Writers of fantastic fiction face a unique challenge when they sit down to write. They can imagine anything happening anywhere anytime. Their only limitation is making their story readable. One difference between science fiction and fantasy is science fiction implies its stories are not pure fantasy but something reality could have generated. Robert Reed’s story, “Good Mountain” I believe was intended for the realm of the believable, but it feels somewhat like The Bible, not meant to be the literal truth but nonetheless, a message we should interpret.
Robert Reed is a prolific author whose superpower is imagination. I’m not sure “Good Mountain” gets the admiration it deserves. The reason I’m writing about this story is “Good Mountain” is included in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois, which I’m reviewing one story at a time. This story struck many 2006 reviewers as among the best in One Million A.D., an original anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. But some of those reviewers have gotten distracted by the giant worms that the characters ride and ignored the story’s other more fantastic elements.
Don’t let my enthusiasm for this story suggest it’s a masterpiece, it’s not, but it’s very good. I keep trying to ascertain what would put it over the top but that’s hard to put into words. The story is a third person account of Jopale, a refuge, who meets two significant characters on his fleeing journey, Brace the worm conductor, and Do-ane, a secretive woman with a large book. None of these figures have any literary depth to them, but they each stand for something like characters in a parable. “Good Mountain” is like an oracle, you can read anything into its message. I read it as a metaphor for climate change and the end of our civilization, but I think it will work with any end-of-the-something scenario.
I want to use the word “recapitulate” to describe “Good Mountain” in the same way I used it to review “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. Reed and Arnason use their stories of alien worlds to recapitulate what goes on in our world. They feel like fables or allegories. In “Good Mountain” the characters call themselves human, but we don’t know if they’re Homo sapiens. They do not know about space travel or Earth. In some ways, this story reminds me of Asimov’s “Nightfall.” Jopale’s planet is a strange one, comprised of floating islands that occasionally coalesce into continents long enough for civilizations to arise, but eventually come apart in cycles of natural catastrophes. Reed creates a beautiful biosystem of islands made of wood, with their roots dangling into the ocean, floating on a planetary sea that always faces its star, with a civilization built without metal. Fire and methane are what these people fear.
Arnason and Reed are plowing the same pasture in the science fiction landscape. They accept the challenge of writing the fantastic by creating whole worlds, but they aren’t the kind of worlds that true believers of the final frontier expect humans to colonize. Reed and Arnason aren’t science fiction writers working to scientifically imagine life on exoplanets. Their worlds are metaphorical. Their worlds aren’t NASA discoverable, but Impressionistic worlds of their imagination. Their stories remind me of N. K. Jemison’s recent work, the kind of science fiction that evolved out of Ursula K. Le Guin’s tales in the 1960s.
I get the feeling Robert Reed has much to say about our reality, but he speaks his mind in the language of science fiction. I’m not sure I can properly translate his communique because of its metaphorical nature. I can’t tell if he’s just telling us about a screwy dream, or if he wishes to be like an Old Testament prophet, preaching “The End is Near.” The story’s final twist would have given Philip K. Dick a Cheshire Cat smile.
“Good Mountain” is about Jopale fleeing fires racing across the continent. He rides a giant worm to a distant port, traveling with others hoping to escape to their collective doom. The escapees bring mockmen, their servant/slaves, who may or may not be human, but which give the story an extra twist that I can’t decipher. Along the way, this worm of fools hears a whispered tale, one that offers an enchanted sliver of hope, causing each to selfishly seek their own salvation at the expense of the others. Throughout this story, the citizens of this exotic land always act on self-interest without guilt, except for Brace, the worm handler. That’s why this story feels like a morality play.
One of the benefits of reading a science fiction anthology is learning about new authors and new types of science fiction. I’ve read a few stories by Robert Reed over the years but never researched into his background. For instance, I did not know about his Greatship series, of which “Good Mountain” somehow fits late in its cycle, so I’m now intrigued to find out more. Also, this story could be meta-fiction about science fiction, another avenue to pursue.
“A favorite science fiction writer of mine is William Faulkner!” Reed told Locus in an interview in 1998. That might be a clue to why I liked this story. It’s not my normal kind of science fiction. Both “Good Mountain” and “The Potter of Bones” are novellas and are my favorite stories of the six I’ve read so far in The Very Best of the Best. I’m just beginning my journey through this vast anthology. Reading and writing about it has become a course in science fiction. You can jump back to the beginning of my journey here and follow the links of the stories I’ve reviewed so far.
“The Remoras” by Robert Reed was first published in the May 1994 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has been reprinted a number of times since then. “The Remoras” is set in the far future, on a spaceship as large as a planet, crewed by immortal humans and aliens, who are taking a grand tour around the Milky Way.
The story is part of Reed’s The Great Ship Universe series, but I’ve only read a few of its many entries. My favorite was “Good Mountain,” but it wasn’t set on the Great Ship. I’ve Googled around hoping to find an overview of the Great Ship stories but couldn’t find one. It includes the novels Marrow and The Well of Stars, as well as the collection The Great Ship, but there are other books in the series according to GoodReads.
“The Remoras” is a Quee Lee story, she is a passenger on the Great Ship that is on a 500,000-year voyage that will make one orbit of the Milky Way. This story imagines the far future, when posthumans live lives we can’t imagine.
We have to assume Reed’s goal with this story is to speculate about immortality and posthuman societies, yet the story starts off with a very contemporary-sounding situation. Quee Lee is lounging around in her luxury apartment when a person name Orleans comes to her door wanting 52,000 credits her husband Perri owes. That sounds like a 1940s film noir beginning. I have a pet peeve against plots that use cliche pulp fiction plot conflicts.
We are told we’re in a giant spaceship but we don’t feel it – yet. The person at the door is a man, but not like anyone now in existence. Orleans is a Remora, humans that have mutated themselves by exposure to radiation from working on the outside of the ship. They were tagged with the name Remoras after the fish that follow sharks and feed off their skin. The Remoras are also immortal, but to normal humans look grossly disfigured by cancers. For example, Orleans has an eye that looks like a sea anemone.
At first, Quee Lee mistrusts Orleans and tells him she will tell her husband and he will have to deal with his debt. All of this first part of the story disappointed me. I find the idea of a ship as big as a planet taking passengers on a half-million-year orbit of the Milky Way to be too unbelievable. I also find the idea of longevity extending to hundreds of thousands of years to be unbelievable. And I felt nothing Reed gave us helped me see the possibilities.
But in the second half of the story, when Quee Lee goes to visit Orleans and decides she wants to temporarily experience being a Remora, the story got good. For some reason, I could buy the idea that humans could mutate themselves by consciously directing cancers and genetic alterations. It’s not that I believe such actions are possible in our reality, but Reed made them believable in his story, and that’s what counts.
And to make his story even more fun, he takes us through several plot twists. There is a scene when Quee Lee is on the surface of the ship describing a tremendous light show of lasers destroying comets before they could hit the ship that reminded me of the “Tears in the Rain” speech by Roy Batty in Blade Runner. It goes like this: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.”
What Quee Lee saw wasn’t so eloquently and succinctly stated, but the imagery was just as impressive, like an experience Roy Batty would have seen in his short lifetime.
Reed’s story is super-science on a vast scale. Many writers of modern space opera try to imagine such far futures, but for me, they fail. I can imagine humans living for hundreds of years, but not hundreds of thousands of years. I can imagine humans traveling across the galaxy, but not in ships as big as planets. The Great Ship stories push the boundaries for what I consider credible science fiction. However, once this story zeroed in on one relationship that involves a very short period of time involving exact details I got into it.
When I first started reading science fiction, I thought it superior to ordinary fantasy because science fiction prepared readers for the future. I never believed science fiction predicted the future, but I did believe science fiction could seriously ponder future possibilities. To me, the best science fiction was philosophical, speculative, and extrapolated on current trends. Both the fixup novel The Dying Earth by Jack Vance and the anthology The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan ponders the far future. But do their stories say anything serious about the future? Do any of their stories speak specifically to the adult mind? Or are they just fairy tales for grown up readers?
The Dying Earth is a collection of six related short works of fantasy that imagines life on Earth after the sun grows old, which is a wonderful science fictional concept. The stories are a cross between fantasies about magicians and science fiction about dying civilizations that barely remembers technology. In a vague way, its stories remind me of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights, but that’s because I just read “Ask Yourself Which Books You Truly Love” by Salman Rushdie in The New York Times. Rushdie was writing about our love of stories, especially the ones we first encounter as children. But I thought the Arabian Nights stories imagined when humanity and history were young, and the Jack Vance stories imagine humanity and history when old.
The Dying Earth contain these six stories:
“Turjan of Miir”
“Mazirian the Magician”
“Liane the Wayfarer”
“Guyal of Sfere”
The first three stories feel like Aesop, Homer or Grimm, simple fable or fairy tale in tone, while the later ones grow in sophistication feeling more like Dante or Chaucer. “Ulan Dhor” comes across the most like science fiction, but science fiction from the 1930s out of Weird Tales.
After “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells, and The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, other writers began expanding the end of time theme, but Vance got to name it with this book. Normally, I don’t like fantasy stories, but I did like The Dying Earth. This book was so successful that Vance wrote more stories about living under the dark red sun that were collected in three different volumes. I haven’t read them yet, but I bought Tales of the Dying Earth for the Kindle which puts all four into one book.
Normally, I avoid fantasy, preferring science fiction, but I started life as a bookworm with the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. If you only know Oz from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, then you don’t know Oz. Not that the film isn’t wonderful, but it doesn’t convey the vastness of Baum’s fantasy worldbuilding. I’m not a scholar on children’s fantasy books, but is there any fictional world building before the 20th century that can compete with the Oz books?
I know pop culture has pretty much forgotten Baum’s fantasyland, but for children growing up in the early decades of the 1900s, the Oz books were as popular as the Harry Potter books are today. Many classic science fiction writers grew up reading Oz books, including Robert A. Heinlein, who referenced them in his later World as Myth novels.
I bring up the Oz books here because Baum’s basic plotting device is often used by fantasy and science fiction writers. It works like this. Introduce one or more normal characters, and maybe some exotic or magical characters. Give them a quest. Take the group from one strange location to the next, where they meet wonders and far out beings. Keep it up until you’ve filled a book’s worth of pages. Tie things up with a satisfying insight. Ringworld by Larry Niven is a great example of this, and so is some of the stories in The Dying Earth, especially “Ulan Dhor” and “Guyal of Sfere.” The later story even has an Oz like wizard that explains things at the end.
The Dying Earth theme is powerful because writers usually explore two visions: the end of man, and the end of Earth. Just to meditate on that idea generates a powerful sense of wonder. However, I don’t think Vance’s stories say any more about the future than One Thousand and One Nights says about the past. They are just fairy tales for grownups. Modern fantasy has vastly evolved past these stories in sophistication. I will keep reading in this series because I’ve been told Vance eventually gets more sophisticated too, but I wonder if he ever gets more adult.
I wonder if the 20th century trend of writing stories set in an ever-growing fantasyland might have begun with Baum? That kind of never-ending world building appeals to both children and adolescents, and has apparently seduced many an adult reader too, because it seems like all genre writers are churning out countless books in series. And doesn’t our hunger for story series and complex world building comes from our childhood love of fantasy series?
The Dying Earth as a theme keeps expanding with new writers and new readers. Science fiction writers and readers also love the Far Future as a similar setting for a theme, although the name for that theme seems to have become The New Space Opera. Fans of this theme don’t worry about the end of the Earth or humankind, because they believe humanity has plenty of places to go. And like Baum inventing endless fantasy beings for Oz, the New Space Opera writers have invented endless far out aliens, robots, AI, transhuman, and posthumans to populate stories using this theme.
But to be honest, I’m not that fond of the New Space Opera theme. Oh, the ideas they come up with have a wonderful sense of wonder, but these stories are often presented as hard science fiction, which imply their science fictional inventions could be possible, and I don’t believe that. The opening of “Glory” by Greg Egan is dazzling. It sounds so scientific yet I can’t believe it’s no more realistic than magic. It begins:
An ingot of metallic hydrogen gleamed in the starlight, a narrow cylinder half a meter long with a mass of about a kilogram. To the naked eye it was a dense, solid object, but its lattice of tiny nuclei immersed in an insubstantial fog of electrons was one part matter to two hundred trillion parts empty space. A short distance away was a second ingot, apparently identical to the first, but composed of antihydrogen.
A sequence of finely tuned gamma rays flooded into both cylinders. The protons that absorbed them in the first ingot spat out positrons and were transformed into neutrons, breaking their bonds to the electron cloud that glued them in place. In the second ingot, antiprotons became antineutrons.
A further sequence of pulses herded the neutrons together and forged them into clusters; the antineutrons were similarly rearranged. Both kinds of cluster were unstable, but in order to fall apart they first had to pass through a quantum state that would have strongly absorbed a component of the gamma rays constantly raining down on them.
Left to themselves, the probability of them being in this state would have increased rapidly, but each time they measurably failed to absorb the gamma rays, the probability fell back to zero. The quantum Zeno effect endlessly reset the clock, holding the decay in check.
The next series of pulses began shifting the clusters into the space that had separated the original ingots. First neutrons, then antineutrons, were sculpted together in alternating layers. Though the clusters were ultimately unstable, while they persisted they were inert, sequestering their constituents and preventing them from annihilating their counterparts. The end point of this process of nuclear sculpting was a sliver of compressed matter and antimatter, sandwiched together into a needle one micron wide.
The gamma ray lasers shut down, the Zeno effect withdrew its prohibitions. For the time it took a beam of light to cross a neutron, the needle sat motionless in space. Then it began to burn, and it began to move.
The stories in The New Space Opera are exactly what I wanted to believe in growing up. I desperately wanted humanity to have all this potential. I knew I’d never live to see such successes in space, but I wanted to die confident that humanity would go on to achieve these wonders. Now that I’m approaching seventy, I realize my childhood dreams were wishful fantasies, no more realistic than the far-out promises of religion. Sure, we will explore space, but not like the epic super-science visions produced by the New Space Opera stories. We’re not going to transfer our minds into other bodies, whether biological or digital. We’re not going to build spaceships the size of Jupiter. We’re not going to have galaxy spanning civilizations. All those ideas are just fairy tales for adults.
However my problem with the New Space Opera stories is not that they imagine impossible futures, but how the stories are often told. Many of the stories in this anthology cram too many ideas into one plot. Their authors love to jam in so many speculative concepts that basic story gets crushed. Characterization and plotting take a back seat to worldbuilding. And it’s not that these writers are constantly infodumping ideas, but instead they throw out endless hints assuming readers can fill in the details mentally. Often those hints require cognitive decryption which for me distracts from the story. Sometimes stories combine a dozen science fictional concepts into one futuristic setting as if every science fictional speculation to date will come true. The cumulative effect is a goulash of cliché science fiction. That’s why when I got to Kage Baker’s “Maelstrom” it felt refreshingly different. Her speculation about colonizing Mars took a backseat to plot and character. That’s why I prefer Robert Reed’s “Good Mountain” to “Hatch,” his entry in the anthology.
I’m afraid too many of the stories in The New Space Opera depend too much on the big standard theories of current SF. I love science fiction for its ideas, but I also need a good story. Dense worldbuilding isn’t good enough for me. But hey, that might just be me. Maybe my aging brain can’t handle modern science fiction. Maybe that’s why I preferred Vance’s fantasy stories, even though I prefer science fiction over fantasy. Evidently, there’s something in how storytellers need to tell adult fairy tales that count.
Paul Fraser in our science fiction short story discussion group on Facebook makes a distinction between dense stories and story stories in modern SF fiction. I agree. I think the editor Gardner Dozois liked to promote dense stories, and we see that in The New Space Opera. Our group has seen dense stories popular in Asimov’s Science Fiction too. See their list of finalists for their 35th annual reader awards. One example of an overly dense story is Ray Nayler’s “Return to the Red Castle,” where he takes a simple plot of a woman wanting to help her old teacher, an android, recover her memory, by throwing in enough ideas for a half-dozen science fiction stories. I wanted the story to be more about Irem and Umut’s issues with memory, and less about the world building for the Istanbul Protectorate. But obviously, plenty of readers loved it just the way it is.
But whatever you prefer, dense or story, aren’t these stories still adult fairy tales? Isn’t the problem how the story is told rather than issues with the content? Is Little Red Riding Hood and her problems with the wolf any different in true age appeal than Irem’s problem with her android? I’m sure James Joyce and Proust’s novels are aimed at adult minds. But how much science fiction is truly adult in nature? And I’m not talking about X-rated content. If young children and young adults had the readings skills, wouldn’t they find most science fiction and fantasy fiction appealing? Can you name any science fiction novel that only appeals to a mature mind?
I wonder now if The Dying Earth and The New Space Opera stories aren’t aimed at the child in me. That I still read such stories because I never grew up. Or maybe, the wonders we imagined in childhood never leave us. As a ten year-old I wanted to live in Baum’s Oz. As a thirteen year-old I wanted to live on Heinlein’s Mars. It’s taking me sixty-nine years to accept the only place for humans is Earth, but I’m not sure if I will ever grow up and accept that. I have to wonder if I’ve never outgrown fairy tales.
Yesterday Santa Claus came to visit me in February. Since 2002 when I joined Audible.com, I’ve wished for an audiobook edition of one of Gardner Dozois giant Year’s Best Science Fiction annuals. Sadly, Dozois died last May and none of the 35 volumes were ever produced on audio. But before he died, he created The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and it’s out in hardcover, ebook and audiobook editions.
Unfortunately, the subtitle to this volume is flat out wrong. It only collects the best stories from 2002-2017, but that’s because Dozois had already published The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction back in 2005 and The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels in 2007. I had hoped this new volume would have been Dozois legacy collection reflecting the full 35 years. But be that as it may, it’s still a giant collection of great science fiction and over 39 hours of science fiction short stories on audio, which is something I love. Vivienne Leheny and Will Damron do a fantastic job of narrating these stories, and my new wish is for someone to hire them to create audiobook editions of the earlier volumes.
Last year the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame came out on audio. That means I can listen to some of the most remembered science fiction short stories from 1926-1964. This is why I had hoped this new audiobook would have given me the best short science fiction from 1984-2017 to listen to, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not complaining. This new book is great in both quality and quantity, and I’m quite appreciative of all the wonderful stories I’m getting to hear for the first time. I’m just greedy and want more. I want audiobook publishers to produce more anthologies of great short science fiction, and I’m now particularly anxious to hear the best short fiction from 1965-2001.
And, there’s even another problem for me, other readers, editors, and publishers. No one reader, no matter how experienced, can identify all the best stories for all readers. Tastes just vary too much. If you look at our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories by Year list, which has the citations listed for each story, you can see which stories Gardner picked as his favorite, and which ones he didn’t. Or if you use our CSF Query program to look at stories for 2002-2017 you’ll see only one story Gardner picked for The Very Best of the Best on our list.
The 38 stories from The Very Best of the Best covering 2002-2017 with links to my reviews are:
Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance by John Kessel
Useless Things by Maureen McHugh
Mongoose by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
Hair by Adam Roberts
The Things by Peter Watts
The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele
Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain by Yoon Ha Lee
Martian Heart by John Barnes
The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter
Weep For Day by Indrapramit Das
The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi by Pat Cadigan
The Memcordist by Lavie Tidhar
The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn
The Discovered Country by Ian R. MacLeod
Pathways by Nancy Kress
The Hand Is Quicker… by Elizabeth Bear
Someday by James Patrick Kelly
The Long Haul, From the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009 by Ken Liu
Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight by Aliette De Bodard
Calved by Sam J. Miller
Emergence by Gwyneth Jones
Rates of Change by James S.A. Corey
Jonas and the Fox by Rich Larson
KIT: Some Assembly Required by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz
Winter Timeshare by Ray Nayler
My English Name by R.S. Benedict
Our meta-list system recognized 37 stories from the same period:
Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod
The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge
The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford
The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker
Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe
Little Faces by Vonda N. McIntyre
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
The Calorie Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald
The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner
Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky
Spar by Kij Johnson
The Island by Peter Watts
The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky
The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis
The Things by Peter Watts
Under the Moons of Venus by Damien Broderick
The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson
The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
Close Encounters by Andy Duncan
Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald
The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link
Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar
The Visitor from Taured by Ian R. MacLeod
Things with Beards by Sam J. Miller
Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman
A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata
The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer
Practically no overlap. Why? If The Very Best of the Best is actually what it says it is, why don’t we see more overlap with the stories our system identified by means of tracking popularity? An easy answer is there’s a lot of great SF short stories, more than enough for every editor to pick different favorites. But what if there are other motives besides claimed quality that go into selecting a story for a best-of anthology?
For example, the first story in The Very Best of the Best is “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. It’s a beautiful tale that was nominated for a Nebula but has only been reprinted in anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois or Arnason’s own collection. I don’t know if Gardner intentionally selected stories that hadn’t been reprinted often, or if Gardner has a very unique taste in science fiction. My guess, it’s a little of both. An honest title for this collection might be Gardner Dozois’ Favorite Science Fiction from 2002-2017 That He Believes Deserves More Attention.
On the other hand, the second story “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross, has been included in at least seven anthologies. That seems to disqualify my theory, but I’m not sure.
A troublesome paradigm shift is going on in publishing short science fiction right now. The short stories that get the most attention, especially for awards, are those that are published online where people can read them for free. And it’s becoming more common for online publishers to include both a text and an audio edition. Free online stories compete for readers with stories that are published in magazines or original anthologies behind another kind of paywall. The old print magazines, Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF have dwindling readerships. The prestige of getting published used to be seeing your work in print. But I wonder if short story writers now prefer online publications because they get more readers.
I could speculate endlessly about what are the best SF short stories or how they are identified by editors and discovered by readers, but the bottom line is I’m very happy with The Very Best of the Best. I hope thousands of SF fans buy and listen to it because that should encourage audiobook publishers to produce more SF anthologies on audio. But if you don’t like audiobooks, there are print and ebook editions.
Finally, there are two tributes to Gardner by Robert Silverberg and James Patrick Kelly that I want to recommend. They just appeared in the new issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction but are available to read online. I got to study with Gardner when he spent a week as our resident instructor for the Clarion West workshop I took in 2002. He was a man I will remember and I’ll always be grateful for his encouragement and writing lessons.
I’ve come to realize that one of the more important things to me in my life is my enjoyment of reading science fiction. I have many friends who love to travel and when they talk about themselves they often talk about where they’ve been. They make me feel guilty because I’ve traveled so little. I tell myself that I travel in my mind because I love to read. Thus making a list of favorite books is like making a list of places I’ve been.
Lately, I’ve been more interested in short trips — reading short stories. I’ve decided to assemble a list of short stories I love most over a lifetime of reading. I have about a hundred I’m pretty sure about, but there’s almost another two hundred I remember fondly that I need to reread before deciding. I’ve also decided that I need to be more selective and limit the final list to 100 or less. Or at least, define my Top 100, and Next 100. But I’m leaning toward forcing myself to pick my absolute favorite 100 SF short stories.
This has pushed me into thinking about the criteria by which I judge a story. Here are qualities I’ve come up with so far:
Sense of wonder
For now, seven is enough. I can think of these qualities as The Seven Virtues of Fiction. Here are my two working lists. I’m far from finished. I’m going to have to do a lot of rereading. And I’ve been doing that since I joined a Facebook group that reads a science fiction short story a day and discusses each. It’s these group readings that have made me realize how important science fiction short stories are to me.
I could finish this project in one year if I quit the reading group and read one story a day. That probably won’t happen. Thus, it might take me years to finish. I’ve even thought of turning this project into a book like David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels.
My Top Favorites For Now
1967 – “The Star Pit” – Samuel Delany
1959 – “Flowers for Algernon” – Daniel Keyes
1895 – “The Time Machine” – H. G. Wells
1976 – “Appearance of Life” – Brian W. Aldiss
1963 – “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny
1946 – “Vintage Season” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
1957 – “The Menace From Earth” – Robert A. Heinlein
1941 – “Universe” – Robert A. Heinlein
1966 – “Empire Star” – Samuel R. Delany
1977 – “Jeffty is Five” – Harland Ellison
1984 – “Press ENTER ■” – John Varley
1991 – “Beggars in Spain” – Nancy Kress
1973 – “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula K. Le Guin
1987 – “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” – Lawrence Watt-Evans
1950 – “Coming Attraction” – Fritz Leiber
1985 – “Snow” – John Crowley
1990 – “Bears Discover Fire” – Terry Bisson
1953 – “The Last Day” – Richard Matheson
1953 – “One in Three Hundred” – J. T. McIntosh
1953 – “Deadly City” – Paul W. Fairman as Ivar Jorgensen
2020 – “Two Truths and a Lie” – Sarah Pinsker
1944 – “Desertion” – Clifford D. Simak
1944 – “Huddling Place” – Clifford D. Simak
1961 – “The Moon Moth” – Jack Vance
1951 – “Angel’s Egg” – Edgar Pangborn
1953 – “Lot” – Ward Moore
1952 – “The Year of the Jackpot” – Robert A. Heinlein
1950 – “There Will Come Soft Rains” – Ray Bradbury
1934 – “The Martian Odyssey” – Stanley G. Weinbaum
1954 – “Fondly Fahrenheit” – Alfred Bester
1966 – “Light of Other Days” – Bob Shaw
1998 – “Story of Your Life” – Ted Chiang
1987 – “Rachel in Love” – Pat Murphy
1985 – “Sailing to Byzantium” – Robert Silverberg
1988 – “Kirinyaga” – Mike Resnick
1990 – “The Manamouki” – Mike Resnick
1909 – “The Machine Stops” – E. M. Forster
1948 – “Mars is Heaven!” – Ray Bradbury
1957 – “Omnilingual” – H. Beam Piper
1952 – “Baby Is Three” – Theodore Sturgeon
1966 – “Behold the Man” – Michael Moorcock
1995 – “Think Like a Dinosaur” – James Patrick Kelly
1980 – “The Ugly Chickens” – Howard Waldrop
1973 – “The Death of Doctor Island” – Gene Wolfe
1948 – “In Hiding” – Wilmar H. Shiras
2004 – “Travels with My Cats” – Mike Resnick
1956 – “The Country of the Kind” – Damon Knight
1954 – “A Canticle for Leibowitz” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1946 – “Rescue Party” – Arthur C. Clarke
1943 – “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
1944 – “No Woman Born” – C. L. Moore
1952 – “Surface Tension” – James Blish
1960 – “The Voices of Time” – J. G. Ballard
1972 – “When It Changed” – Joanna Russ
1940 – “Requiem” – Robert A. Heinlein
1984 – “Bloodchild” – Octavia Butler
1939 – “Black Destroyer” – A. E. van Vogt
1912 – “The Scarlet Plague” – Jack London
1953 – “A Case of Conscience” – James Blish
1977 – “The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1972 – “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” – Gene Wolfe
1965 – “The Saliva Tree” – Brian W. Aldiss
1956 – “The Man Who Came Early” – Poul Anderson
1988 – “The Last of the Winnebagos” – Connie Willis
1983 – “Speech Sounds” – Octavia Butler
1953 – “A Saucer of Loneliness” – Theodore Sturgeon
1969 – “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1957 – “Call Me Joe” – Poul Anderson
1947 – “With Folded Hands …” – Jack Williamson
1977 – “Ender’s Game” – Orson Scott Card
1970 – “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” – Gene Wolfe
1933 – “Shambleau” – C. L. Moore
1945 – “Giant Killer” – A. Bertram Chandler
1981 – “True Names” – Vernor Vinge
1951 – “The Quest for Saint Aquin” – Anthony Boucher
1952 – “Sail On! Sail On!” – Philip Jose Farmer
1955 – “The Star” – Arthur C. Clarke
1958 – “The Ugly Little Boy” – Isaac Asimov
2019 – “At the Fall” – Alec Nevala-Lee
1954 – “The End of Summer” – Algis Budrys
1952 – “What’s It Like Out There?” – Edmond Hamilton
1956 – “Brightside Crossing” – Alan E. Nourse
1998 – “Craphound” – Cory Doctorow
1956 – “Exploration Team” – Murray Leinster
1953 – “Four in One” – Damon Knight
1976 – “An Infinite Summer” – Christopher Priest
1954 – “The Music Master of Babylon” – Edgar Pangborn
2002 – “The Potter of Bones” – Eleanor Arnason
1940 – “Quietus” – Ross Rocklynne
1950 – “The Veldt” – Ray Bradbury
1959 – “The Alley Man” – Philip Jose Farmer
1955 – “The Darfsteller” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1939 – “The Day Is Done” – Lester del Rey
1957 – “The Lineman” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1966 – “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” – Philip K. Dick
Stories I need to reread or maybe read for the first time.
1897 – “The Thames Valley Catastrophe” – Grant Allen
1920 – “The Mad Planet” – Murray Leinster
1927 – “The Colour Out of Space” – H. P. Lovecraft
1928 – “The Revolt of the Pedestrians” – David H. Keller
1931 – “The Jameson Satellite” – Neil R. Jones
1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” – Edmond Hamilton
1932 – “Tumithak of the Corridors” – Charles R. Tanner
1934 – “Old Faithful” – Raymond Z. Gallun
1934 – “Sidewise in Time” – Murray Leinster
1934 – “Twilight” – John W. Campbell
1936 – “At the Mountains of Madness” – H. P. Lovecraft
1936 – “Devolution” – Edmond Hamilton
1937 – “The Sands of Time” – P. Schuyler Miller
1939 – “The Four-Sided Triangle” – William F. Temple
1939 – “Living Fossil” – L. Sprague de Camp
1939 – “Rust” – Joseph E. Kelleam
1940 – “Coventry” – Robert A. Heinlein
1940 – “Into the Darkness” – Ross Rocklynne
1941 – “Microcosmic God” – Theodore Sturgeon
1941 – “Nightfall” – Isaac Asimov
1941 – “Time Wants a Skeleton” – Ross Rocklynne
1942 – “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” – Robert A. Heinlein
1943 – “The Cave” – P. Schuyler Miller
1943 – “Daymare” – Fredric Brown
1943 – “The Halfling” – Leigh Brackett
1943 – “Q.U.R.” – Anthony Boucher
1947 – “E for Effort” – T. L. Sherred
1949 – “Gulf” – Robert A. Heinlein
1949 – “Manna” – Peter Phillips
1949 – “Private Eye” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
1950 – “Liane the Wayfarer” – Jack Vance
1950 – “The Little Black Bag” – C. M. Kornbluth
1950 – “The Man Who Sold the Moon” – Robert A. Heinlein
1950 – “Scanners Live in Vain” – Cordwainer Smith
1950 – “The Silly Season” – C. M. Kornbluth
1951 – “Bettyann” – Kris Neville
1951 – “Beyond Bedlam” – Wyman Guin
1951 – “Brightness Falls from the Air” – Margaret St. Clair
1951 – “Dune Roller” – Julian May
1951 – “Izzard and the Membrame” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1951 – “The Marching Morons” – C. M. Kornbluth
1951 – “The Sentinel” – Arthur C. Clarke
1952 – “Bring the Jubilee” – Ward Moore
1952 – “Command Performance” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1952 – “Conditionally Human” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1952 – “Fast Falls the Eventide” – Erik Frank Russell
1952 – “Lost Memory” – Peter Phillips
1952 – “The Lovers” – Philip Jose Farmer
1952 – “The Martian Way” – Isaac Asimov
1953 – “Common Time” – James Blish
1953 – “DP!” – Jack Vance
1953 – “Imposter” – Philip K. Dick
1953 – “It’s a Good Life” – Jerome Bixby
1953 – “The Liberation of Earth” – William Tenn
1953 – “The Model of a Judge” – William Morrison
1953 – “Second Variety” – Philip K. Dick
1953 – “Specialist” – Robert Sheckley
1954 – “5,271,009” – Alfred Bester
1954 – “Let Me Live in a House” – Chad Oliver
1954 – “Memento Homo” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1954 – “The Midas Plague” – Frederik Pohl
1955 – “The Allamagoosa” – Eric Frank Russell
1955 – “Who?” – Algis Budrys
1956 – “Anything Box” – Zenna Henderson
1956 – “The Dead Past” – Isaac Asimov
1956 – “The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov
1956 – “The Minority Report” – Philip K. Dick
1956 – “Pilgrimage to Earth” – Robert Sheckley
1958 – “Or All the Seas with Oysters” – Avram Davidson
1958 – “Pelt” – Carol Emshwiller
1958 – “Who Can Replace a Man?” – Brian W. Aldiss
1959 – “All You Zombies—” – Robert A. Heinlein
1959 – “Day at the Beach” – Carol Emshwiller
1959 – “The Man Who Lost the Sea” – Theodore Sturgeon
1959 – “Plenitude” – Will Mohler
1960 – “The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl” – Ward Moore
1960 – “The Sound Sweep” – J. G. Ballard
1960 – “The Voice of Time” – J. G. Ballard
1961 – “The Dandelion Girl” – Robert F. Young
1961 – “Hothouse” – Brian W. Aldiss
1961 – “Monument” – Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
1961 – “The Ship Who Sang” – Anne McCaffrey
1961 – “The Sources of the Nile” – Avram Davidson
1962 – “The Dragon Masters” – Jack Vance
1962 – “Earthlings Go Home!” – Mack Reynolds
1964 – “The Terminal Beach” – J. G. Ballard
1965 – “He Who Shapes” – Roger Zelazny
1965 – “Man in His Time” – Brian W. Aldiss
1965 – “Traveler’s Rest” – David I. Masson
1966 – “Day Million” – Frederik Pohl
1966 – “The Lady Margaret” – Keith Roberts
1966 – “Neutron Star” – Larry Niven
1966 – “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” – R. A. Lafferty
1966 – “When I Was Miss Dow” – Sonya Dorman
1967 – “Baby, You Were Great” by Kate Wilhelm
1967 – “The Cloud Sculptures of Coral D” – J. G. Ballard
1967 – “Faith of Our Fathers” – Philip K. Dick
1967 – “Gonna Roll the Bones” – Fritz Leiber
1967 – “The Heat Death of the Universe” – Pamela Zoline
1967 – “Riders of the Purple Wage” – Philip Jose Farmer
1968 – “Nightwings” – Robert Silverberg
1969 – “Nine Lives” – Ursula K. Le Guin
1970 – “Slow Sculpture” – Theodore Sturgeon
1971 – “Inconstant Moon” – Larry Niven
1971 – “A Meeting with Medusa” – Arthur C. Clarke
1971 – “The Queen of Air and Darkness” – Poul Anderson
1971 – “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. Le Guin
1971 – “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1972 – “Nobody’s Home” – Joanna Russ
1972 – “Patron of the Arts” – William Rotsler
1972 – “The Word for World is Forest” – Ursula K. Le Guin
1973 – “The Girl Who Plugged In” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1973 – “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1973 – “The Women Men Don’t See” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1974 – “Born with the Dead” – Robert Silverberg
1974 – “The Day Before the Revolution” – Ursula K. Le Guin
1975 – “A Galaxy Called Rome” – Barry N. Malzberg
1976 – “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1977 – “The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1978 – “The Persistence of Vision” – John Varley
1979 – “Sandkings” – George R. R. Martin
1982 – “Burning Chrome” – William Gibson
1982 – “The Postman” – David Brin
1982 – “Souls” – Joanna Russ
1982 – “Swarm” – Bruce Sterling
1983 – “Blood Music” – Greg Bear
1985 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” – Karen Joy Fowler
1985 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” – James Tiptree, Jr.
1985 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” – Nancy Kress
1988 – “Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?” – Howard Waldrop
1988 – “Schrödinger’s Kitten” – George Alec Effinger
1989 – “Dori Bangs” – Bruce Sterling
1989 – “The Edge of the World” – Michael Swanwick
1989 – “For I Have Touched the Sky” – Mike Resnick
1989 – “The Great Work of Time” – John Crowley
1989 – “The Mountains of Mourning” – Lois McMaster Bujold
1991 – “Griffin’s Egg” – Michael Swanwick
1993 – “Wall, Stone, Craft” – Walter Jon Williams
1994 – “The Martian Child” – David Gerrold
1994 – “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” – Mike Resnick
1995 – “The Lincoln Train” – Maureen F. McHugh
1995 – “Wang’s Carpets” – Greg Egan
1995 – “The Flowers of Aulit Prison” – Nancy Kress
1997 – “The Undiscovered” – William Sanders
1999 – “Ancient Engines” – Michael Swanwick
1999 – “macs” – Terry Bisson
2001 – “Fast Times at Fairmont High” – Vernor Vinge
2001 – “Hell Is the Absence of God” – Ted Chiang
2001 – “New Light on the Drake Equation” – Ian R. MacLeod
2001 – “Undone” – James Patrick Kelly
2003 – “The Empress of Mars” – Kage Baker
2005 – “The Calorie Man” – Paolo Bacigalupi
2005 – “Magic for Beginners” – Kelly Link
2008 – “Exhalation” – Ted Chiang
2008 – “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” – James Alan Gardner
2009 – “The Island” – Peter Watts
2010 – “The Sultan of the Clouds” – Geoffrey A. Landis
2010 – “The Things” – Peter Watts
2010 – “Under the Moons of Venus” – Damien Broderick
2011 – “After the Apocalypse” – Maureen F. McHugh
2011 – “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” – Kij Johnson
2012 – “Close Encounters” – Andy Duncan
2012 – “Mahiku West” – Linda Nagata
2014 – “Someday” – James Patrick Kelly
2014 – “Yesterday’s Kin” – Nancy Kress
2015 – “Gypsy” – Carter Scholz
2015 – “Today I Am Paul” – Martin L. Shoemaker
2017 – “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” – Tobias S. Buckell
2018 – “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” – Daryl Gregory
2019 – “The Archronology of Love” – Caroline M. Yoachim
2020 – “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” – Mercurio D. Rivera
Ray Nayler had a successful year writing science fiction short stories in 2021. Three of his stories made the Asimov’s Readers’ Award Finalists poll: “A Rocket for Dimitrios” (novella), “Año Nuevo” (novelette), and “Muallim” (short story). That doesn’t include four other stories he had published in other magazines in 2021. The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction has been reading and discussing all the finalist stories and Nayler’s stories have been popular with our group. We tend to be an older crowd that’s been reading science fiction for a long time, and Nayler’s stories fulfill our need for new science fiction that feels like older science fiction.
Before I say what I want to say, just let me assure you I’m not picking on Ray Nayler, but questioning science fiction in general. I enjoy Nayler’s stories and consider them among the best science fiction coming out today. I’m looking forward to his first novel, The Mountain in the Sea coming out in October.
While reading all the finalists for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award, and especially Nayler’s stories, I couldn’t help but wonder if science fiction has any new territory left to explore? All the stories seem to be variations on old themes. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but reading these stories made me think just how hard it must be to write new science fiction, especially original science fiction. Our Facebook group has read hundreds of SF stories, and it’s obvious that few stories succeed with a majority of our readers. Writing a major science fiction short story is very rare.
Nayler’s stories stood out for me of the sixteen finalists. They were the most enjoyable to read, and I felt the most successfully told. However, they all seemed like old friends wearing snazzy new threads. I can’t help but wonder if new science fiction writers ever come up with new science-fictional ideas? Or has our genre explored all the territory to be explored?
Of course, this is my problem since I’m 70 years old and I’ve been reading science fiction for 60 of those years. Younger readers might not see any problem at all. If you live long enough, you begin to feel like Solomon writing Ecclesiastes 1:9 and saying “There is nothing new under the sun.” That feels like an oxymoronic adage when talking about science fiction. (Yet, I felt “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” by Roger Zelazny was something new under the sun in 1963.)
My favorite of Nayler’s stories was “A Rocket for Dimitrios.” (Story links are to pdf files to read.) However, its plot was inspired by A Mask for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, called A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S., which better connects to Nayler’s title. I haven’t read that novel, but I’ve seen the Sidney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre movie from 1944, so that’s how I pictured it when reading Nayler’s novella. Both stories about Dimitrios overlap in interesting ways with exotic flavors.
“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is an alternate history story, so it’s a double retread, It’s rewriting history, and writing a classic mystery novel. That’s quite clever, and I think that points to Nayler solving the problem I’m discussing. If you can’t produce a new science fiction idea for a story, repackage old ones in clever ways. And is that what all the new science fiction writers must do today? Or, am I seeing something different? Are new writers reinventing science fiction with each new generation because they haven’t read the old science fiction? Is it a variation on the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” by George Santayana?
“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is a sophisticated alternate political history that reflects a great deal of our current political reality. After America finds a crashed flying saucer in 1938 it becomes the sole superpower using advanced technology discovered in the UFO. The story creates an alternative geopolitical view from around 1960 I guess. (FDR is in his 7th term.) Because Nayler is in the foreign service and has been stationed in the Caucasus, he obviously knows the history of Turkey after the fall of the Ottomans. This local coloration gives the story its strongest appeal, but then that was true of the movie, and probably the novel.
Fictional characters Sylvia Aldstatt, Alvin Greenly, and Chief Inspector Rafik Bayar are mixed with alternate history characterizations of Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hedy Lamarr. Greenly is in the OSS and Aldstatt is a medium that uses alien technology to speak to the dead Dimitrios Makropoulos. This story is far more complex than the other nominated stories for the Asimov’s Reader Awards which suggests a growing writing maturity by Nayler. This was my second reading of this story and I rate it a strong four stars out of five.
Even though this is a fun story I can’t help but believe it’s Nayler’s philosophical statement about current world affairs. In that sense, it’s quite interesting to compare “A Rocket for Dimitrios” to David Brooks’ latest editorial in The New York Times. Both Nayler and Brooks want to be positive, but they see the growing trend toward nationalistic thinking since the 2016 election, and it’s not positive. The obvious connection to both story and essay is humans are an intelligent species, just not quite intelligent enough to survive. Both Nayler and Brooks are hopeful, I’m not.
“Muallim” is a wonderful story about a teaching robot and a student-teacher in Khynalry, Azerbaijan. The plot is rather simple, about how the village tricks the student teacher who wants to change their old ways, but the story is far richer. I think we should ask why? “Muallim” is an exceptional science fiction story, but what makes it so?
The obvious answer is the setting. Naylor’s foreign service experience, knowledge of languages, along with being a keen observer of local details, infuses wonderful details into this story. Would this story have been as good if it was set in Los Angeles? Maybe, but I think not. An exotic setting can really make an old science fiction theme stand out.
Writers have reached the saturation point with writing about robots and AI. It’s extremely hard to do anything different. The foreign color of this story is what made it impressive. The story itself is just a retelling that sentient robots are just as good as humans.
I also think “Muallim” shines because it’s built on layers. The outsider, the student-teacher, rejects what Irada, the female blacksmith, and the other villagers want for their children. But then, there are other people outside of the village, who reject the robot. We know these people have been there for hundreds of years and they don’t like change, but some of them do accept the robot. Azerbaijan is in a part of the world where some of the oldest civilizations began. There’s quite a contrast between old and new. Finally, I think the story stands out for characterization. I rate it a strong four stars out of five.
“Año Nuevo” caressed all my science fiction zones but didn’t give me a sense-of-wonder orgasm. That might be due to me being old. I liked Nayler’s story mostly because he’s writing good old-fashioned science fiction in an era when good old-fashioned science fiction is being left behind.
“Año Nuevo” uses twin storylines to effectively evoke two classic science fiction themes: the alien that’s unlike us, and the Jesus alien. Science fiction writers have always been challenged to describe a real alien first encounter. Of course, Nayler pulls a twist on this one and a good twist at that. Where my uncertainty comes from regarding this story is with the Jesus alien.
I’m calling aliens who bring us salvation, uplift, transcendence, or special powers, the Jesus alien. Religion has always worked in that psychological territory, so it’s interesting when science fiction offers alien saviors. I remember Arthur C. Clarke covering this topic several times. It always aroused suspicion in me, but then I’m an atheist.
We’re actually given two reasons for Bo’s transformation from a surly teenager to a loving son – he’s infected by the alien, and he has sex with Aliyah, neither of which should have brought about such a dramatic personality transformation. I also thought it too melodramatically cliche that Bo was brutally beaten by Aliyah’s brothers. That plot choice hurt the story for me. It would have passed if the story had been set in Azerbaijan but not in modern America.
Nayler is a skilled writer, but I can also see the machinations in his storytelling. This is the third finalist story in the Asimov’s Reader Awards by Nayler that our Facebook group has read. Such prolific output requires a certain amount of hackwork. “Muallim” and “A Rocket for Dimitrios” felt more original than “Año Nuevo,” but all three reveal Nayler’s approach to writing science fiction. Ray Nayler knows what readers love, hopes to give them more, and is succeeding. I give this story a strong three stars.
Nayler isn’t breaking any new ground but he’s entertaining and very readable. Is there any new territory to be found in our genre anymore? That’s the trouble with being an old science fiction reader, we’ve read it all before.
[I’ve gotten a complaint about my hyperlinks being hard to see. I’m going to bold them to see if that helps. Let me know what you think.]
Who the hell was Will Worthington? According to ISFDB.org, he was the pen name for Will Mohler, and they list just twelve short stories by him, published in the SF magazines from 1958-1963. His name only appeared on a cover twice, and according to the VanderMeers in the introduction of “Plenitude” Mohler’s identity is still quite a mystery. But ISFDB is full of people like Mohler, would-be writers who had a few publications and then disappeared. Forgotten writers intrigue me. I even maintain a webpage for Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten writer from the 1920s. Most days, that site gets no hits.
“Plenitude” appeared in the November 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and then was reprinted by Judith Merril twice, first in her annual for 1959, and then again in her The Best of the Best, which was her favorite stories from the first five years of the annual. For some reason, it was reprinted in two different forgotten anthologies in 1974. Four of his other stories were reprinted, but none of them ever made it into a major anthology until The Big Book of Science Fiction. And I’m not sure it belongs there. Evidently, the VanderMeers like forgotten writers too.
“Plenitude” is a pretty good SF story, but not a classic. It’s the second time I’ve read it. The VanderMeers reprint twenty stories from the 1950s and none of them were about post-apocalyptic times after the bomb, a very favorite theme from that decade. However, Mohler’s story is about a family, a dad, a wife, and two kids living out in the woods after a major change in society — so it’s kind of post-apocalyptic.
Actually, it’s anti-utopian, or post-technology. The dad has moved his family back to nature to escape the modern life of living in a pod jacked into artificial reality. I picture this future somewhat like The Matrix, but the inhabitants know what they are doing, and can still see the real world if needed.
Mohler was doing exactly what Silvina Ocampo was doing in “The Waves,” protesting a future designed by science and technology. However, Mohler took the time to work up a real story with decent characterization. The dad in this story comes across like a proto-hippy or 20th-century Luddite. He makes his family work hard at farming and is proud of his son for being a good bow hunter. This family is part of a small mountain community that has rejected techno-life. I pictured these people being the kind who joined communes in the 1960s and 1970s and read Mother Earth News, CoEvolution Quarterly, Communities, and the Whole Earth Catalog. Oh wait, I read those mags. I guess that’s why I feel a kinship with Mohler. Mohler was ahead of his time in 1959, but maybe not, because there are back-to-nature folks in every era. But he predates the back to the land movement of the 1960s.
The F&SF editorial blurb that introduced “Plenitude” said of Mohler, “As of this writing, Will Worthington is living on a wild island off the coast of Maine, where he is leading a Thoreau-like existence which will inspire him, it is to be hoped, to more stories like the following.” I’m tempted to read Mohler’s other eleven stories to see if I can guess more about what he might have been like. A few years later, another blurb says he’s living in Washington, DC.
Since I don’t have time to read those other stories I thought I’d post the first page of each of them to see if they give any more clues about Mohler. But I’m also posting links to where you can read the stories online, just in case you’re like me and wonder about forgotten authors.
I can’t say any of these beginnings grabbed my interest, nor was much revealed about Mohler. When I get time I want to read all the stories. I’m curious about Mohler. He seemed to disappear just as the 1960s got going. Did he drop out, or begin his real career? I bet he loved the 1960s though, at least from the vibes I get from reading “Plenitude.”
Over the years a number of people have emailed me about how they use the Classics of Science Fiction list as a reading goal. Well, I’ve never had anyone tell me they’ve read through the entire list — until now.
There’s always been a misconception about books called classics. I think some people feel they are guaranteed great reads. Classics are only books that get remembered over time. Our list was assembled from many sources, including fan polls, awards, lists by critics, writers, and editors, and so on. Just because these books have been statistically remembered by our various sources doesn’t mean they will be loved by readers. I’ve always wondered how science fiction fans who do read from this list react to the books. Well, I’ve gotten one answer. His reaction is completely different from mine, but then I expected that. I expect everyone to love some books and hate others. And that’s okay to hate books called classics.
Lists are very popular on the web, but just how useful are they? Szymon Szott is the first person to tell me they’ve finished our list. This is his answer. Now Szymon admits he quit on some books, but he did try, and I think that’s good enough. I asked Szymon to write up his reaction and here it is:
Jim has asked me to share my thoughts after completing the Classics of Science Fiction v5.
The list is quite long (115 books) and I didn’t read them back-to-back. Some of them I read a long time ago and their plot remains a bit vague (Ubik) while others are among my all-time favorite novels and I’ve read them multiple times (Dune). In recent years, however, I’ve been trying to steadily chip away at the list. In mid-October I finished China Mountain Zhang and thus completed my quest, having read 36 books from the list this year. Overall, my average rating was 3.65 out of 5 stars and since I rarely give 5 stars to a book, it goes to show that I really enjoyed the experience.
My all-time favorite novels from the list are:
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
No surprises there, my top three are the same as WWE’s Most Read Books of All-Time and the other two are acknowledged modern classics. However, I read the list to find books which would surprise me, so here are my top five unexpected hits with brief summaries to whet your appetite:
Mission of Gravity - a hard SF exploration of a cool idea: a planet where the gravity varies from 700 g at the poles to 3 g at the equator.
Flowers for Algernon - another exploration of an SF idea (increasing intelligence through surgery), but very human-focused, a moving tale.
Dreamsnake - a grand story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it must have inspired the Fallout game series.
Ammonite - interesting planet exploration, where a virus alters the colonists.
The Windup Girl - near-future biopunk novel, which the author wrote during a SARS outbreak in Asia (making it unexpectedly relevant to current times).
I didn’t, however, find absolutely all the books amazing. In fact, I didn’t finish two of them: The Female Man and Synners. The former was just plain confusing while the latter had a combination of plot, characters, and prose style that didn't work for me. Out of the books that I did finish, here’s my bottom five:
Last and First Men
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
I read that the two Stapledon books were influential to many SF authors, but were just plain boring to read (having almost no plot or characters). The others aren’t terrible but have some element that put me off (sentient dolphins, a resurrected Göring, or all-combination sex).
Are there any books I think are missing from the list? Well, the arbitrary cutoff is at at 12 citations and here are some great books which I enjoyed that didn’t make it:
On the Beach
Perdido Street Station
They’re all quite different but at the heart of each is the exploration of SF concepts and all of them filled me with a sense of wonder.
Overall, I think the Classics of Science Fiction v5 list is a great resource. Should you read it from beginning to end like I did? Only if you’re either studying the history of SF or are an obsessive completist. Otherwise, treat the list as a recommendation of outstanding SF books and don’t fear to stop reading a book if it doesn’t meet your expectations. Life’s too short for books you don’t enjoy!
I believe Szymon’s finally recommendation is a good one. By the way, Szymon has written for us before:
“Pelt” first appeared in the November 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. However, it was more recently recognized in the Library of America’s anthology, The Future is Female. LOA has a web page about Carol Emshwiller and a copy of the story to read online. Judith Merril included “Pelt” in her 1959 volume of the best SF stories of 1958, and again in her Best of the Best volume that collected her favorite stories from the first five years of her annual anthologies. However, “Pelt” only has a modest history of being reprinted.
“Pelt” is another variation of the first contact story, but with a nice twist. The story is told from the point of view of a dog, a companion to a human hunter on a new planet, Jaxa, hoping to make a killing in fur trading. I enjoyed watching how Emshwiller presented the dog’s point of view, but overall I didn’t really enjoy the story. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sparkle. The insight of the story, its moral compass you might say, points to the evil we humans do. It felt modeled on mountain men from out west in the 1830s who were fur trappers and traders. Instead of killing a native American, the hunter kills a native Jaxan.
Like I said, seeing how a writer presents a dog’s POV was fun. I don’t think Emshwiller intended for her doggy protagonist to be uplifted or enhanced even though we’re shown a stream-of-conscience observation of events by the dog. The man is known to the dog as the master, and she is called many endearing names, including the Queen, and Aloora.
Emshwiller has the problem of revealing both the thoughts of the dog and alien to us.
The thing spoke to her then, and its voice was a deep lullaby sound of buzzing cellos. It gestured with a thick, fur-backed hand. It promised, offered, and asked; and she listened, knowing and not knowing.
The words came slowly. This…is…world.
Here is the sky, the earth, the ice. The heavy arms moved. The hands pointed.
We have watched you, little slave. What have you done that is free today? Take the liberty. Here is the earth for your four shoed feet, the sky of stars, the ice to drink. Do something free today. Do, do.
Nice voice, she thought, nice thing. It gives and gives…something.
Her ears pointed forward, then to the sides, one and then the other, and then forward again. She cocked her head, but the real meaning would not come clear. She poked at the air with her nose. Say that again, her whole body said. I almost have it. I feel it. Say it once more and maybe then the sense of it will come.
But the creature turned and started away quickly, very quickly for such a big thing, and disappeared behind the trees and bushes. It seemed to shimmer itself away until the glitter was only the glitter of the ice and the black was only the thick, flat branches.
The alien even sounds like he could be Chief Joseph. Aloora knows the being is intelligent before the human, or at least that’s how it appears. But the human does see that the alien is holding something. Animals don’t usually hold objects in the wild.
The tiger thing held a small packet in one hand and was peering into it and pulling at the opening in it with a blunt finger. Suddenly there was a sweep of motion beside her and five fast, frantic shots sounded sharp in her ear. Two came after the honey-fat man had already fallen and lay like a huge decorated sack.
The master ran forward and she came at his heels. They stopped, not too close, and she watched the master looking at the big, dead tiger head with the terrible eye. The master was breathing hard and seemed hot. His face was red and puffy looking, but his lips made a hard whitish line. He didn’t whistle or talk. After a time he took out his knife. He tested the blade, making a small, bloody thread of a mark on his left thumb. Then he walked closer and she stood and watched him and whispered a questioning whine.
He stooped by the honey-fat man and it was that small, partly opened packet that he cut viciously through the center. Small round chunks fell out, bite-sized chunks of dried meat and a cheesy substance and some broken bits of clear, bluish ice.
The master kicked at them. His face was not red anymore, but olive-pale. His thin mouth was open in a grin that was not a grin. He went about the skinning then.
He did not keep the flat-faced, heavy head nor the blunt-fingered hands.
The master skins the alien but doesn’t take the head or hands, which has meaning in the ending. The hunter leaves the meat like buffalo hunters did in the old west. Why is Emshwiller telling us this story? Is she saying humans don’t change. That they will always exploit every frontier they conquer?
I have mentioned this before. But I believe some stories are good enough for a magazine publication. Then a few of them are worth republishing in an annual best-of-the-year collection, and then a fewer still are worthy of being remembered in a retrospective anthology. For me, “Pelt” is a 3-star story that I would have been happy to read in a magazine, but would have been disappointed to find in Merril’s annual anthology.
I think the story was well told, but I’m disappointed with its message and speculation. Even though the story is protesting awful aspects of humanity, it also assumes those aspects will be a part of us in the future. I believe much of the world has already turned against killing for fur, colonialism, and exploiting indigenous people. Sure, it still goes on, but we have changed a lot since 1958.
I’m not for censorship or cancel culture, but we need to think why we remember stories. It has often been said that science fiction isn’t about the future, but the present. And to a degree that’s true. But remembered science fiction is also a message from the past to the future, our present. And in that regard, I find “Pelt” a bit depressing, and even insulting. Emshwiller is suggesting that humans don’t change, that 19th century attitudes will exist in the future when interstellar space travel is possible. One of the reasons I dislike The Expanse series on television because it assumes we’ll carry 20th century attitudes towards war and diplomacy into the age of interplanetary travel.
Now I understand storytellers need conflict for their stories, but I’m disappointed when they use outdated conflicts, and I think this is the case in “Pelt.” I want to believe in the future we’ll no longer be killing for furs, or murdering indigenous beings, but who knows, maybe Emshwiller will be right. More than likely, Emshwiller modeled her conflict without thinking much about it, and I’m making too much out of it. In other words, it was just a little story she knocked out for F&SF, and I should just read it as such. But still, it was depressing. Imagine reading a story where humans enslave aliens, wouldn’t you find that offensive and depressing?
Even though I bought all 35 volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois as they came out, I never read one from cover to cover until now. Their size was just too daunting. I finally overcame my fear of giant anthologies when I listened to The Very Best of the Best from beginning to end, and then again when the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction voted it in as a group read. For summer 2021 we read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection. This is the first of the annuals I’ve finished. Reading and discussing a short story every other day is a great way to read an anthology, and I expect someday to read the other 34 volumes – with or without the group.
Since I’ve joined this Facebook group, I’ve been reading at least one short story a day. We keep two group reads going concurrently. Because I also read stories on my own I’ll read over four hundred short stories this year, maybe as many as five hundred. For the three years before joining the group, I read at least two to three hundred short stories each year. I’m slowly getting a feel for the form, since I’ve probably gotten my ten thousand hours in. However, it wasn’t dedicated study.
For this post I thought I’d reprint my Facebook comments on the twenty-four stories in this anthology. If I find time, I’ll write separate reviews of the stories I liked best. Here’s my rating system. One and two stars usually only show up in magazines.
Writing level of a fiction workshop or amateur publication
Writing level of semi-pro magazine, or lesser pro magazine story
Solid story from a professional magazine, should be minimum level for an annual anthology
Solid story that I found particularly entertaining
An exceptional story I know I’ll want to reread someday, or have already read many times
An exceptional story that’s almost a classic, something I’d anthologize
A classic that’s well anthologized and remembered
My Rating System
01 of 24 – “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard F&SF (May 1985)
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that claims we can return to an past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer, probably a descendent of the Azetecs. Esteban loves living in the country, and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move to town and take up modern ways.
Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop.
When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman, Miranda, in the jungle who suduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and she wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his real heritage. At first Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient alternate existence.
Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, and this story reminds me of “The Woman Who Rode Away” by D. H. Lawrence, another story about finding a way back to an older reality of the Aztecs, and one of my all-time favorite stories.
I’ve seen this theme enough times to wonder if people really do believe there are ancient ways to rediscover. I got to meet Shepard at Clarion West 2002. It’s a shame his work hasn’t stayed in print. The collection, THE BEST OF LUCIUS SHEPARD is available for the Kindle for $2.99. He has nothing on Audible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Shepard
02 of 24 – “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick Omni (July 1985)
You’ve heard of unreliable narrators, well, Deke is an unlikeable narrator. “Dogfight” by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson is now considered a Cyberpunk classic, and it brings back memories of all the excitement that literary movement generated in the 1980s. Many cyberpunk stories embraced a noirish quality of dark settings, involving criminal activities, and “Dogfight” fits the stereotype. Deke is a petty thief that finds his calling in a game of Spads & Fokkers. In a rundown bus stop, Tidewater Station, Deke discovers a crippled vet named Tiny playing out the role of Minnesota Fats with the game of Spads & Fokkers, and Deke decides to steal Tiny’s throne by becoming the Fast Eddie of the game.
Along the way Deke befriends a college girl with her own ambitions named Nance. Ultimately, Deke uses Nance, and brutually steals her dream and crushes Tiny’s purpose for being. Deke is elated to finally be good at something, ignoring the cost of his success the others paid.
The neat thing about “Dogfight” is the idea we’ll being able to jack into hardware and project 3D images that others can see. There is no explanation for how this works at all. We’re just told people can imagine tiny WWI planes and people will see them flying around the room fighting in aerial dogfights. That was the problem with most cyberpunk stories, they imagined computer technology doing things it will never do.
03 of 24 – “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl Asimov’s (January 1985)
This is the third reread for me, so I’m wonder if I didn’t read part or all of this anthology back when it came out. “Fermi and Frost” is barely a short story. It’s more of a meditation by Pohl on nuclear winter.
The story begins in the chaos of people trying to fly out of JFK knowing that the missiles are coming to hit New York. Harry Malibert lucks out and gets a flight to Iceland and rescues a nine-year-old boy named Timmy. Iceland barely survives the nuclear winter, and Harry becomes Timmy’s father. Pohl tells us they could have a happy ending or a bad one. I’m sure most readers picture the happy ending, where humanity survives.
I liked this story because I always liked stories about the last humans on Earth, but this one is barely a sketch on the subject.
04 of 24 – “Green Days in Brunei” by Bruce Sterling Asimov’s (October 1985)
“Green Days in Brunei” was a finalist for the novella Nebula, but it lost to the 800-pound gorilla “Sailing to Byzantium,” also in this anthology, as is “Green Mars” by KSM, another heavyweight.
The pacing of “Green Days in Brunei” felt like an condensed novel rather than a stretched short story. I believe it’s really hard to pull off a novella that feels perfect for its length. In this case, I was wanting more, not less. The plot of the story is rather sparse, a techie, Turner Choi, takes job in a country that’s fighting technology, Brunei, falls in love with a princess, and has to choose between East and West worlds. Sort of a reverse King and I.
Turner is an interesting creation set in the middle of a fascinating political/philosophical situation. Sterling has done a good job creating a computer geek trying to make it in a repressive society. Seria, the princess and love interest, is also interesting, but more contrived. I wished her character could have been fleshed out, and it would have been if this story had been a novel. Jimmy Brooke, the corrupt and aged rock star almost steals the story. He feels somewhat like a J. G. Ballard character. Moratuwa, the political prisoner, and Buddhist is another character needing more onpage time.
This 1985 near future cyberpunk story missed the internet but scored hits on the social changes. The reason this story is so interesting to read is all the details of the Brunai society, which tries to repress western technology but still wants to succeeed at finding work for its people. That’s a valid philosophical problem today.
Like most cyberpunk writers, Sterling vastly oversimplifies programming robots. In many ways, SF writers expected too much from computers, but often imagined too little.
05 of 24 – “Snow” by John Crowley Omni (November 1985)
John Crowley was one of our teachers for the week at Clarion West 2002. I had not read anything by him at the time. I wish I had read “Snow” before I met him. What a beautiful story – but then I resonated with “Snow” because of my lifelong obsession with memory. I wanted wasp technology starting back in the 1950s. But I wouldn’t use it for remembering dead people. I’d want it for remembering my own life. I especially loved the randomness of the memories. “Snow” reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories, “Appearance of Life” by Brian Aldiss.
06 of 24 – “The Fringe” by Orson Scott Card F&SF (October 1985)
Orson Scott Card continues the winning streak of great stories with “The Fringe.” Timothy Carpenter, is a wheelchair-bound teacher in a post-apocalyptic farming community who like Stephen Hawking speaks through a computer-generated voice. Because this 1985 story was probably before Hawking was famous I wonder if he was Card’s inspiration? And the use of the computer for speech synthesis and networks suggests Card could see into the future.
The plot of “The Fringe” is told in a straightforward narrative yet suggests complexity and layers. Carpenter, a hero of a rebuilding civilization because of his ideas on crop rotation, chooses to teach farm children on the fringe of that recovering civilization. The conflict of the story is between Carpenter and the students who hate him for turning in their fathers for their black market activities that undermine a community whose survival depends on interdependence. The story is surprisingly dramatic throughout, although Carpenter’s rescue is almost too good to believe possible.
07 of 24 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler Asimov’s (October 1985) 2nd story from this issue
Miranda suffers from lifelong guilt for dumping Daniel who then volunteered for the army during the Vietnam War and was killed. Decades later she encounters him again several times during lucid dream psychotherapy. At first, Daniel is a realistic mental projection, the same age as Miranda as if he had continued to live, but as the sessions progress, he becomes younger, and eventually Miranda witnesses Daniel kill a child, one Daniel shot thinking he has a grenade. Miranda becomes obsessed she’s learning details about Daniel’s real life that she couldn’t possibly know.
At the beginning of the story, the idea of lucid dreaming therapy sounds practical, but as the story progresses the encounters in the lucid dream world suggest that Miranda is somehow communicating with an afterlife Daniel, making the story into a supernatural fantasy. However, we are restrained by the title. Is Miranda just looking at a lake of artificial things?
This is another story I read back then that I couldn’t tell you anything about before rereading it, but as I read it came back to me, with the scene with Daniel killing the kid triggering a memory of horror I felt reading it the first time. I thought this story was quite effective and wonder how Paul can consider it mediocre.
08 of 24 – “Sailing to Byzantium” by Robert Silverberg Asimov’s SF (February 1985)
“Sailing to Byzantium” is not my all-time favorite SF story, but it should be. It’s an epic work of imagination that only a few science fiction stories surpass. I know it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Time Machine,” but it might equal the haunting mood of “The Vintage Season.” I still have a greater personal attachment to “The Star Pit.” Obviously, the Muse was with Silverberg when he wrote: “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Many science fiction writers have tried their hand at far-future stories, but “Sailing to Byzantium” comes closest at conveying what we can never know. What Silverberg works to do in this story is to explain to us what Phillips tries to convey to Willoughby.
09 of 24 – “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly Asimov’s SF (June 1985)
“Solstice” is a horrifying examination of the sexual abuse of a clone. Tony Cage, who is a wealthy superstar drug designer has himself cloned, but in the cloning process had the clone made female. Cage raised the clone as Wynne who everyone thinks of as his daughter, but Cage sees as a version of himself. There are two other stories I know about that explore sex with the self theme, “All You Zombies—” by Heinlein, and David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF. Both of these stories used time travel to hook up a person with themselves, but Kelly uses cloning, so it’s not quite the same, but I think it’s meant to be.
Tony Cage is an egomaniac of the first order who doesn’t see Wynne as herself, but the perfect companion he is creating over time. Cage is educating Wynne to be him and is troubled when Wynne goes in her own direction. Cage even uses cold sleep to even out the years between them as Heinlein did in THE DOOR INTO SUMMER for his unrelated characters. As the story unfolds we see Cage’s obsession with Wynne grow and only get hints of what’s happening to Wynne, but in the climax of the story, we learn that Wynne suffered from deep psychological damage because she saw herself as a daughter of Cage.
The common belief is clones will be duplicates of a person, but they won’t be, and I believe Kelly’s insight is right, they will be our children.
This story is actually two stories, the one described above, and the story of Stonehenge. I was fascinated by all the infodumping about Stonehenge Kelly presented, and I assume it’s true, but I believe it diluted and damaged the main story. The dramatic conclusion of Tony and Wynne’s tale happens at a solstice event at Stonehenge and evidently, Kelly wanted to make that more impactful. For me, the blending of the two stories was clunky, and I would give this story a lower rating, but the other part is too powerful.
10 of 24 – “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” by Avram Davidson Amazing Stories (May 1985)
Cosimo Damiano, the King of the Single Sicily is aided by Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy to ward off the attacks of Mr. Melanchthon Mudge who wants to steal Cosimo’s only possession of value, Duke Pasquale’s ring.
Avram Davidson’s charming prose is due to his creative use of names and nouns, and a lot of knowledge about old literature and history. However, why is this fantasy story in an anthology devoted to science fiction?
And “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” doesn’t even contain fantastical fantasy, it’s really a very gentle fantasy about what feels like medieval times when people believed in magic. This story reminds me of the Thomas Burnett Swann story we read. Both Swann and Davidson are enchanted by the past, by arcane mysteries and myths.
Not sure how to rate this story. It’s beautiful writing, but the story is all cotton candy, it expresses very little emotion or philosophy, other than the kindness of Eszterhazy for the poor deluded Cosimo. For now, I’ll say ***+ because I have no desire to read it again, although I can imagine fans of Davidson frequently returning to his kind of storytelling. It’s a very delicate form of escapism.
11 of 24 – “More Than the Sum of His Parts” by Joe Haldeman Playboy
Joe Haldeman seems to suggest in “More Than the Sum of His Parts” that becoming a cyborg will go to our heads and make us into monsters, like a variation of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or maybe the moral was better bodies don’t make for better minds. I thought this was the weakest story in the collection so far, but it’s still pretty good. I did wonder if Playboy would have bought this story without the cyborg penis and description of its use?
12 of 24 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1985)
Sally Gourley, a waitress, waits on a blue alien named John who her boss Charles demands she not serve. This story won the Nebula and was included in two textbooks devoted to science fiction, so it’s bound to be an important story, however it’s short and somewhat mysterious. Sally doesn’t feel the prejudice and hatred towards the alien, but then in the end she thinks: “And all at once I’m furious at John, furiously mad, as furious as I’ve ever been in my life.”
Why. I’ve read this story before, and I read it twice in a row tonight trying to figure out why Sally is furious at John. My guess is Sally doesn’t want to know there are better beings in the universe because she had to live with humans. In the last lines she’s responding to something John said:
“I make so little difference,” he says. Yeah. Sure.
Not only do humans look bad in comparison, Sally knows we aren’t going to change, even when we encounter Christ-like figures. I wonder if Kress was saying this to herself regarding her efforts to write enlightening stories?
13 of 24 – “Side Effects” by Walter Jon Williams F&SF (June 1985)
“Side Effects” is something that could have run in THE NEW YORKER because it was so well-written, and whatever mild science fiction it contained was minimal and slipstream.
I was quite impressed with this story and tried to imagine all the intellectual work that Walter Jon Williams had to put into it. It’s also still very relevant. Even after 35 years, it works as a near-future tale. Since I’m old, I’m having to take a lot of drugs, some of which doctors give me as samples. I often wonder if I’m a guinea pig. And they frequently cause side effects.
14 of 24 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” by James Tiptree, Jr. F&SF (October 1985) (2nd story from this issue)
I didn’t know Tiptree wrote space opera, although “The Only Neat Thing to Do” feels slightly familiar. As does most of the stories we’ve read from this anthology. It’s weird to think what my brain might retain after thirty-five years.
While reading this story I wondered about how Tiptree wrote it. Was she a fan of space opera beforehand? Had she read “The Cold Equations?” To write space opera requires thinking about interstellar travel and other space travel fiction. Tiptree’s sense of space travel feels like it came from Star Wars or Edmond Hamilton (in other words, not hard SF). And Coati Cass reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s title character in PODKAYNE OF MARS. Not only is Triptree writing space opera, but it’s also YA.
Overall, I loved this story, but it had some problems. The communication pipes don’t make sense. What’s their propulsion system? How do they navigate? How long do they take to get where they are going? Even with cold sleep, how long has Coati been gone?
Dozois sure could pick them this year. Four of the six finalists for the Nebula award for the novella are in this anthology. We have one more to read, “Green Mars.”
15 of 24 – “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985)
“Dinner in Audoghast” is an odd story to appear in a science fiction magazine. I try to imagine why Bruce Sterling wrote it. Picturing a long-forgotten African-Arab city is an interesting choice. I assume because William Gibson had made Japanese culture famous Sterling thought he might try it with Arab culture. George Alec Effinger also used Arab culture in a cyberpunk novel two years later in WHEN GRAVITY FAILS.
Audoghast was the western terminus of a trans-Saharan caravan system during a time when Arab culture was waxing and European culture was waning. It’s a fascinating time period to set a historical novel. Maybe Sterling wanted to write such a historical piece and added the leprous fortune-teller into the story to give it some reason for an SF magazine to publish it. Sterling certainly had to do the work of a historical fiction writer to write this story, and he found a wealth of details to paint a colorful setting.
I don’t know if cyberpunk writers started this or not, but in the coming decades coopting foreign and historical cultures became big in science fiction. It’s led up to today’s World SF stories.
16 of 24 – “Under Siege” by George R. R. Martin Omni (October 1985)
On one hand, “Under Siege” is not the kind of story I enjoy. I’m not fond of alternate history. On the other hand, this is an impressive story. It showcases the kind of writing skills George R. R. Martin had before writing The Song of Ice and Fire books.
Again, we’re treated to another bit of history. Was this a fad back then for SF writers? I looked up the Siege of Sveaborg to see what Martin was working with. It seems like a rather esoteric point in time to pivot the future of the U.S.S.R.
I admired what Martin was doing in the 1808 scenes, but I felt nothing for those characters. However, the narrator, the killer geek mutant narrating the story did grab me. Was his name ever given? I felt for him.
17 of 24 – “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” by Howard Waldrop Omni (January 1985)
Reading “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” made me order THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME: SELECT SHORT FICTION 1980-2005 by Howard Waldrop. I’ve read this story before, and a few other Waldrop stories and always loved him. Don’t know why I haven’t tried to read more from the guy. I’m amazed that Waldrop comes from Houston, Mississippi, because my mother’s folks are from that part of the country, and I’ve briefly lived in two small northern Mississippi towns and know what kind of upbringing Waldrop would have had. It’s not the kind that would produce these stories. Houston is not far from Oxford, the stomping grounds of William Faulkner.
“Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” is another nostalgia-driven story about a time I fondly remember. I started listening to the radio in the 1958-1963 era when many of the songs in the story first appeared. I even lived in Philadelphia in 1959 for a few months. I loved that glorious Doo-Wop music before it was shut out by the British Invasion in 1964-1965, it’s like imprinted on my soul. I also remember AM radio having Oldie-Goldie weekends. All the songs mentioned in the story push my nostalgia buttons like crazy. Even the UFO book Leroy was reading was probably one I read, because for a short while I gorged on UFO books, however, I mainly remember the crazy George Adamski.
The battle of the bands between Leroy and Kool-Tones and Bobby and the Bombers on November 9, 1965, that knocked out the lights of the northeast USA was one cool story.
18 of 24 – “A Spanish Lesson” by Lucius Shepard F&SF (December 1985)
Lucius Shepard creates a fake Roman à clef about his 17-year-old self vagabonding in Europe in 1964 and meeting two escaped clones from an alternate reality spawned by the evil soul of Hitler. This story is rather schizoid, mixing an On The Road memory with Nazi occult horror, where Adolf is a Lovecraftian elder god. Fictionalizing Nazis is dangerous artistic territory because it generally makes any work trivial in comparison to reality. Shepard would have been better off stealing from Lovecraft. Yet, there is a lot to admire in “A Spanish Lesson.”
The trouble with being an SF/F writer is needing to add the fantastic to every story so it can be sold to an SF/F market. The start of this story and the ending is far better than its SF/F elements. It’s too bad Shepard didn’t stick with straight Kerouac, with maybe a dash of Ballard. I really liked the dynamics of Shepard being the youngest member of an ex-pat community trying to earn some respect from the older cats that he thought were cooler, but were just pretenders.
19 of 24 – “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan Omni (July 1985) – 2nd story from this issue
“Roadside Rescue” was a wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of story, for us and the protagonist.
20 of 24 – “Paper Dragons” by James P. Blaylock Imaginary Lands
“Paper Dragons” is a story about the intersection of reality, fantasy, and science fiction. The narrator exists sometimes in the real world of ordinariness, sometimes in a fantasyland, and sometimes in a steampunk-like continuum. There were glittering aspects to this story, but it was often murky to me. I did relate to it in a couple of weird ways though. When I lived in south Florida there would be invasions of crabs. Millions of them would suddenly travel through our neighborhood. And I once found a furry caterpillar and put it in a gallon jar with branches from the bush I found it on. It made a cacoon and eventually emerged as a moth. I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a butterfly.
Sorry, but I thought this was another story not suited for this anthology because it wasn’t science fiction. A slight case could be made that since Filby could assemble a dragon from pieces of metal that it’s science fiction, but it never felt science-fictional. Its tone was always a lament that fantasy was fading from the world.
21 of 24 – “Magazine Section” by R. A. Lafferty Amazing Stories (July 1985)
I admired Lafferty’s writing and wild imagination in this tall tale but it’s another story that doesn’t belong in this collection. Lafferty does use the word “clone” but the cloning in this story is not the least bit science fiction.
What’s interesting about Lafferty is trying to categorize his writing. I wonder what he was like in person? Was he always pulling people’s legs and telling his tall tales to other people? He’s a kind of literary leprechaun, a class clown with print. He was capable of writing science fiction, PAST MASTER is an example, but for the most part, his stories aren’t science fiction in intent. Nor do they have the flavor of fantasy. His stories are fantastic, but not genre fantastical. It’s a shame the literary world didn’t embrace him because stories like his do appear in literary magazines.
22 of 24 – “The War at Home” by Lewis Shiner Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985) (2nd story from this issue)
“The War at Home” is a punch in the gut. The Vietnam war comes to haunt America’s reality like a bad dream we can’t escape. Although the Safeway bit made me think of our times. Shiner’s story suggests chickens do come home to roost. But I wonder why he wrote it in 1985? That was ten years after the war ended. If civilizations suffer Karmic retribution, then we’re in for some bad shit, much worse than what’s going on now.
My overactive bladder means I never sleep long, so I wake up dreaming many times a night. The intensity of the opening dream sequence resonated with me. Like I said, this very short story was a punch in the gut. Hope it doesn’t give me bad dreams tonight.
23 of 24 – “Rockabye Baby” by S. C. Sykes Analog Science Fiction (Mid-December 1985)
“Rockabye Baby” feels like another one of those literary stories with an embedded fantastic element so it’s salable to a genre market. I thought the first part was excellent. The van crash, the hospital, the group home, the pursuit of drawing, all felt very realistic. Even the part of Sharkey chasing after an experimental treatment. But memories don’t equal a personality, so I don’t buy the fantastic element of the story.
I believe if the real focus of the story was the experimental treatment, the story should have started with Cody trying to rebuild his personality with cassette tapes. Now that would have been a great story too. This could have been a novel, but ISFDB doesn’t show that. Sykes has one other story and one novel listed in their database.
24 of 24 – “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson Asimov’s Science Fiction (September 1985)
“Green Mars” is a hard story to describe and rate. 70% of this long novella is about rock climbing, something I’m not particularly interested in. 20% is about terraforming Mars and the conflict between Red Mars and Green Mars philosophy, something I’m very interested in. And finally, 10% of the story is about Roger and Eileen, and issues with living 300 years, another aspect of the story I loved.
Even though I’m not interested in rock climbing, Robinson did some impressive writing in presenting this part of the story. I have read memoirs of mountain climbers with the details of rock climbing, and I think KSM gives more blow-by-blow details of climbing than those memoirs. Is KSM a rock climber himself?
I admire KSM’s books for their ideas. However, he seldom produces an emotional story for me, but by the end of “Green Mars” I was feeling this story emotionally.