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Book Review #6, by Eric Weeks

June 14, 1998
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I have a confession to make: despite writing all these novel reviews, I actually really enjoy reading short stories. This may not be much of a surprise if you recall one of my favorite authors is Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote herds of short stories and only a few novels. Anyway, I'll lump a bunch of reviews of short story collections here; a collection of stories is really a separate thing from a novel. I'll occasionally have more reviews in this form.

Also, I'm not going to assign a 0 to 4 star rating to these collections. After all, if a book contains a 4 star short story along with lots of 1 star stories, any rating would be somewhat meaningless. Instead, I will focus on the various styles of the authors and their stories, and point out what I think are the strengths and weaknesses, and you can judge for yourself if you like certain types of stories. Feel free to let me know what you think, my email address is at the bottom of the page.

"Without Sorcery" by Theodore Sturgeon, Prime Press, 1948.

This is Theodore Sturgeon's first anthology, and contains stories written between 1939 and 1947. I should remind you that I maintain the Theodore Sturgeon page and so I'm not an unbiased critic in this case, although it's somewhat safe since I'm not going to give out ratings for short story collections. This particular collection is harder to find than most Sturgeon anthologies, but all of these stories have been reprinted in easier-to-find Sturgeon collections. They also have been reprinted in the currently in print The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, a ten volume series, of which the first four are available.

This collection has a rather interesting range of quality. Many of the stories are fairly light, such as two dealing with faeries and supernatural critters, or two describing the humorous attempts of people trying to communicate with creatures who modify television signals. "Shottle Bop" is a fun story about a jerk who buys something from a store that sells magical bottles, "with things in them." Three of the stories, however, are far from lightweight. "It" describes a horrible monster somehow created from muck and slime, which goes about dispassionately killing things. This story is considered the grandfather of such comics as "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Swamp Thing." The story "Microcosmic God" tells of a genius scientist who creates a tiny race of creatures completely under his control in his lab, a fun and memorable story. And the story "Maturity" in this collection has always been one of my favorite Sturgeon stories. The main character of "Maturity" is Robin English, an unfocused creative genius who undergoes hormone treatments designed to bring his genius into focus. The story is very thoughtful, asking hard questions about what a truly mature person would be like. The story is also interesting in that Robin is the one character in all of Sturgeon's stories who I believe is most like Sturgeon's own personality: multi-talented, punster, and perhaps too unfocused for his own good.

The bottom line for this collection is that it has a lot of fun stories, some of which are also thought provoking. These stories definitely have their characters at the forefront, rather than the plot. Whether it is the people battling "It" or the narrator of the story dealing with what he's bought in a bottle, the stories always focus on how the characters are affected by the rest of the plot, and Sturgeon is great at characterization. While many of these stories are below average for Sturgeon, they are nonetheless good stories. If you haven't read much by Sturgeon before, this book is a reasonable place to start, but I think on the other hand that his other story collections will be easier to find and just as enjoyable. Someone who collects Sturgeon's books (like me) might find this one worth owning for the illustrations at the beginning of each story, but otherwise all of the stories here can be found easier in other books.

"The Best of Pamela Sargent" by Pamela Sargent, Academy Chicago Books, 1987.

This collection spans stories written between 1971 and 1984. This book is the third in a series focusing on female sf writers, and has two good introductions, one by Michael Bishop and one by Sargent. I felt the stories ranged in quality, but were overall fairly strong. The stories also ranged in subject matter and style, so in some ways it is hard to comment on the collection as a whole.

Several of the stories were rather hard to get a grip on, until near the end when the confusions of the story turned into a larger picture. This may sound like a criticism, but it's not that bad. The confusing parts just reflected characters in interesting and confusing situations, and in fact the confusion often arose as Sargent had created really novel plots. For example, in the story "Bond and Free," a girl escapes from some strange sort of hospital. She wanders around outside in a strange landscape and meets odd people. Finally we learn exactly what sort of hospital it is, why she is there, and and the reasons behind her adventures -- and it all makes sense, but it is quite different from what I was guessing. In this story, it's not that we reinterpret her adventures (for example, we don't learn that her adventures are all part of her treatment in the hospital); it's more that we learn additional information which recasts the rest of the story. There are several stories in this collection which fit this pattern, and I found all of them to be powerful stories that made me put down the book and think when I was done reading them.

The rest of the stories are quite diverse. There is a horror story; two humorous stories, one of which focuses on writing as an Olympic sport; a story told from the point of view of a cat; a story about an American Indian woman; and a post-apocalypse story. Most of these are science fiction, some are fantasy, and some it's not worth categorizing. Overall, I liked these stories, although I reiterate that some of them were hard to get into. Of course, short stories go by reasonably quickly, so if you read past the first few pages of some of them, the stories become more engaging.

"What's Become of Screwloose? and Other Inquiries," by Ron Goulart, Daw Books, 1971.

Think about cyberpunk: computers, drugs, and multinational corporations will change our society, probably for the worse. What were sf authors fearing before cyberpunk? Robots and appliances will change our society, probably for the worse. This is a frequent theme in Philip K. Dick's short stories, for example. This is also the main theme of many of Ron Goulart's stories in this book, although he takes a more humorous approach than Dick's stories. The stories in this collection were written between 1962 and 1970.

The stories in this book are all quick reads; there are 10 stories and the book is 149 pages. Goulart's stories all move fairly quickly, sometimes a little too quick for enjoyment. Sometimes the characters are so busy being quirky that the plot has to squeeze into the moments when they're not talking. This is Goulart's style, in general, and it usually works. For example, in "Keeping an Eye on Janey," there is an electronic bed which is actually a private eye and talks like Humphrey Bogart; in "Hobo Jungle" a spy impersonates a folk singer, and continually drops exaggerated folksy phrases such as "Me and this guitar been through a lot of long and lonesome nights, a couple of leaves blowing anyplace." One of the best stories is "The Yes-Men of Venus," which is a great parody of 1930's sf writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs (a switch from the robots running amok theme).

Goulart's style leans more towards quirky humor than towards solid plots, but these are enjoyable stories. The endings are almost all clever and often funny. Some of the stories, notably "Into the Shop," are extremely solid sf stories with a nasty twist. Overall this book has more good stories than not; however, if electronic beds talking like Bogart isn't your idea of funny, perhaps you should avoid this book.

"All the Traps of Earth" by Clifford D. Simak, Manor Books, 1963.

This book contains six stories, written between 1951 and 1960. I liked four of them, and didn't care as much for the other two. The title story, "All the Traps of Earth," was actually my least favorite. The main character is a robot, and the part I didn't like about the story is that this robot is a very emotional character. His actions are driven by fear, guilt, happiness, whatever. I disapprove in general of robot stories where the robots have emotions, unless there is some compelling explanation for how and why the emotions are present; this is missing from this story (both the how and the why). The other story I didn't like as much has similar robot problems, although the robots are not as central to the story.

The other stories are very solid. In "Good night, Mr. James" we have a simple story of a man hunting a dangerous alien critter -- but the story is about much more than that. "Drop Dead" is an excellent story about exploring an alien planet. "The Sitters" examines aliens who are living in a quiet little town on Earth. The aliens in that story were brought there by a former resident of the town, who may have had ulterior motives for bringing them there. Now that the aliens have been in the town for many years, someone realizes that they may not be as benign as were thought. I haven't read much of Simak's short stories before, and perhaps he is more well-known for his novels. Most of these stories are solid stories, and aren't predictable (my descriptions don't give away much, actually). This book makes me curious to read other stories of his, but I suspect I would have the same problems with any other robot stories Simak has written.

...Good news, after writing this review I found that by accident I had at some other time purchased another copy of this book, but the new copy has three extra stories! This new copy was published by Avon Books in 1979. Two of the stories are similar to "The Sitters," in that they involve interactions between aliens and humans in rural/small town settings. (This sort of setting was also used in Simak's story "The Big Front Yard", anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume 2B.) The third new story is a solid time travel story. No emotional robots in these three stories, I thought they were all good.