Book Review: Nebula Award Stories Eleven edited by Ursula K. LeGuin; Part Two: Tweaking Reality

There’s straight science fiction full of wondrous wildness like starships and androids and new worlds and bizarre aliens and so on, and there’s straight fantasy full of wizards and witches and fairies and elves and dwarfs and so on; and then there is a type of fiction that takes reality and gives it a subtle twist.  Often the twist is not even ostentatious, but it illuminates the core facet of the story in a way that would not be possible with conventional realistic fiction.  Several stories in this anthology are like that.  They read almost like mainstream fiction, but they have something running through them that is off-kilter, that doesn’t synch with reality.

“Shatterday”, for example, is one of the few major Harlan Ellison stories I had never read.  It’s an intensely personal story; it’s easy to see the author’s psyche-print in it.  It concerns a man who accidently dials his own home and he himself answers; then he has to come to the realization of which of his personas is real and which needs to be discarded.  It is much less flamboyant than most of Ellison’s fiction, but nevertheless is starkly effective in its simple, straightforward prose.

Tom Reamy’s “San Diego Lightfoot Sue” is another example of a realistic story with just a touch of the fantastic.  As a matter of fact, in most of its fifty-some pages there is no trace of fantasy at all.  It tells of a naive, gullible, yet likeable teenager who leaves a nowhere town in Kansas and heads to Los Angeles, where he by chance meets a sweet team of transvestites and a much older artist named Sue.  His journey, the characters he meets, and his love relationship with Sue are told in simple, sweet, highly readable prose, and the fantastic elements at the very beginning and the very end add just a touch of magic realism that accentuates the human drama.

“Time Deer” by Craig Strete tells the story of an old Native American man who is marginalized and humiliated by his son and his son’s white wife.  The old man’s depth of tradition affords him an escape into an alternate reality composed of the spirits of the past.

This was Craig Strete’s only appearance in a Nebula volume; he was nominated for one other Nebula award for his novelette “The Burning Man”.  I used to visit him sometimes when I lived on Van Nuys Boulevard in Los Angeles during my brief attempt to break into television and screen writing.  I’d get frustrated with my lack of professional progress and I’d get out and take a walk and sometimes my footsteps led to his door.  He was just starting to sell stories; as I remember he told me about the upcoming appearance of “Time Deer” in this volume but it hadn’t happened yet.  He’d be sitting on his living room floor, his typewriter before him, the TV on silently off to the side.  He told me he wrote his stories in one take; he’d just type them out and send them off without rewriting.  This awed me, as unsure of myself as I was.  I could hardly compose a word after hours of beating my head against my typewriter.  This anecdote, by the way, has nothing to do with the review of this book; I haven’t thought of Craig for years and reading his story brought up these memories.

Anyway, all fiction writers take the stuff of reality and shape it with a touch of make-believe.  Speculative fiction writers are simply more obvious, more liberal about it.  Chance dictated that these stories composed the bulk of the volume, but on the other hand they indicated a trend of the times (the 1970s):  a blending of the very best of the mainstream and the fantastic to create a literature that transcended both.

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