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The Very Best Of Fantasy & Science Fiction edited by Gordon Van Gelder

01/11/2009. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Very Best Of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the USA - or Buy The Very Best Of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the UK

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pub: Tachyon. 475 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-892391-91-9.

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This anthology of 'The Very Best Of Fantasy And Science Fiction Magazine' was published to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of their first issue which came out in October 1949. The title pages show that this anthology, ably edited by Gordon van Gelder (editor of the magazine since 1996) joins an extensive set of predecessors marking earlier anniversaries of note. Given the lack of longevity of most genre fiction magazines, I guess they're entitled to celebrate their continuing success.

There are twenty-three stories in this anthology, roughly evenly split between Science Fiction and fantasy. They are printed in order of their date of first publication in F&SF. Every decade is represented here except for the 1980s, which is noticeable by its absence. I'm not sure if that tells us something about the quality of the stories published in the 80s but it seems a little strange that Van Gelder couldn't find a single good story to represent that decade.

I enjoyed almost all of the stories in this anthology. I thought three were outstanding.
'Flowers for Algernon' by Daniel Keyes won the Hugo Award for Short Fiction in 1960. When Keyes expanded it into a novel six years later, it also won the Nebula Award, becoming the first story ever to win both. It is the story of Charlie Gordon, a cleaner with learning difficulties who undergoes experimental brain surgery which turns him into a genius polymath. The operation had already been tried on Algernon, a laboratory mouse, with extraordinary results. However, when Algernon starts to regress, Charlie realises that he may not have a long time left to understand what has happened to him and record it for posterity. This is a brilliant story in both its short and long forms. Charlie's transformation from idiot to genius and back again is shown in such vivid detail, and with such emotional impact, that the final pages brought a tear to my eye.

Stephen King's seven-volume series 'The Dark Tower' was only brought to a close in 2004 but it started with a novella, 'The Gunslinger', which was published in F&SF in 1978. The story follows Roland, the gunslinger of the title, as he travels through post-apocalyptic America in search of a mysterious 'Man in Black'. Roland's journey, which ends in a violent showdown with the inhabitants of a small border town, is told through atmospheric and evocative prose that takes you right to the action.

'macs' by Terry Bisson, was published at the end of 1999 and it has an end-of-the-millennium bleakness about it, using a journalistic style of reportage to explore the aftermath of an Oklahoma-like terrorist bombing in America. After the bomber is caught and convicted, newly introduced victims' rights legislation leads to him being cloned 168 times. The family of each bombing victim are sent one of the clones, with one family getting the real but anonymous (and gagged) perpetrator. Each family is given one month to do what they will to their 'mac', and then to deliver the body back up to the State for disposal. This is a powerful exploration of how technology might be used to feed our appetite for revenge and I felt disturbed and faintly guilty when I finished reading it. I won't forget this story in a hurry. What more can you ask of short fiction?

At the other end of the spectrum, there were only two stories that I couldn't get on with.

In Shirley Jackson's 'One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts' we follow the good Samaritan, Mr Johnson, around 1950s New York for the day as he makes other people's lives a little brighter. However, in a twist worthy of Jeffrey Archer, it turns out when he gets home that Mr Johnson isn't as innocent as he seems. The problem for me, though, was that the revelation didn't have any consequences so I didn't really care.

'I See You' tells us the story of the originally-named Mr Smith, who invents an image intensifier that can focus on any location at any time in the past. It revolutionises society in both good and bad ways. Damon Knight's story is well-enough written but doesn't explore its ideas in enough depth. More importantly, I didn't really care about any of the characters and so the story had no impact upon me.

Taken as a whole, this is a high quality anthology showcasing the diversity of F&SF's stories over the past six decades. It shows that short genre fiction has always had the power to surprise and excite and it proves that this remains just as true today as it has ever been.

I'm off to the newsagents to get hold of the latest issue of F&SF magazine. I'd urge you to do the same. Then we can look forward to further anthologies from them in years to come.

Patrick Mahon

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