Science fiction has come a long way since the Golden Age of rockets, robots and bug-eyed monsters, and these sixteen stories reflect the maturation of the genre. You won't find many aliens here, but you'll find often subtle hints of a speculative element (and some stories, like Lucy Sussex's "Ardent Clouds," that don't seem to have any at all), lots of reality-bending weirdness, and enough social commentary/satire to remind you what makes science fiction so vibrant in the first place.
Being more of a horror man myself, I was naturally drawn to the stories with a darker tone, though all sixteen are quite good. Elizabeth Bear's "Sonny Liston Takes the Fall" is an excellent example of the subtlety I mentioned. There's no overt speculative element per se, but the tone of the piece is rife with the threat of a living, perhaps vengeful universe that demands sacrifice. It's also an amazingly well written story. Nathan Ballingrud's "North American Lake Monsters," much as he did in his Inferno story "Monsters of Heaven," uses the speculative element -- in this case, a weird and unrecognizable creature washed up on the shore of a lake -- as set dressing for the much deeper tale of an ex-con trying rather poorly to reconnect with his family. Ballingrud is quickly becoming one of my favorite new spec-fic writers. When he writes a novel, it's going to be crackerjack. Mark my words.
I haven't read much of Richard Bowes' work, but if it's anything like "Aka St. Mark's Place," I better get started. I rarely find such an abiding love of New York City in science fiction -- especially the New York City of its gritty, urban-decay past -- but Bowes evokes it masterfully in his tale of telepathy and shifting identities amid the runaways and junkies of the Lower East Side in the late '60s and early '70s. Margo Lanagan's "The Goosle" is both a reimagining of and a sequel to the story of Hansel and Gretel. Dark, frightening and wildly creative, it's my favorite story in the anthology. She's another writer I really need to read more of.
Laird Barron's "The Lagerstatte" is a creepy as all get-out tale of love, loss and a magic bone (paging Dr. Freud!) that can bring those lost loved ones back from the other side for a conjugal visit. But of course it wouldn't be a Laird Barron story if there weren't a catch and a brutal ending -- though, interestingly, "The Lagerstatte" is perhaps the most compassionate of Barron's stories to date. There's real tenderness here too. Like Nathan Ballingrud, Barron is one of my new favorite writers; and as with Ballingrud, I'm convinced the world of speculative fiction will be shaken to its core when he writes a novel.
Anna Tambour's "Gladiolus Exposed" is surprisingly light in tone for what is essentially a gothic, almost Poe-like tale about man who finds a mysterious bone in the dirt and becomes obsessed with it, to the point where he has to choose between his bone and his wife. (Again, paging Dr. Freud!) Jeffrey Ford's "Daltharee" is the real mind-bender of the anthology, a recursive universe centered around a miniature city in a bottle, which itself has a miniature city in a bottle, all of which may be inside another miniature city in a bottle. And on and on. Ford's work continues to amaze and delight me. Paul McAuley and Kim Newman's novella "Prisoners of the Action" ends the book with a strong bit of social satire about the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, except with captured aliens and voodoo. Wonderful stuff, and I'd be surprised if it didn't wind up a Hugo finalist.
The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy is a beautifully designed book, too. From the Terry Gilliamesque cover art by Christian Northeast to Karin Batten's text design, you can tell a lot of thought and creativity went into the publication. That's always nice to see, as it indicates the publisher believes in the book enough to put effort into it and isn't simply churning out something disposable to fill a slot. And this is definitely an anthology worth believing in.
If you like speculative fiction that's creative, original and well written, check out The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. You won't be disappointed.