Normally, I spend my lunch hours trying to not drip salad dressing on my keyboard, but this year, I promised myself I would interrupt my daily toil to close my office door and read during my lunch hour every day. No email, no clients, no spreadsheets.
(Excuse me while I snicker at my silly January 2015 self.)
That maybe happened like three times. Damn you, capitalist work guilt, which doesn’t even make sense because I am a public servant, but I just can’t close my door to read a book because people might need me. I just can’t.
I’ve gotten a little bit better about taking my lunch hour this fall, which requires physically leaving the premises, but the truth is, I’m just not very good at, nor am I motivated to, read short fiction. I know it doesn’t make sense, but it takes a long time for my wacky attention span to focus on a book. Short fiction doesn’t provide for that kind of luxury, and a lunch hour of ducking the dreaded “what are you reading?” question doesn’t help.
Anyway, I got through a small number of short fiction collections this year. Here they are, in the order in which I read them:
Shorts about Shorts!
Nebula Award Stories Six (1971) ed. Clifford D. Simak
A strong collection of SF stories, all Nebula nominated in ’71. If a theme can tie them together, it might be … and they were never really there… or, better yet, Attenuated Worlds—cliché by today’s standards maybe, but the sense of storytelling delight from Russ (a teen girl uses fiction to escape life) and Wolfe (little boy uses life to escape fiction) celebrates a fandom raised on SF as respite from the ugly world. All are good, including the award-winning Sturgeon piece, except the Leiber Ffhhharrd and Mouse (or whatever you call them), which was best for reminding me I had a desk drawer to organize. Recommended by the SF Ruminations guy, Joachim.
Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995) by Octavia Butler
Quite possibly the most genuine and inviting science fiction writer I’ve ever encountered, Butler’s short fiction has raised my expectations of personal intimacy from an author. Her tales are frank and open, eerie and unworldly, yet blue collar and real. It’s an enthralling combination. Expecting the titular “Bloodchild” to be the pinnacle of the collection, I passed over most of these tales for months. Boy, was that stupid. “Speech Sounds” and “Amnesty” might be my favorites. A compelling and enthralling collection that does so many things well, but most memorable are her depictions of alienation (metaphorical, but also literal in two ways) in the factory setting.
Feminine Future (2015) by Mike Ashley
A sampling of female-written SF from 1873-1930, some good, some not so good, but all centering on ideas still employed by current SF authors: reverse aging, sentient landscapes, alternate worlds, etc. The author bios that precede each tale make even the most dated tales worth reading, but recommended only for the most die-hard vintage SF fans. There’s a great full-length review at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.
Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick (2002) by Philip K. Dick
A delightful way to spend American colonial Independence Day: reading the paranoiac fantasies spawned by the pressures of conformity, consumerism, and irrational reality. By the way, PKD short fic is brilliant for when you’re stuck doing jury duty in the Texas court system and that UPTIGHT, FASCIST BAILIFF KEEPS TELLING YOU TO SPIT YOUR GUM OUT. I’m hungry, mofo. Quit oppressing me.
I can’t think of a better experience to tote along a collection of PKD stories.
Dangerous Visions (1967, 2002 edition) ed. Harlan Ellison
More like Desperate Visions from the Editor’s Buddies, But Mostly Deluded Vainglory from the Editor Himself, Though a Few Stories are Pretty Good, Especially Toward the End. And Three Women.
Reading Christopher Priest’s account (which is hiding online somewhere) of the never-to-be-seen Last Dangerous Visions is most satisfying after slogging through Ellison’s introductory spew. The Zelazny and Delany stories are expertly written, and there were a few other stories I enjoyed, but not enough to ever recommend this collection to anyone other than to discover just how very regressive and sexist New Wave can be.
I tweeted some things about one of the stories, after a warning from Marooned Off Vesta. Of course, I had to be annoying about it:
Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind (1985) ed. Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu
The Joanna Russ and Racoona Sheldon (Tiptree) stories are well worth the too-many speedbumps that drag down what could have been an important addition to science fiction history. More importantly, these stories and their intro blurbs highlight the diversity of ’80s feminist sensibilities, including Naomi Mitchison’s surprisingly conservative statements on the matter. There’s a rather unenthusiastic review about it at SF Mistressworks.
I might do a real review of this one, because that Sheldon piece, wow.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990, 2004 edition) by James Tiptree Jr.
Like any short fiction collection, there are some speedbumps, but among some unforgettable reads. Sheldon/Tiptree is graphic: she writes trancelike sex and gut-wrenching violence. Stories alternate between catchy, aggressive prose, and overly-poetic narrative (I prefer the former). Led by memorable, eye-opening moments like “The Screwfly Solution,” “A Momentary Taste of Being,” and “We Who Stole the Dream”, it also includes historically-critical works (“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” “And I Awoke and Found Me…”) and important socially critical works (“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” “The Women Men Don’t See”). Alice Sheldon is one SF writer I wish I could talk to. Highly recommended, but remember to pay attention to the timeline and pseudonym swaps as you read these. There’s a slightly contrarian point-of-view at Speculiction, which sparked an engaging discussion between Jesse and me.
In short, read Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories and Tiptree’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. The Nebula collection is good for dedicated vintage fans, and the PKD collection is fun, too.