The Best of Subterranean
Edited by William Schafer
Cover Artist: Dave McKean
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596068377
Date: 31 July 2017 List Price $45.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Subterranean Magazine, published by the indispensable Subterranean Press, ran from 2005 to 2014, and published a range stories by some of SF's leading lights, both established greats and newer authors. The best of Subterranean collects 30 stories from the run of the magazine, charting the important contributions it made to genre fiction. At a bit over 750 pages, there is a lot of fiction collected here. That is a bit of a mixed blessing in this case. The best stories in this collection are truly outstanding, some of the best that modern SF has to offer, but others run the gamut from entertaining yarns to mediocre filler. I would have preferred a volume that was a bit more selective about what constituted the best of Subterranean Magazine, but I can't deny that there is more than enough excellent fiction here to get one's money worth out of it.
Let's start with the good. "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong", winner of a world fantasy award, is a fantastic story by the inimitable K.J. Parker. It mixes revenge, academia, music, acute psychological depictions, and vicious cruelty, all told with Parker's knack for writing prose that drags you along.
Ted Chaing has yet to write a short story that is less than great, and "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" meets the incredibly high bar set by his other stories, musing in classic SF fashion about the impact of a new technology, in this case the combination of ubiquitous video with advanced search engines to give us a perfectly accurate prosthetic memory. Brilliantly, he pairs this with a story about the effects of literacy, another disruptive new technology, on a west African tribe. The story neither uncritically lauds the effects of such new technology nor does it condemn them. Instead, it reflects on the value and on the drawbacks of the idiosyncrasies of memory, and the narratives we build.
The criminally underrated William Browning Spencer contributes the thoroughly bizarre "The Indelible Dark", a story that shouldn't work but somehow not only works but succeeds magnificently. It begins with what seems like an interesting futuristic thriller, but then pivots to make this the work of the stories main character, an author of futuristic thrillers--a bait and switch that is impressively pulled off without aggravating the reader. This is a dark and confusing story, that nonetheless manages to convey the narrators despair through the surreal events and flat affect of the narrator.
"Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind" by Rachel Swirsky gives us a haunting look at the end of the human race--an old SF theme, but here given a uniquely personal and elegiac treatment. "Perfidia" is not actually an SF story at all, including no futuristic or fantastic elements, but Lewis Shiner gives a well written reflection on the costs of whitewashing our own past--while the ending hammers on the theme a touch too bluntly for my taste, it is a very well written story, exploring its theme with admirable psychological depth. And alongside these, there are also excellent stories by Caitlyn R. Kiernan, Cathrynne M. Valente, Kelly Link, Jonathan Carroll, and Karen J. Fowler.
However, not all of the stories hit this high mark for quality. A number of the stories are instead entertaining but unambitious, showing a talent for the craft of writing but none of the subtlety or originality of the best stories. "The Seventeenth Kind" by Micheal Marshall Smith is a comedic SF story that entertains but does nothing to stick in the mind. The stories by Daniel Abraham, Joe R. Lansdale, and Cherie Priest are pulp adventure tales; fun while they last but not aiming for deeper meaning. "Troublesolving" by Tim Pratt asks an interesting question, "What would it mean if a huge group of total strangers were trying to destroy your life?" But he gives the most predictable and well-worn of answers, and the plot features a number of deus ex machina and a thoroughly predictable reveal.
And some of the stories feel frankly like padding, or an attempt to shoehorn a big name author into the anthology. Alistair Reynolds, an author I usually like, waffles for far too long on a slight story about a crashed space ship, with distracting interstitial asides and ideas too small for its 25 page length. More egregiously, George R.R. Martin is represented by a script he wrote for the Twilight Zone, which reads like a good idea for a story, and makes you wish he would actually write it, rather than being forced to wade through the lifeless script version. And, John Scalzi contributes a deleted chapter from a novel. It is barely interesting as an insight into his writing process, and utterly uninteresting for its own merit.
In the end, this collection boasts a significant number of truly first rate stories. If the editor had stuck to these, there could have been an excellent 400-500 page collection. But the overall effect is weakened by the inclusion of lesser stories that fail to meet the same mark. Overall, I still heartily recommend it, since the good stories are well worth the price of admission, but it is frustrating to have to wade through the filler to find the excellent pieces.