Science Fiction & Fantasy

  DONALD WOLLHEIM, Editor, with Arthur W. Saha – The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF. Daw #783, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1989. Cover art by Jim Burns.

   #1. DAVID BRIN “The Giving Plague.” Short story. Interzone, Spring 1988. Also reprinted in Full Spectrum 2, edited by Lou Aronica et al. (Doubleday, hardcover, 1989). First collected in Otherness (Bantam, paperback, 1994). Nominated for a Hugo (2nd place).

   I may have missed one, but I believe that David Brin has won three Hugos and one Nebula award. The complete list of his nominations and other wins fills two or three pages of my computer screen on the ISFDb website. And yet, and I’m not sure why, this is the first work of his I’ve ever read, long or short.

   I read most of the science fiction magazines in the 60 and 70s, but by the time the 80s came along, I kept buying them, but I just wasn’t reading them any more. The same was true for novels — not only Brin’s — and even more so. I don’t think I’ll ever catch up on all the novels, but by taking my “Best of” anthologies out of storage and making my way through them, my hope is that I can finally read what was considered the Best at the time.

   I found “The Giving Plague” to be a strange one. It’s filled with to the top with scientific information that since it deals primarily with viruses and the way they spread, most of the diagrams and other details went way over my head, zip zip zip. But not only does Brin know his science, he also has the ability to explain it at a high enough level that it all makes sense to the reader, or seems to.

   And enough so that when he hypotheses a new kind of virus, one that’s called ALAS for short (Acquired Lavish Altruism Syndrome) and which propagates itself through blood transfusions by making people enjoy giving, it goes down awfully easily. This is what I think you’d agree is a Brand New Idea, and the story Brin builds from here is an awfully good one, well told.

   I don’t think I’ll be reading any of Brin’s novels right away — I’m too far behind for any hope of that — but his shorter work? Yes, indeed. I was impressed by this one.


Note:   In the same way that I’ve been working my way through Lester del Rey’s 1972 Best of the Year anthology, I thought I’d do a parallel investigation of what Donald Wollheim thought were the best stories of 1989, and see what a difference 17 years make. So far one thing sticks out, a minor one and maybe only important to me, but I’m a lot less familiar with the authors, sometimes even their names.

  •   LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

       #4. ISAAC ASIMOV “The Greatest Asset.” Short story. First published in Analog SF, January 1972. First collected in Buy Jupiter and Other Stories (Doubleday, hardcover, 1972). Also reprinted in Holt Anthology of Science Fiction (Holt Rinehart & Winston, no editor stated, trade paperback, 2000).

       Part of the motto of the Earth of the future is is “The Greatest Asset Is a Balanced Ecology,” and to that end, all life on the planet, human and otherwise, is micromanaged, down to very nearly every single blade of grass, overseen by powerful computers which make every decision for the welfare of Earth with very little human input.

       When a young scientist based on the Moon comes to Earth to ask for reconsideration of a huge ecological project that the computers have rejected, it is the Secretary General of Ecology that he talks to, a real person. It is the final decision that’s made that is the point of the story.

       For a writer of the renown of Isaac Asimov, this is a very minor and didactically told story, confirmed by the fact that only one other anthology has seen fit since to include it within its pages. I happen to agree with the decision that’s made, but I wouldn’t have included the story among the year’s best for 1972.


    Previously from the del Rey anthology: GORDON EKLUND “Underbelly.”

  •   LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

       #3. GORDON EKLUND “Underbelly.” Short story. First published in Worlds of If, September-October, 1972. First collected in Retro Man: Selected Stories, Volume Two (Ramble House, trade paperback, 2016).

       Author Gordon Eklund broke into the the ranks of professional science fiction writers in a big way. From his Wikipedia page:

       “Eklund’s first published SF short story, ‘Dear Aunt Annie,’ ran in the April 1970 issue of Fantastic magazine and was nominated for a Nebula Award. Eklund won the Nebula for Best Novelette for the 1974 short story ‘If the Stars Are Gods,’ co-written with Gregory Benford. The two expanded the story into a full-length novel of the same title, published in 1977.”

       Between 1971 and 1980 he had some 16 novels published, then except for one novel in 1989, he and his writing virtually disappeared from view. I really shouldn’t speculate in print, but in cases such as this, it is often that contracts dried up and/or he decided to keep his day job.

       As for “Underbelly,” it reads like the first chapter of a much longer book. Why Gabriel Solar, living in an vaguely established post-apocalyptic village, is chosen to be the subject of a b experiment designed to enhance the physical powers of living beings conducted by two scientists with two differing approaches, working in a well-guarded compound nearby is only partially referred to.

       Even less clear is what will happen to Gabriel once he’s been given the gift of physical perfection. Can he return to his home where he’s now superior to everyone, making the rest of his life a very uncertain one?

       Which of course is the point. I’d like to read the rest of the story, though — the part that follows this one. My first reaction was that it could have been a lot more interesting than the snippet we’re given here — but then again perhaps not. Thinking about it later, I decided that just maybe what Eklund gives us in “Underbelly” is all we need, allowing us to fill out the rest of the story on our own.

       Conclusion: While not perfect by any means, this is a better story than I thought it was when I first read it.


    Previously from the del Rey anthology: ROBERT SILVERBERG “When We Went to See the End of the World.”

      LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

       #2. ROBERT SILVERBERG “When We Went to See the End of the World.” First published in Universe 2, edited by Terry Carr (Ace, paperback, 1972). First collected in Unfamiliar Territory (Scribner, hardcover, 1973). Reprinted many times. Nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, 1973.

       Picture a cocktail party taking place in 1972, or perhaps in the near future from that time, for time travel on a commercial basis exists and is just becoming affordable for the kinds of swinging couples who attend such parties as this. Marijuana, free love, and the discussion of various current disasters around the world are all part of the scene, as well as a little not-so-subtle one-upmanship are all going on.

       In the latter regard, as it turns out, everyone who’s signed up for and has taken a trip to see the apocalypse — the end of the world — has a totally different tale to tell. This is very puzzling, and it helps mitigate the sense of loss each couple feels when they discover that they weren’t the first kids on the block to have taken the trip after all.

       I can’t say that the explanation they come up with is on solid ground. What kind of scientific basis could there be for it? For the reader, though, the interesting part of the evening is how they all manage to ignore the fact that the world is already falling apart around them — with all kinds of scenarios as to which particular disaster may befall them. And for sure, that’s the point.

       What I generally find in Robert Silverberg’s stories, and this one’s no different, is that there is something hidden in each of then that’s never spoken aloud or so stated in the story itself. An undercurrent that you sense that’s not really there, but it is. Or maybe I just imagined it, but this time around I don’t think I did.

       Have I mentioned that this is a funny story, well told? If I haven’t, then I just did.


    Previously from the del Rey anthology: LARRY NIVEN “Cloak of Anarchy.”

      LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

       #1. LARRY NIVEN “Cloak of Anarchy.” First published in Analog SF, March 1972. First collected in Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven (Ballantine, paperback, 1975).

       Some time in the near future, when “modern transportation systems” have made automobiles obsolete, the question is, what should be done with all of the roads in the United States that are no longer needed?

       The answer, as far as Los Angeles and the 405 (the San Diego Freeway) is concerned, is to cover it over with dirt and grass and make a people’s park of it. Anyone can do do anything there, except for one rule: no violence is allowed. This rule is monitored and enforced by a large number of basketball-sized “copseyes” floating in the air above the park.

       What happens, though, when the monitoring system breaks down? It isn’t instantaneous, but you can imagine it yourself, and it isn’t pretty. Niven’s touch is largely light-hearted, though, up to a certain point, and the story is filled with all kinds of well-defined characters, even if most of them do not have much screen time.

       The basic theme: Anarchy isn’t stable. Or, absolute freedom is highly overrated. The story itself is chock full of ideas, bouncing all over each other and all over the place, and all of them are interesting. Example: What was it the replaced the automobile? Who is the beautiful girl with the fifteen feet of flowing cloak?


    NOTE:   Over the next few weeks, I plan to continue working my way through this Best of the Year anthology and reporting on each of the stories in it. I think the era of the early 1970s was a good one for the kind of SF I like to read. As I go forward, let’s see how true that statement is and whether or not you agree.

    ROBERT E. HOWARD “The Horror from the Mound.” Short story. Non-series. First published in Weird Tales, May 1932. Collected in Skull-Face and Others (Arkham House, hardcover, 1946) and Wolfshead (Lancer, paperback, 1968). Reprinted elsewhere many more times, including Trails in Darkness (Baen, paperback, 1996).

       A short tale — only 23 pages long in the Baen edition — but still one of the most effective vampire stories I’ve ever read. Not that anyone except a poor Mexican laborer knows ahead of time who or what lies inside the ancient burial mound on Steve Brill’s land, somewhere in the American southwest, and he makes a great point of avoiding the area whenever he trudges back to his hovel of a home after a hard day’s work.

       What Brill does — in spite of all the alarms that go off in the minds of every single reader of this tale, every single one — his curiosity completely out of control, is to start digging into the mound on his own and far into the night.

       What emerges is something he does not expect, not in today’s day and age (or 1932, to be precise, which is when the story was first published). This is the kind of story in which the suspense builds and builds, whether you’re a believer of the supernatural or not. It’s not a story to be put down easily, I can assure you.

      ALFRED COPPEL “The Last Two Alive!” Short novel. First published in Planet Stories, November 1950. Reprinted with Out of Time’s Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, as half of Armchair Fiction Double Novel #D-169, paperback, 2015.

       If you all you want is a whopping good old-fashioned space opera story without a lot of either depth or characterization, this may be the story for you. Aram Jerrold is accused and convicted of conspiring against the ruling Tetarchy of the Thirty Suns, based on the testimony of Deve Jennet, a girl Aram thought he had a future with.

       But once sent to the prison planet Atmion IV for execution, Aram is pleasantly surprised (to say the least) to find that Deve is a member of group of rebels against both the Tetarchy and Satane, the despot ruler of the Kaidor planetary system. Planning to revolt and take over the Tetarchy, the latter has developed a biological weapon that wipes out the memories of its victims and turns them into howling beasts.

       Well, sir, what can a band of only a handful of rebels do — the one Aram is now a member of? They do their best, and realistically, the outcome is all but inevitable. The story is told in picturesque fashion, however, and it doesn’t slow down for a minute, exactly how you’d expect from a tale first published in a magazine called Planet Stories.

       [WARNING: PLOT ALERT AHEAD] As it so happens, this is one of those big-scale stories in which humanity completely wipes itself out, leaving only two survivors. Aram [Jerrold] and Deve [Jennet] become the progenitors of a new human race, and over the years, their names become corrupted to … can you guess?

    ROBERT SILVERBERG “Double Dare.” Short story. Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1956. Reprinted in The Fifth Galaxy Reader (1961). Collected in The Cube Root of Uncertainty (1970), among others.

       While published before I discovered science fiction magazines at the local newsstand, which would have been a couple of years later, this is the kind of SF story I enjoyed immensely when I did, and which I don’t come across all that frequently any more.

       Which is to say a “nuts and bolts” kind of SF story, in which either a Terran scientist or a pair of engineers from Earth — as in “Double Dare” — are given a problem to be solved, and whatever their motivation, they go ahead and do it.

       In this case, the stakes are raised about as high as they can go, starting with a bet in bar about which of two races, Earth’s or the alien Domerangi, is the better at solving technological problems. To settle the question, a team of two experts from Earth are sent to the Domerangi home planet, where they are presented with three engineering or physics problems to solve, with two of the Domerangi doing the same back on Earth.

       The first two tasks are easy, but the third is a tough one: to build a perpetual motion machine. Given the right incentive — and on a personal level it is to be able to go back home again — the two from Earth … but telling more would spoil the point of the story. Suffice to say that everything works out in very fine fashion, and with a added twist to the tale as well.

       Stories such as this one are built on cheery optimism, I grant you, but they’re also a lot of fun to read.


    R. S. BELCHER – The Shotgun Arcana. Golgotha #2. Tor, hardcover, 2014; trade paperback, 2015.

       The moon was a bullet hole in the sable night, bleeding ghostlight across the wasteland of the 40-Mile Desert.

       That’s not an opening to a Western you are likely to forget, and as you might expect one you will long remember in the case of this ghastly Gothic tale of the small town of Golgotha, Nevada in 1870 where the population includes a fallen angel (Malachi Bick) and his daughter Emily, mad scientist Clay Turlough (“Soul wouldn’t need protecting if the transportation for it was designed a bit more steadily.”) who practices reanimating heads, and Maud, grand-daughter of Anne Bonny ( who disclosed to her the secret history of the world — the story of Lilith, the first human to rebel agains the tyranny of heaven…) and herself a retired pirate queen and practitioner of Lilith magic who lives with her psychic daughter Constance.

       Despite that, Golgotha is a fairly peaceful town watched over by Sheriff John Highfather and his deputies young Jim and Mutt and Mayor Harry Pratt and his lover, gunfighter Ringo, but forty years earlier Malachi Bick was part of a rescue party that found the Donners and retrieved a cursed skull that is about to release hell on Earth — literally

       Lead by the demonic fallen angel Raziel Zeal (“… the Keeper of Secrets, the vessel of divine knowledge, one of the Princes of the Second Heaven …”) an army is riding toward Golgotha, an army of lunatics, murderers, cannibals, thugee, and worse all drawn to the skull and Zeal’s ambitious plans to destroy mankind before killing God.

        “…cities will become slaughterhouses, civilizations will burn, and in time, slowly, painfully, the human race will die screaming, at its own hand.”

       The Gothic Western has never been a prolific genre. Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s Track of the Cat is likely the best known, though a few ghosts, spirits, werewolves, and the like appear in the pulps, and on screen there are films like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider hinting at demons and devils. Stephen King’s Dark Tower borrows many elements from the Western, notably in it’s central figure Roland, the Gunfighter, but outright Gothic Western horror, aside from the likes of the Wild Wild West is rare.

       Which is why this beautifully written rollicking novel is such a delight, from the imagery (The noonday sky was dark with screaming crows …) to an apocalyptic battle between good and evil fought by mortal men and fallen angels in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s a Gothic, stream-punk, splatter punk, high adventure, horror, dark fantasy, Western coming of age story.

       The sky was deepest indigo. Ribbons of dying umber, crimson and gold wavered at the jagged teeth of the horizon. The stars, bright and burning and ancient, unfurled before them from behind a gauze curtain of clouds.

       The Shotgun Arcana is a wild ride easily one of the most enjoyable extravaganzas in years, Quentin Tarantino crossed with Sergio Leone by way of Stephen King.

    Bibliographic Notes:   The Shotgun Arcana was preceded by The Six-Gun Tarot (2013) and followed by The Queen of Swords (2017)

    SHANNON CONNOR WINWARD “Witch’s Hour.” Novelet. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2017.

       Fantasy stories with pseudo-medieval settings are very common. They usually come with castles and kings and queens, secret alliances and intrigue within the castle and with heads of other kingdoms, often with sons’ and daughters’ hands in marriage, with or without their approval.

       Such is the setting of “Witch’s Hour,” save for the primary protagonist, Esmelda, who heads the kitchen in Castle Lochhunte. She’s the head cook, in other words, and a good one, perhaps the best there is for miles around.

       But she has a problem. The ghost of the former cook, the man who she replaced, the man whose life she took when his groping hands became more than just a minor nuisance, is haunting her. That the king also has his eye on her, and not only for her finesse in the kitchen, is less of a problem — one in fact that she welcomes.

       But fantasy stories with pseudo-medieval settings need not always have happy endings, and this [PLOT ALERT!] is … You’ll have to read this one. The author, Shannon Connor Winward, is also an award-winning poet, and it shows.

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