Elizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila E. Gilbert (editors), DAW Books 30th Anniversary Science Fiction Anthology
(DAW, 2002)

As collections go, reading this 30th anniversary anthology is a lot like watching a "Twilight Zone" marathon: you get some good stories, you get some not-so-good stories. In the end, it kind of balances out.

To assemble this tome, DAW Books editors Elizabeth Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert asked all the authors DAW has published to contribute something new to the mix. The result is a solid 462 page, 19 story tribute to one of the oldest publishers of sci-fi and fantasy.

"The Home Front," by Brian Stableford (Inherit the Earth, The Dictionary of Science Fiction Places), is most definitely in the not-so-good category, and it's certainly not the best way to start this collection off. The story is plodding, confusing and bulky. I found myself wanting to skip ahead after only a page or two. The problem is, as a reviewer, I couldn't. Luckily, the reader can. The premise of the story is one that's all too frequent in sci-fi: World War III. What's different? Ummmm ... the weapons are fruits and vegetables. And victory hinges on stock prices, more or less.

"Aboard the Beatitude," by Brian W. Aldiss (Vanguard From Alpha, Dracula Unbound), isn't a whole lot better. It's a morality tale in the end, but it has a damn confusing way of getting there. A commander in charge of destroying anything in space that the human race perceives as a threat is hallucinating ... or is he? Aldiss' tale spins as weirdly as an escape pod caught in the wake of a Zenobian long-range transport (that's a bad thing, if you were wondering).

Luckily, there are a number of tales that save the reader from feeling like they've been sentenced to work in the intergalactic salt mines. "Odd Job #213" by Ron Goulart is one of them. Many writers find it hard to effectively mix humor and sci-fi or fantasy. Even the greats, such as Roger Zelazny, have had a few flops on the way. (Remember the awful Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming, from 1991? No? Well, lucky you. Zelazny co-wrote that awful tale with Robert Sheckley, who's mentioned next) Goulart (three Battlestar Galactica episodes, Groucho Marx, Private Eye), happily, has no problem performing this bit of alchemy (even mixing in a bit of the classic mystery genre), and comes up with a golden little short about a detective agency, a talking cat, and an international conspiracy of sorts. We've got all the familiar trappings of sci-fi -- gadgets and computers and such -- and all the cliches of the old private eye paperbacks -- a gorgeous dame, a shady detective and a big ego. Mix that with plenty of bungling, and you've got an odd little story that's not short on amusement value.

Robert Sheckley's "Agamemnon's Run" is another tale with a twist. Imagine being abducted by aliens. Instead of having medical experiments performed on you, though, you're about to become a lab rat in a historical experiment. Sheckley's (Babylon 5: A Call to Arms, Alien Harvest) characters become one of any number of figures from ancient Greek history and myth, and must relive that figure's life as it was written, with a few variables thrown in to see how the outcome changes.

C. J. Cherryh (Cyteen, Finity's End) delivers "The Sandman, the Tinman, and the BettyB," an excellent story about communication, camaraderie and the human spirit. The plot revolves around a group of virtual "space hermits" who do any number of jobs that keep them cut off from human contact for long periods of time. They keep in touch with each other through message boards, but spend their days and nights solo, in spaceships on freight runs, kind of like intergalactic truckers. When trouble strikes, they band together to save not only their own hides, but the lives of others light years away. Cherryh's use of text messages, as in the kind that appear on internet chatboards, is a stellar way of keeping the plot moving along at a rapid-fire pace. It's also a neat look at a fairly new form of communication, and how it doesn't change much thousands of years in the space-faring future.

Tad Williams' (the Otherland series, Child of an Ancient City) "Not with a Whimper, Either," also makes use of text-messaging. Unlike Cherryh, who mixed it with her prose, Williams uses it to tell the story. It's an interesting concept, and it works well here. Unfortunately, the plot of Williams' story falls short, especially at the end, because it's so redundant: it's the end of the world as we know it, because technology is taking over. Ho, hum.

"The Black Wall of Jerusalem" by Ian Watson (Oracle, the script for Steven Spielberg's AI) is as much fantasy as it is sci-fi. Watson makes an interesting tie-in, mixing ancient biblical passages and religious lore with the tried-and-true "aliens from another world" theme. It made for a story that had me wanting to get to the next page to find out what happens next.

"Downtime," by C. S. Friedman (The Coldfire Trilogy, The Madness Season) is downright creepy. It's also what science fiction is all about. Friedman mixes two of the original sci-fi-horror-movie themes: fear of technology and the morality tale. The result is a dread-inspiring story that takes the phrase "living vicariously through others" and sets it on its head. In a world where a person's final years can be made more enjoyable, should doctors look at the overall consequences first? Like how much a child's love is worth?

Overall, DAW manages to put together a pretty solid anthology of stories for their anniversary. While some fell short of the mark altogether, many hit the target dead center. And the rest (including the ones not mentioned in this review)? Well, every point counts toward a total score. And I'd have to say that while this collection isn't winning any gold medals, it should at least take a bronze.

[Patrick O'Donnell]