"OK, let's get down to it, boppers"
Call it the antidote to the Amazon effect. Modern technology is good at helping us find things similar to the ones we already own or like, but it's completely duff at leading us to new discoveries. Enter the short-fiction anthology. In the foreword to "Warriors", Editor George RR Martin compares anthologies to old-fashioned wire spinner racks, with "all the books jumbled up together". In "Warriors", he and co-editor Gardner Dozois set out to break the walls between genres by mixing up stories from all shades of the literary spectrum.
It's a laudable effort, and one that feels especially timely now, with the rise not only of chain superstores, as lamented by Mr Martin in his foreword, but also of on-line retailers offering sophisticated recommendation engines. It's a pity that much of the material in "Warriors" is not up to the task.
"Warriors, come out and play-a-ay!"
Partly, this is due to the subject matter. Mr Martin and Mr Dozois have made stories about warriors their unifying theme, and this has inevitably limited the range of stories they have collected. The 20 stories gather mainly around the poles of science fiction and historical fiction, with only a few pegs from other genres to support the idea that all fiction can fit under one tent. However, there are one or two exceptions, which not coincidentally turn out to be some of the best in the book.
It is also partly due to the very uneven quality of the stories on offer. While there are a few which are genuinely worthwhile entries, there are far too many which feel merely phoned in or hastily scribbled on the back of an envelope. Surprisingly, Mr Martin himself is one of the culprits here.
Now, let me say I stand in awe of Mr Martin's literary talent. I have encountered few writers in any genre with his gift for instant, vivid, believable characterization and ability to communicate this personality through the character's own voice. I am also staggered and humbled by the man's ability to juggle a best-selling fantasy series, a spin-off TV series, convention appearances, and still find time to edit this collection. So I call automatic BS on anyone who suggests I am insufficiently appreciative of his work.
The fact is, "The Mystery Knight", the latest in his "Dunk and Egg" series of short stories set in the same world as the "Song of Ice and Fire" novels, is just plain no good. Rather than building on our investment in Sir Duncan and his squire, Egg, Mr Martin invents a host of new characters, gives us no reason to care for them, then abruptly resolves the whole situation in an unsatisfying deus ex machina. Considering Mr Martin's name and the prospect of another entry in the Dunk and Egg saga was my main reason for buying the book, this is a terrible letdown.
"We're gonna rain on you, Warriors!"
Mr Martin can perhaps take small comfort in the fact that he has plenty of company. For a bunch of warriors, there are a disappointing number of misfires. Mr Dozois's own entry is not so much a letdown as simply baffling. Some of the big names, including Robin Hobb and Tad Williams, produce only shrug-inducing duds.
There are worse offenders, though. "King of Norway" by Cecelia Holland features a long, tepid battle scene followed by an escape that is pure hokum. David Weber's "Out of the Dark" is a shambling patchwork of Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day", Tom Clancy style military techno-fetishism ("the fifteen-pound round from the M-136 light anti-armor weapon struck the side of his vehicle's turret at a velocity of 360 feet per second") and a truly cringe-worthy Gothic third act. Diana Gabaldon's piece is utterly twee and far too taken with its own preciousness.
"You Warriors are good, real good." "The best."
Fortunately for those of us who already paid full-cover price for the hardback, the collection is not a total loss. In a development that's almost worth a "warriors" story on its own, the day is saved by the veterans of the old guard. Robert Silverberg, 75, turns in a melancholy yet thought-provoking piece on what warriors would do once there is nobody left to fight. Peter S. Beagle, 71, takes the warrior theme in an interesting direction, in a story that unfolds like a dream, which may be appropriate, since the hero may not--if you want to get technical about it--actually exist. S. M. Stirling, 56, gives us a light-hearted, fast-paced romp in a neato retro-future that mixes Napoleonic with post-apocalyptic settings. There are also solid entries from veterinarian James Rollins and closet botanist Naomi Novik.
Five out of 20 hits might be a good average in pro baseball, but makes these warriors look decidedly amateurish. Mr Martin's fumble as the slugger of the team is especially galling for us fans that were rooting hardest for him. We can only hope this shows his entire attention is going into the "Ice and Fire" series. Sadly for Mr Martin's lofty aims, none of the stories here were impressive enough to make me want to read more from the contributors. Though in a weird way, this is also a defeat for the Amazon effect he rails against, since I only got the book because Mr Martin's name was attached to it.
Call it a draw, then.
All quotes from "The Warriors" (1979), by Paramount Pictures.