Excellent Fiction, Going Fast

In a move that is both baffling and infuriating, scifi.com has decided to divest themselves of their scifiction section at the end of this year. Right now there are five and a half years worth of excellent short fiction, around three hundred stories, edited by the incomparable Ellen Datlow. A surprising number of these stories have won awards, ranging from Nebulas to the World Fantasy Award. Ellen Datlow was the recipient of this year's Locus award for editor and both she and the site itself won the 2005 Hugo, for editor and website respectively. These stories are all sitting there, waiting for you to read them for free before they vanish into the ether. I've been spending all my free time reading them and since I suspect you don't have time to read them all, I'm going to recommend a few that I particularly like from the hundred or so I have finished.

But first, here is a link to a page of nominated and award winning stories. If you have very limited time you might want to stick to just this page. You'll probably notice that there is some crossover between my list and the awards page because I have such wonderful taste in fiction.

The Hat Trick by Fredric Brown is a charming story about what happens when some friends get together and try to outdo each other with magical illusions. It's also about how the mind will do just about anything to convince itself that everything's all right with the world. This story was originally published in 1943 and is just as much fun now as it was when it was published. Fredric Brown is also the author of The Geezenstacks, a Twilight Zonesque tale about a little girl and a family of dolls that are more than they seem.

Light of Other Days by Bob Shaw is a bittersweet tale about a couple who are extremely unhappy over some unexpected news. My favorite line is "Strange how a man can love a woman and yet at the same time pray for her to fall under a train."

Scott Westerfeld is an incredibly talented writer and author of a thought provoking blog post about which Frank Lloyd Wright house would be the best place to go if you were being attacked by zombies and needed somewhere to fortify and defend. He's also the author of Non-Disclosure Agreement, a story about a guy who makes a deal with the devil, agreeing to upgrade Hell's special effects in exchange for the Secret of Damnation. The only drawback is if he tells anyone at all how to make it to heaven he goes straight to Hell.

The Girl Who Ate Garbage by Jessica Reisman and A.M. Dellamonica is a magical realism story about sorcerers, gang life and turf wars in a mythical city. It's also kind of a romance so you could almost say it's a magical version of West Side Story but that would make it also a modern mystical telling of Romeo and Juliet and right about then you'd start getting dizzy. It's best to just read it and stop trying to compartmentalize it.

Bad Medicine by Robert Sheckley is about a man who realizes that he's turning into a homicidal maniac so he goes to the store to buy a mechanical therapist to fix him up. Unfortunately he buys one designed for Martians instead of Earthmen, setting off a hilarious and touching chain of events. This is great stuff. Caswell gripped the revolver in his sweaty right hand and tried to think of a single valid reason why he should not kill a man named Magnessen, who, the other day, had commented on how well Caswell looked. What business was it of Magnessen's how he looked? Damned busybodies, always spoiling things for everybody…

Over Yonder by Lucius Shepard is a fascinating novella about a run-down hobo who starts an incredible adventure when a man steals his dog. He boards a living train that bleeds golden blood and is attacked by horrific flying manta-ray-like creatures; eventually ending up in a new and mysterious world filled with other vanished railroad tramps. Are they all dead, living in some video game or is there something even stranger going on?

Auto-da-Fé by Roger Zelazny - man against machine. It's like a bullfight, but with a car instead of a bull.

In for a Penny or The Man Who Believed in Himself by James P. Blaylock is a really nice story about a man who takes one step down the wrong path and then can't bring himself to do the right thing. It's got some classic fairy tale and fable elements in it like a magic purse and King Midas sort of lust after wealth.

Clerical Error is an extremely interesting story about the nature of madness and societal pressure to conform and take the easy way out of anything that requires extensive thought. It's written by Mark Clifton, who wrote it after twenty years of practicing as an industrial psychologist. The copyright is 1955 but I don't think the psychology of stupidity and laziness has changed much since he wrote it.

If you've ever wondered why people like to engage in flame wars you should definitely read Cordle To Onion To Carrot by Robert Sheckley. Although it was written in 1955 it does a brilliant job explaining the thrill that comes to Howard Cordle who learns to be obnoxious and aggressive after years of "being pushed around by Fuller Brush men, fund solicitors, headwaiters, and other imposing figures of authority." The hyperbole used to describe his encounters is wonderful and makes this story even more of a pleasure to read.

Some of my favorite fiction is both laugh out loud funny and deeply sad or touching or poignant. Dave Hutchinson's Fear of Strangers fits into this category. It's a story about a Polish second assistant director who is picked to take some aliens on a tour of a historic spot. The dialogue between the Polish officials and the pushy Americans who accompany the extraterrestrials is hilarious. The narrative takes an abrupt turn that left me muttering "goodness" and "oh no" until near the very end of the story. Don't miss this one.

Sean McMullen's Voice of Steel is about love, manipulation of the past, scientific discoveries and how if you don't develop moral codes at the same time you're making new scientific advances you're going to end up with a great deal of trouble.

I'll add to this list next week and hopefully you'll be able to read more of these wonderful stories before they go away.

If you're in the New York City area be sure to see our online reporter James Comtois's adaptation for the stage of A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol at the Kraine theater. James says it's "told from the point of view of Marley and the three spirits, who are tired of having to teach Scrooge the same message of holiday cheer year after year." How can you go wrong with that premise? For more information call 212-696-7342 or visit www.nosediveproductions.com.