Monday, December 23, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLI

Wow, it's hard to read anthologies at anything other than a slow crawl.  The change from author to author and style to style is exhausting.  Slowing down is a good thing, though, if it makes time for reflection.  That seems like one good reason to create an anthology: to force readers to slow down and reflect.

With that as a preamble, let's move on to today's selections.

The Black Ferris by Ray Badbury

I didn't expect to see this Sci-Fi heavy hitter in a Fantasy collection, but there you go.  I've tried to get into Bradbury once or twice and failed.  His Martian Chronicles, in particular, resisted all my best efforts.  This short story, however, worked like a charm.  The sense of atmosphere in particular is masterfully done (a sort of Tom Sawyer strays into Edgar Allan Poe).  My only complaint is that there isn't more of it, but apparently Bradbury already fixed that by expanding the story into Something Wicked This Way Comes.

This raises a good point.  Bradbury lived long enough to reap the harvest so many Sci-Fi and Fantasy greats planted: he was able to eventually publish his books on his terms.  The rules of the market through mid-century where that Fantasy and Science Fiction were for magazines and comic books and that they were to be read by kids and teens.  The first rule began to change in the 1960s, but U.S. publishers were still unsure if works of speculative fiction could be sold to a mass adult audience.  Fantasy proved it  could draw a mass audience in 1977 with the publication and record success of Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara, but that book and its immediate successors were all aimed at pre-teens and teens.  That would mean (if my calculations are right) that mass-market Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels for an adult audience are primarily a thing of the 80s and 90s.  Except for Bradbury, all of the great Fantasists so far reviewed were dead by the 90s (again, if my calculations are correct).  Practically speaking, this means that many of these writers were forced to work under very narrow constraints that inhibited real literary flourishing.  Bradbury's long life ensured that he eventually got out from under these restrictions and made a name for himself as a writer that endures after so many others have been forgotten.

Displaced Person by Eric Frank Russell

Genius.  This is a work of ironic genius.  Maybe a little melodramatic, but pure genius.  Especially if you're a U.S. citizen, this short-short is worth spending a few minutes to read and ponder.  If this one hasn't made at least a few middle and high school literature textbooks, I'd be surprised.  Unfortunately, like so many short stories, this one relies on not knowing the plot or ending to achieve its effect, so I can't really say to much more about it.  If you've read this one or track it down, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section.

Our Fair City by Robert Heinlein

Speaking of authors I didn't expect to see in this collection, here's the Dean of Science Fiction.  This Fantasy Short has all the flair of the best Heinlein pieces but I'd never have recognized it as one of his unless it had been pointed out to me.  That's one sign of a great writer: the ability to work excellently in a variety of fields.  Speaking of variety, this is also one of the few pieces in the collection so far that isn't a horror story.  Our Fair City is a bit of urban fantasy that's actually pretty witty.  After all the heavier fair, this story comes as a welcome change.

In brief, Our Fair City takes place in the contemporary world of 1948 as a parking lot attendant, a sly journalist, and a magical whirl wind attempt to clean up a corrupt city government.  In Heinlein's capable hands, the story skirts absurdity and integrates the realistic and fantastic elements into a believable whole - a feat that minimalist urban fantasy doesn't always succeed at.  As a plus, there's none of the dirty old uncles or sexually frank "modern" women that usually people Heinlein's novels, especially his later works (guess he lived long enough to be allowed to take the kid gloves off too).   

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