Baby Steps in a Spacesuit 3: In Praise of the Short Form

I think the best possible way to inculcate someone into the deep and profound mysteries that are science fiction, is to shower them with short story anthologies.

I am deeply biased, of course, because I have both had it done to me, and done it to myself.  The first time was when I was eleven or twelve years old, and needed weaning off the juvenile play-play SF (Tom Swift, etc) I was reading at the time.  The second time was when I was a little at a loss as to what new material to read in the noughties: I had been reading exclusively store-bought novels for years, meaning I was no longer frequenting second-hand bookshops or the public library, and it is difficult to pick someone new up in full-length novel format.

I praise the wisdom of my first SF mentor, back there in 1966: Judy Drew, it was; primary school teacher at my school, friend of my mother – and only in her mid-twenties, possibly.  Meaning she was only a few years ahead of me – but WHAT a difference those couple of years made!

She lent me a series of anthologies when I was around 11, starting out with the slim volumes – just 8-10 stories each – of John Carnell’s very excellent New Writings in SF series.  He edited at least the first 20 or so, which appeared from 1964 to 1972, and you could find everyone from John Rackham to Colin Kapp to Poul Anderson and Brian Aldiss – which is why I picked on their novels later on.  The covers were also consistently good and very well done.  Sadly, I have just given my last few issues away – so Rethea, if you read this, know that I have given you history!


Judy then graduated me onto meatier collections such as the legendary Spectrum III – which I will remember as long as I live, because it was so very good.  It is still available, I see – and looking at the goodreads entry, I see that it was edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest; that its contents were

“…culled from the Sci Fi Pulps of the late 1940s and 1950s and includes works by Theodore Sturgeon (“Killdozer!,” 1945), J.G. Ballard (“The Voices of Time,” 1960), Poul Anderson (“Call Me Joe,” 1957), Murray Leinster (“Exploration Team,” 1956), Alfred Bester (“Fondly Fahrenheit,” 1954) and Arthur C. Clarke (“The Sentinel,” 1951), among others”.

How could you possibly go wrong with a set of authors like that to cut your teeth on?  I think Killdozer is among the best stories I have ever read; so too Fondly Fahrenheit – and I am pretty fond of Call Me Joe, too.  Just those three stories introduce one to an ancient plasma-like being possessing a bulldozer, a temperature-triggered serial killer android who projects his madness onto its owner in the course of its spree, and a disabled man remote-operating an artificial body on Jupiter (Avatar, anyone??).

It’s not surprising, then, that I went on to collect (usually tatty second-hand) novel and collected short story offerings from the likes of Sturgeon, Asimov, Anderson, Bester, Aldiss, Heinlein, Leinster and Clarke.

short stories

However, I also avidly kept reading New Writings in SF – and Analog, Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and any other collection I could lay my hands on, because I found short-form SF to be SO exciting.


I also met many other authors that impressed me – like Philip K Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Cordwainer Smith, Michael Moorcock, Fred Saberhagen, Larry Niven, Keith Laumer, and Robert Sheckley and their ilk.  Smith and Saberhagen were especially exciting, because they obviously had entire universes that they explored in stand-alone stories: Smith The Instrumentality of Mankind, and Saberhagen the Berserker universe.  While these were very different, and the styles of their authors similarly different, the sustained creativity within a literary construct was something I really enjoyed.  I have continued to enjoy such things in full-length form, such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld, set in his Known Space universe first met via short story, and his related and now franchised Man-Kzin War series, and Farmer’s World of Tiers series.

However, part of what drew me so strongly to SF was the fact that many of the stories I read in my early days were little masterpieces in their own right – and affected me so powerfully, that I remember them vividly to this day.

Stories like It’s a Good Life, by Jerome Bixby from 1953.  I read this when still a young teenager, and it lives with me still – the fascination of a baby who can make the world go away, and the boy who keeps his town going.  His way….

And Mimsy Were the Borogroves, by “Lewis Padgett” – aka Henry Kuttner and CL Moore – from 1943.  I loved this story: the combination of future technologies and bright children has always drawn me, and this was especially good.  It made for a not-very-good film – The Last Mimzy – in 2007, but it was still good enough for my then 12-year-old daughter to thoroughly enjoy.  And how do you make toves slithy?  Vaseline, obviously!

The Cold Equations, published by Tom Godwin in 1954, was a completely different animal: its basis is how the cold certainties of physics doom to death a stowaway on an Emergency Dispatch Ship carrying emergency serum for a deadly disease down to a colony planet.  While that is all pretty straightforward, it was the way Godwin described the teenaged girl who stowed away that stuck with me. I defy you not to be moved by passages like this:

The stowaway was not a man — she was a girl in her teens, standing before him in little white gypsy sandals, with the top of her brown, curly head hardly higher than his shoulder, with a faint, sweet scent of perfume coming from her, and her smiling face tilted up so her eyes could look unknowing and unafraid into his as she waited for his answer.
…he saw that she was not wearing Vegan gypsy sandals, but only cheap imitations; the expensive Vegan leather was some kind of grained plastic, the silver buckle was gilded iron, the jewels were colored glass.

I think I cried at the time.  It still moves me now.

And given that we have just had Xmas, consider how Arthur C Clarke’s The Star from 1954 might have affected a Catholic kid raised on Nativity stories: the ending paragraph alone has to be one of the best things he ever wrote.

“There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”

The interesting thing was that, apart from Clarke, I read very little else from any of these writers: their offerings were pretty much confined to short form SF, and they were masters of the craft.

I moved gradually in the 1970s, as I began to be able to afford new paperbacks while at University, to buying, reading and keeping full-length novels.  I stuck with people I had met via short stories in the main, and built up a collection of Dick, Anderson, Niven, Moorcock, Farmer, Heinlein – and then Frank Herbert’s Dune series, because I kept reading about this wondrous book, and then it got republished – and it had sequels!!

Oh, I kept buying, short story collections and novels, and occasionally I’d chance some money on a new author – the Cape Town Public Library proved useful as a proving ground for a while, as it had a reasonable collection – but I found myself mainly recycling the same folk over and over.  Interesting new discoveries in this time, however, were Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, and Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile series and related Galactic Milieu collection, and Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai cycle.

However, the rut grew a little boring – until I discovered, as part of my second childhood, (OK, I had children) the truly excellent and very meaty (as in, thick: 650+ pages per collection) Mammoth Book annual series of Best New SF, edited by  über-fan Gardner Dozois – although, sadly, only from issue 12 in 1998.

new sf shorts

This series is the new best way to introduce someone to SF: the spread of authors is breathtaking; the scope of the stories, stunning – and if you haven’t found at least one very promising new author after reading just one issue, then you’re not really a fan.

I went on to explore Alastair Reynolds and Neal Asher in enough detail, after discovering them in Best New SFs, that I think I now own just about everything in novel form that either of them has written.  I reviewed Reynolds’ Revelation Space on the WWEnd site:

I got introduced to the Newest Wave of SF the same way I met the last one: by reading short story collections.  And in those collections, I read several stories by the likes of Charles Stross, Neal Asher – and Alastair Reynolds.  I was immediately taken with his stories about Clavaine; it was logical to move on to longer-form offerings in the same universe – and then into others.

Reynolds is truly impressive: his Revelation Space is a self-contained masterwork, with impeccable physics, and really good characterisations.  Oh, and a stunning storyline.  Read this book: you will then go out and buy all of his others.  I certainly have….

I had this to say about Neal Asher in my own blog:

I’m off to finish Neal Asher’s latest offering, “Line War“.  Wherein the awesome power of a black hole is harnessed via a mega-matter transmitter as a weapon against a nanotech-enabled enemy.  And sassy and cantankerous androids do battle with rogue artificial intelligences.  Serious stuff…B-)

And which I had to repurchase, after losing it somewhere in a plane, a week or so ago, nine-tenths finished.

hate it when that happens [and it really did: happened to Niven’s The Draco Tavern AND KS Robinson’s Green Mars, AND Dan Simmons’ Endymion as well…].

I discovered Ian McDonald – whose Cyberabad Days and Brasyl are the best recent single-author short story collection, and best novel that I have read in years.  I reviewed Brasyl as follows, on the WWEnd site:

I cannot praise this book enough: I so thoroughly enjoyed it, I put off finishing it until I absolutely HAD to.

It ticked all the boxes: incredible writing; parallel universes; historical accuracy (and recreation) – and a MOST satisfying and complicated ending.

Oh, and it is anything but Amero- or Britain-centric, which pleases me even more, as a denizen of the gobal South.

I’m not sure if I found Charles Stross in the same collections, but if not, then I found him in the bookshop that I bought all my Best New SFs in, because I was browsing after having found one – and I am so glad I did, because Accelerando is the next best book I have read in recent years.  Again, from WWEnd:

While I liked Charles Stross already – I think he is one of my best discoveries of recent years – I was not prepared for Accelerando.  The effortless way that he sweeps us from just-a-little-in-the-future, with the technology singularity lurking, to a far and very digital future, with galactic routers and digitised humans travelling as information packets via light sails….

This is an absolutely incredible read.  I found I had two analogue versions, before I bought an electronic one as well.  I am more than happy to have contributed to Cde Stross in this way.

So, as a result of twice having introduced myself to new short-form SF via short story collections, I now have a collection of SF mainly in novel form, which spans some 70 years.  It is literally in two sections, each of 4 metres around: the top deck is the older ones, going back to some of the first books I ever got; the lower is everything new – like from the mid-1990s.  I am very happy with the “new” SF, I must admit: so much so that I wrote this, in a vaguely work-connected blog, a couple of years ago.

I was most impressed, when I first came to UCT [University of Cape Town] – lo, these 33 years ago and counting [now 39] – that the English Department had a recommended reading list that included a significant amount of science fiction.

I have no idea whether or not they still recommend Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” or “The Sirens of Titan” – but if they don’t, they should.  And they should add to that list some of the truly impressive New Young(ish) British Wave of authors: people like Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod (OK, so they’re nationalistically Scottish),  Peter F Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds; newer Americans like Dan Simmons, Greg Bear and Gregory Benford.  Not to mention OF*s like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K Dick, who seems to have become Hollywood-respectable, Samuel R Delany and especially Roger Zelazny….

The thing about the new guys, and OFs above, is that they write well: they blend hard science (never a bad thing for non-practitioners), sociology and politics in a way that Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke never could.  I remember being totally bemused by a postgrad with literary pretensions in our Dept about 20 years ago, who said she never read “…that stuff, because it was simply fantastical by definition, and had no literary merit”.   I remember making the point that she couldn’t say that if she’d never read any, but like most people who put down  “The Satanic Verses”, she obviously didn’t need to, in order to know it was bad.  She didn’t seem to have the same opinion of “1984”, or “That Hideous Strength” or “Brave New World”, so obviously SF by mainstream literary authors was OK?

Ah, well.  Invincible ignorance is not punished by hellfire in the old Catholic canon, merely by eternal stagnation (aka Limbo).

But back to the New New Age: this is an exciting time, much like the mid-1970s, when it seemed that every few months brought a new chapter in the “Dune” saga (40 years old this year!), or from Larry Niven’s “Known Space” or “Ringworld” universes.  Alastair Reynolds is cranking them out, it seems, as is Charles Stross – who is very funny, as well as being seriously good at his social / scientific predictions.  Anyone who wants to blow their mind(s) need only read Stross’s “Accelerando”, available online: this has to be the single best (well, OK, SF) novel of the last 10 years and possibly even further.  Apart from Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which mixes a history of the Age of Enlightenment with some serious mysticism – and cryptography.   And U-boats.  And gold…

* = Old Fart

I also know of no better way to get into it than by reading short stories.

So, get on with it – wonders await!

About Ed Rybicki

Ed is a 65-ish virologist and biotechnologist, formerly a Zambian and presently a South African. He is into family, virology, biotechnology, vaccines, science in general, science fiction in particular, photography, red wine, wearing loud shirts, 70s rock, blues and smooth jazz...and telling stories. Sometimes, interesting ones. And writing for his own amusement.
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3 Responses to Baby Steps in a Spacesuit 3: In Praise of the Short Form

  1. Henry Gee says:

    I had lots of SF paperbacks when I was a teenager. I gave most away, and now spend a great deal of time in secondhand bookshops reacquiring them. And I, too, enjoy picking up SF anthologies and discovering authors I’d never heard of. In my view, the short story is the proper milieu for SF, in the way that punk rock is best appreciated as a three-minute single. And I do admire your collection of anthologies, which puts mine to shame!

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      Henry, I’ve been reading SF since the mid-1960s; I read fast, and I read a lot. And I keep things…B-) Which means I have to keep building storage space for it.

  2. jameswharris says:

    What a weird coincidence Ed, my friend Mike just lent me New Writings in SF5, which has the same cover as the one you show as SF-18. And I also wrote a blog earlier this year about my love of science fiction short stories –

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