki bes shahar had an interesting story and an interesting, if somewhat standard, set up of forbidden tech and an old, defeated machine menace , but the end was definitely anti-climactic for me. It’s part of her Hellflower universe. Charles Ingrid’s “Burning Bridge” had a somewhat Oriental feel to it with a thief blackmailed into stealing an artifact, using his uncharacteristically high tech tools, from a palace. But, again, it didn’t do anything to me with its sudden conclusion which left things unresolved – especially since it doesn’t even seem part of a series.
That ho-hum feeling or stories that just didn’t quite work was a common experience with this collection. Two were odd and puzzling on first reading, but I’ve come to like them more on reflection: Brian W. Aldiss’ “Aboard the Beatitude”, a satire on “military morality” mixed with wry observations on human nature, alien contact, and far future transhumans all in a quest across space to solve the meaning of a mysterious word; and Robert Sheckley’s “Agamemnon’s Run”. The latter is not just about the Greek myths and Homer and the Trojan War and their significance – here aliens conscipt, via lottery, humans into reliving simulations of those stories – but, in a way, about all fiction and the magicians who create it. I’m not a big fan of alien life told from the viewpoint of the alien, so Neal Barrett, Jr’s “Grubber” may work even better for you. I still found it engrossing though I wish the alien race and its suspicious, yet symbiotic, relationship with other aliens would have been covered more in depth. I have yet to rectify not having read any of C. J. Cherryh’s novels, but, on the basis of her “The Sandman, the Tinman, and the Betty B”, a tale of isolated spacers saving the population of an inner solar system from the ravages of a left over weapon, I’m not in any hurry to read more in the Merchanter series of which it is a part. Part of what bothered me is that, at least in this story, the setup – tending navigation buoys in space – seemed an unconvincing analogue to past maritime history. Timothy Zahn’s “The Big Picture” uses the standard space opera set up of an interstellar war humans are losing and a desperate bid to defeat alien defense technology. It is unusual in having a sympathetic portrayal of reporter. C. S. Friedman’s “Downtime” worked on an emotional level with a sting of an ending in a plot that has a woman forced to let her infirm mother take control of her body periodically. However, I found the legal and social rationalization for this common place event less than fully convincing. “Words” from Cheryl J. Franklin is, along with Goulart’s, the second talking cat story in the anthology. Franklin almost manages to combine a serious observation about the place of pets in our lives, a sinister plan about manipulating humans, and talking animals. Almost, but I didn’t think the tone quite worked. Kate Elliott’s “Sunseeker”, part of her Jaran universe, does work emotionally in showing the relationship between the world’s most famous and beloved actor and his daughter, but I found it too long. “Passage to Shola” from Lisanne Norman is an adequate adventure story about a fierce alien warrior trying to kidnap two other aliens and a human telepath.
A story I did find successful was Julie E. Czerneda’s “Prism”. Not only am I not a big fan of alien life told from an alien point of view stories. I’m also not a big fan of coming of age stories. However, this story charmingly and believably combined both. To top it off, the alien is a shapeshifter, part of a small group that goes out into the universe to learn about sentient races and their ways by impersonating them and living among them. I actually will be checking out the related DAW books in Czerneda’s Web Shifters series.