MIND MELD: Underappreciated Genre Authors
Even great writers can get lost among the ever-growing stacks and stacks of genre literature or fade from memory in the course of time. Sometimes a writer’s talent far outweighs his or hers status among the reading public. With that in mind we asked our esteemed panel the following question…
My candidate for an author who deserves more recognition is Malcolm Jameson.
Jameson was a Navy veteran who wrote for Astounding Science Fiction between 1938-1945. He was a friend of another writer who became much more well-known, one who was also just getting his start, Robert A. Heinlein. Jameson broke into Astounding a year before Heinlein. Jameson’s stories were never as popular as Heinlein or some of the other Astounding writers of the day, but back when I was taking my Vacation in the Golden Age, I always looked forward to them.
Jameson’s best-known series of stories was his “Bullard” stories, a collection of related character stories that was essentially the U.S. Navy in space. Bullard was the commander of the group, and he and his crew occasionally found themselves in various scrapes while hunting down villains. But the Bullard stories were often a little more sophisticated than that. Jameson would take various military situations, and extrapolate upon them. A classic example of this was his story “White Mutiny” (Astounding, October 1940). Another was “Blockade Runner” (Astounding, March 1941).
Jameson wrote eight Bullard stories before tiring of them. He moved on to a series of stories beginning with “Anachron, Inc.,” whose ingenious premise was a trading company that did its business across different eras of time. Indeed, the first story in that series, “Anachron, Inc.” (Astounding, October 1942) was my favorite story in that issue.
Like many authors of the time, Jameson wrote some of his stories under a pseudonym. For his lighter stuff, bordering on fantasy, he used the name Colin Keith. When John W. Campbell started his “Probability Zero” column (essentially flash fiction) he depended on his reliable writers to demonstrate in that column the kinds of stories he was looking for. Malcolm Jameson wrote several “probability zero” pieces.
Jameson was versatile, as well. Like L. Sprague de Camp, Willy Ley, and R. S. Richardson, he also wrote nonfiction articles. Ley’s articles on weapons during WWII were unmatched in their detail, and quality, but Malcolm Jameson wrote one article, “Military Explosives” (Astounding, January 1942), that was outstanding.
I always looked forward to Jameson stories when they appeared in Astounding, and I was eager to follow his career through the decades and watch his writing and storytelling evolve. But it wasn’t to be.
Jameson had cancer, and he died in 1945 at the age of 53.
His stories delighted me, and when I am asked at conventions and panels for an author I think is under-appreciated, I always point to Malcolm Jameson.
There is, however, a pleasant epilogue to this story. Jameson may finally be getting the recognition he deserves. Indeed, today, he has the best kind of fan a writer could wish for. I recently learned (probably in searching for his name, although I can’t recall exactly) that Malcolm Jameson’s great-granddaughter, the writer Wendy McClure, is putting together a website dedicated to her great-grandfather.
You really can’t beat that kind of appreciation.
Publishing 260 stories a year, especially at flash lengths, means we get exposed to many underappreciated or “newer” talents. The best of these may be on the way to gaining the recognition they deserve, rather than terminally underrated. As Elizabeth Bear said — on a WorldCon panel that was only tangentially related to this topic — it takes a while to teach editors how to read unique new voices. Audiences are, I suspect, much the same. Anyway, I think of Conor Powers-Smith, Nicky Drayden, Melissa Mead, and others in this vein.
In terms of later career writers who simply deserve more accolades, I’ve always thought of Robert Reed as an underrated master of the short story. His range is amazing, and his volume prodigious, which may be both his strengths and his weaknesses. Like many, I’ve fallen in love with several of his well-crafted, mindboggling tales. Yet, also like many readers, I’ve stumbled over a few Robert Reed stories that didn’t interest me. Either they didn’t match my sensibility or the subject matter wasn’t what I desired to read. Because his style and focus traverse a much broader spectrum of speculative fiction than most readers’ do, it may be harder for Robert Reed to gain the dedicated advocates who seek out his every tale and extol it to the stars.
I think a lot of them do. My three favorites — C. L. Moore, Robert Sheckley, and Barry Malzberg — could all use more recognition. But at least most of their major works are available in mass-market or e-book forms. So let me suggest one who was a pretty major talent in his day, but today is known almost entirely by a very good story (“Arena”) that Star Trek adapted, and a mildly funny novel (Martians, Go Home!) that Hollywood ruined.
Of course I’m talking about the late Fredric Brown. He was, by any criterion, the absolute master of the short-short (which for some obscure reason is now known, far less accurately, as “flash fiction”). He also wrote one of the first (and best) recursive sf novels, What Mad Universe? He did a lovely and evocative novel that was unlike most of what was being done at the time, The Lights in the Sky Are Stars. He did a totally overlooked sf/thriller, The Mind Thing, and pulled it off seamlessly. He did Martians, Go Home, which at least was a lot more amusing than the movie. He did a number of collections, all of them containing excellent stories, and his pacing was usually dead-on.
And if that’s not enough, his mystery output dwarfed his science fiction output. The best of them was Night of the Jabberwock, which you’ll swear is a fantasy until he makes sense of everything right at the end. Then there were The Screaming Mimi, and The Fabulous Clipjoint, and Come and Go Mad, and so many more, all of them (like his science fiction) totally and easily accessible.
He was big when I was a kid. He’s pretty well-known today, but only for adaptations of a story and a novel, and he deserves one hell of a lot more recognition than that.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of folks reading this are huge fans of Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. This movie is my all-time favorite film, in any genre. The screenplay, costumes, art, setting, musical score, pacing, and characters are, in not only my opinion, literally second to none. The characters are ugly, their relationships are rich and complex, and the world they inhibit is every bit as worn and real as anything else that came before or after. It’s the simple interactions, as much as the exciting ones, that show you the complexity of their relationships. For example, in the exchange that takes place between Ripley and Dallas just prior to lift-off from LV426, Ripley has to cut Dallas off in order to get him to listen to what she has to say. That she can close the door and stop a reluctant captain from walking away without herself getting reamed speaks to the depth of their relationship. Indeed Dallas’s candor with Ripley tells us so much about the history that these two people must have. It’s the kind of dialog that can only happen between people who are very familiar and comfortable with each other, and yet by this point in the film we haven’t seen them on-screen for more than 50 minutes. Dallas isn’t the trope of the space ship captain we’ve come to know in the genre, but is instead more like an over-worked and underpaid company man at the tail end of a long and exhausting haul.
The same kind of interaction is seen between the rest of the crew as well. Parker is a bit of a wise-guy, unwilling to be pushed around and not overly impressed by Ripley’s position aboard the Nostromo, but later on there’s a scene where Ripley very firmly steps up and Parker follows her lead. There’s a subtle yet powerful character development there, and Ripley’s position as a leader is fully realized. She’s not just a fill-in for the role of female lead. Ripley is strong, level-headed, and is more of a leader of men than most of the male actors that have taken the role in any other number of films and TV shows over the years since.
That I could go on about the rich history and nuances to the relationships that these characters have, or about the kind of world they live in (everything from clues to their economy to the societal and cultural structures), is a testament to just how well this movie was done. And of course, credit to Ridley Scott for his vision and direction. But you know that name. You’ve at least heard of some of the other movies he’s directed, such as Blade Runner. Defining icons of the science fiction genre.
You know whose name you haven’t heard of? Dan O’Bannon. Director. Actor. Writer.
Dan O’Bannon, born September 30, 1946 in St. Louis and aged 63 when he died December 17, 2009 in Los Angeles, was the screen and story writer for Alien, Total Recall, segments of Heavy Metal, and more. If the crew of the Nostromo are as well-realized and fleshed out as they are, if you’re as terrified about what’s off the screen as you are what’s on (part of Alien’s defining appeal and why it works so well as a horror, making us tense up every time even after so many years later), then there has to be some measure of credit given to the writer. Ridley Scott’s competency as a director played no small part in breathing life to Alien and a number of other films that might not have been as significant as they are today without him at the helm, but if Scott is the brush, Dan O’Bannon provided the paint. Next time you’re watching one of those classics films, when you’re as confused as Douglas Quaid or as doubtful as Deckard or as tense as Ripley, remember that those famous directors had to have a script to direct. Remember Dan O’Bannon.
Four authors who deserve more recognition come to mind. Two have written books I’ve repeatedly pressed into the hands of people I meet — first dates, writing students, you name it. I scour used bookstores to rescue copies from the shelves. Two come from my day job editing books for VIZ Media’s Haikasoru imprint of Japanese SF/F in translation.
The first is Patricia Geary, whose career went south somehow after the publication of her second novel Strange Toys, despite it winning the Philip K. Dick Award — itself a trick given that it is a fantasy novel and not SF. She’s since published with the small punk rock Gorsky Press, though her books from them, like the strange novella The Other Canyon, remain clearly superior to most of the commercially published contemporary fantasy out there today. Geary really captures the supernatural aspect of fantasy; there are few rules, all poorly understood and largely inexplicable. In a lot of fantasy, the magic is systematized to the point of simply being a stand-in for technology, but not with Geary. I don’t think I’ve seen anything new from her in the past decade or so, sadly.
William Browning Spencer published three phenomenal dark fantasy novels in the 1990s. In the better universe we don’t get to live in, Zod Wallop, Resume With Monsters, and Irrational Fears inspired a generation of fantasists. In this universe, it was Buffy and Anita Blake. Oh well. Zod Wallop is a notorious anti-fantasy, both dark enough to scare and bright enough to be called capital-c Cute, literally, in its New York Times review. Resume is a Lovecraftian office comedy/fantasy superior to both the Laundry series by Charles Stross and even Thomas Ligotti’s My Work Is Not Yet Done. It’s even in print, albeit in a lazy-looking reprint from Dover Publications, a firm that mostly reprints public domain material and books about basket-weaving and whatnot. I have no idea why Irrational Fears isn’t a cult novel along the lines of Geek Love — it’s Cthulhu Mythos as a twelve-step program. Spencer is still kicking around here and there; a story reprinted in Clarkesworld, and original short in Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound, a limited-edition story collection eight years ago, but he should be kicking a lot more. Perhaps if people bought his books, he’d be able to!
Hard SF is perhaps the most difficult genre to write, which is why virtually nobody does it. The drama of engineering and physics is hard to express, and the tradition of hard SF is weighed down by ideological baggage. As Farah Mendlesohn once told me, “When people say ‘hard SF’ they mean ‘right-wing SF.'” But in Japan, they mean hard SF. Probably the best I’ve read are three books by Housuke Nojiri — Usurper of the Sun, and two of the four Rocket Girls books available in English: Rocket Girls and Rocket Girls: The Last Planet. (Reminder of disclosure: I edited these books.) Usurper is a strange existentialist hard SF story of a girl who grows up to be a scientist while waiting for a long-anticipated first contact by aliens looking to usurp our sun. It captures lab life, the deadening of emotional realities, has some great engineering and physics spectacle, and a brief haiku of an ending. The Rocket Girls series are hard SF, but joyous and funny — young girls are trained to be astronauts by a start-up space program whose rockets can’t handle heavy payloads. The world media go nuts, the girls save the day, and everyone learns about Polish notation. Anyone interested in getting young women interested in STEM fields should buy these books by the wheelbarrow-load and hand them out. If you liked Andy Weir’s The Martian, these are the books for you.
The late Project Itoh has gotten some attention: his novel Harmony won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation here in the U.S., and landed on a couple year’s-best lists. Harmony and Genocidal Organ, again which I edited, form a diptych of utopia and dystopia. In Genocidal Organ, to preserve the privileges of the so-called First World, a linguist harnesses the “grammar of genocide” and uses it against the developing world, leading to chaos, destruction, and one last chance at both vengeance and redemption. Taking place generations later, the world of Harmony has rebuilt itself into a perfect society of universal healthcare and kindness — even the UN’s peacekeeping tanks are pink. Naturally, there was an immense cost, and from a perfect world there is no escape. The books are being made into anime, which I hope will come to the English-speaking markets and help the books, because Itoh’s vision really is remarkable. Sadly, he died young in 2009. I was pleased to see his short story “The Indifference Engine,” get a nomination for the Shirley Jackson Award, and we’re releasing a new anthology called Phantasm Japan in September 2014, which includes a very strange and cerebral James Bond pastiche-cum-parody called “From the Nothingness, With Love.” It’s worth the price of the book alone, so I hope people check it out.
Nick Mamatas is the greatest failure I know. He even blogs about it (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/geek-pride/201408/success-and-failure). But he should get more recognition and a wild amount of success. People complain they don’t have to read: well, his novels are very short. He’s prolific, he’s smart, he writes on theme and he has a good social media presence. He should be a millionaire, right? Wrong. Anyway, you should check out his noir novel Love Is the Law or his zombie novel The Last Weekend.
Daphne du Maurier is not exactly an unknown writer, but seldom do I see her mentioned in lists of great speculative writers these days despite the fact that this woman wrote not only “The Birds” (surely the distant basis for Night of the Living Dead), but also the Gothic Rebecca and mountains of short stories.
Have you heard of Richard Marsh? His novel The Beetle outsold Dracula. His grandson was Robert Aickman. But he’s mostly forgotten now.
I’m still surprised when people don’t know who C.L. Moore is. But they don’t. Maybe because sword and sorcery is not so hot these days, maybe because Robert E. Howard holds that representational spot just like Lovecraft stands for everything Weird, ever.
I still do not understand why Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge did not get on the radar of speculative readers, despite lots of reviews in mainstream media last year. Livia Llewellyn and Gemma Files should be instantly recognizable names, but I still get blank looks when I mention them. David Nickle, Peter Darbyshire, Claude Lalumière…why are they not super rock-stars? Oh, and Paul Jessup. Paul Jessup! I love Paul and people should be showering him with praise, money and perhaps flower petals.
Wearing my horror hat (which is a black top hat with a veil) I’m going to recommend British author Marjorie Bowen. Marjorie Bowen was one of the several pen names of Gabrielle Campbell (1885-1952). She was a prolific, successful and critically acclaimed author with 150 novels to her name, writing supernatural horror, historical romances, popular history and biography. Bowen’s writing allowed her to escape the poverty of her childhood and support her financially demanding family.
Her first novel was written at the age of sixteen, the violent historical novel The Viper of Milan. It was rejected by several publishers as not being a suitable theme for a young lady writer. How they must have kicked themselves when it later went on to be a bestseller.
I discovered Marjorie Bowen in a slim volume: The Bishop of Hell & Other Stories, published in the Wordsworth’s Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series (which is an excellent series for discovering authors who have slipped from the public eye).
The Bishop of Hell & Other Stories, despite the lurid title, is a collection of well-crafted, subtle, atmospheric horror. In Bowen’s stories gardens are overgrown, and the environment takes on a malicious taint: “an old brick wall that the perpetual damp wall had over-run with lichen, blue, green, white, colours of decay.”
Some stories work in the Gothic revival tradition featuring dreams, ancient legends, decaying building, dry fountains. In other stories Bowen mixes horror with the commonplace. My favourite story is “The Crown Derby Plate,” where the search for a missing piece of chinaware leads to a deliciously creepy encounter.
Bowen was an accomplished writer, able to combine atmospheric horror with a sympathetic understanding of human nature. She knew how to craft resonant horror. She’s well worth seeking out.
The author I have chosen goes by three names, and his first name is Eric. (Don’t worry–I haven’t picked myself.) When I was about eight years old I read my first adult science fiction book: an Ace Double of The Space Willies/Six Worlds Yonder by Eric Frank Russell. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since. His novel Wasp contains one of my favorite lines from any book, illustrating the absurdity of propaganda: “For months we have been making triumphant retreats before a demoralized enemy who is advancing in utter disorder.”
Russell’s story “Alamagoosa” won the first Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1955, and he had a couple more Hugo nominations the next year. But in the almost six decades since, unfortunately, I think he has drifted into relative obscurity, with his books mostly out of print. His satirical sense of humor found its main target in bureaucracy, and since we haven’t got any less of that now than they did in his day, the humor is still relevant.
But Russell’s writing wasn’t just about humor. He also dealt with some fascinating science-fictional ideas. For example, his story “The Waitabits” examines what might happen if humans encounter an alien race living at a much slower pace. Russell was also ahead of his time on some social issues: “Jay Score” has a black man as a spaceship’s doctor as part of an integrated human/alien crew — and the story was published in 1941. And Russell was also capable of the gentle, emotionally evocative story, such as “Dear Devil,” in which a tentacled Martian poet befriends children on a post-apocalyptic Earth.
So, if you haven’t read Eric Frank Russell before, I recommend you give him a try. And if you have, read him again.
I’m notoriously bad about not following rules so it should be no surprise that I’m immediately going to break them here. I spent all week trying to decide between my two favorite horror writers. So I’ve finally thrown up my hands. I choose them both — one dead and one living.
When I first read the prompt, I immediately thought of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’m an obsessive fan of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Anytime I’m asked who my favorite horror writer is, I always rattle off “Charlotte Perkins Gilman” only to see blank stares. “’Yellow Wallpaper’? You know, crazy lady locked in a room?” Sometimes there’s a flicker of recognition. Occasionally a fellow fan will leap into my arms and we’ll bond for life over the gnawed bedpost and the bulging-eyed woman creep-creeping through the wallpaper. But generally, I look like the crazy woman and my literary heart shatters a little more inside me.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was far ahead of her time. She was a woman writing horror when that just wasn’t done in polite society. And not just any horror, but make-you-question-your-own-sanity psychological horror with a deliciously unreliable narrator that you can’t help but scootch along the floorboards with as she descends into madness. As a victim of the “rest cure” herself, a treatment for female hysteria caused by an overactive imagination, Gilman was a strong activist for female rights. She helped pave the way for women to exercise their minds without being consider, well, mad. Since I’d prefer not to write from a padded cell, I have to consider her one of my literary role models and a must read within the horror genre.
Now on to my living favorite, Joe Hill. He’s extremely well-known within horror circles, but once I branch out into my less horrified friends, he practically ceases to exist. And that, my lovely friends, is a crying shame. Because Joe Hill scares the ever-living bejeebies out of me.
I have a confession. I checked out Heart-Shaped Box from the public library. I started reading it. La-de-da. All was well. And then I got to the ghost with the scribbled out eyes…. (No spoilers here. This happens pretty quickly in the book.) I was so scared… so goose-bumped out of my mind… that not only could I not read the book when alone in the house, or in the dark, or on stormy nights… BUT I HAD TO TURN THE FOOL THING BACK INTO THE LIBRARY. I’ve never run from a book in my life.
Until Joe Hill and his durned Heart-Shaped Box.
Yes, I checked that sucker right back into the Southern Pines Public Library.
It took me a full six months of wondering what happened, of turning the plot over in my head and poking at it like a sore tooth before I could work up the courage to check it out again.
I read it in a marathon session with the covers up to my chin and my mouth hanging open and my stomach knotted into my heart. Sweet baby bunnies in a bread box. Any writer who can do that with ink on a page should be a household name.
So go read some Joe Hill. All of his work is flippin’ fab and scary as nails under your eyelids.
And check out Charlotte Perkins Gilman while you’re at it. You’re just not well read until you’ve gone down the rabbit hole of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Good luck. Don’t blame me when the nightmares come calling. But you can thank me.
As a reader of SF Signal, there is a very good chance you are familiar with Simak’s work. After all, he won the Hugo award three times, picked up a Nebula, and became the third-ever writer to be honored with the title of the SFWA Grandmaster. And yet, his works have not been reprinted in decades and most of the younger fans have not read him. It is perhaps this fall in status from the “it” author of the 1970s and ’80s to relative obscurity that makes me feel so strongly about reminding readers of his legacy.
Simak was the bard of his native Wisconsin; many of his works were set in the Midwest and conveyed its easy grace and certain pastoral quality. But it is the humanity of Simak’s characters that truly sets him apart — be they humans, aliens, robots, or uplifted animals. Throughout his work, the author’s empathy and unfailing morality inevitably shine through.
Among his many worthy books, the two novels I feel are must-reads for any well-rounded science fiction fan are City and Way Station. These novels are sadly not available as e-books, but they can still be found cheaply in used book stores. Do yourself a favor and track them down.
While Simak was once well-known to American fans, another worthy author I’d like to highlight never achieved that status. Widely considered one of the best Russian writers of all time, Mikhail Bulgakov was a veritable trailblazer when it comes to writing genre. He lived in the early decades of the 20th century and, like Simak, was greatly influenced by the writings of H.G. Wells.
Bulgakov’s most famous novel (and the only one Anglophone readers might be reasonably expected to know) is The Master and Margarita. On the surface this is the story of the Devil visiting Moscow’s Bohemia in the early days of the Soviet Union, but the book is multi-layered, funny, deliciously complex, and so subtle in its criticism of the communist regime that Bulgakov’s widow actually managed to get it printed in the late ’60s. This book was written in the 1930s and lays so much of the groundwork for establishing Magical Realism as a genre decades before Gabriel Garcia Marquez conceived of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I should add that The Master and Margarita is my favorite Russian-language book. I must have read it at least ten times.
Magical realism isn’t the only genre staple Bulgakov pioneered. Before Daniel Keyes wrote “Flowers for Algernon” (in 1958), there was Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (1925). Bulgakov’s take on the story is more political: a stray dog is uplifted through medical science to become a living embodiment of the communist thugs in what is widely accepted as Bulgakov’s allegory for the communist revolution’s attempt to transform mankind. A perfectly nice dog becomes a terrible human being, until he eventually regresses again. It’s not exactly the same tale, but many of the themes in Keyes’ moving story were explored by Bulgakov over thirty years earlier.
Several of Bulgakov’s other works fall firmly within the category of science fiction, and while they’re unlikely to ever become widely read in translation, it’s important to recognize this brilliant author’s for his many achievements in our genre.
One of my favorite authors, George C. Chesbro (now unfortunately gone) is right on the cusp of SF/F/H. He wrote mysteries with strong paranormal, science fictional and occult elements. Perhaps if his books had been published later, the rise of online retailers with the ability to virtually shelve books in more than one section might have led him to be better known among genre readers.
I first discovered him in the 1980s through the Science Fiction Book Club, which had the remarkable good sense to offer up Chesbro’s The Beasts of Valhalla. This is a great introduction to the Mongo series (it’s actually book four), featuring genetic research, super-geniuses, de-evolution, gaming, telepathy, intelligent gorillas, and plenty of action. This is science fiction, with touches of fantasy and horror. Wrapped around an underlying mystery.
Why read Chesbro? His characters are compelling and multi-multilayered, his descriptions both lyrical land interesting. The plots are so convoluted that you never see where they’re going, but they still make sense. They go right to the edge and keep you there, dabbling in witchcraft, parapsychology, and mad scientists. Above all, his books are fun to read — they’re fast-paced and quirky.
Besides the Mongo series (featuring Dr. Robert Frederickson, aka Mongo the Magnificent, dwarf, criminologist, and private investigator), Chesbro wrote two other series: Veil and Chant (written as David Cross). As well as several stand-alone novels and some off-the-wall short stories. He even did the novelization for the movie The Golden Child.
Go forth and be intrigued — you’ll be glad you did!
Full Disclosure: I’m Kage Baker’s archivist in my day job. I’m ultimately responsible for making sure that her work endures, so please accept this missive as part of that mission, in addition to being a fan of her work.
I think Kage Baker’s work is underappreciated. While, admittedly, her work was nominated for a Hugo Award and World Fantasy Awards, and she won a Sturgeon and a Nebula, her work doesn’t always come up in conversation as much as it should. Of course, I’m not the first person to point this out. Jeff VanderMeer did so in Clarkesworld Magazine back in 2008.
In particular, her eight novel Company Series interrogated the notion of time travel with wry humor, a keen eye for human behavior, and an impressive understanding of the moral ambiguity of corporate culture. She succeeded so much that when her original publisher didn’t pick up a future option mid series, a different publisher did so.
Kage had a deep intelligence and a wicked sense of the absurdity of life that came out in her characters and the situations that she put them in. My hope is that her work will continue to be recognized and remembered for its elegance of execution, even though she is no longer with us.
The other author I think is underappreciated is Sarah Monette, who, thankfully, is still with us and still writing, albeit under a new name. In more full disclosure, I’m also Sarah’s archivist, and I consider her one of my dearest friends. While I have a vested personal and professional interest in her career, it is very much based upon the massive skill set that Sarah has shown in telling gorgeous, evocative stories. Sarah was a Campbell Award nominee a few years ago, and her most recent novel, The Goblin Emperor, is going on my Hugo award ballot next year.
Sarah is one of the most beautifully intricate worldbuilders that I’ve read, particularly in the area of language and naming systems. Her most recent book, The Goblin Emperor (released under her pseudonym Katherine Addison), is a gorgeous character study of Maia, a young goblin who is struggling with the concept of goodness and what it means when you are handed ultimate political power. Intrigues and zeppelins, and a protagonist who truly thinks about his actions in a way that examines everything we think we know about secondary world fantasy. That said, Sarah’s earlier work is also very much worth seeking out. While some of the volumes in her Doctrine of Labyrinths series are out of print, Sarah’s gorgeous prose and tight characterizations make these novels fascinating, although not for the faint of heart — there are some very grim things indeed that happen to Felix and Mildmay in their travels. Her short story collection The Bone Key is one of my very favorite collections. Kyle Murchison Booth, the main character in these short stories and novellas is a socially awkward rare books curator in a museum. Strange, spooky things keep happening to him, creating a sense of gothic dread that is reminiscent of the best parts of Lovecraft and M.R. James, without the things that we don’t enjoy as much. These are some fantastic ghost stories that are worth your time.
I find it fascinating that right now, the trilogy is king. Novels, movies, you name it — consumers expect at least three volumes. The uplifting hero’s quest in part one. The expansion of the world and stymied progress in part two, often with a handful of new companions and issues. The climactic triumph over impossible odds in part three, maybe with a view towards what comes next, or revisiting what came before. Epic, grandiose-scale storytelling. The coiling ouroboros of fiction.
But at the same time, the increasing demand for our attention means we consume in ever smaller, more condensed bites. Don’t make me load a webpage, where’s the app? Give me the cliffnotes. TL;DR.
I think it helps explain the rise of audio fiction. Most novel chapters clock in under half an hour. As a podcaster, I specifically plan my episodes around the 30 minutes the average commuter spends in the car or on the train. That’s my captive audience, the niche I fill. It dictates everything from which stories I select to how I time the donation call. It’s a perfect, commute-sized medium, a backdoor fiction can use to get into the lives of countless new readers.
But it hasn’t yet. And that’s a shame. Especially when you consider the unique opportunity an anthology of short stories represents…
Let’s say I’m new to genre fiction. I’ve heard co-workers discussing popular television adaptations and I want to know more. I head into my Friendly Neighbourhood Book Shop and find the genre fiction section. There they are: the doorstopper tomes, lined up side by side by side with their shiny covers. I flip to the back and start tallying up page counts, mentally converting them to hours. And blanch. Suddenly, keeping up with the office conversation doesn’t seem like such a safe gamble of my time.
But instead, what if a co-worker handed me a copy of Rogues, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois? A single short story isn’t a huge commitment of my time — maybe an hour. And if I don’t like that one, there may be another I connect with.
And that is the elegance and beauty of an anthology: opportunity. Each story is a bite-sized sample of a world. Temerant. Neverwhere. The Clockwork Century. Westeros. Anthologies give us the skeleton key to a dozen side doors.
So why the dichotomy between best-selling novels and lower-shelf short fiction? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps we cling to the longer works as a way of promising ourselves that someday we’ll make more time for reading. Maybe we prefer the depth and range that longer works offer, and a higher proportion of readers are willing to sacrifice volume for complexity.
But for me, if there’s any underappreciated niche in genre fiction, it’s the short story. Self-contained, bite-sized nuggets of fiction served up in sampler-plate anthologies, short stories represent the opportunity to experience and connect with fiction while juggling daily commitments. Short stories are the keys that unlock the vaults of fiction, one lunch break or commute at a time.
Tagged with: Alex Shvarstman • Anna Yeatts • Deborah Walker • Elektra Hammond • Eric James Stone • Jamie Todd Rubin • Jonathan Laden • Lynn M. Thomas • Marguerite Kenner • Mike Resnick • Mind Meld • Nick Mamatas • R. Leigh Hennig • Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Filed under: Mind Meld
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