Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
November 2006

Escape from Earth edited by Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois
Science Fiction Book Club, 2006, $14.99 (to SFBC members)

Note: Since IGMS's esteemed publisher Orson Scott Card has a story in this anthology, and reviewing something by him would be a kind of conflict of interest, for the sake of my review, I'll pretend it doesn't exist.

With the success of Harry Potter has come an influx of both new and proven authors to the young adult fantasy field, all eager to grab a slice of the pie while the gettin's good. Far fewer are writing young adult science fiction, so the editors of this fine anthology invited seven award-winning authors to contribute novellas featuring that gosh-wow sensawunda stuff that got so many of us hooked in our youths. And what better title to capture the minds and hearts of teens, who so often find themselves wishing they could escape from Earth?

I'm all in favor of an anthology like this one, and Tor's attempts to hook today's youth on short genre fiction (their excellent reprint anthologies New Magics and New Skies), because short fiction has always been the lifeblood of SF—it's always been (and continues to be) the proving ground where many writers prove their worth, and it remains the place where the most interesting and challenging ideas are explored on a regular basis.

However, in a discussion about this topic, a colleague of mine said that targeting an SF anthology at the young adult market in today's world is a bit disingenuous. After all, in the fifties and sixties, when the Heinlein juveniles were big, SF offered kids that dream of going into space, those kids might have had that dream come true, whereas in today's world, the dream of traveling to the stars is not something one can realistically aspire to.

But I don't think that's true. Manned space flight is not a fool's endeavor; today, even private citizens can go up into space. It seems likely that today's children will live to see the day when regular people (not just astronauts and super-rich people) can take a trip into space. They might not get to walk on the Moon or Mars, as Golden Age era SF promised. But still, the dream should not be left for dead; it may take us longer than originally envisioned, and we certainly have a lot of problems on this planet to take control of before we can seriously consider what's outside it a priority, but now that private companies are getting into the space game, it seems, at least to me, that market forces will give space travel research a boost. And of course anthologies like this one, stories like these, are what gets kids interested in this stuff in the first place. Who wants to bet Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines, which will now be selling trips on "spaceliners" into orbit) read some of this stuff when he was a kid? Or if not him, and if not then, then someone in his company grew up with this dream, and is still working hard to make it a reality.

But even if that dream of being able to leave this rock was never going to come true in our lifetimes, that would just make an anthology like this one even more important. And of course, then there's also the issue of everyone in the genre's quest to turn today's youth into the SF readers of tomorrow. Which is to say that the editorial agenda probably had more to do with hooking young readers on SF than on inspiring them to go into space. But while not all of the stories succeed at the latter, all of them should work well at achieving the former.

The best story here at achieving both goals (and of course the unspoken goal of being a damn fine story) is "Incarnation Day" by Walter Jon Williams. It's the story of Allison, a teenager growing up in a virtual reality environment; on the titular Incarnation Day, she (and others like her) will be decanted into actual real-live bodies. But if you thought your relationship with your parents was tough, imagine being in one in which the phrase "I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it," is a more plausible threat than it ever has been in reality. It's got everything you could ask for in a story—no matter how old you are.

Nearly just as good is Geoffrey A. Landis's "Derelict," in which a group of space station-resident teens embark upon the daredevil activity of sneaking over to the nearby abandoned "derelict" space station. In another writer's hands, this story might not have been as fun and compelling, but with Landis, you know the science is going to be rigorous, which makes it extra-cool since it's so easy to imagine something like that actually happening one day.

For me, the other highlights were "Escape From Earth" by Allen Steele, in which a group of friends stumble upon a couple of strange kids who they worry might be planning some kind of terrorist attack on the local power plant, but turn out to be benevolent, but much, much stranger; and "Where the Golden Apples Grow" by Kage Baker is set in the same milieu as her award-winning "The Empress of Mars," and in it describes the adventures of two young boys from very different cultures, both desperate to escape what they perceive to be stifling environments. But while these four stories that I've singled out worked best, all six stories (excluding the Card story, of which I will offer no opinion) were enjoyable and fun, and there's not a clunker in the bunch.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Read by the author
HarperAudio, 2006, $29.95, 6 hours, Audio CD (Unabridged)

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
Read by the author
HarperAudio, 2006, $29.95, 10.5 hours, Audio CD (Unabridged)

If summer is the beach reads season, fall must be audiobooks season—after an indeterminately long period in which I found very few audiobooks of interest, with the cooler weather has come a sudden influx of quality audio. There are others too recently released that I haven't even gotten to yet—Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith, Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and a few others—but here are two audiobooks you won't want to miss.

Neil Gaiman's work has always adapted well to pretty much any medium, and audiobooks are no exception. Gaiman himself will tell you that the best audio adaptation of his work to date is Lenny Henry's performance of Anansi Boys, but Gaiman's own reading of Stardust is just as good, if not better, than that one.

Stardust is a fairy tale for adults, about a boy named Tristran Thorn from the village of Wall, to which there is but one opening, for what lies beyond is the realm of faerie. Tristran falls in love with a lovely young lass named Victoria Forester, who is amused by, but not taken with him, and so to prove his love to her, he impetuously promises her that he'll bring her the shooting star they both witness falling from the sky one night. So off he goes into the realm of faerie, embarking upon a quest that has many interesting twists and turns, for faerie is a very strange place, and before long discovers the star, only to find something much more than what he expected.

Being a fairy tale, Stardust is written in a style inspired by the oral storytelling tradition, and so it is supremely well-suited to audio. And while many high-profile authors are given the opportunity to narrate their own audiobooks, few do it so well as Gaiman. His British accent suits the material well, and his tone is that of a father reading a story to his child. Though that might sound as if it could become tiresome, it never does, and Gaiman keeps the listener spellbound from word one.

Exclusive to this audio edition is a brief interview with Neil Gaiman, conducted after the Stardust recording sessions. In it, he offers some amusing anecdotes and insights into his own work. One highlight of the interview was Gaiman's confession that there has been a minor factual error in Stardust ever since the first printing, and he never noticed it until he was reading it again for this production (though in his defense, no one else ever pointed it out to him or caught the error either).

As if one new Neil Gaiman audiobook wasn't enough to get an audiophile excited, we have two new releases practically simultaneously. Fragile Things, Gaiman's new short story collection, debuted on audio shortly after Stardust, and to my surprise (and joy) was released unabridged. Even high profile authors don't typically have story collections released on audio unabridged; Stephen King, for instance, who loves audiobooks and won't abide abridgements, had his story collection Everything's Eventual released on audio with unabridged stories, but not all of the book's stories were included (much to my surprise and dismay).

So as delighted as I was to discover Fragile Things was unabridged, I was surprised after listening to it that I thought it might have actually worked better if it had been abridged. Gaiman is in top form for many of the stories, most notably in "A Study in Emerald" and the creepy "Other People," but in others it felt to me like he was trying hard to match his tone to the stories, but didn't quite make it work. There are several odd pieces in the collection that required Gaiman to narrate in a quirky, sometimes frantic style, and the overall effect, while seemingly appropriate to the text, made the stories at best confused and at worst irritating. Overall, Fragile Things is still a very good audiobook; for some the experimental pieces may work better than for others, and for those (like me) for whom they don't work, there's always the fast forward button.


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