Vol. 3 No. 4, Winter 1998/1999 (#12)

The Best of Crank!

edited by Bryan Cholfin

Tor Books ($23.95)

by Barth Anderson

Writer Norman Spinrad, in September's Asimov's Science Fiction, wondered aloud if science fiction's day is done. The answer to that might seem obvious. With a perpetual crap tide of media tie-in novels and methadone-trilogies for Tolkien junkies, readers unfamiliar with science fiction may have thought/hoped that the genre had died long ago. But thoughtful readers looking for daring flights of fiction ought to be alerted to The Best of Crank!.

Crank! magazine has been working the untilled wilds between science fiction and the mainstream since 1994. Edited by Bryan Cholfin, The Best of Crank! documents how writers are testing the genre's boundaries. Cholfin gathers quite a constellation of writers in the process: Brian Aldiss, Michael Bishop, Karen Joy Fowler, Jonathan Lethem, R. A. Lafferty, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Gene Wolfe, among others. Cholfin clearly believes science fiction is a thriving culture where the literary traditions of Calvino, Barth, and Borges are still honored and practiced, and the writers he has chosen prove his point.

The starkest example is found in Karen Fowler's "The Elizabeth Complex," which challenges nearly every aspect of traditional storytelling. By fusing three historical Elizabeths into one identity or "complex," Fowler creates a kaleidoscope of daughter/father dilemmas-a complex of complexes. Fowler's clear, angelic language is every bit as strong as her brash approach to fiction. Mainstream readers will be stunned to find this story in a science fiction collection.

Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz's "Receding Horizon" is no less brash in its undertaking. The story asks what if Franz Kafka went to work with Frank Capra as a screenwriter? Could Kafka successfully knit his alienation into 1940s Hollywood? The alternate history mutates into metafiction, with the authors entering the story as characters and discussing their increasingly Kafka-esque world.

These two stories mark the most ambitious flights from genre fiction found in The Best of Crank! but other stories soar in equally strange and beautiful skies. Michael Bishop's "I, Iscariot" allows Judas his day in court. R. A. Lafferty's "I Don't Care Who Keeps the Cows" skews anthropology with wry absurdity. And A. A. Attanasio's "The Dark One: A Mythograph" reads like a Calvino-inspired marriage of quantum physics and historical epic.

The matriarch of science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin, weighs in, too, with "The Matter of Seggri." Le Guin tracks, over millennia, the changes to gender and identity in an alien society. The Le Guin story reminds us that Crank!'s dialog with genre is one that Le Guin has engaged in since The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969.

What these stories have in common, ultimately, is a challenge to the concept of identity. Indeed, it's an old and fitting theme in science fiction, running in the same track as Lem, Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick. The timing is perfect. While the genre wrings its hands over the future, The Best of Crank! fine-tunes the apocalyptic question from "Is science fiction finished?" to "Who says we know what science fiction is, anyway?"

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Winter 1998 Table of Contents