My top ten single-author short sf collections
Back in 2010, John DeNardo of SF Signal was kind enough to invite me to participate in one of their “Mind Meld” roundups. The topic: What Single-Author Short Fiction Collections Should Be in Every Fan’s Library? My list appeared in Part 2, and for three and a half years now, I've been meaning to link to it but somehow never quite doing it.
While I was looking for something else today, I happened across it, and I decided it was time. If you want to see what others said in response to that question, follow the above links; the people who participated included Elizabeth Bear, Jeff VanderMeer, Mike Resnick, Catherynne M. Valente, and Dave Truesdale. If you want to see what I said, you can follow the link to part 2, or you can read the copy of my response that I'm providing below. The rules explicitly excluded Best Ofs, alas.
Before I go on to my list, a note about gender balance on others' lists:
I'm pleased that Jeff VanderMeer, Catherynne Valente, and Gio Clairval all chose to list only books by women. Most of the other contributors, of course, have either all-male lists, or all-men-except-for-one-woman; the exceptional women chosen for that singular honor are C. L. Moore, Elizabeth Moon, and James Tiptree, Jr. One contributor listed collections by ten male authors, then added a runner-up list of twenty-five authors, of whom two (Moore and Tanith Lee) are female. One contributor listed two women out of ten authors. One other contributor and I opted for roughly half-and-half lists.
Onward to my list, which of course attempts to oh-so-subtly sneak in more than ten (as did several of the other contributors):
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.