Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A short story collection edited by Gordon R. Dickson
(1978, Harper and Row)

A collection of short stories and novellas that won this prestigious SF award in 1976.


-- First reading (hardcover)
September 24th to 28th, 2002


The stories presented in this book were varied in style and content, which made it interesting to contrast them after reading several stories at a time. The one thing that they all shared was the high writing quality, even in stories that I did not personally enjoy -they still kept me interested.

Of the three short stories included, I can easily see why the winner won the Nebula award. Charles L. Grant's "A Crowd of Shadows" is extremely well written, dealing with the topic of androids, which he then proceeds to flip on its head. It is really a story about prejudice, as the main character analyzes his own responses to a couple who decided to buy an android son. The main character gets involved in several murder cases, all of which the general public thinks were committed the android. They might be right, because the boy ends up being real, and he replaced his parents with androids! I was uncertain of the boy's age, though. It was stated as fifteen, but he sounded much younger. The narrator manages to stop the crowd that beats the young man to death, but not in time. It's too bad the narrator doesn't come to some real conclusion of the tale, but perhaps that's the point -he's still trying to comprehend it.

Of the runners-up, Thomas F. Monteleone's "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" is another strange one, well written, but still seeming to lack the passion that the story requires. Part of his "Chicago" series (which I had never heard of), the main character tends to a giant birthing mother, engineered humans that are only ones allowed to give birth -the rest of humanity has sex through a machine. The one he watches is an aberration, though, and develops a need for physical pleasure, and I think she would like to talk dirty with Benjamin! When the central brain orders her destroyed for her behavior, she imparts her needs and wants into Ben, who has a sudden desire to make real love with his wife! Perhaps it is a sudden change in the sterile society.

"Tricentennial", by Joe Haldeman, didn't do anything for me. It certainly wasn't bad, but it took too many jumps in time, and didn't really tell a decent story to my liking. The world seems to be a perfect place, and people resent the scientists who live in a space station. On the apparent mission to visit and study the Sun's binary companion -a pair of brown dwarfs, one made of anti-matter- some of these scientists plan to take their spaceship to the alien civilization they have discovered. The secret somehow doesn't get out, but they have trouble with their drive, and can't stop it once it gets going. They travel for relativistic years, and celebrate the American Tricentennial five thousand years in our future, where there are no Americans left... The characters were not well developed, with the mission taking precedence. But in a short story, I know that's difficult to do. There just didn't seem to be enough movement in the short sections in a specific time period.

Of the two Novelettes, John Varley's "In the Bowl" was clearly the inferior. It was actually a little dull, and told in that same detached style that seems to permeate SF of the 1970s, much as it does the a lot of the music of that era. At least we get to know the character through his thoughts and actions, his desperation. But hiring that young girl from the frontier Venus town in order to find the exploding jewels seemed more like a risk. All the story really does is showcase the world this author has created, with a thriving Martian society, and a community on Venus that seems to really lack life at all. Everything can be replaced, including body parts, like his infrared eye. There were some neat inventions here, like the magnetic field suits, which allow him to go out in the harsh Venusian environment, or the tagalong, a robot that matches his stride, and carries extra oxygen and supplies. Together, they find several jewels, but discover that they are in fact sentient, but before they explode, staring into them can be very addictive...

"The Bicentennial Man", by Isaac Asimov, was hands down the best story in this collection, and deserved the Best Novelette award that it received. The story of Andrew Martin, the robot who became more, an artist, historian, roboticist, and so on, until he was able, through the intervention of his family and their law firm, to become human, is a very sensitive and heart-warming tale, the only one of the bunch in this anthology. The future of robots and of humanity is changed because of him, his freedom, and his prosthetics. I love the way the law firm resolves to make Andrew's humanity declared by first trying to refuse insurance costs to someone with many "inhuman" artificial parts. I was amazed at how consistent the movie of this story was, though they did add a love interest for him, which doesn't exist here. What pushes Andrew's case over the top is the fact that he understands humanity, and arranges to die, just like a human. Strangely enough, though this story contained many short chapters as well, they seemed very well developed, and moved the plot forward incrementally, and really kept me interested. Of course, this story is also told in Asimov's Robot Visions.

James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" is also written in a style that I didn't really enjoy, but still kept me interested. I did not like the present tense, but it made sense once everything was revealed. The flashbacks were much more interesting. I don't understand why the crewmembers were so chauvinistic, except to fit the plot that required violence and intolerance from them later on. Their mission to circumnavigate the Sun in a spaceship gets them transported three centuries forward in time, to a world that seems to want them, but is hiding some secrets that they deem to be dreadful. The three crewmembers get to know the crew, all female except for one- who turns out to be female after all. The story allows us to get to know the characters, Dave, the deeply religious commander, Bud, who seemed to be the studly man with no sexual inhibitions, and Lorimer, the scientist, who seems to watch everything with a calm detachment. The revelation of what they are hiding comes at the end, when they reveal that the men will never reach Earth, anyway. All the women wanted was a case study, a real, live study. Because there are no men in their society, only cloned women, because of a plague three hundred years ago. Apparently, society is better off that way, without the violence, but it doesn't grow, either. The story stems from all the clichés and psychological studies of its time, which have been contradicted by abusive and predatory women of our time, and just human nature. Things get out of hand when the men are drugged, and their inhibitions come loose, with Bud attempting to rape one of the women (who captures his sperm in a bag), Dave pulling a gun on them so he can take control and restore God to this world, and Lorimer just getting angry in general, but not lashing out. I don't know if they killed the three men, but they will certainly lock them up and study them, in the least. Strangely, it was fairly satisfying, in that we got enough of a resolution to the characters themselves.

Also included in this anthology were two essays, "Science Fiction in the Marketplace" by Algirdas Jonas Budrys, and "The Academic Viewpoint" by James Gunn. The former was oddly enough more academic in scope than the latter. It surveyed why public appeal does not agree with what academics value as "good science fiction". He lost my interest when he started talking about SF stories that were apparently very popular in his time, but I know nothing about. I guess that's a problem reading a book 25 years later -the reference frame is gone! He does refer to Star Trek as being an introduction to SF for many people, and credits it with helping bring about a strong community that even created its own SF publishers.

The second essay was much more to my liking, as he stressed what makes a good book. I enjoyed his ten criteria for judging a book, making the difference between a casual reader and a critical reader. He talks about the reasons why readers are against bringing a book into the classroom, since it would be analyzed to death, and intentions brought to light that were written by the author in the first place. I studied the ten criteria he set out, and hope that I apply at least some of them when writing these reviews.

Many of the stories had a 1970s feel to them. I don't really know how to explain what that means, but although I enjoyed them, most of them were not stellar. It is difficult to write a good short story, since plot and character development have to come into being in a very short space. The editor gives somewhat humorous and always interesting introductions to the authors (and in his introduction). None of the stories were bad, either, which is expected when they are award-winning, but not necessarily so. Almost every one kept my interest until the end, which is not always easy with a variety of authors vying for attention, one right after the other.


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