Scott McLemee reviews 'The Best of Crank!' by Bryan Cholfin.
| At the end of the millennium, prosperous urban hipsters have discovered the retro-futurist look. (So the papers report; I don’t know anyone that cool.) Their apartments are decorated ` la the Jetsons — except, of course, for the robot maid, though inexpensive flesh-based units are still on the market. There is something quaint and charming about reviving old-fashioned visions of the push-button future. And as Bryan Cholfin writes in the introduction to “The Best of Crank!” that cozy spirit also prevails in science fiction writing nowadays. “Much of the new SF, in particular the short story markets, looks backwards into the literary past,” he complains. “The writers and editors increasingly turn to the ‘Golden Age’ of SF (generally meaning the ’40s and ’50s), viewed through the filters of nostalgia, for the models to emulate.”
The stories in Cholfin’s zine Crank! defy this trend. The editor waxes manifestolike about “the creative hybridization process already under way” between science fiction and the rest of imaginative writing. In a way, this is fighting an old battle. In the ’60s, the New Wave writers made similar complaints and commitments — and wanted SF to stand for “speculative fiction” (which pissed off a lot of people). Many stories from Crank! could have appeared decades ago in Harlan Ellison’s “Dangerous Visions” anthologies. A high compliment indeed; but that such work is still marginal suggests how conservative things have gotten.
Two pieces here are set in historical realities just alternative enough to cast an odd light on the one we live in. “Receding Horizon” by Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz has Franz Kafka escaping to America, where he gets a job writing screenplays for Frank Capra. Somewhat less subtle is Rob McCleary’s “Nixon in Space,” which recalls the ex-president’s pathetic efforts to go to the moon: “Nixon left, embittered, and ended up selling his garbage to souvenir hunters to pay the bills. The real reason NASA didn’t want him was that they were afraid his known tendency to sweat like a pig would short circuit the electrical system in the space capsule.”
A number of stories are fractured fairy tales — with kings and wizards and spirits often pulling double duty as elements in feminist allegory. Lisa Tuttle’s “Food Man” is a memorably nauseating treatment of eating disorders and sex. And Gwyneth Jones’ “The Thief, the Princess, and the Cartesian Circle” is about dysfunctional families and the pleasures of self-mutilation. Other work drifts off into the theological and/or the surreal.
About half the work here is simply OK — no better, if also no worse, than some story where Professor Frink explains his Oscillating Gizmotron. But the best of “The Best of Crank!” is excellent. No one who knows SF will be surprised that Ursula K. LeGuin’s contribution is a gem. “The Matter of Seggri” is set on a world where some ancient trick of genetic engineering rendered human males a rarity. The culture has evolved so that “the men have all the privileges and the women have all the power.” This sounds like the prelude to a terribly obvious satire. But LeGuin works out the social structure and the emotional nuances with a fine touch — including a piece of Seggrian romantic fiction (a form considered mildly dangerous by conservative women).
And “I, Iscariot” by Michael Bishop is a tour de force. An electronically simulated trial of Judas leads to a subtle probing of the biases of the Gospel writers. Meanwhile, in online chat rooms, the public quarrels over evidence and defense strategy, just like with O.J. The story is bound to seem like heresy to any Christian fundamentalist — or science-fiction traditionalist — and a dangerous vision of what SF can be.
Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon. More Scott McLemee.
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