There's a list near the front of this book of other "Mammoth Book of..." titles. I find some of them hilarious:
Extreme Fantasy. What is that?
The Kama Sutra. Why not just buy the Kama Sutra?
On the Edge. I've less idea what this is than I have about the Extreme Fantasy...
Paranormal Romance. I want "Sub-normal Romance." The romance to be sub-normal, not the protagonists.
Women who Kill. What demographic is this marketed towards?
Moving on...first up is Sailing to Byzantium by Robert Silverberg. My experiences with Silverberg have been few and not great. I tried one of his novels in my early teens and gave up within 30 pages...twice. Last year I read a short alternative history novel in which plague had destroyed Europe as a power and South America and Asia were the dominant continents. It was really just a not overly exciting adventure, though - almost a waste of an idea. I started Sailing to Byzantium with a prejudice against it - I didn't want to like it at all.
In fact I did like it by the end, but still thought it was flawed - a ** effort. In the far future, apparently immortal citizens, of which there may be a few million at most, live a life of leisure, visiting re-creations of historical cities. There are also "visitors" from history and the protagonist, inevitably is one of these, a New Yorker from 1984. The tale is about a romance between the protagonist and a citizen and about mortality. It's main flaw is its very slow start. It feels very much like it needed to be a short story rather than a short novel. I was reminded of Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time, although Silverberg's Citizens do not have the same level of individual creative powerin their hands. There is the same sense, though, of history having stalled - nothing changes at a cultural level anymore.
One of the advantages of an anthology is that it is a low risk way of trying authors you are not familiar with because they are mixed with people you trust already - you are almost certain to like some proportion of the content. The second novella in the volume is Surfacing by Walter Jon Williams who is an author I had previously not read. I will be keeping my eyes open for him in future, however - if I can retain his eminetly forgettable name! The story is one in which communicaion with ceteceans has become possible. How many of those have there been? This one is much more credible than any previous one I've read as it suggests that the process is difficult and somewhat uncertain at best. Humpbacked whales are alien, it transpires. (Not from another planet, just different.) The characters presented are all flawed, scarred by their upbringing but utterly convincing. The theme of identifying more with one's objects of study than the rest of humanity fascinated me, the plot gripped me despite its primary twist being guessable and the end left me wanting more. More time with these characters, more time in that world, more knowledge of the Dwellers in the Deep. ****
The Hemingway Hoax - Joe Haldeman
Another writer new to me and another excellent story. I started off just being irritated by another American writer paying homage to the massively over-rated, ridiculously macho drunkard whose redeeming feature (in my eyes) is his love of cats. But this story takes the influence of Hemmingway so far and makes a story that builds up to being riveting and then just goes crazy with a denouement that boggled my mind - I think it makes sense...
In this story, Hemingway is so influential and so macho that he causes the destruction of humanity - and something more than human has a vested interest in ensuring this - in every dimension of the Omniverse where Hemingway ever lived. A thwarted would-be author and Hemingway expert in need of money, a con-man and a wife much more cynical and demanding than Lady McBeth are not going to mess things up - are they? ****
Mr. Boy - James Patrick Kelly
Apparently everybody should grow up sometime.
This look at what the super-rich might do to themselves if humanity ever completely mastered genetic manipulation is imaginative in its details but its plot is a bit weak - a thriller plot that goes almost nowhere, a family drama that doesn't seem to pack quite enough emotional punch and a revelation that doesn't shock or even surprise. Somehow the whole thing adds up to nearly zero. **
Beggars in Spain - Nancy Kress
This is one of those SF stories where one discovery is postulated and its consequences for individuals and societies are explored as the story develops. In this case, other discoveries have been made but their impact has already largely absorbed by the world. The new discovery is a genetic modification that eliminates the need for sleep. Kress writes a compelling story about convincing characters and examines a number of questions about the basis of society and the nature of social responsibility. The story ends abruptly with many plot threads still unravelled and the question of what to do about the beggars in Spain hastily and not too clearly answered and it is obvious that a novel of 2 or 3 times the length is required to handle the material properly. There are also one or two extra questions related to the fact that only at least moderately wealthy parents can afford the genetic treatment that deserve examination that are not tackled. I beleive Kress has published an expanded version and I look forward to reading it any her other works. The best discovery of the anthology so far. ****
Griffin's Egg - Mike Swanwick
This is another well-written work by an author new to me. It, like Beggars in Spain, needed more space to do justice to the material, but this time perhaps only 50% extra. The ideas presented seem to be only an extreme extrapolation of the current trend towards greater numbers of drugs intended to treat mental health problems...however, a community trapped on the moon after a "limited nuclear exchange" on Earth, it seems like human nature itself is one big mental health problem, liable to wipe-out the species. What can be done?
Outnumbering the Dead - Frederick Pohl
Here's another writer new to me, though he has been a Big Name in SF seemingly forever. And living forever (or not) is the theme of this story, as it has been of a number of others in this anthology. As in Sailing to Byzantium, the protagonist is a mortal in a world of immortals (barring accidents, murder or suicide). He's a dancer, a star, a real Lovey and approaching the end of his life far faster than he knows, despite being aware of his mortality.
This story starts somewhat irritating, with its superficially shallow characters getting ready for a comical dance version of Sophicles' Oedipus but as it slowly advances becomes a poignant story of a man who finds love, happiness and most of all contentment and peace as he recognises that time is very short for him and he joins a habitat going in search of exoplanets around Tau Ceti.
It seems to me the message is that humans need a purpose in order to be genuinely content - and immortal humans need one even more because it is too easy to postpone everything when you have forever. ***
Forgiveness Day - Ursula K. leGuin
The introduction to this story by the editor of the anthology says that it is a return to a setting LeGuin has used before - two planets colonised by South Africans. What ever that previous work is, it's not one I've read. That didn't detract in the slightest from my enjoyment of this work which shows LeGuin's usual strengths; character development, deep empathy, wonderful prose. Fierce anger at injustice and inequality are on display again in a story about the meaning of freedom and the strength it takes to overcome one's own cultural background and upbringing and see their faults clearly.
Most of the issues raised in this novel are tackled more thoroughly in the recent Annals of the Western Shore, the exception being gender equality. This work did not seem superfluous, however, as the story itself is completely different and arises so naturally out of character and context. Only on reflection does it become clear just how much skill and effort it must take to create such an apparently natural, inevitable story. I think LeGuin works out almost every last detail of her characters' lives in order to fit the tale she wants to tell and often most of this background ends up in the finished work. This can cause the imbalance between character and incident, evident in some of her fiction, that is probably her biggest weakness as a writer. In this case, however, the urge to tell the author to cut to the chase was never very strong. ****
The Cost to be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh
This starts badly with a title that surely needs to be "The Price of Wisdom". It doesn't really get much better from there. A tale of intervention by technologically advanced humans in a lost colony of of iron age humans wends slowly to a violent conclusion without being overly clear about who might be wiser at the end or at what cost.
Oceanic - Greg Egan
Here's a pro-atheist propaganda piece. It postulates that "religious experiences" have a bio-chemical explanation. The story is not as much fun as the only other patently pro-atheist novel that springs to my mind, Crow Road by Iain Banks. The aspect of the work that really caught my attention was the background context which has some significance to the story but is only ever discussed obliquely. Understanding exactly how and why humans arrived on the alien planet in Oceanic is largely surmise and inference and that mystery was much more intriguing than why drowning people there undergo a religious conversion... ***
Tendeleo's Story - Ian McDonald
I read this in a seperae volume and did not read it again here. Unusually for an SF novel, it is set in Africa. I remember it as slow to get to the point and a bit of a let down. **
New Light on the Drake Equation - Ian R. McLoed
Here's a story about SETI. It's slow, predictable and unoriginal. Read Contact by Carl Sagan instead - that's clever, thought provoking and has some surprises. *
Turquoise Days - Alastair Reynolds
Wales' very own composer of Space Opera with brains is represented by a story that is somewhat a-typical. It isn't space opera, for a start, though the brains are all present and correct. This is a story about the Jugglers and humans who research them. If you don't know what the Jugglers are, this story will probably serve reasonably well as an introduction. It's a good story but the thing I find odd is that it was originally published together with Diamond Dogs, which is of similar length and just brilliant. How did Dozois end up choose the lesser of those two? ***