The Book Meme: Day 17

Day 17 - Favorite story or collection of stories (short stories, novellas, novelettes, etc.)

Another prompt that kind of explodes like a shaken-up Coke when you crack the cap open.

Short stories are something I used to read by the ton, particularly in the Golden Age of Science Fiction (i.e. when I was thirteen or fourteen). It was around then that our next-door neighbor, Richard, decided to get rid of a bunch of hardback SF book he'd collected over the years, at least some of them through a book club. At my age, that was basically an invitation to take every one of them out of the discard pile and bring them home. Almost all were short story anthologies, though I snagged a novel or two as well. I still have many of them, though I haven't cracked most of them open in many years, but they explain why I have a fondness for a lot of writers who peaked well before my time--not just big names like Heinlein and Asimov, but folks less well-known outside SF fandom: R.A. Lafferty, Alan Nourse, James Blish, L. Sprague de Camp, and dozens more.

I also read a fair number of contemporary short stories, typically in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and occasionally in Analog or Omni, and I was thereby introduced to newer writers such as Barry B. Longyear, Ted Reynolds, Spider Robinson, and Orson Scott Card. And yes, I was given the usual grounding in short fiction by my English teachers, who gave me tales by Poe, Irving, Hawthorne, Hemingway, etc. Mind you, some of them snuck in some new stuff. In 9th grade, Ms. Rashkis had us read "She Fell Among Thieves" by Robert Edmond Alter, and we actually had a mock trial in Ms. Carter's 10th-grade English class to settle the issues raised by Howard Fast's "The Cold, Cold Box." In college, I was assigned everything from Kafka's "In the PenalColony" to Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." The most memorable book from that period, however, was Charles Johnson's 1986 collection The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which contained the excellent "Exchange Value" and "The Education of Mingo," among others.

When we whittle things down, however, we're looking at only a handful of candidates for favorite story, and no real question about my favorite collection. Yes, I greatly enjoyed George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards books, in which various authors (Roger Zelazny, Howard Waldrop, Melinda Snodgrass, and others) created a shared world filled with superheroes created by an alien virus. That said, some of the books were novels or "mosaic novels," rather than short story collections (though Walter Jon Williams' "Witness" and Martin's own "Shell Games" remain standout stories), and the books were sometimes wildly uneven. Fun, yes, but not my favorites.

No, my favorite collections would be the two (and only two) extant volumes of Harlan Ellison's most legendary editorial project, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. More than almost any anthology I can recall, the DV books show writers straining, pushing themselves to do something different, something daring, something better than they've done before. There are excellent tales by some of my favorites--Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. Le Guin, Larry Niven--but also some superb stories from writers I like less. Theodore Sturgeon's taboo-confronting "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is only one such story. Piers Anthony, of all people, asks some provocative questions about human and animal rights in "In the Barn." And Philip Jose Farmer outdid himself to produce the astonishing Joycean novella "Riders of the Purple Wage," which is arguably his best work ever.

But with individual short stories, we've got a few more options. I am still unsettled, years later, by Greg Bear's "Blood Music," a short story about the nanotech landscape that ends in a way you won't expect. (I couldn't get through the novel version he wrote a few years later, alas.) The legendary story by Tom Godwin, "The Cold Equations," has to be high on the list, but I'm not going to spoil it by saying more. Ellison's own "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" deserves mention, too. 

But when you get right down to it, we're looking at only two possible answers. I can point to plenty of stories by Le Guin that I love unreservedly, including the melancholy "The Word of Unbinding," but every one of them ultimately pales before her astonishing "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." As a work of narrative, it's an odd duck, almost devoid of characters or plot, but as an examination of human behavior, it's simply stunning. And you Will. Never. Forget It. You will carry it with you for the rest of your life. It may disturb you. It may help you appreciate your life. It may move you to change that life. But once you read it, it's part of you. 

For all that, however, I can't consider "Omelas" my favorite short story. It's too hard to read more than once in a great while. Instead, I must turn to my favorite short story writer: Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury's stories have been praised, showered with awards, and anthologized repeatedly, so I can't add much to their celebration, but I can say this (and have said it before): what sets Bradbury stories apart from anyone else's is that I remember them by title. I've had to look up several titles and/or authors while writing this entry--but that's not remotely necessary for the author of "The Veldt," "There Will Come Soft Rains," or "Way in the Middle of the Air." There is something about the link Bradbury creates between title and story that stands out, and it helps a reader remember not only what the story is called, but what it is. It may be chilling ("Fever Dream," "Skeleton," "The Scythe") or mind-blowing ("The Golden Apples of the Sun," "Frost and Fire") or melancholy ("And the Moon Be Still as Bright"), and its title somehow enhances that.

I mention this because it also applies to my favorite of Bradbury's stories, "Kaleidoscope." It's a story that could well be a thriller, or even a horror story--a rocket ship explodes and the crew is scattered, drifting in space--but instead it's a strange and beautiful musing on mortality. Remarkably, it's told almost entirely through dialogue and internal monologue. Very little actually happens, but what does happen feels extraordinarily important. It's a story with a melancholy power, and its ending is simultaneously sad and uplifting. 

All that in less than eight pages of text. Thanks, Ray.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 23, 2018 8:15 AM.

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