Much of the best, most innovative work in many genres occurs in the short form. Conventional publishing wisdom, however, has it that single-author story collections don't sell. Five recent releases attempt to disprove that hypothesis by offering an eclectic selection of science fiction and fantasy.
In "Lost Pages" (Four Walls Eight Windows; 208 pages; $15.95), Paul Di Filippo, author of "The Steampunk Trilogy" and "Ribofunk," imagines what might have happened had some of the Twentieth Century's greatest writers chosen careers other than literature.
Franz Kafka battles crime as a costumed hero in "The Jackdaw's Last Case." In "Mairzy Doats," Robert A. Heinlein has achieved the U.S. presidency and sends loyal citizens on a mission to the moon. Aviators Beryl Markham and Antione de Saint-Exupery may be civilization's last hope after a plague decimates Europe in "The Happy Valley at the End of the World."
All the stories in "Lost Pages" are alternate histories, but none of them seem to be the same alternate history. Each setting comes with its own rules, and Di Filipo has a great deal of sly fun revealing just what those rules are. Perhaps Di Filippo's most audacious piece is "Anne," in which Anne Frank escapes the Holocaust, moves to Southern California and becomes a star at MGM. The story skillfully balances the enormity of the Holocaust with the fantasy world afforded by Hollywood.
The stories in "Lost Pages" are often absurd, yet they sometimes prove unexpectedly touching and perceptive. Di Filipo rarely allows the in-jokes to swamp the forward motion of his narratives, although it helps to be well-read in science fiction to appreciate fully "Linda and Phil," about the doomed marriage of Linda Ronstadt and Philip K. Dick, and "Alice, Alfie, Ted and the Aliens," which features alternate versions of James Tiptree, Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon. All in all, this collection is a smart, funny and extremely cockeyed celebration of the creative process.
A physician by trade, F. Paul Wilson, author of "The Keep" and "Legacies," is noted for both his horror novels and his medical thrillers. With "The Barrens and Others" (Forge; 352 pages; $24.95), he demonstrates the full range of his versatility, mining fresh material from familiar genre trappings.
In "The Tenth Toe," Wilson tries his hand at a supernatural Western and recounts a pivotal episode in the life of tubercular gunfighter Doc Holliday. With "Definitive Therapy," he finds the genuine horror lurking within the Joker from the Batman comic books. He pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft and his special brand of cosmic horror in the title story.
Among the volume's highlights is a long story about Repairman Jack, the mysterious, identity-free protagonist of Wilson's horror novel, "The Tomb." Jack handles special jobs on a cash-only, no-questions-asked basis, and "A Day in the Life" is a cleverly constructed caper that pits him against two nasty sets of villains.
What comes through most clearly in this collection's selections, and in Wilson's chatty introductions to each, is the author's unselfconscious enthusiasm for the craft of storytelling. Most of the offerings are straight-ahead entertainments that achieve their desired effects without any pretension. Compared to brand-name horror writers like King and Barker, Wilson has kept a fairly low profile, but he's a solid, dependable talent, as "The Barrens and Others" admirably demonstrates.
"Last Summer at Mars Hill" (Harper Prism; 326 pages; $13.00) presents 11 stories and a poem by Elizabeth Hand, winner of both the Nebula and World Fantasy awards. Considerably less antic than either Di Filippo or Wilson, Hand uses her exceptionally fluid prose to distill the full measure of beauty and horror from her stories.
Classicial mythology often serves as an inspiration for Hand, author of "The Glimmering" and "Winterlong." "The Bacchae" depicts a future in which environmental upheaval results in a horrific turn in the battle between the sexes. Addressing domestic violence and animal mutilations, "Justice" updates an episode from Homer's "Odyssey." Goethe receives a tip of the hat in "The Erl-King," which recounts young teenaged girls' horrific encounter with a dissipated musician.
Hand doesn't shie from depicting raw emotion. Her characters discover both wonder and despair and react to them in believable ways. The intensity of the stories in "Last Summer at Mars Hill" is often uncomfortably high, but Hand makes the experience more than worthwhile.
British writer Paul J. McAuley has quickly made his mark in the field with such novels as "Four Hundred Billion Stars" and "Child of the River." "The Invisible Country" (Avon Eos; 320 pages; $13.50) collects his short fiction, and it gives ample proof of why his work is so highly regarded.
A former teacher of biology, McAuley is especially interested in consequences of creating artificial life. Many of the most striking selections in this volume, including "Prison Dreams" and "Slaves," deal with "dolls" and "fairies." The former are blue-skinned, bioengineered creatures who attend to humanity's most mundane and demeaning chores. The latter are the miraculous creatures they become once liberated from their masters. Perhaps the most disturbing story of the lot is "Dr. Luther's Assistant," in which a former drug addict serves out his prison sentence in the employ of sleazy physician who customizes dolls for the sex trade.
The settings of stories in " The Invisible Country" bounce between a sixteenth-century Venice that never was to the gene wars of the next century to a future millennia hence. McAuley always seems in perfect control of the material, and this collection showcases his pyrotechnic talent to full effect.
With "Reave the Just and Other Tales" (Bantam Spectra; 400 pages; $23.95), Stephen R. Donaldson, author of "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant," delivers his first collection of short work in 14 years. Fans who were not enamored of Donaldson's recent five-volume, space operatic "Gap Cycle" will be pleased to find that most of this volume's offering are high fantasy in the mode that established his popularity.
In the title story, a foolish young man claims kinship with a great warrior, only to run afoul of a local tyrant and then be forced to await rescue by his so-called kinsman. A wizard contends with a ruler driven to cruelty by the vividness of his dreams in "The Kings oof Tarshish Shall Bring Gifts." For a change of pace, "What Makes Us Human" features two members of a starship who must save their craft -- and their home planet -- from an alien engine of destruction.
Stephenson isn't either a particularly subtle plotter or a graceful stylist. His stories tend to present a single, clearly defined conflict, which the characters then doggedly pursue until they arrive at a satisfactory resolution. In some cases, as in the over-long novella "By Any Other Name," about a complacent merchant whose identity is magically borrowed, the effect can be numbing.
But when Donaldson digs deeper, he's capable of emotionally subtle and involving work. That's especially the case with this volume's highlight, "The Woman Who Loved Pigs," a rich and moving tale of a half-mad young woman whose life is both enriched and betrayed by the swine she protects. "Reave the Just and Other Tales" offers a good deal of entertaining reading, and it will surely prime Donaldson's fans for another long fantasy saga.
(c) 1999 by Michael Berry