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The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy

edited by Ellen Datlow

Published by Del Rey Books

Print edition available April 29, 2008

Reviewed by Nancy O. Greene
Review posted 12/9/08



The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow is a very different kind of speculative fiction anthology. As Ms. Datlow indicates in the preface, you won’t find a lot of space opera or sword and sorcery in this book.

It opens with a superb alternate history by Jason Stoddard. In “The Elephant Ironclads” two young friends, Niyol and Wallace, come across two men seeking plutonium, which is considered “the heart of the mountain” in Dinetah. In a short span of time, the boys learn that life is about tough choices, progress may also mean sacrifice, and being a hero requires more than either of them imagined. It’s a story that questions the values of contemporary society: What if our cultural myths are true? How would we view our current lifestyles if directly faced with the values of the past?

Lucy Sussex’s “Ardent Clouds” is an interesting soft science fiction story about a young woman’s self-destructive tendencies and thirst for adventure, and the repercussions of her disregard for her own safety. It comes across as a dramatic peek into the lives of volcanologists and adventurers. The characters are real, and the story ends with an expected dose of reality that seems to be a challenge to the standards of typical action/adventure stories.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is “The Lagerstatte” by Laird Barron. It’s a chilling, non-linear ghost story that starts off slowly, giving the reader some necessary background information. But there is a gradual pull as it begins to wrap the reader in a tight blanket of the main character’s darkness and suffering. Danni is a woman on the edge after losing her husband and son to a tragic accident. Her best friend encourages her to seek help, first in the form of an anti-suicide twelve-step program, then in the form of one-on-one therapy. Neither seems to help, and when one of the women in her twelve-step program introduces her to mystical forces, she unlocks a door that she can’t — or won’t — close. The writing style is dense and allows you to feel how the character is steadily suffocating beneath the weight of guilt, grief, and the invitations of death. It’s a powerful story, sure to please.

“Special Economics” by Maureen F. McHugh is an engaging tale about two young women in China trying to make a living after the bird flu wipes out a large part of the population. Corporations like New Life exploit the situation and use people essentially as slaves, putting those that work for them in debt. The main character, Jieling, is savvy and finds a loophole in the rules. This is another soft science fiction/alternate history tale that deals with the politics of the day, and it’s a very good read.

There are also many other fine stories in the anthology. Jeffrey Ford's “Daltharee” deals with the familiar subject of the Scientist-as-God and the potential consequences. “Jimmy” by Pat Cadigan is an interesting coming-of-age fantasy/science fiction tale about what it’s like for people who are different, people who know too much. It revolves around two young friends growing up during a turbulent time in the 60’s and the events that force them to grow up too fast. “Shira” is a fascinating and controversial fantasy/science fiction/alternate history story by Lavie Tidhar. “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan is a brutal, horrifying fairy tale based on Hansel and Gretel. Although well-written, it is a graphic depiction of violence and child abuse at its worst. Elizabeth Bear’s “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” is a fantasy that deals with the real-life problems and possible sacrifices of those on the outskirts of history. “North American Lake Monsters” by Nathan Ballingrud is a fantasy that deals with the fragile relationships and flaws of a cruel man trying to connect with a family he doesn’t know. In “All Washed Up While Looking for a Better World,” Carol Emshwiller creates a curious tale about a dissatisfied young woman that finds out the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the shore.

Other stories include “Aka St. Mark’s Place” by Richard Bowes, a fantasy that revolves around the lives of runaways and private investigators; Christopher Rowe’s “Gather” features a child-like man’s fascination with coins and God; Judaism, reincarnation and revenge take center stage in “The Passion of Azazel” by Barry N. Malzberg; a man is obsessed with finding the perfect bone specimen in Anna Tambour’s “Gladiolus Exposed”; and “Prisoners of the Action” by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman is a science fiction tale with a political theme.

All of the stories in the anthology are well-written, and many readers are also sure to recognize some nods to the masters of speculative fiction, like Philip K. Dick. But if you’re looking to read great, well-written escapist fiction — even if you’re looking for thought-provoking but light entertainment — this book is not for you. If you want to read a well-written anthology of deep stories that will disturb you, break your heart, wrap your mind in nightmarish visions, and introduce you to new and subtly strange worlds just around the corner, then The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy is the kind of work you’ve been looking for.









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