The Future of the Fantastic: Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists

Conjunctions: 39: The New Wave Fabulists
Edited by Peter Straub, Conjunctions, 400pp, $15.00

After being thoroughly blown away by Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, it was with great anticipation that I picked up Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, it's corollary across the aisles, as it were. And indeed, The New Wave Fabulists should be the more notable effort, since Feeling Very Strange pleas for SF's legitimacy from within the SF section of the bookstore itself, which strikes one as preaching to the choir, while Conjunctions places SF writers in the "Literary Fiction" category and tries to get the attention of those people not already reading it, people who might have never heard of Gene Wolfe or Neil Gaiman. This is the harder sell, and the work presented needs to be really compelling. Some of it is, but a distressing amount of it is not, is in fact not even particularly well written, especially compared to the stellar level of work presented in Feeling Very Strange.

The first story in an anthology should grab you by the lapel and set the tone for the rest of the book. The first story here, by SF writer John Crowley, is full of clumsy writing and seems to have been included because it has a confessional, true-to-life tone that represents exactly what is most typical (read: boring) in current literary fiction. Perhaps it gets more exiting as it goes, but I stopped reading it six pages in after this passage:

Harriet had her own way of dressing and looking, and it didn't fit with my received images of what I wanted to look at. ... She moved with overprecise grace, the studied manner of a dancer, though I didn't recognize that either. She was herself. She was a free spirit.

Gah.

Crowley is followed by Kelly Link, who is a writer I can't say enough good things about and her story here is experimental and weird and fun and everything that makes Link great. There are other good stories here, mostly from the names you'd expect; China Miéville, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman. James Morrow's "The Wisdom of the Skin" is a really fascinating treatment of a world in which sex is a high art form and sex artists travel around the country demonstrating their skills in public, which transforms unexpectedly into a story about identity and love. Andy Duncan's The Big Rock Candy Mountain is fun and strange. The best story in the collection is far and away Elizabeth Hand's "The Least Trumps", which may be one of the most perfect things I've ever read. It is the story of a person plagued by neuroses whose life alters magically, but so subtly that you question what exactly happened, or whether it really happened at all, begging a reread. It is beautiful, the epitome of the kind of work by someone within the SF world that can show the skeptics what they're missing.

Writing stories that beg a reread is a hallmark of Gene Wolfe, here represented by an excerpt from his recent novel The Knight (billed here as simply Knight), one of two books which together form the series The Wizard Knight. The excerpt is charming enough, but I wonder if the kind of Tolkeinist Fantasy it represents is really what you want to show people who aren't Fantasy readers. That is to say, sword-and-sorcery is what the term "Fantasy" evokes in the popular consciousness, and why most people don't think too highly of it. (Thousands of authors imitating JRR Tolkein in book after tiresome book has certainly soured the Englishman's work for this reader.) That's why it's so important to have writers like Miéville and Gaiman here whose Fantasy resembles nothing of the kind. Perhaps if Wolfe's story represented some kind of great rethink of sword-and-sorcery (even simply in the way that Michael Moorcock subverted expectations in his Elric books from the 70's) it would make more sense in this context, but it isn't and more to the point it isn't nearly Wolfe's best work. Of course, this is an anthology of new work, but I can't help but wonder if this excerpt was included not because of its quality but simply because it's by Gene Wolfe, a writer whose written some of the most remarkable and influential SF novels, and they wanted to him represented. Then again, perhaps I just need to reread the story.

Jonathan Lethem, whose story in Feeling Very Strange I enjoyed very much, here turns in a one-note piece that seems like something he hacked out in a day. Most of the other stories are pretty roundly mediocre too, and an alarming number of them are simply bad; flat writing and characters, uncompelling ideas poorly executed. It is a very uneven book, much moreso than both Feeling Very Strange or New Wave Fabulist's more direct predecessor, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales where Michael Chabon edited an issue of the literary magazine McSweeney's with an eye towards genre authors and plot-driven stories (a collection that also included work by Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman and Karen Joy Fowler as well as SF "New Wave" authors Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, and Carol Emshwiller.) In fact, if it wasn't for the Hand story I might say it's no big loss to pass over this anthology entirely, but Hand's story is worth reading and she is an author who should be looked out for.