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The Alienated Critic
by D. Douglas Fratz

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other The Alienated Critic columns.

Wherein the short fiction of four of the field's finest authors is lauded
and thoughts imparted on the 2013 Hugo Awards and LoneStarCon 3

I. The Best of the Best Short Fiction

We have been fortunate to have seen in the past twelve months career-spanning new best-of collections of short fiction from four of the science fiction field's best authors. Mike Resnick, Connie Willis, Joe Haldeman and Robert Silverberg have produced more top quality short science fiction over the past five decades than any other auctorial quartet I can think of.

Win Some, Lose Some: The Hugo Award Winning (and Nominated) Short Science Fiction and Fantasy of Mike Resnick The first of the four is Win Some, Lose Some: The Hugo Award Winning (and Nominated) Short Science Fiction and Fantasy of Mike Resnick (ISFiC Press, 646 pages). It was published last year and released at the 2012 Worldcon in Chicago at which Resnick was Guest of Honor. This massive volume contains all thirty Resnick stories that have been nominated for the Hugo Award over the past 35 years, including the five that have won. It also incorporates laudatory introductions to each story by various authors as well as additional brief introductions to each by Resnick himself.

I read all of these stories in the year they were published, and despite being quite memorable, my enjoyment was not diminished in the second reading. Many of the best stories in the volume are set in Africa, or the artificial utopian world of Kirinyaga. The eight Kirinyaga stories, which represent some of the most thematically intense stories of the 90s, are best read in order in that they form a complete episodic novel, exploring conservatism versus progressivism in an emotionally powerful but even handed manner. My personal favorite is "For I Have Touched the Sky," but there are no weak stories in the series. Other stories set in Africa include "Bully!" (a brilliant alternate history wherein Teddy Roosevelt seeks to unite and Westernize the tribes of central Africa), "Mwalimu in the Squared Circle" (another alternate history wherein the Tanzanian president accepts the challenge to a boxing match with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin), "Seven Views of Oldevai George" (a profound story set in the deep past and far future), and "Bibi" (a fantasy set in the near future). ("Shaka II," reviewed in my previous column, fits well in this series of powerful and insightful African venue tales.) There are also several excellent stories here that were obviously inspired by Resnick's visits to Africa, including "Barnaby in Exile" (a sad tale about an intelligent chimpanzee), "The 43 Antarean Dynasties" (a marvelously emotional far future tale of callous tourists), "Hunting the Snark" (an engaging tale of alien big game hunting), and "The Elements of Neptune" (a touching science fantasy tribute to that species).

There are many other stories here well worth reading. There are two fine robot-AI stories, "Robots Don't Cry" and "Article of Faith" that are in obvious conversation with Asimov's iconic stories. "Old McDonald Had a Farm" is a vicious but thoughtful look at the relationship between humans and animals. In "Redchapel," Teddy Roosevelt helps investigate Jack the Ripper. Of all of the stories here, the ones I liked least were those from the past 15 years on the power of romantic love; I liked them better when I read them one at a time over the years -- taken all at once, they feel like thematic overkill. But every story here is indeed award quality, and must reading for SF fans.

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories (Del Rey, 496 pages) is one of three important best-of-author volumes published this year (and the only one from a major publishing house). It includes Willis's ten award-winning science fiction stories (most of which are novelettes or novellas), along with an introduction to the volume and afterwords to each story, and three transcribed award acceptance speeches. As an SF writer, Willis has some attributes in common with Resnick, including profound and emotionally powerful themes and ideas, and an immense popularity with core science fiction fans. A major difference is that although both use humor more than most SF authors, Willis integrates satiric humor throughout all of her serious work, while Resnick's humor is in lighter pastiches that do not make the award ballots.

While Resnick's formative influence was visiting Africa, for Willis, the touchstone core of her work appears to come from visiting London and learning its history in World War II during the Blitz. Works inspired by the Blitz (which include many of Willis's best novels) that are included here include the classic time travel story "Fire Watch" and the long mixture of humor and horror, "The Winds of Marble Arch." (Even the three fascinating award acceptance speeches included in the volume are poetically metered to resemble a Churchill speech.) The classic "Letter from the Clearys" and "The last of the Winnebagos" are both sad post-holocaust stories, but not without moments of humor (especially the latter). "At the Rialto" is a satire of academic science conferences (one of several stories by Willis in this vein) that uses quantum physics as a metaphor for human relations, while "The Soul Selects Her Own Society" is an academic satire in the form of a research paper postulating that poet Emily Dickinson was visited by aliens. "Death on the Nile" combines a satire of tourists in Egypt with an eerie ghost story. "Inside Job" interestingly channels skeptic H.L. Mencken to debunk modern psychic frauds. "Even the Queen" uses menstruation as a humorous metaphor for making very serious observations on female gender relations. "All Seated on the Ground" is a mystery relating to weird alien visitors who refuse to reveal their purpose.

All ten are brilliant and varied stories well worthy of the Hugo and Nebula awards they won, and all are uniquely Connie Willis in their mixing of humor and serious themes, and of science fiction and fantasy tropes. If Willis has one occasionally annoying tendency, it is meandering at great length in the middle of stories until the repetitive humor gets strained and tiresome, which probably comes from her love of Victorian literature. One wants to say, "OK, Connie, I get it, move on with story, already!" Willis, like Resnick, is best read over time.

The Best of Joe Haldeman Another of this year's important best-of-author collections is The Best of Joe Haldeman, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe (Subterranean Press, 504 pages). The book (reviewed earlier this year by another reviewer in SF Site) includes 19 of Haldeman's best short fiction from 1972 to present. It also includes introductions to each story that focus on the techniques of writing effective fiction and echo Haldeman's role as an academic fiction writing instructor. (It strangely does not include, however, any introduction by the volume's distinguished editors.)

The experience that was most formative for Haldeman as a writer was as a soldier in the Vietnam War, and the volume starts with "Hero," the SF war story the he expanded into his classic novel, The Forever War. It is a classic story that retains its power to this day. The level of quality in this collection never lapses, starting high and continuing to improve as we see Haldeman develop and expand his writing skills. Virtually all of the subgenres of hardcore science fiction are included in this collection, and all have been done in superior fashion. I have a hard time picking favorites from the Haldeman short SF oeuvre. And unlike Resnick and Willis, I find no problem with binge-reading Joe Haldeman. His fiction writing is so effective, his style so transparent, and his worldview so similar to my own, that I often end a work by Joe Haldeman feeling that I could write stories like his. (Some time later, I realize that he just makes it look easy.)

The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades The final of the four notable best-of-author volume came out late last year. The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades (Subterranean Press, 728 pages) is not the first Silverberg best-of collection, and this is actually a slightly updated version of the 2004 collection (published as Phases of the Moon: Stories of Six Decades and reviewed in SF Site by another reviewer) with three new stories added to fill out the 2000s. The updated collection now features 26 works of short fiction, a handful from each of the six decades of Silverberg's illustrious career so far. Each work has often lengthy introductions that together provide a fascinating history of one of the finest and most prolific writers in the history of the genre.

As with Haldeman, it is difficult for me to select favorites from the Silverberg oeuvre. I love the late 60s stories "Passengers," "Nightwings," and "Sundance," and the 70s stories "Good News from the Vatican," "Capricorn Games," "Born with the Dead," and "Schwartz Between the Galaxies." (They are so distinctly of that period, yet timeless in their qualities.) But it is perhaps the 80s that were Silverberg's strongest, when he wrote with mature voice and erudite sensibility such classics as "The Pope of the Chimps," "Needle in a Timestack," "Sailing to Byzantium," and "Enter a Soldier. Later, Enter Another." His work in the past 20 years has remained strong, and even the 50s and early 60s works have strengths that make them well worth reading. This volume show the rapid development and maturing intellect of a brilliant writer of science fiction.

Four volumes in the past 12 months is an extraordinary bounty. A significant percentage of the best short science fiction of the past 50 years can be found in these four books, making them an essential addition to any serious science fiction bookshelf.

II. Hugo Thoughts

As I write this column, the Nebula Award nominations and winners are past, we are less than a week away from this year's Hugo Awards ceremony, and by the time you read this column you will likely already know who won the much coveted Hugo Awards this year. At the risk of looking silly less than a week from now, I am going to provide my thoughts on who should win the major fiction category Hugo Awards, and who probably will win.

The Best Novel Hugo Award is an interesting contest, demographically speaking. I think that 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (which I reviewed here last year and also interviewed Robinson) was the best science fiction novel of 2012. It won the Nebula Award, but it was also the only actual science fiction novel nominated (the other four being fantasy). It did not win the Locus Award -- generally the best leading indicator for the Hugo -- coming in second behind Redshirts by John Scalzi, which is also Hugo-nominated. The other competition for the Hugo are Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (fourth in the Locus Poll), and two fantasy novels by younger writers, Blackout by Mira Grant and Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Locus Best First Novel). Demographically, fans of hardcore SF will vote Robinson, adventure SF fans will vote Bujold, and media SF fans will vote Scalzi, and the two fantasy novels will split the fantasy fan vote. I suspect the media fan contingent is now larger than the hardcore, and Scalzi will beat Robinson in a close race.

2312 Redshirts Captain Vorpatril's Alliance Blackout Throne of the Crescent Moon

The Best Novella Hugo nominees include Nancy Kress's fine SF story, "After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall," which I consider the best novella last year. It won the Nebula and the Locus Award. But "The Stars Do Not Lie" by Jay Lake is a fine story and could upset for the Hugo. The other nominees also split demographics: a fantasy by Brandon Sanderson, cutting edge SF by a fine newer author, Aliette de Bodard, and a media-fan work by Mira Grant. Any of the three would be a surprise upset. I think Lake might win.

In the Best Novelette category, I think "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi" by Pat Cadigan was the best novelette I read last year, barely edging out "Close Encounters" by Andy Duncan. Cadigan won the Locus Award. Duncan won the Nebula but did not even get nominated for the Hugo. The other Hugo nominees are all fantasy stories by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Catherynne M. Valente and Seanan McGuire (two!). With the fantasy fan vote that split, I expect Cadigan to win easily.

The Best Short Story Hugo category is having a strange year indeed. Only three stories made the cut, all but writers who are have produced fiction of notice only quite recently. I really have no idea whether Aliette de Bodard, Kij Johnson or Ken Liu will win the Hugo. I guess the favorite would be de Bodard, for the story that has already won the Nebula and Locus. All three are fine stories by newer authors that I suspect will continue to write unique fiction. The Locus Poll has a number of stories last year from well-known veterans (Elizabeth Bear, Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter S. Beagle, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, and many more), but it appears now that the short story is in the hands of a new generation of authors.

LoneStarCon 3, the 71st World Science Fiction Convention III. 2013 Worldcon

I am preparing to travel this week to LoneStarCon 3, the 71st World Science Fiction Convention, aka the Worldcon, in San Antonio, Texas. My first Worldcon was 1974, and I have attended almost two dozen since. I am looking forward to the three panels on the program in which I am participating this year:

  • What Makes a Book Review Great?
  • Sacrificing Earth: The Politics and Science of Ecology
  • The Green Chemistry Movement

It appears that I am the lone representative of SF Site on the reviewing panel. The other two panels will draw on my work at my "day job" as a scientist in the political jungles of Washington, DC.

I hope that I meet many readers of SF Site in San Antonio!

Copyright © 2013 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.

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