I have been reading a lot of short stories lately. The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century was about eight hundred pages of short stories, and The Best American Noir of the Century was about seven hundred fifty pages of stories. There were more short story volumes before that. The reason is simple: I’ve been writing a lot of short stories lately, and that’s given me the desire to read them too. The two things that Stephen King says that writers need to do in his great book On Writing: read a lot and write a lot. I am trying to do both. I think I have more short stories out to market than I have ever had before: roughly twenty-five stories to around thirty markets. My stories still get rejected far more often than they get accepted. So it goes. That’s just part of the game. At least if I have more stories out, it increases my odds. I also, though, have a great new collection ready that should be published soon.
Anyway, in my hunger to read more short stories, I have my eyes open for worthy volumes, and when I heard that a new collection of The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction was published not long ago, I sought it out.
To be honest, not all the stories appeal to me. But that’s okay. I have long since learned that even in best of the year collections there will be some I like and some I don’t like. After all, the editor makes selections according to his or her taste and not mine. That’s fine with me.
As usual, I don’t like to dwell on the stories that don’t work for me, but rather on stories that I consider the very best of the very best.
We’ll start with “Narrow Valley” by R.A. Lafferty. I’ve read this story several times in various anthologies – I think it must be one of the most often reprinted of his stories. Lafferty is a genius of humor, and this is definitely one of his best. He combines wild ridiculously improbable fantasy with crazy characters to create an effect unique in science fiction or short story literature in general. He’s an underrated writer, and it’s a shame that his works are not more widely available. Most of his stories are only in print in absurdly expensive collector’s editions, so people like me who cannot afford to spend fifty or sixty bucks for a short story collection cannot read them at all except, as in this book, by means of the occasional anthology entry.
Next we have “Sundance” by Robert Silverberg. I have it on my list of my favorite short stories of all time, and every time I read it, it loses none of its impact. It’s not easy to mix tenses and points of view in a short story and have it remain cohesive, but Silverberg definitely pulls it off here.
Each time I read “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison, it gets better for me. It’s a seemingly simple fantasy about nostalgia for a lost era, but it’s really not that simple at all. What gives it nuance, though, is the fact that the author obviously draws from deep wells of childhood memories and then weaves those threads into a disturbing tale of lost innocence.
An excellent story that I’ve never read before is “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi. In the far future, altered humans, violent beings who regenerate when they become mutilated and can eat sand and clay and chemical waste as easily as we eat a burger or a salad, find an emaciated dog wandering in the wild. They take it home and care for it for a time. The strength of the story is in their observations about this creature of flesh and blood that is so alien to them.
Another superlative story that I read in this collection for the first time is “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu. It’s a sweet, heartbreaking tale about a young boy and his Chinese immigrant mother who can create small origami animals and then breathe life into them. This menagerie of living paper creatures eventually helps the boy to learn some valuable life lessons about love and family.
All in all, this collection is worth reading for the sake of the timeless classics I’ve just mentioned and others that are entertaining but not great.