19 December 2007

Clever, but not compelling --- with two exceptions

The Best of
Bryan Cholfin
Tor Books, 2000

Many of the positive reviews of this book make much of the fact that these are stories for "intelligent" readers of SF. I will agree with these reviewers to this extent: most of the stories in this volume are definitely clever.

Alas, with two major exceptions, cleverness is all these stories have going for them. The stories collected herein are uncompelling, bloodless, and altogether forgettable. Many "intellectual" elements, such as inventive wordplay and metafictional tropes, would be much more effective and worthwhile had they not been used in such sub-par stories.

The two major exceptions to this come from veteran writers Ursula LeGuin and Michael Bishop. LeGuin's brilliant "The Matter of Seggri" tells the story of the encounter between a galactical civilization and a backwater planet called Seggri, a world in which the two sexes live in segregation and where the lives of men are highly circumscribed. Told in the form of official reports, indigenous short fiction, and memoirs, the story explores themes of gender prejudice, the ecological basis and social function of gender roles, and the difficulties posed by change in the face of first contact.

Bishops's "I, Iscariot" is equally ingenius. A virtual trial is being held for the greatest traitor of all time, a man whose name is synonymous with betrayal, Judas Iscariot. Bishop deftly cross-examines the biblical record with surprising results. This story is particularly noteworthy because it echoes the ancient subversive ideas recently uncovered by National Geographic researchers in the so-called "Gospel of Judas." Should be required reading for any course on the New Testament.

Beyond those two luminaries, though, lies very little of note. Check it out if you must, but don't waste your money.

(This review was originally written on July 25, 2006.)

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