Book Review: The Best of the Nebulas Edited by Ben Bova; Part Two: Elegance, Depth, Nastiness, Nostalgia

I left off the first part of this review on a cliffhanger:  in fact, I was right in the middle of reading Samuel Delaney’s excellent novelette “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” when I wrote it.  The Delaney story is superlative, but I have already read it so many times that it held few surprises.

Next up is “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison.  A misleading title to be sure, the irony hiding the nastiness of the story itself.  I will never forget the first time I read this story.  Like many of Ellison’s stories, it packs a vicious punch at the end, and though it can be reread for aesthetic pleasure, that punch is never so harsh as when experienced the first time.  Back then, when it first came out, the story was unacceptable in mainstream magazines in the United States.  Ellison instead first published it in the avant-garde new wave British science fiction magazine “New Worlds,” in which Michael Moorcock was putting out lots of daring, cutting edge fiction by the likes of such writers as J.G. Ballard.  Once the story won the Nebula, of course, it achieved both fame and infamy and eventually inspired a full-length feature film of the same name.  The film is all right, but the story is much sharper.

“Slow Sculpture” by Theodore Sturgeon is an elegantly told piece about the relationship between a scientist and a woman whose cancer he cures.  Beautiful.

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by James Tiptree, Jr., is a unique novella in the annals of science fiction.  Even without the gender angle it would be a masterfully told science fiction adventure, but Tiptree manages to weave a tale that convincingly demonstrates the redundancy of the masculine gender in a future world populated only by women.  The key word is convincingly.

“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” is a beautiful story of a woman who uses poisonous snakes in a healing ministry in a far desert of a post-apocalyptic world.  Atmospheric, intriguing, involving.

I first read “The Persistence of Vision” in a book I picked up in the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale, and I almost skipped it when I came across it again in this volume because I have read it so recently, but I’m glad I didn’t.  I liked it even more this time around.  It is one of those stories that strikes deep into the heart.  Unusual, thought-provoking.  A man comes across a commune of deaf and blind people in the middle of the New Mexican desert, stays with them, learns to communicate with them, and finds out that their interaction and existence is far more meaningful than the life he has lived until then.  What he thought of at first as handicaps turned out to be assets, and he discovers that his loneliness handicaps him worse than the deafness and blindness of those he has come to love.

One of my amazing discoveries in this volume is “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin.  He wrote great fiction long before the “Game of Thrones” era.  This is a truly nasty, well-told science fiction horror story guaranteed to creep you out by the end.  I don’t remember ever reading this story before, and it is the type of story that is unforgettable.  I definitely remember getting hold of this volume sometime in the distant past.  Could it be for some reason I skipped over this tale?  I don’t know – but I know one thing:  although Martin is now known by most people exclusively for the “Game of Thrones” series, even if that series had never been written, he had already proved himself a great writer with such award-winning stories as “Sandkings,” “Portraits of His Children,” and others.

Finally, “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison is a sweet, nostalgic, heartbreaking story that is obviously more than a little autobiographical if only for its yearning for the innocent sense of wonder that accompanies childhood.  The story reminds me of Ellison’s award-winning Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” in which Kirk and Spock go back in time to America during the Great Depression to rescue Dr. McCoy.  Both pieces obviously have great empathy for eras gone by.

Overall, this book is an awesome anthology.  Story for story, it’s difficult to think of many anthologies that boast such consistently high quality.

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