We’ve discussed essential science fiction novels, but what about essential short fiction? Many authors have published collections of their short fiction over the years, so we asked this week’s panelists:
Is your favorite single-author collection listed below?
- Shirley Jackson – The Lottery and Other Stories – Doesn’t need presentation.
- Octavia E. Butler – Bloodchild and Other Stories (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995) – Doesn’t need presentation either. Harrowing tales. My favourite story is “Speech Sounds.”
- Ursula K. Le Guin – Orsinian Tales (Harper Prism, 1991) – Minimalistic and lovely.
- Aimee Bender – The Girl In The Flammable Skirt (Anchor Books, 1999) – Cheeky, and so insouciant in its cheekiness.
- Kelly Link – Stranger Things Happen (Small Beer Press, 2001) – I love Link’s Bizarro streak. The French have the perfect word for it: “décalé.” Maybe it’s “zany”. In this collection, a woman who only seduces cellists, a farmer with a collection of artificial noses, and tap-dancing bank robbers.
- Suzy McKee Charnas – Music of the Night (ElectricStory.com, 2001) – I knew this author from “A Vampire Tapestry.” This one’s about four monsters. An ordinary adolescent in “Boobs.” A vampire consulting a psychiatrist in “Unicorn Tapestry.” Dark magic revealing a woman’s “Evil Thoughts.” And a beautiful woman ruling over a monster in “Beauty and the Opera or The Phantom Beast.”
- Margaret Atwood – Moral Disorder (Bloomsbury, 2007) – Brilliant and unsentimental interwoven stories. Don’t tell me it’s not SFF.
- Lucy A. Snyder – Installing Linux On A Dead Badger (And Other Oddities) (Creative Guy Publishing, 2007) – Actually, I won this one (I always win when I enter online contests), and then I kept on buying copies for friends. Sheer oddities, yes. By the way, don’t try to emulate the author: badgers kill all firewalls and colonize any operating system. Even dead.
- Caitlin Kiernan – A Is For Alien (Subterranean Press, 2009) – Kiernan’s first SF-only collection. Dark, and so well written. Did I say ‘dark’?
- The tenth place is for all the authors I love and I haven’t cited above.
I could have tried to put together a canonical set of collections, a list of what I think every fan should read. But on looking at my single-author collections, I find that I’m more interested in listing my favorites than in listing essential/important collections.
(I’m sidestepping the “every fan’s library” criterion; a great many fans (especially those who dislike short fiction) would likely hate most or all of the collections I’m listing.)
So here are my ten favorite single-author collections (excluding Best Ofs):
- Ursula K. Le Guin: Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995). I could easily fill half this list with Le Guin collections, but I’ll limit myself to this one: four brilliant linked novellas about slavery. Possibly my favorite book by my favorite author. Hard to find. (I think The Birthday of the World is probably my second-favorite collection of hers, but I’m leaving that off this list to make room for other authors.)
- James Tiptree, Jr.: Ten Thousand Light Years from Home (1973). Her first collection; doesn’t contain a bunch of her famous stories, but I don’t think any one of her collections contains all of the stories I love, and I think this one’s a good representative sample of her early work. (See below for more on Tiptree.)
- Joan Aiken: Not What You Expected (1974). A lovely, and almost impossible to find, collection, containing some of my favorites of Aiken’s stories, most especially “The Third Wish” (one of my all-time favorite stories). For more on this and her other overlapping collections, see my 2001 review in Strange Horizons.
- Connie Willis: Fire Watch (1984). Standouts include the superb title story (a precursor to Doomsday Book and other works in that milieu) and the chilling “All My Darling Daughters.”
- Zenna Henderson: Ingathering: The Complete People Stories (1995) There are four mass-market paperback volumes of Zenna Henderson stories (published by Doubleday in the ’60s and early ’70s), and I recommend all of them, even the non-People ones, if you can cope with a little religion in your sf. (See also some thoughts about the People stories from my blog some years back.) But if I’m picking just one collection, Ingathering is the obvious choice. (If I had to pick one of those Doubleday paperbacks, it would be the first one, Pilgrimage: The Book of the People.)
- Cordwainer Smith: The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (1993) Smith’s work is lovely and strange and lyrical; it’s great that NESFA Press packaged all his short stories into one volume. If I had to pick one paperback collection, it would be The Instrumentality of Mankind, which collected a bunch of the Instrumentality stories plus a few others; but it leaves out some of my favorites of his stories, especially “The Dead Lady of Clown Town.”
- Samuel R. Delany: Distant Stars (1981), an unusual illustrated trade paperback from Bantam; particularly interesting for its four-segment illustrations of “Empire Star.” It was a tossup between this collection and Driftglass, but I settled on this one because in addition to “Corona” and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” it also contains the delightful Thirteen Clocks pastiche “Prismatica.” It’s missing “Aye, and Gomorrah,” though.
- R. A. Lafferty: Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970). Lafferty was one of the great prose stylists of the field; there’s nothing like a Lafferty story (except for Lafferty pastiches, like Gaiman’s excellent “Sunbird”). This collection is a good introduction to his work. Too many good stories to list here; I suppose I’m especially partial to the slight fun ones, like “Hog-Belly Honey.”
- Norman Spinrad: The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (1970). As with several of the collections on this list, I first read this one as a kid, from my father’s bookshelf; most of the stories in it stuck with me, in one way or another, from the quietly sad “Deathwatch” to the over-the-top anarchic zaniness of the title story.
- Howard Waldrop: Dream Factories and Radio Pictures (2001), which contains a bunch of my favorites of Waldrop’s funny, erudite, and sui generis stories, especially “Fin de Cyclé.” Even though it doesn’t contain my very favorite of his stories, “The Sawing Boys.” Really, all of his collections are good, and there are a bunch of them, several of which overlap with each other. For more about Waldrop, see my 2001 introduction to our issue that focused on his work.
…Having constructed this list, I have to add that it’s not quite the list I want it to be.
I’m more interested in whether a given collection contains stories I like (and/or important stories) than in how the stories were chosen; thus, surveys of an author’s work and Best-Of volumes tend to be the ones I really love and would usually recommend.
For example, the Tiptree volume I list above is more because I love Tiptree than because I love that particular book; I would much rather recommend Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (2000), an omnibus survey of her best decade, containing almost all of her best stories, but since it’s a Best-Of, it’s excluded from the list. Similarly with Essential Ellison, Fundamental Disch, and
Comprehensive Card Maps in a Mirror. And how can I exclude Sturgeon from the list? But I don’t love any of his one-volume collections (unless you count More Than Human as a collection), and the current Complete Works series, while excellent, may be of less interest to non-completists. And how can I exclude Russ? But much as I love some of her stories, it turns out I have them only in anthologies rather than single-author collections; I’ll have to rectify that.
While I’m mentioning stuff disallowed by the original question: I’m also fond of the Ballantine paperback “Best Of” series from the 1970s, which introduced me to several fine authors.
Even setting aside Best-Ofs, there are way too many good single-author collections to fit in a top-ten list. I could, for example, list Ellison’s Angry Candy, Niven’s Tales of Known Space, Bradbury’s The Toynbee Convector (and half a dozen others), Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space, Andy Duncan’s Beluthahatchie, Barthelme’s Overnight to Many Distant Cities (not exactly sf, but close), Borges’s Ficciones, Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Ray Vukcevich’s Meet Me in the Moon Room, and Gaiman’s Angels and Visitations—or any of two dozen others on my shelves, including several by friends of mine. But I suppose it’s inevitable (and tautological) that a top-ten list will exclude the rest of the top fifty.
Oh, let’s see.
Funny thing is, the first one that would have come to mind anyway was Sturgeon’s E. Pluribus Unicorn, which contains my favorite unicorn story ever, “The Silken-Swift.” And also the magisterial “Bianca’s Hands,” a sort of love story about objectification and obsession which creeps me out quite deeply to this day.
Another is Zelazny’s Unicorn Variations, so that’s two unicorns for you. Unicorn Variations contains one of the creepier twist-ending flash pieces around, “And I Only Am Escaped To Tell Thee,” in addition to the Hugo winner title story and the Hugo winner novella “Home is the Hangman”.
I bet somebody else is going to field Chiang’s Stories Of Your Life And Others, Willis’s Fire Watch and Impossible Things, and Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, so I will merely note their existence and excellence and move on.
Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories is another clear winner, containing as it does “Speech Sounds,” one of the best sociological SF stories in existence. On the subject of sociological SF, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is indispensible, and contains my favorite short story of all time, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I also often re-read John Varley’s Blue Champagne, which contains “Press Enter,” “Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo,” and the best nuclear war story ever written, “The Manhattan Phone Book (abridged)”
I also recommend R. A. Lafferty’s brilliant Strange Doings, which is, yes, as strange as they come. And serves as a remarkable demonstration of his range and ability, enfolding as it does within its covers “The Transcendent Tigers,” “Continued on Next Rock,” and “Entire and Perfect Chrysolite.”
And no such list would be complete without a mention of James Tiptree Jr.’s Warm Worlds and Otherwise, which boasts (a partial listing!) “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” “The Women Men Don’t See,” AND “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.” Dayum. Titles to conjure with.
It is very hard to get this down to only ten collections. So I’ll take the approach of generally including science fiction only, which will rule out books like Michael Moorcock’s Bane of the Black Sword, Robert E. Howard Conan volumes, Lucius Shepard’s Jaguar Hunter and Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise. H. P. Loveraft and Laird Barron certainly have science fictional bents to some of their stuff, but I will leave them out similarly. This still leaves some out: C. L. Moore, James H. Schimtz, Ian McDonald, Roger Zelazny, Cory Doctorow, George R. R. Martin, Allen M. Steele, Dan Simmons, etc. More detail here
Also, I’m going to take largely a modern focus, with a couple of expections. I imagine others will mention Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Clarke (who was very influential to me as a kid) and others. If you were talking about building a serious library for the science fiction fans, then outside the scope of this article Best Ofs are certainly a good approach to take, and you’d certainly want some of the work of the older writers above.
To me, however, post-2000 collections are certainly superior.
So here are some 5 star collections:
- Oceanic – Greg Egan (2009) – Greg Egan is a science fiction genius. Thankfully he is rather more productive than Chiang, with the recent period being very fertile. A fact for which we are very greatful. Axiomatic would be a great choice here, too, as would Luminous, the title story of that book finds a sequel in Oceanic with the great Dark Integers. Immortal brain replacements, strange genders in the titular Hugo winner, galactic exploration, space opera, strange illnesses and alien contact. Border Guards is possibly my favorite Egan story – quantum soccer. A true mind melter of an author.
- Space Lords – Cordwainer Smith (1965) – Cordwainer Smith was a wonder, and a complete original in coming up with his Instrumentality of Mankind. Obviously his time in Australia helped him with this. This first book is nice and short, but it will certainly be easier to get the two collections Baen has if you are after Cordwainer Smith, in either P or E. “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” is one of my two favorite Smith stories, about the weaponmaster in charge of defending Old North Australia against criminals. “The Dead Lady of Clow Town” and “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” are very strong stories, as well.
- “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons”
- “The Dead Lady Of Clown Town“
- “The Ballad Of Lost C’Mell”
- “A Planet Named Shayol”
- The Halfling and Other Stories – Leigh Brackett (1973) – Leigh Brackett’s best work involved the hardboiled but sensual planetary romance adventures, in general, but she did some other work, too, often in a loosely related future history. The title story is about a hardbitten circus owner who has to deal with an agent provocateur in his midst, and along with the Eric John Stark story “Enchantress of Venus”, is an example of the first type. “The Citadel of Lost Ages” is a standalone post-apocalyptic alien hybrid recovery of technology quest. “All The Colors of the Rainbow” are about an alien on Earth, both of whom are not white, encountering a town of hick bigots in nowheresville USA. “The Shadows” is set in deep space, and part of this future history of planetary exploration. Man is finding it tough going in a hostile universe, finding few friends until a surprising discovery on this planet. Happily you can get a great selection of lots of her work thanks to Webscriptions, and Paizo Planet Stories have also done several recent print volumes. Also, her public domain stories can be found at the Internet Archive and some at Project Gutenberg and other places.
- “The Halfling”
- “The Dancing Girl of Ganymede”
- “The Citadel of Lost Ages”
- “All the Colors of the Rainbow”
- “The Shadows”
- “Enchantress of Venus“
- “The Lake of the Gone Forever”
- “The Truants”
- Twilight Beach – Terry Dowling (1992) – The third collection of Tom Tyson stories, and I could equally happily pick Rynosseros, Blue Tyson or Rynemonn, being the first, third and fourth books. However, there are three stories online from this collection. The setting for the stories is a future Australian under Aboriginal rule, with non-natives confined to small coastal areas. There are strange artificial intelligences, and other lifeforms, death rays, pirates, space travel, shapeshifters, brains in jars and much, much more. Then there are the great sand ships that the Seven Coloured Captains travel on by means of wind and sun. The Nationals that can travel anywhere champions of the AI. The tales feel like a hybrid of Cordwainer Smith and J. G. Ballard, with better writing than the former, and better science fiction than the latter. It is really quite amazing how this comes together so cohesively. I love these stories greatly and I would implore anyone who thinks that sounds interesting to take a look at “Roadsong” or “Ship’s Eye” to get a feel for this. Rynosseros will be the easiest book to find if you are looking as there was an edition from the Science Fiction Book Club.
- Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang (2002) – There’s only one problem with Ted Chiang, and that is speed. In fact, if you could put him in Greg Egan’s “Dust” as a simulation and speed up time passing, for him it would be very interesting to see what would happen. The title story is about meeting aliens who have a truly different language, and a woman trying to come to grips with what she can in a brief time. “Understand” is an excellent story of competing super intelligent men, having recently come to that condition. “Division by Zero” you could add as a corollary to Greg Egan’s Luminous diptych, with its wonky mathematics. There are a goodly number of his stories of his life, and I recently read that Small Beer Press would do a new edition.
- Accelerando – Charles Stross (2005) – Call it a novel if you like, but this is made up of nine longer stories following the lives of the Macx family through multiple generations, from the Earth economic antics of Manfred in the mindblowing Lobsters, to space via his daughter.
- Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories – Nancy Kress (2008) – Apparently Nancy Kress is involved in some sort of writing class at the moment, with Walter Jon Williams. This is interesting because the title story in this collection could go with the title story of Williams recent Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories. Both investigating what might happen if people achieve the technology to allow them to produce a certain level of food and shelter at basically no cost. “Computer Virus” is a house computer gone bad great horror story. “Ej-es” is medical SF, if you like. Kress definitely gives you variety.
- The Gabble and Other Stories – Neal Asher (2008) – Neal Asher is a writer of unapologetic science fiction adventure stories, but they are very much of the 21st century. I actually believe his short work is stronger than his novels, in general, although there are exceptions. The Polity future history is a setting that is managed by artificial intelligences and their agents, both human and machine. The AI have their own motivations, as do the humans, and outside the polity they come into conflict with other aliens, notably the crablike Prador. His drones are great. A homage to Banks, but more fun to talk to. The various creatures and races that populate his worlds make him the unchallenged 21st century king of the science fiction monster. A Gabbleduck being one of these. Plus you might even find a dinosaur. I’d actually recommend Asher as an entre into SF for those that have read a little, or read something in the past that might like to give it a go again, or initially.
- Galactic North – Alastair Reynolds (2006) – Alastair Reynolds is the best writer of space opera. Ever. One case where the usual overhyped blurb rubbish is actually true, when it says he is a “Mastersinger of the Space Opera” Extremely good at other dyed-in-the-wool SF, too, and this selection could happily be Zima Blue and Other Stories, or even Deep Navigation, which is much harder to get and rather more expensive. Galactic North holds eight stories from his Revelation Space future history. Definitely tinged with gloom and even horror at times, this work, but his heroes persevere, often at great cost and shock, as in “Great Wall of Mars” where Neville Clavain ends up with the Conjoiners in a nasty war a the damaged genius child tries to hold their base together. A frozen mystery in “Glacial”, some approaching Asheresque zoology in “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary”, and plenty of spaceships in the last couple.
- “Great Wall of Mars”
- “A Spy in Europa“
- “Dilation Sleep”
- “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary”
- “Galactic North”
- Pump Six and Other Stories – Paolo Bacigalupi (2008) – Science fiction thrives on the new, and novel in all senses is what Bacigalupi managed with his post-oil, crop-blighted world of The Windup Girl. “Yellow Card Man” is a direct prequel to this, and “The Calorie Man” earlier still, but has important bearing on the setting of the recent award winning novel. “The People Of Sand and Slag” takes a blighted future to the extreme, with posthuman modification mandatory to get along. The title story is a Kornbluthian look at a near future with problems with breeding due to the toxic envionment, on bot the physical and mental. “Pop Squad” gives a different spin on a Logan’s Run type solution to population control.
I originally proposed the idea for this mind meld when the previous Ten Books That Should Be in Every SF Fans Library Mind meld seemed to be totally novels. Short stories are the way the field first really developed and much of the seminal work is in the shorter form. I asked John DeNardo to get the shorter fiction recommendations and he graciously asked me to play in the fun.
You Will Never Be the Same by Cordwainer Smith – If you have read Cordwainer Smith, you know why you need this book. Smith wrote stories like no one before or since. Begin with his first mature story “Scanners Live in Vain”. Move on to “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” and “The Game of Rat and Dragon”. Truly wonderful works of SF artistry.
The Persistence of Vision by John Varley – There was a time when John Varley was seen as the second coming of Heinlein. And this was because of his stories. This volume contains nine early works including the Nebula winning title story. Other memorable pieces included “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank”, “Air Raid”, and “In the Hall of the Mountain Kings”. He was the real deal and won several awards for his work.
The October Country by Ray Bradbury – I was tempted to list Dark Carnival but this is essentially the same book is much more available. Early Ray Bradbury when he really wanted to be a writer and to thrill and entertain with every word. It includes such classics as “The Small Assassin”, “The Jar”, “Uncle Einar” and The Wonderful Poker Chip of H. Matisse”. These are the type of stories that Bradbury built his reputation on and they really show why.
Not Without Sorcery by Theodore Sturgeon – One of the best short fiction writers the science fiction field ever produced and this is his first collection. Sturgeon wrote about human emotions at a time when many science fiction stories were the clever engineer type. Among the classics here are “It”, “Shottle Bop”, “Microcosmic God”, and “Maturity”. Sturgeon remains one of the greatest short story writers the field has ever produced.
The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth by Roger Zelazny – I was probably 14 when I first discovered the work of Roger Zelazny with “A Rose For Ecclesiastes” which is still in my the top five of my favorite short stories. Then I found the title story of this collection and said the Zelazny could do no wrong. He still wrote some of my favorite novels “Isle of the Dead” and “Lord of Light “and many other great short stories.
Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison – As I teenager I came into that wonderful 1967 – 68 era ready for change. There was the Airplane, The Doors, Hendrix, and Joplin. On the science fiction side there was Ellison, Zelazny, Delany, and Ballard. God, what a time that was! This was Ellison screaming to the world “Take notice of us! We are doing great work and we are not a ghetto!” Deathbird Stories contains new and old stories in the way that Ellison was famous for doing. There are so many fabulous stories in this collection. “The Deathbird” was a lead piece in fantasy and Science Fiction and I read it there. It blew me away. Then there was “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”, “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”, Paingod” and more. I was tempted to list “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” from 1967 but this is a more potent and important collection.
The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein – Heinlein burst onto the SF scene in 1939 and was a whirlwind, dominating the pages of Astounding with his short stories. The best of these dealt with his future history which he had charted out over thousands of years. This volume actually contains four previously published volumes (three short story collections and one novel) “The Man Who Sold The Moon”, “The Green Hills of Earth”, “Revolt in 2100” and “Methuselah’s Children”. These stories are an important part of the development of the field and this is a great way to get them. If you feel this is a cheat instead of a single volume, go for “The Man Who Sold the Moon”.
Warm Worlds and Otherwise by James Tiptree Jr. – The second collection of stories by one of the greatest writers of the 70’s and 80’s. Contains multiple award winning stories including “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain”, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”, “The Women Men Don’t See”. Amazing work from an amazing lady.
The Atrocity Exhibition (US Title – Love and Napalm Export USA) by J. G. Ballard – Judy Merrill’s yearly Best Of anthologies were a staple of my early readings and J. G. Ballard was really coming into his own with his “condensed novels” like “You:Coma:Marilyn Monroe” , “You and Me and the Continuum”, and “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Bicycle Race”. Heavily influential in its time, it may not have survived quite as well as I would like. You might try Vermillion Sands for more traditional and accessible stories. Or, better yet, just get The Complete Stories and see what the buzz was all about.
Skullface by Robert E. Howard – This might also be considered a cheat since Howard was dead and August Derleth went and picked what he thought was the best of Howard for a memorial volume. Still it has been an enormously influential. When the first Conan paperbacks were appearing from Lancer along with Kull and Wolfshead I kept seeing that the stories had all been published in Skullface. A massive beautiful book that everyone should own. There was a British hardback in the 70’s from Neville Spearman that is much easier to acquire (and far cheaper). This was my final choice into the listing and it was tough to choose between Skullface, The Outsider by Lovecraft, and Out of Space and Time by Clark Ashton Smith. All are worthwhile and necessary.
It was tough to limit this to ten titles. I wanted to include Burning Chrome by William Gibson, Crystal Express by Bruce Sterling, 900 Grandmothers by R.A. Lafferty, Untouched By Human Hands by Sheckley, The Winds Twelve Quarters by LeGuin, Driftglass by Delany, Nightfall and Other Stories by Asimov. Many many great collections for your reading edification.