The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

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

Rating: ****+

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.

Rating: ****

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.

Rating: ***

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.

Rating: ***+

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.

Rating: *****

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.

Rating: ****+

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.

Rating: ****

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.

Rating: *****

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.

Rating: ****

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?

Rating: ***+

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?

Rating: ****

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.

Rating: ****+

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.”

Rating: ****

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.

Rating: ****

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aoudaghost

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Sveaborg

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.

Rating: ***+

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.

Rating: *****

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.

Rating: ***+

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.

Rating: ****

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.

Rating: ***+

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.

Rating: ***+

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.

Rating: ****+

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.

Rating: ****+

James Wallace Harris, 4/16/21

Decoding Short Stories

the-misses-vickers-crop

I read mainly science fiction short stories, but my theories about decoding short stories apply to any genre. Lately, I have been reading science fiction from a number of time periods. I’m systematically reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois which covers stories 2002-2017. I’m also reading The Great SF Stories 9 (1947) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I’ve started reading Science Fiction Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell that covers SF in the 1890s. I just bought Best SF: 1968 edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss because I want to study the science fiction of 1967.

Concurrently to reading science fiction, I’ve started reading short stories by D. H. Lawrence from the early 20th-century and bought an audiobook anthology of classic literary short stories that cover a century in scope. Because of all this short story reading, I’m beginning to notice patterns. I imagine whenever someone sits down to write a short story they have a goal in telling their story. The subtle variations of each are endless, but I think I see a taxonomy of writing targets. Many short stories begin with vague goals and then fill in with increasing details. Some of the target outlines include:

  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Fictional realism
  • Retelling/Reporting
  • Travelogue
  • Humor
  • History
  • Mystery
  • Fantasy
  • Science Fiction

Literary writers are like realistic painters. They want to capture all the details of their subjects, whether they are writing about themselves or people they know. Marcel Proust and Jack Kerouac wrote thinly disguised stories based on their own experiences (autobiography). Hemingway and Fitzgerald liked to observe the people around them (biography). If you read any annual edition of The Best American Short Stories, the most intense stories often feel like they are based on real-life events (fictional realism) but aren’t. MFA programs teach their students the writing skills to pull this off. Finally, some literary writers love to find a great true story and turn it into fiction (retelling/reporting).

Inbetween literary writers and genre writers are humor and travel writers. Sometimes their stories are based on the truth, but often they stretch it. There’s a difference between nonfiction humor and travel writers and the fictionalized kind, although if you could read the minds of writers of the nonfiction kind you’d find they often fudged the truth with a bit of fictionalizing.

Genre writers nearly always open Microsoft Word and begin their story purely from their imaginations. For example, I just read “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander, one of the stories nominated for a Hugo award this year. Nothing in her story has ever existed in reality, it all came from Bolander’s ability to make stuff up. Bolander begins:

Once upon a time, long, long, long, long, long, long, ago, there were three raptor sisters, hatched beneath a lucky star. They lived in a wood together, they stole sheep and cattle together, and all in all, there was no tighter-knit hunting pride of matriarchal dromaeosauridae between the mountains and the sea.

Fantasy writers are bound by their Guild to create fantastic beasts. Using raptors was fun and clever. Melding a medieval fairytale about a Prince and Princess with Jurassic Park nasties is one of the reasons Bolander is up for an award, but not the only reason. Recasting Prince Charming as a doofus, creating an anti-princess Princess, while poking fun at traditional little girl fantasies, are some of the others.

My point in referencing Bollander’s story is to show the challenge of writing a fantasy short story. There’s no need for biographical or autobiographical characters, and the use of history barely exists and what is used is completely distorted.

When John Singer Sargent painted “The Misses Vickers” above he was creating a visual biography of Florence, Mabel, and Clara Vickers. When we read Henry James or Edith Wharton, we feel they are painting with words to capture 19th-century people they knew. Genre writers can base their characters, settings, and times on real people, places, and events, but they usually don’t. However, they can create characters, settings and times that feel like they were real or could be real. The reason why Game of Thrones and Harry Potter stories are so popular is they feel real.

When I read Thomas Hardy or D. H. Lawrence I feel they’re accurately describing village life in England. I expect their characters could be based on real people, and the scenes they describe could be real places. I don’t expect that from genre writers.

But here’s the thing, great writing is the accumulation of significant details. Writers can crib those details from reality, or they can make them up. It’s my theory that the best science fiction has a feeling of realness, such as Timescape by Gregory Benford, or Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, or Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel.

On the other hand, the best fantasy is realistically painted with imagined details, like Tolkien or Rowling. There is an uncanny valley effect in fantasy too, like in computer animation. A fantasy that feels somewhat real, but not quite, is disturbing. Think of all those cheap fantasy films that feel campy today. Then think about why you love Game of Thrones on HBO.

When you read a short story you’re decoding both the writer’s goal and their coding. To fairly judge a story requires decoding that goal while reading the story. Sadly, all too often it’s to crank out 7,500 words to sell at 10 cents a word. Too many writers use seat-of-their-pants plotting and grab details out of the air as fast as they type. The end product of a work of realism or imagination should still feel realistic even if the physics of the genre world is much different from ours.

I believe when a writer sits down to write a short story they have a goal in mind. As readers, we need to decipher that goal to properly appreciate the story. To judge a story we need to decide if the goal is both worthy and met. I have a problem with reading some genres, such as fantasy stories, because it’s just not my thing. However, I should not judge those genres by my tastes but by figuring out the target of the story and deciding if it was hit.

When I read fantasy stories I often feel like I went to a rock concert and classical music was played. Sometimes the classical music wins me over, and sometimes it doesn’t. I feel the world of science fiction is being replaced by fantasy, even the stories with spaceships and robots. It’s a challenge for me to read modern SF/F because of my personal interests, but I’m trying to judge these works by their own goals. I’m using this site to explore the art and nature of short stories. I was going to ignore all fantasy fiction, but that’s becoming very hard to do.

My goal is to get away from judging fiction by my personal tastes and instead work to understand how a story works by decoding its own goal.

lawrence alma-tadema

JWH

 

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

the-witches-ride-mary-evans-picture-library

There are only two ways to escape this reality – death or fantasy.

Back in the 1950s, some librarians tried to discourage the reading of Oz books claiming they gave unrealistic expectations about life. They were absolutely right. But by the end of the 1960s, it was obvious that fantasy books and witches had won. In 1969 the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series began appearing, which turned out to be a tsunami warning of the overwhelming wave of fantasy books to come.

Alix Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” is a lovely story about the magic of libraries and books. It just won the Best Short Story category for the 2019 Hugo awards. I hadn’t read any of the fiction in the fiction categories this year until I read “A Witch’s Guide to Escape.” It made me cry. I think it should win awards. It’s a fantasy about fantasy stories, and I don’t even like fantasy stories, except when I love them. I’m a straight-ahead science fiction guy, but sometimes fantasies tales get to me, and this one did.

I’m not going to spoil this story by describing it, just follow the linked title above and read it. If you are like me, and shot up fiction as your drug of choice growing up, then this story will sting you in the eyes, clog up your sinuses and constrict your throat, but in a way that you’ll love.

I could go on and write 100,000 words about the siren calls of fantasy, but I don’t know if this is the proper time and place. But someday we should sit down and talk about our addiction. Go read the story and then leave a “My name is Bill” testimonial in the comments.

Harris-as-a-kid

JWH