Ellen Datlow, editor,
Vanishing Acts
(Tor, 2000)

Ellen Datlow is well-known to readers of science fiction and fantasy for her collaborations with Terri Windling to produce The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and the Fairy Tale anthologies including (among others) Snow White, Rose Red, Black Thorn, White Rose and Black Heart, Ivory Bones. In Vanishing Acts, she has pulled together a new anthology, the theme of which is endangered species. There are four reprinted and a dozen new stories in this volume. Among the writers appearing are Suzy McKee Charnas, Avram Davidson, Joe Haldeman, Ted Chiang, Michael Cadnum and M. Shayne Bell.

The stories chosen range from the good to the excellent. Among those that really stick out is Suzy McKee Charnas' "Listening to Brahms," which was told to the author in a dream by a lizard. No, really. In the story, the Earth has destroyed itself and all that remains is a handful of human beings who were in coldsleep aboard a space ship. They are rescued by the lizardlike Kondrai, who have been watching and enjoying Earth transmissions for decades and have finally decided to make contact, only to find that Earth is now extra crispy. The humans accompany the Kondrai back to their planet where they try to make lives for themselves, among the aliens who are trying to become as human-like as possible. The question of the story is who is more endangered here? The human survivors who cannot revive the human race, or the Kondrai who give up their ways to become more human?

Ian McDowell's "Sunflowers" is more fantasy than science fiction, a story concerning the guardianship of family lands. Kelly's family has cared for a small field for generations, but it is only when she returns to the family farm that Kelly begins to understand just how special the family land is.

"Fast Glaciers" by A.R. Morlan concerns the discovery in the rainforest of a people called the Whistlers, who were given the name because of their tube-like faces and language which consists of whistles and clicks. Although they learn some Spanish and English from missionaries trying to save them and scientists trying to study them, they cannot speak the languages themselves. When one scientist discovers that the Whistlers are actually evolving so that they can speak normally, and that they will soon be no different from normal humans, she decides that it is imperative to save them, with quite unexpected results.

The final story in the anthology is "Seventy-Two Letters," a novella by Ted Chiang. It takes place in a Victorian setting where Nomenclature, the science of true names, is as accepted as metallurgy. When it is discovered that humanity is within five generations of sterility, Robert Stratton, a master nomenclator, is recruited by a secret society attempting to save the human race from extinction. Robert, who has developed a new name that allows for more flexibility in automata, has the new task of finding a name that will allow sterile human beings to self-replicate, thus ensuring that the human race will go on. Along the way, he runs into sabotage and class politics which threaten to destroy his work. The fascinating blend of genetics and kabbalism creates a most intriguing story.

The fifteen stories and one poem which comprise Vanishing Acts were well chosen. Each sets a certain tone that carries well into the next story. A good many of the stories make the reader stop and think about endangered species -- including humanity -- which is, after all, the point.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]



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