Here is a book of visions and miracles—eleven rich, robust new stories by the best-known and most accomplished modern creators of fantasy fiction, each one set in the special universe of the imagination that made that writer famous throughout the world.
Fantasy is the oldest branch of imaginative literature—as old as the human imagination itself. It is not difficult to believe that the same artistic impulse that produced the extraordinary cave paintings of Altamira and Chauvet, fifteen and twenty and even thirty thousand years ago, also probably produced astounding tales of gods and demons, of talismans and spells, of dragons and werewolves, of wondrous lands beyond the horizon—tales that fur-clad shamans recited to fascinated audiences around the campfires of Ice Age Europe. So, too, in torrid Africa, in the China of prehistory, in ancient India, in the Americas: everywhere, in fact, on and on back through time for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. I like to think that the storytelling impulse is universal—that there have been storytellers as long as there have been beings in this world that could be spoken of as “human”—and that those storytellers have in particular devoted their skills and energies and talents, throughout our long evolutionary path, to the creation of extraordinary marvels and wonders.
We will never know, of course, what tales the Cro-Magnon storytellers told their spellbound audiences on those frosty nights in ancient
France. But surely there were strong components of the fantastic in them. The evidence of the oldest stories that
survived argues in favor of that. If fantasy can be defined as literature that depicts the world beyond that of mundane reality, and mankind’s struggle to assert dominance over that world, then the most ancient story that
come down to us—the Sumerian tale of the hero Gilgamesh, which dates from about 2500 B.C.—is fantasy, for its theme is Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life.
abounding as it does in shape-shifters and wizards and sorceresses, in Cyclopses and many-headed man-eating creatures, is rich with fantastic elements, too, as are any number of other Greek and Roman tales. As we come closer to our own times we meet the dread monster Grendel of the Anglo-Saxon
the Midgard serpent and the dragon Fafnir and the apocalyptic Fenris-wolf of the Norse sagas, the hapless immortality-craving Dr. Faustus of German legend, the myriad enchanters of
The Thousand and One Nights,
the far-larger-than-life heroes of the Welsh
and the Persian
and an infinity of other strange and wonderful creations.
Nor did the impulse toward the creation of the fantastic disappear as the modern era, the era of microscopes and telescopes, of steam engines and railway systems, of telegraphs and phonographs and electric light, came into being. Our fascination with the unseen and the unseeable did not end simply because so many things previously thought impossible now had become realities. What is more fantastic, after all, than having the sound of an entire symphony orchestra rise up out of a flat disk of plastic? Or to speak into a device that one holds in one’s hand, and be heard and understood ten thousand miles away? But the same century that gave us the inventions of Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell gave us Lewis Carroll’s two incomparable tales of Alice’s adventures in other realities, H. Rider Haggard’s innumerable novels of lost civilizations, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s
Nor did the twentieth century—the century of air travel and atomic energy, of television and computers, of open-heart surgery and sexchange operations—see us losing our taste for tales of the extraordinary. A host of machine-age fantasists—James Branch Cabell and A. Merritt and Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison and Mervyn Peake and L. Frank Baum, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard and J. R. R.
Tolkien, to name a few of the best-known ones—kept the world well supplied with wondrous tales of the fantastic.
One change of tone did occur in the twentieth century, though, with the rise to popularity of science fiction—the branch of fantasy that applies immense ingenuity to the task of making the impossible, or at least the implausible, seem altogether probable. As science fiction—which was given its essential nature well over a hundred years ago by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and developed in modern times by such writers as Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Aldous Huxley—came to exert its immense appeal on the atomic-age reading public, “pure” fantasy fiction (that is, fantasy that makes no attempt at empirical explanation of its wonders) came to be thought of as something largely reserved for children, like myths and fairy tales.
The older kind of fantasy never disappeared, of course. But in the United States, at least, it went into eclipse for nearly fifty years. Science fiction, meanwhile, manifested itself to the reading public in the form of magazines with names like
Astounding Science Fiction
and readerships composed largely of boys and earnest young men with an interest in gadgets and scientific disputation. The only American magazine dealing in the material we define as fantasy fiction was
founded in 1923, but that magazine published not only fantasy but a great many other kinds of genre fiction that might not be thought of as fantasy today—tales of pure terror, for example, with no speculative content.
The separation between fantasy and science fiction is not always easy to locate, but some distinctions are fairly clear-cut, if not entirely rigid. Stories that deal with androids and robots, spaceships, alien beings, time machines, viruses from outer space, galactic empires, and the like usually can be described as science fiction. These are all matters that are
within the framework of scientific law as we currently understand it. (Although such things as time machines and faster-than-light vehicles certainly stretch that framework to its limits, and perhaps beyond them.) Fantasy, meanwhile, uses as its material that which is
generally believed to be impossible or nonexistent
in our culture: wizards and warlocks, elves and goblins, werewolves and vampires, unicorns and enchanted princesses, efficacious incantations and spells.
Fantasy fiction per se did not have a real magazine of its own until
1939, when John W. Campbell, Jr., the foremost science-fiction editor of his time, brought
) into being in order to allow his writers greater imaginative latitude than his definitions of science fiction would permit. Many of the same writers who had turned Campbell’s
Astounding Science Fiction
into the most notable magazine of its type yet published—Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, Jack Williamson—also became mainstays of
and the general structural approach was similar: postulate a far-out idea and develop all its consequences to a logical conclusion. The stories about being nasty to water gnomes or selling your soul to the devil wound up in
those about traveling in time or voyaging to distant planets were published in
though it was cherished with great fondness by its readers and writers, never attained much of a public following, and when wartime paper shortages forced Campbell to choose between his two magazines in 1943,
was swiftly killed, never to reappear. Postwar attempts by nostalgic ex-contributors to
to recapture its special flavor were largely unsuccessful; H. L. Gold’s
lasted ten issues, Lester del Rey’s
managed only four. Only
The Magazine of Fantasy,
edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas, succeeded in establishing itself as a permanent entity, and even that magazine found it wisest to change its name to
Fantasy and Science Fiction
with its second issue. When science fiction became a fixture of paperback publishing in the 1950s, fantasy once again lagged behind: few fantasy novels were paperbacked, and most of them—Jack Vance’s
The Dying Earth
and the early reprints of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard are good examples—quickly vanished from view and became collector’s items.
It all began to change in the late 1960s, when the sudden availability of paperback editions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s
Lord of the Rings
trilogy (previously kept from paperback by an unwilling hardcover publisher) aroused a hunger for fantasy fiction in millions of readers that has, so far, been insatiable. Tolkien’s books were such an emphatic commercial success that publishers rushed to find writers who could produce imitative trilogies, and the world was flooded with huge Hobbitesque novels, many of which sold in extraordinary quantities themselves. Robert Howard’s
novels, once admired only by a small band of
ardent cultists, began to win vast new readers about the same time. And a few years later Ballantine Books, Tolkien’s paperback publisher, brought out an extraordinary series of books in its Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter, which made all the elegant classic masterpieces of such fantasists as E. R. Eddison, James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, and Mervyn Peake available to modern readers. And, ever since, fantasy has been a dominant factor in modern publishing. What was a neglected stepsibling of science fiction fifty years ago is, today, an immensely popular genre.
In the wake of the great success of the Tolkien trilogy, newer writers have come along with their own deeply imagined worlds of fantasy, and have captured large and enthusiastic audiences themselves. In the late 1960s, Ursula Le Guin began her searching and sensitive Earthsea series, and Anne McCaffrey co-opted the ancient fantastic theme of the dragon for her Pern novels, which live on the borderline between fantasy and science fiction. Stephen King, some years later, won a readership of astounding magnitude by plumbing the archetypical fears of humanity and transforming them into powerful novels that occupied fantasy’s darker terrain. Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, has magnificently demonstrated the comic power of satiric fantasy. Such writers as Orson Scott Card and Raymond E. Feist have won huge followings for their Alvin Maker and Riftwar books. More recently, Robert Jordan’s mammoth Wheel of Time series, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, and Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth tales have taken their place in the pantheon of modern fantasy, as has Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.
And here is the whole bunch of them, brought together in one huge anthology in which fantasy enthusiasts can revel for weeks. A new Earthsea story, a new tale of Pern, a new Dark Tower adventure, a new segment in Pratchett’s playful Discworld series, and all the rest that you’ll find herein—there has never been a book like this before. Gathering such an elite collection of first-magnitude stars into a single volume has not been an easy task. My gratitude herewith for the special assistance of Martin H. Greenberg, Ralph Vicinanza, Stephen King, John Helfers, and Virginia Kidd, who in one way or another made my editorial task immensely less difficult than it otherwise would have been. And, too, although it goes without saying that I’m grateful to my wife, Karen, for her inestimable help in every phase of this
intricate project, I think I’ll say it anyway—not just because she’s a terrific person, but because she came up with what unquestionably was the smartest idea of the whole enterprise.