The first and most egregious mistake I made when I sat down to determine the guidelines of this project was to forget about short stories. By populating my reading list exclusively with novels, I flouted the genre’s most sacred form. The cultural heart of science fiction is in short-form pieces, due to its longstanding relationship with magazine publishing: stories, novellas, and serialized novels are the bread and butter of the magazines that have kept the community together for decades. Between the 1920s and 1950s, American science fiction magazines were basically the only place one could easily find written science fiction — which, of course, means that some of the most important pieces in the history of the genre are short-format, and first saw the light of day in a mimeographed fanzine or a copy of Amazing Stories.
So, true to the flexible spirit of this project, I am amending the list: short stories are now fair game. Obviously.
Of course, since science fiction publications are frequent and many, and readers as varied in taste as you could imagine about a lot introspective escapists, there’s wheat to separate from the chaff. Short story collections vary from the extraordinarily pulpy (a recent acquisition is proof: a paperback of SPACED OUT, the third in Michel Parry’s series of drug-themed SF romps, warns its readers not to read it unless they’re into “monstro freak-outs”) to the literary and respectable, with every conceivable diversion in between. None is particularly privileged to the title of “real” science fiction, because they all represent different facets of a highly diverse culture, and I’ll try to read as much paperback pulp as I do Nebula winners.
That said, my first short stories of this project are from a collection of 1968 Nebula award winners, the fourth year of the award’s existence. It represents a decent range of what was going on at the time — an excerpt from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider, Richard Wilson’s post-apocalyptic Mother To The World, and a Kate Wilhelm story called The Planners, about monkey researchers. It also includes a handful of shorter stories — “as many runners-up as could be fitted in.”
A confession: I gave up on Dragonrider three pages in, since it made little sense without the other parts of the story, and was so drenched in Fantasy-style neologisms (“Weyrleader,” “F’lar,” “Ruatha”) that it made my head spin. I promise I will read the book, since it’s on the list, but I do not have a good feeling about it.
All of the stories were good, or at least up to the standards one would imagine the SFWA upholds for the Nebula awards, especially this early the game, but my favorite was a runner-up, a really short piece by Terry Carr called The Dance of the Changer And The Three, which is a kind of sociological study of a mythic poem told by an alien race of energy beings barely classifiable as life-forms by our standards. It was wonderful because it expressed the blank horror of the truly alien, the total other; even though these beings are beautiful, and communicate through color, movement, and radiation of energy, their most important and venerable sagas seem mystifyingly irrelevant to the human psyche. The saga in question is a brilliant invention: Carr manages to come up with an alien epic that sounds fragile, strange, and brutishly translated. The man charged with communicating with these creatures, and perhaps the only man to manage to translate their movements into language, is baffled to the point of exasperation by their stories:
And these are the creatures with whom I had to deal and whose rights I was charged to protect. I was ambassador to a planetful of things that would tell me with a straight face that two and two are orange.
I don’t want to give away the great ending, because I found The Dance of the Changer And The Three online, available to read for free right here. It’s well worth the 25 minutes you’ll spend reading it, which is, I suppose, one of the primary benefits of short stories — they require very little of your time in relation to how much they can make you think.
NEXT BOOK: FREDERIK POHL’S JEM.