In one of its prior incarnations, Amazing Stories® had a sister publication, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. That publication has been gone for quite some time now, but last year Warren Lapine edited a (mostly) original anthology of the same title for Wilder Publications.
This is a nonthemed anthology, something I think the genre needs more of. The selection is quite varied, which I consider to be the sign of a good general anthology. As such, I don’t expect all the stories to be to my taste. Not all of them were, but I’ll discuss that in the following paragraphs. Enough of the stories were to my taste that I hope this will become an ongoing anthology series.
Here’s what you’ll find. First there’s an introduction by Lapine describing what led him to publish the book. Then we get to the fiction. “Interface Pattern” by Kelly McCullough is a cyberpunk tale about an investigator trying to track down a killer who is able to alter the victim’s perception of reality. The first reprint is by Harlan Ellison®, his Nebula Award winning “How Interesting: A Tiny Man”. This is followed by Douglas Cohen’s riff on Lewis Carroll, “Steaming into Wonderland”.
Trent Zelazny has one of the most moving stories in the anthology, “The Digital Eidolon That Fits in Your Pocket.” In this one a man is confronted with the possibility that his dead wife still lives on in a small electronic device. “Riding the Bus” by Tom Piccirilli tells the story of a man who takes a bus ride into Rod Serling territory is Serling were channeling Stephen King. The always entertaining Mike Resnick provides a fantasy about a monster named “Sluggo” who is too scary for even the carnival freak show but still manages to find love.
Barry B. Longyear’s “The Swap” lets the reader know what happens when you trade jobs with a ghost. “Starwisps” is one of those stories that could be science fiction or fantasy. We aren’t given enough detail to tell. It’s about a world where the inhabitants live on mesas above the jungle, with the descendents of criminals banished to a nearby mesa. The people are visited at regular intervals by the starwisps, which bestow what seem to be supernatural gifts. This visitation brings some very unusual gifts.
“Custody” by Jay O’Connell is probably the darkest selection in the book and concerns a custody battle between a woman and a vampire over their daughter. No sparkly undead here. In Shariann Lewitt’s “Haircut” we learn that sometimes it’s the little things we have to give up to achieve our dreams that tell us maybe our dreams aren’t really the things we most want after all.
“A Cry for Hire” by Carole McDonnell is one of the longest stories in the book. I’ll have more to say about it in a moment. Mary Turzillo’s “And What Were Roses?” is a dark love story about a young woman and the result of a failed genetic experiment, a man who was designed to live in the ocean but is forced to live on land. Amy Sunderberg provides a counterpoint to the Zelazny story with “The Box in my Pocket”, in which a young girl traps the spirit of her dying mother in a small box, much to her regret. The final story in the anthology is another reprint, “Skyblaze” by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, set in their popular Liaden Universe.
It’s this latter story I want to contrast with the McDonnell story. These two were the longest entries in the book, and I had very different reactions to them.
First the McDonnell, “A Cry for Hire”. This one concerns the reclusive black wife of a white minister in a small town. Her husband has had an affair with one of the parishioners, who is now dying of cancer. Of course, he has to go minister to the dying woman quite often. He’s also sunk their savings into buying an old roadhouse, creditors are calling, and Novella (the wife) is trying to renovate it by herself. In the process she discovers that the house contains a number of portals to other worlds. The first world she visits contains a city of skyscrapers in which the residents move up and down by a series of pulleys and carts. She befriends a young boy, who she meets when he notices her sticking her head out of the window. His name is a variation of her husband’s.
This sounds like an intriguing setup, and in the hands of an established genre writer, it could be quite fascinating. Unfortunately, this reads more like literary fiction, and poor literary fiction at that. The emphasis is on the inner life of Novella, which wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t wallow in self-pity over her husband’s affair but refuse to confront him with it, although he knows she’s aware of it. And her husband is a total ass. I wouldn’t want to spend time with any of these people, socially or otherwise, and that includes the boy. Novella eventually explores the house and the worlds they lead to in an attempt to rescue him. Predictably her husband follows, and they reconcile. All’s well that ends well.
Some of the stories in this book were less to my taste than others, but this is the only one I actively disliked. If I had been reading Fantastic Stories of the Imagination for pleasure rather than for review, I doubt I would have read to the halfway point.
Fortunately, “Skyblaze” more than made up for it. This one tells the story of Vertu, who is the head of a small clan that operates a taxi service. One day she picks up a couple of travelers who turn out to be mercenaries. Mercenaries on a mission.
This one didn’t go in the directions I was expecting. And it didn’t flinch from the hard realities that resulted from Vertu’s decision to accept the commission the mercenaries offer her to be their main method of transportation while they’re on planet and the choices she makes afterwards. Rather, the authors give us a detailed look at a woman who makes the best decisions she can for her clan and herself and then accepts the consequences stoically, trying to make the best of a situation that goes from bad to worse. Never does she wallow in self-pity. Rather she works with what she has, and when the chips are down she does what she believes to be the right thing, even if the consequences aren’t pleasant.
I’ve only read one other story set in this universe, and that was a few years ago. I enjoyed it, but for some reason I never read any others. After reading “Skyblaze” I’m going to be looking for more of Lee and Miller’s work. It was top notch.
Other stories I particularly enjoyed were the ones by Zelazny, Piccirilli, Resnick, O’Connell, Lewitt, and Turzillo. In spite of my dislike of the McCullough piece, I quite enjoyed Fantastic Stories of the Imagination and hope there will be a follow-up volume. I’d like to thank Warren Lapine for the review copy.
Finally, a note on the electronic edition. Here we have another example of the small press making a high quality electronic product. The formatting was flawless, as was the copy-editing. The cover art was bright and eye-catching. There was an interactive table of contents, and all the links on it worked. A top-notch job.