Visions of Paradise

Friday, December 09, 2005

Modern Classic Short Novels of SF

It’s been said dozens, if not hundreds, of times that the novella is the ideal form for a science fiction story. Gardner Dozois said it himself in his 1994 anthology Modern Classic Short Novels of SF. I quote: the novella is a perfect length for a science fiction story: long enough to enable you to flesh out the details of a strange alien world or a bizarre future society, to give such a setting some depth, complexity, and heft...and yet, still short enough for the story to pack a real punch, some power and elegance and bite, unblunted and unobscured by padding. Whether that is true or not is irrelevant; what matters is that I enjoy reading novellas more than any other sfnal length. That’s why my bookshelf is packed with collections of novellas, including this one by Dozois. It contains 13 novellas originally published between 1958 (Jack Vance’s The Miracle Workers) and 1991 (Nancy Kress’ And Wild for to Hold). The volume is not intended to be definitive since Dozois deliberately limited his selections by era, by not being too famous as to be available in countless other anthologies, and finally, in his own words again, selected on the appalling naïve basis that I liked them.

Whatever Dozois’ intent, it is my opinion that he is the finest editor of the modern era, so that an anthology of stories appealing to him is most likely going to appeal to me as well. And it did indeed. Dozois seemed slightly bemused that The Miracle Workers was Jack Vance’s only published story from Astounding that qualified as full-throated Vancian Future Baroque. What’s not surprising though is that the story was accepted by John W. Campbell, Jr. for publication. It is set in a futuristic world where magic has been formalized and serves as the foundation of the world’s culture. However, magic is proving inadequate in protecting a feudal keep against invasion from another more powerful keep and defeat seems inevitable. So it is not at all surprising that a seemingly minor character in the story–an apprentice jinxman, that is, expert in magic–has been dabbling in obviously useless remnants of ancient, discarded science. Precisely because this story was published in Astounding it is obvious very early on that science will ultimately supercede magic, thus draining the story’s conclusion of most of its power. But still it is an entertaining story worthy of the Vance byline.

The Longest Voyage was Poul Anderson’s first Hugo winner and many fans, Dozois apparently among them, consider it one of his very finest works. It concerns a world with a late medieval / early Renaissance culture in which a spaceman crash-lands in the midst of a warlike nation and is unable to make simple repairs on his spacecraft and return home. The story is told from the point of view of a representative from a less-warlike nation who accidentally discovers the existence of the spaceman. The conflicts which ensue are both fascinating and thought-provoking, as is the story’s quite unexpected denouement. While I disagree totally with the final actions of the main character–who until that point was the hero of the story–that in no way weakens the impact of the ending. This is as fine a first contact story as has ever been published in the SF genre.

The Star Pit was Samuel R. Delany’s first published piece of short fiction, appearing in February, 1967, shortly before he stunned the SF world by winning the Nebula Award for his only slightly-longer novel Babel-17. Fans of mid-1980s cyberpunk reading this novella for the first time would be amazed at how all the roots of that two-decades-later sub-genre were present in top-notch form, the only exception being the computers themselves. The Star Pit is a tale of loneliness and difference, about workers on planets which serve as docking ports for starships, none of whom will ever travel in the ships themselves since normal humans go insane and die at extreme distances from the galactic core. Only a relatively small number of people possess the emotional makeup which enable them to undergo extra-galactic travel, people called goldens who are automatically the envy of normal people trapped within our own Milky Way. But part of the reason goldens survive such extreme distances also causes them to be emotionally unstable as well. The Star Pit examines those workers who have accepted their fate at the edge of the galaxy and those who still learn to travel beyond, blending its analysis with the tale of one particular golden’s dealings with those workers. It’s a powerful story indeed, showing Delany at his peak form in his first published short fiction ever! Rereading it after thirty years, I cannot help wish Delany would write more fiction in his midlife during which he has seemingly been content to teach writing rather than practice it himself.

Perhaps the most powerful story in the book is Brian W. Aldiss’ Total Environment, the story of a scientific experiment in which 2500 Indians are voluntarily locked into a self-contained unit in which they are offered total freedom from the squalor and danger which has gripped the future Indian subcontinent. In the decades following their self-imprisonment they breed a seemingly new race of beings who mature much faster than people on the outside, breed faster, but who also die considerably younger. At the time of the story, 75,000 people are crowded into the structure in a society which both mirrors outside life but is considerably different from it at the same time. The majority of inhabitants are babies and those who would be children on the outside but who function as full adults inside. Among their numbers are holy men and local dictators, including one teenaged dictator who controls the top level of the structure totally, but unlike similar dictators inside, he shows absolutely no interest in extending his control to other levels. Rather, his pre-occupation is with life outside the structure, so when an outside spy falls into his hands, it sets into play a series of events both thrilling and thoughtful. This is an amazing story that absolutely cries out for expansion to novel form but, alas, since thirty years have passed without Aldiss showing any interest in doing so, we must be content with the perfect little jewel we have here.

And the novellas go on. Gene Wolfe’s The Death of Doctor Island; Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, which became the basis of the Hugo-winning novel of the same name; Joanna Russ’ wonderful historical fantasy Souls; Lucius Shepard’s chilling A Traveler’s Tale; and five others nearly as good. I recommend this anthology quite highly to all SF fans. Science fiction doesn’t get any better than this!


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