If there is a Sylvia Beach of the science fiction world, it must be Ellen Datlow, who earns her salary as fiction editor of Omni Magazine, but whose influence as teacher, conference lecturer, and cheerleader for both famous and underappreciated writers spreads far beyond the confines of the magazine.
Already the editor of several distinguished collections, among them Blood is not Enough (vampire stories) and Alien Sex ('nuff said), Ms. Datlow's latest collection, Omni Best Science Fiction One, features five previously published and six unpublished stories by acknowledged masters, such as Robert Silverberg, and exceedingly talented newcomers, such as Tom (Halo) Maddox. Part of the pleasure of this collection comes from the knowledge that it is the first in what promises to be an exciting new series.
As Datlow comments in the introduction, what characterizes Eighties science fiction is a diminishing focus on "off-world" stories, and a greater concern with earth-born problems, particularly the ethical use of technology. Accordingly, this collection features stories about the implications of pollution, germ warfare, global warming, and an amok biotechnology industry.
One of the best stories in the collection, Richard Kadrey's "Horse Latitudes," is set in a California of the future, when the Brazilian rain forest has been destroyed. Scientists, eager to reforest the area using biotechnology, have inadvertently released a strain of what can only be described as futuristic kudzu on the planet, which quickly reduces much of the Northern Hemisphere to an uninhabitable jungle. Kadrey, creating a world that is part Blade Runner, part Songlines, shows the evolution of new tribes:
"Some ¼ were evolving quickly in the new environment, embracing the icons of the new world that had been forced on them. Many of the men still wore lip plugs, but their traditional skin stains had been replaced with metal-flake auto body paint and dime store make up. The women and children wore necklaces of auto glass, strips of mylar, and iridescent watch faces."
Other stories exhibit a more poignant tone, such as Paul Park's "The Lost Sepulcher of Huascar Capac," a Borgesian drama with echoes of the Medieval memory palaces we have learned about from Frances Yates. In Bruce McAlilister's "Sister Moon," the reader learns about a futuristic Franciscan assassination squad, with cowl-clad monks roaming the globe on Rome's orders, killing those who would mistreat animals.
Suzy McKee Charnas' "Listening to Brahms" moves easily from humor to a touching view of the universal power of music, as interstellar lizards seek solace in carrying on human culture after we have destroyed it through warfare.
Like good mainstream fiction, these stories don't dramatize ideas, but place you inside the action, allowing you to witness the imagined consequences of our current thoughtless environmental follies as something experienced, not thought.
If there is one complaint, it lies with the publisher, Omni Books, who could have spent more time eliminating the misspelled words, missed punctuation marks, and the distracting left justification of the text.
For those who haven't been following Omni's fiction, this volume offers a chance to catch up on some of America's best science fiction writers. Under Datlow's sure hand, we can look forward to a promising series of volumes.