The Science of Wonder
Short fiction has, in my opinion, always been the heart of science fiction. While the birth of
modern science fiction is often traced to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel, it was in the
pages of Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and later, Galaxy that modern science
fiction came of age, producing a remarkable body of short fiction (stories, novelettes and
novellas) that continued to influence writers and fans today.
I enjoy novels the way I enjoy the main course at dinner. But short stories, for me, are like the
dessert. And short story collections are the pinnacle of all desserts. This month, I look at two
recent collections by two masters of the genre, Barry N. Malzberg and Connie Willis.
Title: The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg
Author: Barry N. Malzberg
Publisher: Nonstop Press, 2013
I first began reading Barry N. Malzberg stories and novels while I was still in college, possibly
after seeing a few of his stories appear in early issues of Science Fiction Age. His stories were a
revelation for me, not only in their content, but in the distinct style in which they are written. No
one I've read today comes close to matching the voice that Malzberg achieves. His style is
unique and his voice leaves me in awe of the raw power the written word can achieve.
Recently, Nonstop Press released a collection of 37 of the "very best" of Barry N. Malzberg's
stories. The collection provides readers new to Malzberg with a powerful and diverse
introduction to stories spanning several decades.
Several of my personal favorite Malzberg stories are included in this collection. "A Galaxy
Called Rome," which was later expanded into the novel Galaxies is what literary scholars might
call metafiction. Malzberg is a master of this form.
Another favorite is "Final War," one of Malzberg's earliest stories, first appearing in The
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1968. "Shiva" appeared in Science Fiction Age in
Perhaps my favorite story in the collection, for its power and poignancy, but also for its truth is
"Corridors." This is the story of a science fiction writer, once very popular and successful and
the current guest of honor at a convention in Cincinnati. Ruthvan reviews his life and his work
and how he reached this pinnacle achievement, standing before his audience to make a speech.
But he ultimately he breaks down. He tells the truth and it seems to destroy him.
There are a few excellent stories left out of the collection. "Understanding Entropy," a finalist
for the Nebula back in 1994 is one story. Another, "The Passage of the Light," which appeared
in Science Fiction Age in 1994, is a direct sequel to "Corridors" and takes shows us what
happens immediately after Ruthvan's breakdown.
Malzberg, in his short fiction, brings a literary flair to science fiction. He channels not only the
best literary writers, but the best writers of science fiction. His writing reads as if it is a direct
descendant of Alfred Bester.
It is wonderful to see such a rich and diverse collection of his stories appear in a very nice trade
paperback from Nonstop Press. The stories collected within exemplify the raw power of
Malzberg's prose, and his ability to expose the soft underbelly of the human condition, whether
it is seen through aliens' (real or imagined) eyes, or through the eyes of a fictional science fiction
writer falling from grace.
Title: The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Del Rey, 2013
It says something about Grand Master of Science Fiction, Connie Willis, that she can put out a
collection of award-winning stories. The ten stories that appear in The Best of Connie Willis
have won a total (by my count) of eight Hugos, five Nebulas, and one World Fantasy Award.
That's fourteen major awards for ten stories!
The stories in this collection span the better part of Willis' career, from 1983 through 2008, more
than a quarter of a century. It makes the collection a good representation of Willis' outstanding
career as a writer.
I had read many (but not all) of the stories in this collection before, but it was a pleasure to read
them again. It is always a pleasure to see a master at work. My two favorite stories in the
collection are "Fire Watch" and "Inside Job." The former introduces the team of historians at
Oxford in the mid-21st century, including Kivrin Engle and Professor Dunworthy, who use time
travel to study the past. These characters recur throughout several of Willis' novels, most notably
Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, but it was in "Fire Watch" that they got their start.
"Inside Job" is another great story. In this story, a skeptic/debunker goes up against a medium
supposedly channeling the spirit of H. L. Mencken. You can tell, reading this story, that Willis
had a blast writing it.
"Even the Queen" is another powerful story in the collection. It is a near-future story about three
women, grandmother, mother and daughter discussing reasons to continue menstruation, despite
remedies that will prevent it entirely. Like many of Willis' stories, there is an almost chaotic
humor paralleling the serious issues in the story.
Each of the ten stories is accompanied by a delightful "afterward" written by Willis providing
some context for the story. The collection also includes a rather hilarious introduction by Willis,
as well as her 2006 Guest of Honor Speech, her Grand Master Acceptance Speech (which I was
fortunate enough to see her deliver in person), and a backup Grand Master Acceptance speech. It
is a collection packed with excellent science fiction, humor, commentary, and a wonderful
introduction or reintroduction to a Grant Master's legacy.
Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin