One of the things I've been missing from my science fiction reading, of late, has been that good ol' sensawunda. Like many who grew up on and have been steeping in what has now become known as classic SF (the old stuff that many find creaky, outdated yada yada yada) I've been wondering where my genre has gone.
I don't want the preceding to give the impression that nothing I've read over the past several years has been up to my standards (read the reviews here and you'll find that a lot of it has been). Rather, I suspect, the change has occurred in me (somewhere, sometime, perhaps so gradually that the change has not been noticed). I think perhaps that the best illustration of my condition is what happens when I go to the book store.
In years long gone by, every trip to the bookstore was a momentous occasion. No matter how much money I had with me, it was never enough. No matter how many books there were stacked up on the SF designated shelves, there were too many that I wanted. I'd not yet read everything by Asimov or Clarke, or Pohl or Brunner or Harrison. The latest novel by Heinlein wasn't out yet. I'd either already the month's mags (Amazing, Galaxy, F&SF, Weird Tales, Analog, IF), or it was new issues all around and the magazine budget was conflicting with the book budget.
New authors of note were few and far between - ballyhooed well in advance, with plenty of reliable recommendations from well-known and trusted sources.
Rare was the book purchased that didn't turn out to be worthy of its price.
These days, the money usually stays in the wallet. The names on the shelves are mostly foreign to me (as are the names of those recommending it on the back or inside flap); the cover art rarely speaks to me. The thought of starting a series that has already amassed multiple doorstop volumes is anathema and at this point I have read all of Clarke and Asimov... and every extant from Harrison and Pohl. There will never be a new Heinlein again.
Which is probably why I was so very, very pleased to crack open the pages of the ARC for With Great Power, the new super hero anthology edited by Lou Anders and due out this July.
I have, for quite some time, (tho not in any scientific or even regularized way) been trying to define what the difference is between modern SF and old school SF. In reading many of the short stories in With Great Power, I believe that I have caught a glimmer of a suggestion of what that difference may be.
I think the word that sums things up is 'earnest'. Back in the day, I think many SF authors got wicked cool ideas and then wrote them up because they were fun. The stories were sans deliberate message. Oh sure, a message may have crept in there almost accidentally, but the point of the exercise was exploration on the part of the author and entertainment value on the part of the reader.
These days, I suspect many SF authors start their day by deciding what message they're going to deliver and work backwards from there. Or they've become overly concerned with THE WRITING, as if the medium itself were more important than THE IDEA. (The current emphasis on literary skill is, I believe, mere affectation, a part of the SF end of the publishing industry trying to buy itself unneeded respect from a wider literary world.)
In fact, based solely on a single reading of With Great Power, I'm tempted to remove the sensuwunda crown from SF and place it squarely on the head of super hero fiction. The stories are just cool, if they have messages to deliver those messages are secondary to the fun and most of the writing is more than acceptable while failing (thank god) to approach any hint of literary la-de-dah.
In fact, out of fifteen entries I found only two to not be my cuppa. I won't mention which two.
The anthology begins with a powerhouse tale that immediately sucked me into the whole enterprise - Cleansed and Set in Gold by Matthew Sturgis.
I've got a fairly decent background with comic books too (natural for any SF fan, I believe) and considering that our super heroes are nearly a century old and have run the gamut from alien invaders, to atomic mutants to regular joes with too much scientific knowledge on their hands, I found it hard to imagine that there was anything new under the super hero sun.
Sturgis' tale shows us a whole new kind of (reluctant) super hero, and his is just the opening salvo!
Ander's anthology is stuffed to the gills with new takes on this theme - new reasons for being, new justifications for what it is that they do, new worlds created whole through the introduction of a new kind of caped crusader.
Notable tales (for me) were The Non-Event by Mike Carey, Vacuum Lad by Stephen Baxter, Downfall by Joseph Mallozzi and Call Her Savage by Marjoirie M. Liu, though the remainder of the stories (with the exception of the two I just couldn't get through) all come very close to being completely satisfying reads.
I realize that there's a paucity of detail here, but half of the fun is discovering just exactly what kind of twist the authors are going to put on what is, in essence, a tale that has its roots in Gilgamesh, and I don't want to spoil them fun.
Ander's offers up an introduction that reviews the history of the super hero, discusses the renaissance (brought about by movies, television and treatment of the subject by highly respected authors) and then suggests that the Golden Age of Comic is now upon us.
"There has never been a more exciting time to don spandex and a cape, and exploring this phenomenon in prose is a no-brainer that even the worst supervillian couldn't begrudge us."
After reading With Great Power, I think Lou is right!
WITH GREAT POWER
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