Speculative fiction is about changes: quick changes and slow ones, showy changes and those we barely notice. This may be why many of the...
Speculative fiction is about changes: quick changes and slow ones, showy changes and those we barely notice. This may be why many of the genre’s significant works are written in the short forms, which are so well-suited to focusing on the implications of change. And every once in a while there seems to be a sudden influx of science-fiction story collections.
China Miéville is best known for his daring, politically pointed fantasy novels. That description may seem like a contradiction in terms if you see fantasy as escapist fare for reactionaries, nostalgic seekers after a Middle Ages that never was. “Looking for Jake” (Del Rey, 336 pp., $14.95), a collection of Miéville’s short stories, brims over with examples of how darkly subversive “escapism” can be.
“Foundation,” the book’s most disturbing story, is based on real-life war crimes, here revealed by the career course of a far-too-successful building inspector. “The Ball Room,” set in an Ikea-like superstore, makes the most of corporate capitalism’s sly disavowal of any responsibility for the world’s evil.
There are genres within genres, and Miéville’s affinities for certain ones stay the same, regardless of the length of his narratives. In his short stories as in his novels, Miéville’s fondness for architectural detail (in this book best exhibited in the Victorianesque “Reports of Certain Events in London”) places his oeuvre in the subgenre of urban fantasy, while his obsession with monsters makes it possible to categorize it as horror.
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But of this collection’s 14 tales, only “Jack” revisits his popular “New Crobuzon” universe. The comic strip “On the Way to the Front,” a collaboration with Eisner Award-nominated artist Liam Sharp, explores yet another short form.
Readers unfamiliar with Miéville’s longer work will find in “Looking for Jake” a fine introduction to a provocative author, while fans will see facets of his talent less noticeable in novelistic settings.
Veteran fabulist Lucius Shepard’s 14 novels and seven previous collections have proved to followers of his decades-spanning career that he’s mastered all fiction’s lengths — though as one reader put it, “Lucius’ ‘short’ is different from other people’s.”
Totaling 442 pages, the seven tales in “Eternity and Other Stories” (Thunder’s Mouth, $15.95) certainly add up to a substantial volume. Filled with disreputable adventurers working their ways through casually brutal settings, these long stories are another perfect medium for the brooding, poetic voices with which Shepard’s incurably romantic characters customarily speak.
From the American black man exiled to a hideously debased Africa in “Crocodile Rock,” to a career convict puzzling out the metaphysics of free-will incarceration in “Jailwise,” to the self-propagandizing super-soldier barely surviving his trip to a Koranic Paradise in “A Walk in the Garden,” Shepard’s anti-heroes tell their truths unflinchingly, with a purity of expression only an artist could lend their diverse tongues.
“Greetings and Other Stories” by Terry Bisson (Tachyon Press, 384 pp., $24.95) and “Strange Itineraries” by Tim Powers (Tachyon Press, 206 pp., $15.95) both add to their independent, San Francisco-based publisher’s growing reputation as home to some of the best short-story collections in the field.
Bisson’s “Greetings” brings together far-sighted science fiction and gently savage social satires such as “The Old Rugged Cross,” the tale of a condemned man’s crucifixion under a new Freedom of Religious Observance Act, or “Openclose,” about a chilling present-tense encounter with an “Ashcroft van.”
Powers’ “Itineraries” tends toward a sort of homey, melancholic fantasy. Ghosts hitchhike to their favorite restaurants; psychic vampires ride motorcycles to family reunions. Changes take place on a highly personal level here.
Three of the book’s nine stories were co-written with Powers’ frequent collaborator James P. Blaylock, including one standout featuring a likable but undeniably crazed inventor named Wilkins. Seeking to rid his garden of tomato worms, Wilkins molds rabbit-shaped ice cubes and uses them as weights to keep floating nets resistant to the Earth’s rotation, thus trapping the slimy green pests in the net’s folds as the rabbits rise slowly from the ground.
It’s a crackpot vision, ephemerally lovely: the sort of beauty only a short story can bring to life, however briefly.