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On Books

by Norman Spinrad



edited by Greg Bear
Pyr, $18, digital $9.99

*   *   *

edited by Mercedes Lackey
Pyr, $18, digital $9.99

*   *   *

Wildside Press, $.99

*   *   *

by Harlan Ellison
Subterranean Press, $45
(Deluxe Hardcover Edition)

I have been writing this column for close to four decades now, and, yet, to the best of my recollection, I have never reviewed a book of short stories. During my writing career, I have written and published something like twenty-five novels, but I have also probably written something close to one hundred short stories, if by short stories one means fiction of less than novel length, which is my definition here. The Nebula rules of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America deem any story shorter than 7,500 words a “short story,” any story between 7,500 and 17,500 words a “novelette,” any story between 17,500 and 40,000 words a “novella,” and any story longer a “novel.”

So why have I not paid critical attention to the short story for almost four decades even though I myself as a writer of fiction have written something like a hundred of them?

Well, on a practical level the answer to that one had always been the title of this column itself, “On Books.” What I’m supposed to be considering here is indeed books, and therefore what I can address here is collections or anthologies of stories—collections being books containing the stories of a single author, anthologies being books containing stories by several authors. In the real world, it takes a minimum of sixty thousand words for such books to be economically viable and therefore publishable. Therefore, aside from the rare collection or anthology of two or more novellas, any other such books will contain a minimum of five short stories, and in the real world an average of something like ten.

So I could see no way of really dealing with the stories in even one collection or anthology here, along with at least two novels, reviewing two and usually more books, which has long been my customary critical mission in On Books.

So why am I going to attempt to at least ponder the overall contents of two anthologies and two collections now, when the task of dealing with each and every story in them would be just plain impossible? The individual collections are Can & Can’tankerous, containing twelve unequivocal stories and “The Sarsaparilla Alphabet,” made up of a short-short for every letter of the alphabet, by Harlan Ellison and The Fredric Brown Megapack, consisting of thirty-three stories by Fredric Brown. The anthologies are The Nebula Awards Showcases, 2015 and 2016, consisting of the short fiction Nebula winners, the nominees, excerpts from the novel winners—and, in the case of 2016, also excerpts from all the novella nominees.

Seventy stories, excluding the excerpts, ninety-six if you count the short-shorts of “The Sarsaparilla Alphabet” as individual stories! Obviously I can’t consider them all individually; rather, I have to consider each of these four books as a whole somehow.

Why do I feel that I should be attempting this? Well, I did ask myself that before deciding I should do it.

On a personal level as a writer, due perhaps to a year of bouncing around in eight different apartments in Paris and/or mystical reasons I myself don’t entirely understand, over this past year I’ve found myself writing more short stories than I have in a single year for a decade or two. Therefore I’ve been taking the form more seriously, both in literary terms of what a really successful short story has to be, and, in commercial terms, where you can even attempt to get such stories published.

As a critic, my usual method is to initially read what interests me at random until some pattern emerges. I then seek out books that seem to be relevant to the topic that I want to write about, or perhaps that emerging topic seeks out me and tells me what to read next. The impetus for writing this column began with Nebula Awards Showcase 2015, which was something no writer of fiction is going to be able to ignore when it arrives; and then the Ellison collection for personal reasons, because, frankly, Harlan Ellison has been a close and dear friend and literary comrade for half a century.

But as a critic of speculative fiction who seeks to consider the present of the literature in terms of both its history and its possible future, reading these two books of short stories more or less in tandem revealed at least two strong and unfortunate tendencies that had me picking up the latest Nebula Awards Showcase, the reading of which confirmed to me that this column should be written. After which I sought out the Fredric Brown collection for further confirmation.

Yup, no question about it. Fantasy, and its uneasy mating with what certain writers thereof supposed was a sort of SF, had come to dominate the Nebula short fiction awards and nominations, and more of the winning and nominated stories than not were being published on online e-magazines. This much was fact.

So, too, as things stand now, the chance that literature will see another Fredric Brown or Harlan Ellison in the foreseeable future is slim to none. Brown and Ellison wrote hundreds of publishable short stories over their long careers and got them published. And writers like Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon had successful literary careers more or less dominated by their short fiction. And back in the day, the literary careers of more of the to-be-noted speculative writers began with publishing short stories of significance, and they continued to write them regularly even while “graduating” to novels.

No longer possible. Just not enough slots in enough ink and paper magazines of significance to publish even all of the best of them. Nothing on the combined financial and literary level of the Omni of Ben Bova, Robert Sheckley, and Ellen Datlow, or the Playboy of Alice Turner, at all. No ink and paper speculative fiction magazine with a paid circulation of fifty thousand, and no online SF magazines either.

Those are the cold equations, and chilling to the idea of making a living writing short fiction they are. And while I admit that it is just my opinion, I would contend that they have also had a negative effect on the literary quality of the speculative short story—and because the speculative short story has been the last stand of the popular short story of literary quality, of the short story in general.

What, you may well ask, is a good short story? And what, you might also be asking, is that subset thereof, a good speculative short story? And the subset of that subset, a good speculative story with high literary quality?

Best to start from the most general and widest of these matryoshka doll categories and work our way down through the specifics . . .

Most obviously, a short story must please the majority, or at least healthy plurality, of its readers, or it isn’t a good story, however well written the prose might be. You have to leave the readers with a denouement that touches them emotionally, or intellectually, or spiritually, or humorously—and I would contend at least two of the above, and ideally three or even four—as they read the last few paragraphs. As the saying goes, there are nine and sixty ways of composing tribal lays, and while not all of them will be right, the ones that are fall into only a few categories.

The puzzle story, where the denouement is the solving of a mystery or puzzle. The humorous story, where the denouement is a good laugh. The triumph over adversity story, where the denouement is the overcoming of something or someone maleficent by a character the reader identifies with. The just deserts story, where someone or something that well deserves it is justly punished. The satori story, where a philosophical, spiritual, political, or scientific truth is revealed in the denouement.

Also, of course, the love story, and the sex story. And indeed the dramatic structure of most good stories is akin to that of good sex—arousing foreplay, rising tension, orgasmic resolution.

This is not to imply that all good stories must have happy endings. The ancient Greek dramatists, Edgar Allen Poe, and Shakespeare, among others, all knew that, but they must have dramatically satisfying structure—premise, build-up, peak tension, climactic epiphany or denouement. All else, no matter how well written, is a mere sequence of descriptive incidents.

So what is a good speculative story? Well, first of all, not to be too cute about it, there really are two kinds of speculative story—science fiction and fantasy. Both are based on a “what if?” premise; that’s the speculative element.

In true SF, the premise cannot violate the known fundamental laws of mass and energy. Or if it does, the writer must make some kind of what I call “rubber science” explanation for that premise, and there should be only one rubber science speculation per story.

Fredric Brown was a master of this sort of thing, which at its best is arguably the core of the so-called “pulp tradition,” at least in short story form. Call it a formula if you will, and in a sense in its purist form it really is. Mastering it enabled Brown to churn out scores, maybe hundreds, of such stories, few of them as long as novelettes, many of them very short indeed, virtually all of them delivering satisfying denouements at the very end, sometimes with just a good punchline.

What if? What if a Linotype machine became sentient? What if someone invented a device that allowed you to do things you wanted to do at warp speed without experiencing what you had done? What if various versions of superior aliens invaded the Earth in different manners? And so forth. Brown wrote most of this stuff in clear so-called “transparent prose,” without literary intent or pretension or characterological depth—and so what? Call it light entertainment in that sense, maybe, but as often as not the “entertainment” is on an intellectual and/or scientific level, and it satisfies.

Every once in a while, though—such as in, say, “Letter to a Phoenix,” first person narration by a near immortal with passionate and ironic intensity and a deeply philosophical view of the destiny of humanity—Fredric Brown demonstrates how this tried and true formula can nevertheless rise to literary merit at short story length. On this level, this is the real deal; this is what the rigorous literary science fiction short story can be. Think Theodore Sturgeon, Gregory Benford, Arthur C. Clarke, and so forth.

The fantasy story, it would seem, does not require speculative rigor, since by definition it is the literature of the impossible. But for dramatic structure and emotional satisfaction, it must really define its fantastic premises and their rules at the outset and, especially at short story length, not descend into a stream of endless deus ex machina violations thereof to deliver a satisfying denouement.

Harlan Ellison has long vehemently insisted that he is not a “science fiction writer” (meaning not an author of “genre science fiction” like Fredric Brown), for practical commercial reasons, or even a “literary science fiction writer” (like Sturgeon, Benford, and Clarke), and he is right. His fiction demonstrates his indifference to scientifically sophisticated speculation and perhaps an indifferent ignorance of such matters, at least as a writer.

So yes, the majority of his fiction, maybe the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of stories he has published, is fantasy, in the sense that it couldn’t care less about not violating the known rules of the scientifically possible, or may be even indifferent to knowing what they are.

But Harlan Ellison, at least the mature literary Ellison of the last half century or so, has never been a writer of “genre fantasy” either. He may open a story with a fantasy premise, for instance “How Interesting: A Tiny Man.” But he generally follows such a single premise to its logical literary conclusion rather than piling fantasy premise upon fantasy premise, rabbit after rabbit out of the same magical magician’s hat. Or when he does, it’s abundantly clear that he’s not taking the plot of the story seriously.

Very early on in my own career, Harlan advised me not to consider myself “a science fiction writer,” if only because in those days you couldn’t really make a living writing only SF. “You’re a writer, period, kid,” he told me. “Write everything and anything that you can—science fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, journalism, whatever.”

Good advice, which I’ve never forgotten, and neither did he. Like Fredric Brown and many other writers of the 1950s era—when 5 cents per word was top dollar when you could get it for a pulp magazine story, and paperback original novel contracts paid $1,500 advances when you could get them, which was not at all easy—Ellison in those days tried to crank out a story a week and as often as not succeeded. Not just “SF,” but anything he could sell to one of the many genre fiction magazines, and not always under his own name, either. SF, mystery, adventure, western, detective, whatever, and maybe even porn too.

But as the late 1950s morphed into the early 1960s, so-called “Men’s Magazines” began to publish short stories with more literary sophistication, many of them science fiction of a kind that could appeal to trans-genre readerships, for which they paid more money. At the top of which was Playboy, followed by Esquire, Escapade, Knight, and so forth. These magazines didn’t just publish science fiction stories per se, but they weren’t closed to them either, as long as they were comprehensible to a general readership. And these top-paying markets could require better and more cosmopolitan writing, because they were better paying markets than the pulps, and they did.

The competition therefore was stiff, and not that many “pulp writers” had the chops to make the transition; but a few did, and Harlan Ellison was arguably the most successful among them, at least in terms of literary evolution.

Ellison’s subsequent long and successful career as writer of short fiction has ridden the tense and elusive interface between “popular” and “literary” fiction ever since, and even into his eighties the beat goes on without comfortable resolution.

Harlan Ellison began his writing career in the so-called pulps, where the primary requirement of a story was that it be entertaining to a middlebrow readership—“competing for Joe’s beer money,” as Robert Heinlein put it. “Popular fiction” had to be . . . popular. And popular meant dramatically entertaining. Meaning exciting. Meaning at least having a dramatically compelling plotline.

Authors of “literary fiction” do not eschew popularity, meaning good sales—of course, who does?—but they could get away with short fiction that relied upon style, characterological and psychological depth, to the point where they didn’t even tell compelling stories at all—far from it, even looking down snootily on fiction that did. The epitome of this is Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. This is a long, well-written but boring novella about a man so convinced that something terrible would happen to him if he dared to do anything of significance, that he never did, and nothing of significance ever did happen to him, and that was the beast in his jungle.

So Ellison’s career-long tension between the passion to be recognized as a major literary figure by the major literary figures who control such recognition, and the creative wisdom that the dramatic story must be central, born of his initial apprenticeship in the “popular fiction” of the pulps, ends up as his central creative virtue, personal frustration, or not. After all, the same thing could be and has been endlessly said of William Shakespeare, generally considered the greatest literary stylist in the English language as well as the greatest dramatist, who nevertheless made his living appealing to the popular audiences in the pit.

Can &Can’tankerous, the most recent Ellison collection, can hardly be considered definitive or even an exemplary compendium of his fiction, seeing as how it has been preceded by thirty-six previous collections by count of the bibliography in its own pages. Perhaps some day some master editor will really put together a true “best stories of Harlan Ellison,” but don’t hold your breath. Even if someone else tries while Harlan is still around to argue about it, he will, and if he tries to do it, he’ll no doubt end up arguing with himself.

However, Can &Can’tankerous can be taken as a typical example of late Harlan Ellison, looking backward but not too far. Assorted stories from his pulpish fiction and later more mature stories, out and out silliness like “The Sarsaparilla Alphabet,” and much of the interstitial personal musing and schtick for which he is famous. And yet . . .

And yet one simply cannot ignore that this book was put together, and much of it actually freshly written, by Harlan Ellison in his eighties after a debilitating stroke. Because he himself certainly doesn’t. He openly muses about what this existential condition is like. He looks backward on his long career and personal life. He ponders unflinchingly what is all too shortly to come. And he continues writing fiction.

In the introduction to “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” Harlan Ellison declares:

“What’s my favorite story? How the fuck do I know? Whatever I’m working on at the moment.”

Count on Harlan Ellison to write his very own epitaph. Count on him to really have the last word about himself, whenever and wherever that may be.

And yet I would contend that he is quite wrong in his introduction herein to “The Toad Prince or Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes: A Novella of Manners.”

Per Ellison, this thing was written as a piss-take of over-ripe pulp space opera of the 1950s, and much later and to his own bemusement, a slightly rewritten version was published as “serious” and non-satiric post-modern space opera that the author himself can’t take seriously at all.

Maybe so. But the Nebula award-winning novelette in The Nebula Awards Showcase 2015, “The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard, is exactly the same sort of fiction that Ellison thought he was satirizing. But with a totally straight face, not a laugh in it, competently written in so-called transparent prose but quite inferior a story in Ellison’s own literary terms to “The Toad Prince or Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes: A Novella of Manners.”

And therein lies an even less humorous tale.

“The Waiting Stars” is pretty much interstellar war space opera, post-modern space opera maybe, with cyber-not-punk additions, and somewhat deeper characterization than the average of such stuff, written in prose that at best is serviceable. Though the Nebula it won was for novelette, this I believe is only because of its word count.

“The Waiting Stars” is not a short novel but a long short story, whereas “Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure Domes,” of fairly similar word-count, is a short novel, rather than a long short story.

Yes, I know, this contention takes some technical literary explaining. Nebula and Hugo wordage definitions aside, a good short story, or even a not so good short story, regardless of word count, is linear, whereas a novel, of whatever word count, tends to be discursive, even fugal.

Not only not a matter of word count, but not necessarily a good or bad short story or novel either. Something like the difference between a song and a fugue. A short story just can’t rely on style and character alone to succeed; it must have a premise, a epiphany climax, revelation, denouement, and a dramatic tension arc carrying the reader from one to the other, or it just can’t work. Whereas a novel can succeed on style, strictly fugal structure, and entirely discursive non-dramatic nonlinear structure, maybe even no overall structure at all.

Admittedly, I myself generally prefer even discursive novels to also have overall dramatic structure arcs, but not always. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Gunther Grass’ The Tin Drum and The Flounder, for example, are great novels that I enjoyed reading, but if you ask me what the stories are, I can only shrug my shoulders and hold up my hands. These happen to be very long novels by word count, too, but Herman Melville’s Billy Budd or Philip José Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage,” not novel length by word count, are also novels by the literary criteria I am using here.

Which is why in literary terms “The Waiting Stars” is a long short story and “Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure Domes,” which its own author contends is simply a satire of precisely that sort of space opera, is a short novel. And while I’m maybe pissing off my good friend Harlan Ellison by disagreeing with his own critique of his own short novel, I might as well go further and contend that over his long career, the short novel has been his best form. In terms of word-count, Harlan Ellison has written very few novels, and even fewer of real note, but I can’t think of any other author who has written more outstanding short novels by literary standards, SF and not SF, that don’t make it to forty thousand words.

Ellison may have started out trying to parody space opera with what he may have supposed was a space-opera comic-book Mars and a heroine who starts out as the Sex Queen of the title as a whore in a Martian whorehouse. This being Harlan Ellison’s Mars and not Ray Bradbury’s, it is not poetically rendered like the stories in The Martian Chronicles, nor is it more scientifically and technologically believable.

But before it is even halfway through, it slides into the characteristic Ellisonian existential bite, angry political awareness, emotional care for his characters, mordant and not entirely sarcastic sense of humor, serious moral intent, even mystical speculation—the author being hijacked by the complexity of his own story despite his initial, modest, linear comic intent.

And indeed this is characteristic of much of Harlan Ellison’s best fiction. He just has never really had the patience to sit down for a year to write a long novel, or probably never wanted to. But because he has the passionate energy to let short novels write themselves as they will, he is a master, maybe the master of that form.

What, you may be asking, does the difference between “Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure Domes” and “The Waiting Stars” have to do with Nebula Awards Showcase 2015?

Well, consider two of the runners-up to the 2015 novelette winner: “Pearl Rehabilitation Colony For Ungrateful Daughters” by Henry Lien and “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” by Ken Liu. For my money, and it is money for most readers who have to shell out eighteen dollars to read this book, these two novelettes that didn’t win the Nebula are much better stories than the one that did, better written on a stylistic level, and more entertaining.

Okay, that’s subjective literary opinion, but what’s not subjective but objective fact is that neither of them is science fiction or even speculative fiction by any coherent standard, and what tinges of fantasy that are there seem to have been shoe-horned in. Both are set in semi-historical Chinas, more or less. “Pearl Rehabilitation Colony for Ungrateful Daughters” is a comedy of manners or the lack of them with mildly fantasy trappings, and “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” is a politically passionate historical that would have worked just as well without the Monkey King.

And while you’re at it, consider the contents of the collection as the sum of the whole. Perhaps the best story in the book of any length is “The Weight of the Sunrise,” the novella winner by Vylar Kaftan, an alternate history tale whose premise is that the Inca civilization defeated the Spanish conquistadores and evolved into a powerful nation in an alternate America whose fantasy elements are barely existent.

Of the ten other stories in the book, less than half of them are science fiction or even really speculative fiction; even the fantasy elements in several of them seem to be there to allow them to be published as “SF,” and in terms of dramatic structure, as many as not seem to eschew it and rely instead on style.

What’s happening here?

Well, take a look at the next Nebula Awards Showcase, sluglined “The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Is it really? The overwhelming majority of the complete stories are fantasies, and again some of them seem feeble and even incoherent as dramatic entertainment, including all of the Nebula winners except the winning novella by Nancy Kress, “Yesterday’s Kin.” This is arguably the best story in the book, an unequivocal piece of “hard science fiction” though the science is biological and genetic, with aliens who are not exactly aliens, and a family tale incorporated for good and relevant measure—the real deal that touches all the bases.

Qué pasa?

Well, one thing that is factually certain is that all of these Nebula winners and nominees in both books were chosen by votes of writers who are active members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and no one else. They therefore represent what writers with the professional credentials to be active members of the SFWA as a whole—or at least segmented pluralities thereof—consider the right stuff, and therefore what they aspire to achieve themselves.

That something like “Yesterday’s Kin” can still win the novella Nebula perhaps simply demonstrates that high quality traditional science fiction continues to be a significant role model for a portion of the active members of the SFWA.

And perhaps that there are still enough devotees of post-modern space opera left for traditional genre science fiction like “The Waiting Stars” to win out over literarily superior semi-fantasies like “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” and “Pearl Rehabilitation Colony For Ungrateful Daughters.”

But taken together, these Nebula Award collections demonstrate two emergent trends in the state of what now can only be called something like “SF,” and something that has been happening to the short story in general for a much longer time.

Fantasy has not only come to dominate the “SF” genre, overwhelming “science fiction” and “speculative fiction,” which are even less the same thing than they were before. But the people who aspire to become writers of this stuff seem to have become weaker and weaker in their knowledge of what the differences between the two, are and stronger and stronger in their indifference to what dramatically successful short fiction has to be.

So much for the literary devolution in SF genre fiction. But the paradox is that while this has been happening, writers of so-called “literary short fiction” have been adopting enough fantasy and even speculative elements in their stories to quality for publication in magazines that more or less require them. They are doing this for the sadly simple reason that except for a handful of magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, there are hardly any venues left to publish short fiction and be paid anything at all, and/or reach anything but a tiny readership in academic journals whose demographic backbone is generally more writers trying to do the same thing.

In fact the speculative fiction magazines had been the last bastion of the short story for a decade or two—the short story as it should be, dramatically entertaining fiction written with high literary quality. And now there are fewer and fewer of them, at least in ink and paper form.

Worse still, perhaps, people who are either successful “literary writers” on the academic and “small magazine” level, or who aspire to become such and therefore emulate them, are seeking publication in the “SF” magazines, and even perhaps qualification as active members of the SFWA.

This could be a good thing. This conceivably might still become a good thing. This was something that Michael Moorcock’s original New Wave envisioned and sought to encourage, if only it would become a two-way street, in one direction with the genre writers learning style from the “literary” craftspeople, and the literary writers learning how to incorporate true speculative content in their well-written stories and rediscovering what a dramatically successful story really is.

But thus far, that seems to be the opposite of what is really happening. Instead, the “literary” writers for the most part seem to be injecting fantasy elements into what they’ve mostly been doing all along in order to get published at all, which is to say as “SF.” And the “genre” writers are emulating their undramatic pretensions and getting away with it.

As I wrote so long ago in regard to the then situation, “the science fiction writers address grand thematic content trivially, and the literary writers use their superior style to examine the lint in their own navels.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Or just maybe not.

What, after all, is this “superior style” that I’ve been crediting the “literary writers” with?

Long before I first wrote that true but flippant sentence, Algis Budrys, the greatest critic of speculative fiction of the age, at least for me, taught me the answer to that quite unintentionally by writing something in an otherwise favorable review of my first collection of short stories, The Last Hurrah of The Golden Horde, that I found deeply wrong, but which nevertheless induced a satori that has shaped my “style” ever since.

These are all good stories, A.J. said, but they are all written in different styles. When is Spinrad going to develop a coherent prose style of his own?

And the answer hit me like a thunderbolt, because Budrys was so wrong about what I was doing but didn’t yet understand why that he had me shouting it to him in the privacy of my own mind.

The answer was never. Isn’t that what a writer of fiction is supposed to do, A.J.? Isn’t prose style, whether in first person or third person, the only means of putting the reader inside the consciousness of your characters? Shouldn’t the style of your prose in each story you write therefore be the style of your characters’ consciousnesses and not a style consistently your own?

“Method writing” I’ve come to call it. Enter the consciousness of the characters you portray and write in their style so that the reader, if you are successful, will likewise experience that consciousness first hand for the duration of the story.

That, I would contend, is true superior literary style. That is the real deal.

The literary style of each story should serve not the ego of the writer but the story itself.

If the dramatic primacy of “popular” fiction can teach “literary” writers that the story is the end and style is but the means and the literary writers can teach the writers of popular fiction the advantages of more malleable prose craftsmanship than standard transparent non-style in the service thereof, then the tale of the future of speculative short stories and of the short story in general can be one of evolution, not devolution.

And perhaps the writers and readers thereof can once more live long and prosper. 

Copyright © 2016 Norman Spinrad

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