This collection of seven stories contains two real winners: “The Happy Man” and “Vanilla Dunk.” The first story is a variation on any number of fantasy books like, to name a bunch, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, Jonathan Carroll’s Bones of the Moon, William Browning Spencer’s Zod Wallop, or Neil Gaiman’s A Game of You in which the protagonist flips between two realities–one a harsh, realistic world, the other a fantasy-like setting–to discover something new about himself and his relationship to people. Jonathan Lethem’s twisted this quite a bit, though, as the protagonist is a reanimated dead person and the fantasy world that he travels to is Hell. The story method resembles Sean Stewart or Mary Gentle in that Lethem makes no concessions to actually explaining how this happens, and you find yourself ignoring that nagging voice in your head as you get wrapped up in exactly what is happening. While I thought the ending was telegraphed, at least it was nicely resolved.
Even better, and that is saying a lot, is “Vanilla Dunk,” a story about the future of basketball and, like the best science fiction, a story about basketball’s present as well. Players wear exoskeletons that are programmed with the skills of basketball greats, and the new rookie won Michael Jordan’s in the most recent lottery and he’s determined to milk it for what it is worth, even if he is as white as Vanilla Ice. I don’t even like sports and I thought the descriptions of the games was wonderful. This is definitely a story that you don’t want to miss.
The other stories in here are well done, but not as outstanding as these two. I liked “Light and the Sufferer,” in which an alien empathy-panther follows a really stupid junkie and his brother as they get into more trouble. “Forever, Said the Duck” (wonderful title) was about a virtual reality party in which the hosts “invite” the avatars of people they have “sampled” in the past to a no-holds barred debauchery. And “The Hardened Criminals” uses the pun of the title to put a strange story of maturation around a most unusual prison.
I did not care for “Five Fucks” at all; in fact, I’m not even sure I can tell you what it was supposed to be about, other than a general loss of reality. The last story, “Sleepy People,” had some of the same elements of “The Happy Man” in that it refuses to tell you anything about how things got this way, but it lacks the narrative strength of the earlier story.
[Finished May 1999]