Book Review: The Best of the Nebulas Edited by Ben Bova; Part One: Nostalgia, Excellence, Literature, and Freedom

The Nebulas, of course, are the awards given by the Science Fiction Writers of America for the best science fiction and fantasy stories of the year.  They were initiated in 1966 just after the founding of SFWA with the best stories written in 1965.  I stumbled upon the Nebula volumes around 1971 or 1972, just after I had taken a science fiction literature course at Santa Clara University in California and had come to two conclusions:  first, that I had to become a writer and there was no other calling or occupation on the Earth for me; second, that science fiction truly was a splendid form of literature.

About twenty years after they’d been giving out Nebulas, SFWA members decided it would be a great idea to put out a volume of the best Nebula Award winning stories.  Maybe they needed the money, I don’t know, or maybe they wanted to contribute a singular volume to the literature of the speculative fiction field.  All in all, it did turn out to be a great idea.  After all, how could you go wrong presenting not just the best stories of the year, but the best of those stories for the past few decades?

I read this book long, long ago, and I can’t really remember what brought it to my mind again.  Wait – yes I do.  I had been reading the short story volume of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” – another brain child of SFWA – a brilliant collection of the best science fiction short stories (as selected by member vote) from the time before the Nebula Awards began.  So I thought of this other book that I had read so long ago, and I searched for it on Amazon, and at first I could find no mention, no inkling of it.  I had to keep adjusting the search criteria, playing with variations of the name because I couldn’t remember it exactly.  The reason it was so difficult is because the book is long out of print.  Why, I don’t know.  It’s packed with some of the greatest science fiction ever.

The members of SFWA chose the stories by ballot from among the Nebula winners in the short story, novelette, and novella categories.  Unlike the Hall of Fame entries, they went only by story consensus and allowed multiple entries by the same author.  So in “The Best of the Nebulas” there are three stories by Harlan Ellison and two by Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and James Tiptree, Jr.  There’s a feast of great writing here.  You can’t go wrong with this book if you love the speculative fiction genre.  There’s only one story I’ve read so far (slightly over halfway through the book) that I didn’t much care for the first time I read it and I don’t much care for now.  But out of respect for the author and the Nebulas in general I’m not going to tell you which one it is.

What particularly struck my fancy this time around?  I had just read Roger Zelazny’s powerful novelette “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” in another volume I recently acquired, but I read it again because it is so magnificent, and it didn’t disappoint.  It was great fun reading Harlan Ellison’s “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman” after so long.  “Aye, and Gomorrah…” by Samuel Delany is a jewel of a story, with so much depth in an amazing economy of words.  “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ seems like such a simple vignette, but it was bold and challenging when it was first written and still packs a powerful impact.  “Dragonrider” by Anne McCaffrey, one of the first of the now-famous dragonriders of Pern tales, starts off slowly and causes a bit of confusion early on with a plethora of quickly-introduced characters, but it builds into a deeply touching tale of high adventure involving a far planet, a lethal enemy, dragonriders, and time travel.

Reading this book took me back to my early enthrallment with science fiction.  I was deep into the genre, both reading it and writing it.  Then I drifted away into more so-called “mainstream” literature such as “On the Road” and “Tropic of Cancer” – radical works, they were, and I needed them to burst out of my rut and get out on the road.

Ultimately, I hate genre labels, and I read (and write) widely across various forms of literature now.  I access various interesting writer’s forums and follow discussions (though I seldom participate) and I am struck sometimes by writers who insist that to make the most money you have to stick to one genre, one rut.  There are two major flaws in this logic.  First of all, that writers write only for the money.  Don’t get me wrong – I acknowledge that of course we need money and I need a hell of a lot more of it – but…  Well, let me give you an example.  I am in the midst of reading Samuel Delaney’s brilliant story “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” and in this story he writes of a group of artists called the singers.  They contemplate existence and then they sing about it.  Their singing is a reaction to how the perceived universe touches their souls.  That’s what writing is and that’s what writers should be doing.  They should be making money, yes, but that’s not the main point.  The other flaw in the logic sited above is the notion that as some sort of rule – as if there should be such rules – writers should stick to one genre, one type of writing.  That is, in a word, ludicrous.  Writers should roam far and wide in their art, and many of the best writers do so, turning out novels, short stories, poems, essays, memoirs and so on.  Maybe that’s why I’m not rich yet.  So be it.  I can live with that.  If I can have only wealth or freedom, I’ll take the freedom.  If I can have both, all the better.

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