Elizabeth R. Wollheim &
Sheila E. Gilbert, editors,
30th Anniversary DAW: Science Fiction
(DAW, 2002)

Thirty years ago, Donald A. Wollheim left his place as an editor at Ace books to start a line devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Since then, DAW and its list of authors have read like a guide to science fiction. DAW books has since passed to the hands of Don's daughter Elizabeth, and selection of stories for the 30th anniversary collection shows how successful DAW has been in its purpose of discovering and promoting the best science fiction.

The anthology unfortunately starts off with more of a whine than a bang or whimper, with Brian Stableford's "The Home Front" focusing on the plight of a stockbroker swept up in a speculative market. The narrator's claim that he really couldn't get out much with an electric wheelchair and legs amputated above the knee is silly, but no more than the idea that a man who failed to get rich riding the speculation market was somehow on the front lines of a war. Things get much more satisfying and strange with Brian Aldiss' "Aboard the Beatitude" as the captain of a ship chasing the Enemy is suddenly confronted with an attack of conscience for having destroyed a planetwide civilization for fuel. The reason for humanity's passionate hatred of the Enemy is surprising, and takes this story straight into the absurd, but not the dull.

Rob Goulart offers a still absurd but more grounded story with "Odd Job #213" as a couple of gumshoes take on the case of a missing scientist at the request of the robot cat she created. Fumblehandedly, the old-school gumshoe manages to wind up in a corporate plot to rule the world, no less. Smart, mouthy supporting characters add color to the adventures of the would-be Sam Spade and his far brighter and more attractive partner. Besides a robot cat, an evil plot and an amusingly dim detective, "Odd Job #213" offers the malfunction of a flock of Ethel Mermans. Really, it's hard to want more from a story.

A talking cat helps solve a crime in Cheryl J. Franklin's "Words," too. But this cat may signal The End Of Life As We Know It. The premise of "Words" is too goofy to smile, but the ending left me with a severe case of the creeps.

"Words" is only a bit unnerving, but some of the future dreams in DAW's 30th Anniversary seem designed to keep you up all night with the lights on and a club in hand. "The Black Wall of Jerusalem" is all that separates Earth from not one, but uncounted hostile dimensions where magic works and the gods hunger for new worlds. Back on Earth, the ultimate punishment has moved from one death to as many need be imagined, as "The Heavens Fall" on an innocent man. And online, in a space created by humans, Tad Williams foresees a new god arising in "Not With Whimper, Either" -- a god who is determined to look after its human creators, whether we want it or not. Technophobes should not read this one late at night.

"The Sandman, The Tinman, and the Betty B." also has the action online, but humans are the plain heroes here. Working mostly through the new medium of chatroom messages, C.J. Cherryh uses the terse, schizophrenic narrative of a chatroom discussion to create a mystery, a community and the tension of a disaster with a minimum of outside narration. It's a wonderful way of having dialogue in an isolated situation that would normally force the protagonist to talk to themselves.

Communication technology offers the children of C.S. Friedman's "Downtime" a chance to give their parents the greatest gift possible. The government makes that gift a legal obligation. As parents age and grow physically invalid, their adult children are required to return some of the best years of their lives. It's a simple procedure, involving little more for the givers than to lie down, close their eyes and let their parents enter their bodies for a day. Yet this obligation alienates a woman from both her mother and daughter, for reasons even she can't quantify.

No social obligations mar the technopleasures of the wealthy in Kate Elliott's "Sunseeker." The children of the wealthy are perfect in appearance, alien to hardship and insufferable as company, except for the daughter of the world's most famous, most handsome actor. She has chosen to keep her deformity, a facial birthmark, convinced that she can win her perfect father's love through deeds and declare her own independence with her looks. But a brush with some extremely relaxed terrorists throws her world into chaos, and forces her to change her opinion of everyone she cares about, especially herself.

Telling a story from a true alien's perspective is one of the most troublesome endeavors in science fiction, but done well, also one of the most mind-opening. Neal Barrett Jr. presents a world as viewed by "grubber." Or perhaps a grubber. The creature never fully describes itself, but tells its story in impressions of colors, feelings and sensations that mark it as alien as any green little man to ever fly a hubcap. The grubbers, the S'ai, serve the warrior Sacar in their service to the S'ai loved Pattern. The S'ai seem almost mechanical, motivated by nothing common to humans; not family or immediate physical need or species loyalty, only service to the Pattern. They are taking over a world -- perhaps Earth -- but with no consideration or hatred from the natives, only a vague pity for those that cannot sense the Pattern.

The shapeshifting creatures of Julie E. Czerneda's "Prism" are more immediately sympathetic. The narrator is an adolescent trying to be perceived as an adult, an experience most humans can understand. But the underage heroine is several centuries old, and has shared in all the memories of her tribe through a digestive osmosis -- she thinks.

Not all the tales in 30th Anniversary stand entirely on their own. "Read Only Memory," from eluki bes shahar's Hellflower series, failed to really enthrall this new reader, but will probably be more entertaining to fans. As a teaser to the Hellflower series, it succeeds. Near apocalypse is common in science fiction, but not one caused by Libraries, and I want to read the previous stories just to se the background. Lisanne Norman's "Passage to Shola" is more accessible to a new reader; if the introductory notes hadn't told me it was part of a series, I wouldn't have guessed. The background is explained through the plot, and the expository remarks from character to character feel like the natural conversation of alien species having to educate each other instead of information for our benefit.

"Agamemnon's Run" has humanity enslaved to their own myths at the hands of never-seen aliens, seemingly for nothing more than a giant research project. One man tries to fight his grisly fate, but the power of the myth is strong. The battle between fate and free will as something artificial journeys through an artificial Greek Hell, post-Trojan Greece, and the run down edges of the normal world. Fredercick Pohl lets humans be the zookeepers, watching over "A Home for the Old Ones." The prehuman Old Ones were kidnapped and kept in evolutionary stasis by aliens, and after their recent rediscovery and reintroduction to Earth has been welcoming. Their zookeepers consider the Old Ones smelly, stupid and near animal, but are fond of them as they would be of pets. One man has known them better, and his quiet scheming for their sake, taking place in view of the zookeeper who tells his story, creates an interesting divided loyalty for the reader. Of course, the aliens aren't always the primitives. The hostile aliens in "The Big Picture" are hopelessly beyond humanity's reach, dispensers of a fog that renders any technology above a slingshot useless. All the human forces can do is watch and wait for a sign, some information that might let them break in. One man risks it all to find that information, but the sheer power of habit may lose the war for Earth after all.

Science finally seems to be catching up to the old science fiction dreams. Cloning is moving ahead despite everyone's concerns, the Internet is becoming as ubiquitous as the phone, and though jet packs aren't common devices, they do exist. Some foolish people think this means there's no more science fiction to be made, as though authors who imagined the future once can't do it again. But the authors who created those visions keep having new ones, more people are looking to the future of science than ever, and publishers like DAW still give them a place to share their dreams. We're not about to run out of science fiction. I look forward to the 60th anniversary collection!

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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