MCSWEENEY’S, THE San Francisco–based independent press under Dave Eggers’ inspirational leadership, has now been running for thirteen years. McSweeney’s 45, entitled Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven, is essentially an SF and fantasy short-story mashup.
Eggers takes the bulk of the seventeen stories from two second hand paperback anthologies that he purchased, Ray Bradbury’s 1952 Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1965 Not for the Nervous, to which are added four new stories by China Miéville, Brian Evenson, Benjamin Percy, and E. Lily Yu.
Eggers seems mildly surprised at the range and quality of the stories he has unearthed, but several, notably Julian May’s first published story “Dune Roller” and Ray Bradbury’s "The Pedestrian”, an apparent starting point for Fahrenheit 451, are well known to SF and fantasy readers.
The organization of the volume is a little confusing to this irregular McSweeney’s reader. It begins with four eclectic letters, the most relevant of which is Cory Doctorow’s pithy view of SF’s predictive value and how SF is as much about our present as the future it explores. Then comes Eggers’ introduction and the prefaces from the original Bradbury and Hitchcock anthologies. Hitchcock’s short preface is decidedly uninformative in an anthology that was apparently ghost edited by Robert Arthur.
Eggers notes in his introduction, that his first thought was to follow the model of Michael Chabon’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales for McSweeney’s. “But we didn’t”. Instead he moved on to a more “workable idea”, in combining “the best of Hitchcock’s findings with Bradbury’s, and have them duke it out”. The title, Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven is undeniably catchy, although an Arthurian reference in relation to Hitchcock might be more accurate? Eggers acknowledges Sherman Alexie’s approval of the title reworking of Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
In terms of bringing SF and fantasy to the attention of new readers, there are much better stories to be mined from the last six decades, but if speed of compilation was the essence, then the current methodology provides a quick fix.
Apart from the new stories, Hitchcock and Bradbury, reflects the relative longevity of SF and fantasy stories. Not too many stories from the 1940s and 1950s are regularly reprinted or available online, from the so-called mainstream literature. Eggers, moreover, has rendered a particular service, in reminding readers of the “speculative” stories of John Cheever, John Steinbeck and Franz Kafka, in addition to the familiar SF names such as Henry Kuttner and Frederic Brown.
Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio”, remains a powerful short story, in which a couple’s new radio picks up the conversations of middle class families in their apartment block. The moral laxness of their neighbours is dramatically demonstrated, but, ultimately, it is also the self-delusion and hypocrisy of the eavesdropping couple that is exposed. The story also proves eerily predictive, foreshadowing the increasing electronic surveillance on the public. Eggers’ latest novel The Circle (2013) is relevant in this context, with of its emphasis on the loss of personal privacy in society.
John Steinbeck’s, “Saint Katy The Virgin”, is a ribald story, in which a rogue pig attains saintliness and after death becomes a holy relic. Franz Kafka’s, “In the Penal Colony”, also delivers a powerful message today, as the barbaric justice of an isolated penal colony is overturned, reflecting the perennial struggle between dictatorship and the process of open justice.
Award-winning British author, China Miéville’s, “The Design”, is a haunting conventional story from this usually unconventional author. It follows the impact , throughout his life, on a Glasgow medical student after he uncovers, in an anatomy class, strange pictorial etchings on the bones of a corpse. This scrimshaw setting effectively follows in the tradition of Bradbury and Clive Barker.
Brian Evenson’s, “The Dust”, is the least effective of the new stories, following a well-worn closed environment plotline. A small group of miners generate a thick dust which gradually brings their machinery and the exploration to a halt. Is the dust affecting the sanity of the group, leading to violent deaths, or is a calculating murderer loose, aiming to preserve the dwindling air supply before back up arrives?
Benjamin Percy’s, “Suicide Woods”, is a moving exploration of how a small group, who have attempted suicide, are being retrained to appreciate life. When a cemetery expedition goes horribly wrong, however, even the survivors “have never felt so terribly alive”
E. Lily Yu’s, “The Pilgrim and the Angel”, already selected for 2013 Best of the Year anthologies, is an imaginative short evocation of the values and traditions of East and West. The Angel Gabriel gives an elderly Cairo coffee shop owner a magical prayer mat ride to visit his estranged son in Florida, and a last chance to heal a family rift.
McSweeney’s 45 certainly provides some magical SF and fantasy rides, even it encounters some structural turbulence en route.