REVIEW: The Big Book of Modern Fantasy by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

7 min read

by Luke Frostick

The Big Book of Modern Fantasy is excellent. That kind of goes without saying. It is edited by the formidable Jeff and Anne VanderMeer and has the almost limitless resources of Penguin Random House behind it. So yeh, it’s good and fantasy fans should probably get it.

The VanderMeers have put out other anthology in the past, including epic volumes of weird fiction, steampunk, classic fantasy and more. This book distinguish itself from classic fantasy by including fantasy written after World War II and up to 2010.

The aim of the book -if it can be said to have one- is to broaden the definition of what fantasy is, to show that fantasy is not simply a niche section of the book shop, but that it is an integral part of modern literature. It puts side by side literary heavyweights such as Vladimir Nabokov and Gabriel García Márquez along side pulp-mongers like Jack Vance, literary fantasists such as Ursula K. Le Guin, writers that have been comfortable moving between literary spaces like J. G. Ballard and others that are more tricky to pin down such as Karen Joy Fowler or Italo Calvino.

I tend to agree with China Miéville that discussions of what is fantasy and what is literature are tedious (I would add doubly so for distinctions between sub-genres). This book goes quite a long way to reinforce the notion that  fantasy is  this broad and inclusive tent. The VanderMeers’ conception of fantasy can be hack-and-slashy, meditative or surreal. It can play in the sandpit Tolkien built, be a literary device, it can be used to explore cultures, mythologies and folklore from all over the world or it can veer off on its own unique path. This book is a great patchwork quilt of fantasy in which Vladimir Nabokov, Kelly Link and George R. R. Martin can be put side by side, their virtues and flaws on display, showing how the various different traditions of fantasy feed into each other. It does as  introduction says, repatriate the fringes with the core.

The problem for a critic reviewing this book is the scale of it. You have over 800 double columned pages of material to chew through and it is quite impossible to review every single story. So I thought the best way to do so would be to choose a very brief couple of pieces from the collection that I found remarkable. I didn’t want to make a listicle of the “best stories” in the anthology. Instead, I aim to give a little indication of what is to be found within.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: Amos Tutuola

This is an extract from a work from Tutuola’s 1954 novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in which a young boy escaping from a slaver’s raid into a place he was never meant to go. In the bush, he encounters all sorts of strange and terrifying ghosts using juju magic that changes him into animals. The hero has to survive encounters with, outwit and escape from these creatures and try to make it back to his own world. Because it is told from the perspective of quite a young child, all the ghosts and creatures are described with a matter-of-factness which makes them even more horrific. Tutuola was from Nigeria and his stories draw from Yoruba folk tales, fitted into epic heroic tales of characters passing through uncanny other worlds and returning from them changed and strengthened.

Fantasy readers over the last few years have been spoiled by the large quantity of excellent fantasy that draws on African cultures, history and folklore. It was, thus, really interesting for me to read a much older African fantasy.  

The Monster: Satu Waltari

If Tutuola’s supernatural is full of danger, darkness and the macabre, Finnish writer Satu Waltari is at the complete other end of the spectrum. Her story The Monster is whimsical and dreamlike. In fact, it is possible that Viivian, our main character, is dreaming when she sneaks out of her family home, dons her suit of armour -with an Airedale terrier crest emblazoned upon it-, rides deep into a labyrinth and confronts the tragicomic dragon within.

We are in a moment of fantasy zeitgeist where the Grim Dark is ascendent. Series like Game of Thrones, The Witcher, The First Law, which are all great, and their emulators (some of which are not great) have dragged the genre into “grittier” directions. This story is a reminder that fantasy doesn’t have to be dark to be amazing. The Monster reads a bit like a Narnia story written by your horse-obsessed friend who unapologetically wears daisy chains late into her 30s and it is utterly charming as a result.

The Monster is also an excerpt taken from Satu’s novel Twilight Travelers. While I found these extracts generally valuable, they were also disappointing in some places. For example, I developed excited sweats and squealed a little bit when I saw that there was a Mikhail Bulgakov story in the index. I was, however, bitterly disappointed when I saw that it was just an extract from The Master and Margarita and not a short story previously unknown to me.

Lean Times in Lankhmar: Fritz Leiber

This pulpy story has, loincloth-wearing, muscly characters and a smart plot. The tale sees two of Leiber’s recurring characters Fafhrd (barbarian) and the Gray Mouser (rogue) caught in the on opposite side of a brewing religious war in the city of Lankaharm. The story follows the pair as they try to outmanoeuvre each other and the various cults, gods and gangsters. Leiber was a pioneer of sword and sorcery (I’ve seen it suggested that he coined the term) in the golden age of the 30s and 40s. It is impressive how much world-building, action and narrative escalation he is able to cram into a short story. Sword and Sorcery is a silly sub-genre and this story is no exception.

While I was reading the story I came to wonder if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were parodied as Bravd and Weasel in Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic. A little light googling revealed that they were.  That’s cool and there is nothing that soothes the geek heart more than being right about an obscure reference in a Pratchett novel.

TV People: Haruki Murakami,

I will take any excuse to write about Murakami. I believe my life would look quite different if I hadn’t stumbled upon his books at age 19. His work has a simplicity that I have tried to emulate in my own writing and always failed.

In TV People, an office worker is haunted by a group of small men installing Sony TVs all around him, but only he seems to be able to see them and the TVs they have so diligently set up. The character becomes more and more disturbed by their unexplainable presence in his reality as his life begins to fall apart in other more profound ways. It sticks quite closely to other Murakami themes of losing loved ones, life slipping past and being jettisoned from a comfortable place to a zone of confusion. TV People isn’t the best of his short fiction. It doesn’t have the effortless elegance of Birthday Girl and, although the story is creepy, it didn’t make me feel as fundamentally uncomfortable as Barn Burning did. However, I can see why this story fits better into a fantasy anthology than either of the above stories.

Murakami has been criticised in the past for unrealistic and underdeveloped portrayals of women in his stories and female characters existing only to drive male characters’ development. Though this is certainly not the case in all of his work, TV People can be critiqued along these lines. There are complex and sophisticated discussions to be had about women in Murakami’s work which this review doesn’t have the space to do, but I would direct you towards a recent discussion between Murakami and Kawakami as a nuanced read on these issues.

The Window: Tatyana Tolstaya

Russian fantastika has a tendency to deal with big ideas and is often both more absurdist and subversive than fantasists in Europe or America. Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Window fits firmly in that tradition. The story starts with Shulgin and his neighbour playing backgammon in a Moscow apartment some time in the early 2000s. The neighbour tells Shulgin about a window in a rundown Soviet-era building which dispenses free stuff as long as you accept it. The TVs hamburgers and electric drills it gives out might not be the best and you are not allowed to get rid of the window’s gifts, but Shulgin can find a use for them and sometimes it gives out things that are useful, desirable even. Besides, it is being given out for free, why would you say no? As Shulgin’s pile of junk collected from the window grows, he becomes more dependent on the window and even the contours of his apartment grow in ways that defy physics to accommodate more of the window’s gifts into his life. This can not end well.

The Window portrays a post-communist nightmare of The Giving Tree rolled together with a tight critique of some of the attitudes held in Russian society in the early 2000s.

I really enjoyed this book. There is still a lot that could be said about so many of the other writers included and the amazing worlds and stories they made. One of the things I’m really thankful for is that I have a big list of fantasists who I’d never heard of and look forward to tracking down their novels and short story collections. As the VanderMeers point out, there are so many other anthologies that could be written that approach genre fiction from other directions and I hope that they follow through on those other approaches and we see more amazing fantasy anthologies going forward.

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