One of my favorite literary forms is the short story. Another is memoir. So here is a perfect combination: memories of some of my favorite stories. I have not put a number in the title because I don’t know how many I will write about eventually, in this and future posts. No matter. And I will not herein deal with all of my favorite stories; I will choose one each from my favorite writers. If there are several I would call my favorites by one writer, I plan in the future to center on one author or another and highlight a list of stories by that particular person. For now, though, here is a smattering of the best of the best. I have read thousands of stories in my time, hundreds of which I would call great. A list like this is of course by its nature idiosyncratic and incomplete, and I am basing my decisions not only on literary merit but impact on me personally. But if, like me, you are always on the lookout for good reading material, it will have served its purpose if I have managed to turn you on to some of these great reads.
So here are the top five:
1. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison. There is no doubt in my mind that for me this story merits first place. It changed my life. The reading of it was one of the most significant events of my life, for by the end I had made the decision that there was nothing else for me but to become a writer. Never had I read something so compact but at the same time so devastating. It knocked me for a loop; it floored me. It has one of the greatest endings in literary history, even though the ending is predicted in the title. At the time Ellison was becoming a great shining light in what was known as the “new wave” in science fiction, a fact of which I was completely unaware. I was unaware of most things in those days. I had gone to university without a motivation, without a clue as to why I was there. I floundered in loneliness and inertia, and drugs exacerbated the problem. I chose my subjects at random from term to term, having no clue as to what I would do with my education in the future, and in second term, I think it was, I happened upon a course in science fiction literature, using as a text an anthology of stories edited by Robert Silverberg. As I remember all the stories in that book were enjoyable, but two stood out for me so much that I remember them even now, more than forty years later. One was “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith, and the other was “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”. As I said, mere enjoyment does not express my appreciation of this story. It affected me so profoundly that it altered the course of my life. After I read it I had a goal, a purpose, a direction. In that regard it lifted me out of the sludge – the slough of despond, you might say – and even though it took me years to break out of my depression, coming to a realization of my destiny was the first step. As for the story itself, it is a chronicle of an endless journey through hell, full of startling, shocking imagery which, as I mentioned, comes to a devastating conclusion. It made me seek out other books by Harlan Ellison; for a long time he was my favorite author. It even led me, eventually, a few years later, to study under Harlan Ellison himself at the Clarion West Science Fiction Writers Workshop. And the rest, as they say, is history.
2. “Sundance” by Robert Silverberg. This is another “new wave” story, deliberately experimental, told alternately in first, second, and third person present and past tense. That alone would not give it distinction, however. Experiment for its own sake is a vain exercise. What sets “Sundance” apart is the fact that its experimental style is perfectly blended with the subject matter of the story itself: the psychology and background of the protagonist, and the situation in which he finds himself. There are not many great science fiction stories about Native Americans, but this is definitely one of them. It was on the final ballot for the Nebula Award along with another Silverberg story, “Passengers”. Silverberg withdrew “Sundance” in favor of “Passengers”, feeling that as “Passengers” was more conventional it had a better chance of winning. He was probably right (“Passengers” did win the award), but my personal opinion is that “Sundance” was not only more deserving of the award that year but is one of the greatest short stories of all time.
3. “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr. Choosing a Tiptree story for this list is a difficult undertaking. So many of her short stories are brilliant beyond words that it is impossible to single out one which is better than the others. I could have chosen, for example, “Houston, Houston, Can You Read?” or “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” or “The Milk of Paradise” or “On the Last Afternoon” or one of several other possibilities. “The Women Men Don’t See”, however, has a unique quality; it begins in the normal world, the world of men and women and their chance encounters and interactions, and slowly, slowly, in the midst of descriptions of scenery and storm, slips into a deep pit of the surreal from which there is no escape. The conclusion at the end is so unusual, and so profound, that at the time there was nothing like it in all of literature. I am opposed to those who say that fantasy or science fiction or speculation or blatant action must begin at the first page or they will throw aside the story. I prefer a slow start and a gradual buildup, somewhat in the nature of foreplay before the inevitable climax. That’s what this story gives us. But don’t get me wrong – it is never boring, not a single word of it. It is fascinating through and through. Tiptree was a master of sparse, trimmed-down language in which every word had devastating effect, and nowhere is her word-mastery more evident than in this story.
4. “The Apostate” by Jack London. It is difficult for me to choose a single London story as well. I am a great fan of his Klondike stories such as “The White Silence” and “In a Far Country” and I was tempted to choose one of those. I also came near to choosing his terrific novelette “The Red One”. But I selected this for several reasons. First of all, it is one of his lesser-known works, but one of his best. In addition, unlike the other above-mentioned works, this one is surfeited with realism – too much realism for some, I would say. It is autobiographical, but London uses the sordid details from his past to great effect in telling this story of the crushing, grinding physical and psychological burden of child labor. It describes a life of endless pre-dawn wakeups, the drudgery of working many hours under terrible conditions in factories, the never-ending exhaustion. If that were all that was told, however, it would not be the wonderful work of literature that it is. No, there is more. It is the liberation at the end that makes it great, that lifts it above other works that describe similar conditions but leave the reader, as well as the characters, in degradation and despair. Not this one. At the end, after the suffocating hell, there is the breath of freedom. That is the beauty of it.
5. “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is a master of the short story of intellectual intricacies and conundrums. I like many of his stories of fantasies, dreams, mazes, puzzles. What sets this one apart is that the characters are drawn in great detail, and the fantasy, which at first is, as usual for Borges, a puzzle, by the climax makes great sense. I love his lists of page after page of intricately described details, especially when the narrator glimpses the Aleph for himself; impossible as it is to truly describe it he, as had the poet who discovered it before him, makes an attempt to do so, and it is a glorious attempt. It is an exuberant spattering of language like paint upon a canvas, but at the same time it is meticulous, precise, and evocative. Every time I read this story it is as if it is a fresh discovery.
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