Friday, September 23, 2016

FFB: SELECTED STORIES by Fritz Leiber (Night Shade Books 2010); SELECTED STORIES by Theodore Sturgeon (Vintage/Random House 2000); VIRTUAL UNREALITIES: THE SHORT FICTION OF ALFRED BESTER (Vintage/Random House 1997)

The publishing of some of the most innovative and influential writers in fantastic fiction, when they are not also among the most consistently best-selling, is too often a catch as catch can matter, much as it is with similar work in other fields...there's a somewhat less profound resistance to commercial publication of short fiction collections in fantasy, science fiction, horror and their related fields than there is in much of the rest of the literature, but even there, consistent programs are rare...hence the value of the best such project in the field so far, Paul Williams and company's The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. But even given any of the individual volumes of that project, or its similar cousins, is a very good reading experience indeed, the sets taken as a whole are not the most wieldy items in any library, and might not be the best way to introduce new readers to the writers in question. And, sadly, some writers, such as Fritz Leiber, have never had a systematic presentation of the range of  their work, even when important subsets of that work have been presented rather well (in his case, his extremely influential sword & sorcery series of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, as well as a set of non-overlapping career retrospectives in the 1970s).  There's usually a place in the canons for something like the old Viking Press series of Portable selections of writers' works, only perhaps without the novels or excerpts that series usually featured along with the shorter fiction, poetry and nonfiction. This week, three such collections, all excellent, imperfect representations of or introductions to their authors, responsibly (if in one case oddly anonymously) edited and reasonably well-presented by their publishers, the notable small press Night Shade for the Leiber, the "prestige" paperback line Vintage,  by design devoted to canonical work, for the two other collections.

And while there are other writers, women as well as men, who are comparable in importance to the three men whose books make a convenient trio for this installment, these three have more than a little in common...each being one of the major shapers of fantastic fiction as it was published in the magazines devoted to that fiction (let's call it in-group fantastic fiction, a tradition which has had extreme influence on and been influenced by even such writers who never felt completely a part of it as Kurt Vonnegut, J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeleine L'Engle and Jack Finney, moreso than those such as George Orwell and Philip Wylie who did some similar work but mostly didn't interact with the specialists in the fantastic to the same degree). Each of our selected trio this week were comfortable in fantasy, horror and sf and beyond those fields (even if to varying degrees influential in each), and each a notably good constructor of prose, far more easily readable by the usual standards of literature than many of their similarly influential peers who began publishing their work at the turn of the 1940s. This is not so true of, say, one of Leiber's mentors, H. P. Lovecraft (Leiber and Robert Bloch being the best and most important writers who corresponded directly with Lovecraft as they were finding their feet as professional writers, and both would take Lovecraft's innovations and do impressive work furthering that innovation).  All three writers also were notably engaged by subtleties of character and psychological nuance that were often less obvious in the work of some of their peers, whose strengths often lay elsewhere (these three not collectively uniquely so, but they were among the great practitioners of this aspect of the art). 

Fritz Leiber was sometimes the most subtle of the three, and the one who probably offered the most impressive conceptual advances in his work; such stories in this volume as "Smoke Ghost" and "Coming Attraction" revolutionized horror and sf, respectively, genuinely shaking up many readers and even more nudging the writers within the in-groups so affected to reconsider how they were approaching their subject matter; "Smoke Ghost," as Algis Budrys noted, by itself almost singlehandedly created what we now think of as urban fantasy in a mature form, while "Coming Attraction" not only dealt deftly and satirically with a decaying society after a not-quite apocalyptic war, but also challenged in-group folks directly in how the characters were portrayed, suggesting hidden agendas and complexity that went beyond the rather schematic standard in sf at that was also a bit more challenging than the standard at that time in the noirish and hardboiled crime fiction Leiber was also fond of, and infrequently would write. "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" was a reconsideration of vampirism in a rather more metaphorical sense than had often been put forward previously, and the feminist undertone of that story, as with Leiber's early novel Conjure Wife and such later stories as "A Deskful of Girls" was another sort of challenge (where Leiber's omission of the word "woman" in each case is telling, and I believe utterly intended by him). Such stories as "A Pail of Air" demonstrate Leiber's ability to bring outre situations very much to life (in a way not altogether unlike, say, the "hard-science" specialist Hal Clement or the relentlessly conceptualizing Charles Harness might), while other stories in his volume touch on his fascinations and obsessions, while at times reflecting his lighter (but in no case here trivial) work, as well as the profound thread of autobiography that ran through much of his best fiction. "Space-Time for Springers" deals charmingly with cats and particularly Gummitch, but also with the insecurities of parenting an infant and the grim cost that can have even given the rewards; "Four Ghosts in Hamlet" touches on the dramatic and particularly, obviously, Shakespeare (Leiber and more thoroughly his parents were professional actors, the latter running their own Shakespearean troupe); "The Inner Circles" (which Leiber preferred to be titled "The Winter Flies") was one of three 1960s not-quite-fantasies in the form of augmented plays for voices that were acutely autobiographical, dealing with Leiber's inner turmoil and relations with his parents, his wife (and their chemical dependencies) and their son. "Midnight by the Morphy Watch" involves chess (Leiber was a US Chess Federation Grandmaster) as a starting point. Three Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories are included, in the order of their internal chronology, and each has its own freight of invention and also autobiographical resonance; the first in the sequence here, "Ill Met in Lankhmar," is one of the most devastating stories Leiber wrote, no less so when one realizes it was one of the stories he wrote in the aftermath of his wife's death and as he was recovering, and to help him do so, from the alcoholic tailspin that event put him into. "Gonna Roll the Bones" (again, intensely autobiographical, though less nakedly), "Belsen Express" and "Horrible Imaginings" were all further contributions to horror literature; "Catch That Zeppelin!" delightful alternative history fiction (or "counterfactual" if you like), "America the Beautiful" a solid example of his satire. 
Theodore Sturgeon was perhaps even more than the other two writers obsessed with how characters could be authentically portrayed in the situations he devised, some remarkably clever and often even more challenging to conventional values than Leiber's; where Leiber's prose could be grandly poetic, Sturgeon's tended to be more quietly so, more transparent but also capable of subtlety that could catch the reader off-guard; Ray Bradbury was famously a student of Sturgeon, particularly in his earliest and often best-loved work, and Stephen King of both men, but neither the slightly uncontrolled Bradbury nor the often prolix King have the mastery of prose technique the best mature work of Sturgeon demonstrates. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut was always a somewhat confounded admirer of Sturgeon and his work, and Vonnegut's recurring character "Kilgore Trout" was a take on Sturgeon's talent and his often desperate financial state (and Vonnegut's own artistic insecurity about doing work not altogether unlike Sturgeon's). 

I believe a collection of Sturgeon's horror fiction, and only of his horror fiction, would still be a useful thing to have, but this selection comes closer to this than almost any other Sturgeon book (his two earliest collections rival it), with such devastating stories as "It", "A Way of Thinking", "Bianca's Hands" and to some extent "Mr. Costello, Hero" and several others here being of that mode, where genuinely terrifying or sometimes simply beautifully strange things are happening, with details that imbue the stories with deeply felt life; the conclusions of "It" (which I first read when I was about nine years old) and "A Way of Thinking" (a decade later) might stick with me for as long as memory serves me, and "Bianca" couldn't find a magazine that would publish it in the U. S. for several years; entered eventually into a contest at the U. K. magazine Argosy (unrelated except in eclecticism to the U. S. magazine of the same title), it won; a fine story by Graham Greene took second place.  "Costello" is, as are "Bright Segment" and "The Sex Opposite", somewhat more science-fictional than the other three, and none of those is quite what you'd call traditional horror, any more than the sf stories here are quite devoted to the usual approaches of science fiction. "Killdozer!" is a sort of sfnal horror, famously (due to a telefilm adaptation in the '70s as well as wide reprinting) about an alien intelligence which inhabits a bulldozer on an island construction site, is perhaps the closest to what might be considered a "generic" sf story, and that one not so close; likewise the nuclear war consideration "Thunder and Roses". Sturgeon is fascinated with love, famously, in many forms, but also with hatred and cold indifference (as "A Way of Thinking", "Costello" and "The Skills of Xanadu" make very clear), and, again, in often challenging ways; the metaphorical use of syzygy and synergy fascinated him, in terms of sexual and romantic interaction and in even more sweeping manners, as in the group minds and telepathic linkage touched on in some of the work here and in several of his novels; his fascination also with the artistic process comes clear in "Slow Sculpture" as well as in others, if less forthrightly. "The Man Who Lost the Sea" was one of only two stories, both from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the other Judith Merril's "Dead Center"), to represent "in-group" fantastic fiction in The Best American Short Stories annual in the 1950s. Sturgeon noted once that one of the reasons for his considerations of unusual passions was that "Old-shoe lovers love loving old shoes..."; writer and critic James Blish correctly noted that they also often simultaneously hate and fear doing so.  I have yet to discover who edited this volume, which obscurity seems very strange. 

Selected Stories Theodore Sturgeon (Random House/Vintage 0-375-70375-6, Oct 2000, $14.00, 439pp, tp) Collection of 13 stories.
  • 3 · Thunder and Roses · ss Astounding Nov ’47
  • 27 · The Golden Helix · na Thrilling Wonder Stories Sum ’54
  • 83 · Mr. Costello, Hero · nv Galaxy Dec ’53
  • 109 · Bianca’s Hands · ss Argosy (UK) May ’47
  • 118 · The Skills of Xanadu · nv Galaxy Jul ’56
  • 146 · Killdozer! · na Aliens 4, Avon, 1959; revised from Astounding Nov ’44.
  • 216 · Bright Segment · nv Caviar, Ballantine, 1955
  • 241 · The Sex Opposite · nv Fantastic Fll ’52
  • 269 · The (Widget), the (Wadget), and Boff · na F&SF Nov ’55 (+1)
  • 353 · It · nv Unknown Aug ’40
  • 378 · A Way of Thinking · nv Amazing Oct/Nov ’53
  • 407 · The Man Who Lost the Sea · ss F&SF Oct ’59
  • 419 · Slow Sculpture · nv Galaxy Feb ’70
Alfred Bester, for his part, was also deeply invested in exploring character in fantastic situations, but even more than Sturgeon and Leiber was also intent on finding new ways to play around with prose forms, and engage in dazzling, breathless urgency in his work. Thus  a notable example and inspiration for such writers as Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Samuel Delany, and the Cyberpunks, and even the usually more deliberate Damon Knight. He wanted to shake up the readers, not only in a challenge to their perceptions and preconceptions, but also with innovative concepts and settings and, again, an often highly kinetic pace and a audio/visual flair to his prose...though in none of the short stories collected here is that as blatant as in such novels as The Demolished Man, which had in its original serialization in Galaxy magazine many typographical variations to slightly odden the experience of reading the story, as well as help get across how the characters interacted (telepathically and otherwise), though sadly none of the reprints in book form so far have replicated the magazine's variant text (the much later novel Golem 100 had more modest attempts at something similar). Such stories as "5,271, 009" are in conventional typography, but nonetheless are delightfully intense reading experiences, in the often darkly funny expressions of borderline madness, and the impressively polyglot alien antagonist/mentor the protagonist encounters in a process of what amounts to both therapy for him and rather blatant but engaging metaphor for encouraging more mature attitudes in the audience. 

Bester wanted to pack as much into any story he was telling as he possibly could, and at his best, he was as in control of that abundance as Sturgeon and Leiber were of their effects; even the comparatively simple satire "They Don't Make Life Like They Used To" manages to run up to its many false climaxes (literal and figurative) with brio, while also being a bold metaphor and challenge to in-group literature to treat sexuality more sensibly and realistically. "Fondly Fahrenheit" is one of Bester's two most famous short fictions, a virtuosic portrayal of a multiple personality/psychiatric boundary collapse  (I don't, as many do, think it his best story aside from his three 1950s novels); "Adam and No Eve" is the other most famous, and the token first-decade-of-his-career entry, an ingenious (for the time revolutionary) notional story about how to at least hope to bring life back to Earth after armageddon (as with Stephen Vincent Benet's "By the Waters of Babylon", the apocalypse isn't nuclear war but might as well be). Brilliant time-travel paradox stories are cheek by jowl here with further explorations of psychology, but frantic energy and openness to insights developing in the popular and therapeutic culture beyond the in-group community were Bester's trademark, as a man devoted to comics scripting, then radio scripting, then travel and other slick feature-writing as his primary career, who looked upon fantastic fiction as his haven, but also a pack that needed prodding into keeping up with the changes in the rest of the world around it. While he was in many ways somewhat spent by the time of his last work, his best fiction of the 1950s and early '60s in the field, and some other stories before and after, was a great spur as well as a joy to read. While the older retrospective collection Starlight might do as well for most readers as this book (including as it does an engaging memoir essay), and the newer retrospective Redemolished includes even more representative a sampling of his nonfiction than Starlight, this one still moves.

Virtual Unrealities Alfred Bester (Random House/Vintage 0-679-76783-5, Nov ’97, $14.00, 366pp, tp) Collection of 16 stories and one fragment, one story and the fragment previously unpublished. Introduction by Robert Silverberg. Packaged by Byron Preiss Visual Publications.
  • ix · Introduction · Robert Silverberg · in
  • 3 · Disappearing Act · ss Star Science Fiction Stories #2, ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1953
  • 22 · Oddy and Id [“The Devil’s Invention”] · ss Astounding Aug ’50
  • 38 · Star Light, Star Bright · ss F&SF Jul ’53
  • 56 · 5,271,009 · nv F&SF Mar ’54
  • 91 · Fondly Fahrenheit · nv F&SF Aug ’54
  • 112 · Hobson’s Choice · ss F&SF Aug ’52
  • 127 · Of Time and Third Avenue · ss F&SF Oct ’51
  • 136 · Time Is the Traitor · nv F&SF Sep ’53
  • 159 · The Men Who Murdered Mohammed · ss F&SF Oct ’58
  • 173 · The Pi Man · ss Star Light, Star Bright, Berkley/Putnam, 1976; revised from F&SF Oct ’59.
  • 191 · They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To · nv F&SF Oct ’63
  • 225 · Will You Wait? · ss F&SF Mar ’59
  • 233 · The Flowered Thundermug · nv The Dark Side of the Earth, Signet, 1964
  • 273 · Adam and No Eve · ss Astounding Sep ’41
  • 287 · And 3½ to Go · uw *
  • 292 · Galatea Galante · nv Omni Apr ’79
  • 334 · The Devil Without Glasses · nv *

You can do worse than these volumes, with their mostly intelligent introductions (Neil Gaiman is more certain of his understanding of Leiber's satirical use of male chauvinism in such work as Conjure Wife than he should be, given his description here) and selections I might tweak, but not change wholesale...and each is, as noted above, a good place to start with each writer. 

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog. 
Indices from ISFDB and the Contento/Locus indices.


George said...

I own and read all three of these excellent books. It just doesn't get much better than Leiber, Sturgeon, and Bester!

Todd Mason said...

Nope...and I still have a bit of each left to read...

Scott Cupp said...

Great writers, all. I've got the Leiber and Bester but not the Sturgeon. I did spring for the 13 hardcover volumes of his complete short fiction so I've got it covered. Hard to pick a favorite of the three.

SteveHL said...

Todd, I haven't read your post yet, but I want to let you know I couldn't get this to open on the FFB site.

Rick Robinson said...

I have the Leiber and Sturgeon, but not the Bester. Excellent review (as always).

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great overviews Todd, as always. I don;t actually have any of these but I am fairly sure I have nearly all the stories one way or another. I am particularly fond of the GHOST LIGHT collection of Leiber's with its really great essays and remembrances within.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, folks...and I suspect Patti snagged the first attempt to post this essay, which was messed over by a Blogger glitch (or one which this Apple machine forced on Blogger), Steve.

Richard, you are very kind...part of what drove this selection was that I was up overnight with a couple of sick cats, and not for the first time this week.

And, you, too, Sergio...yes, indeed, such collections are by their nature a collection of chestnuts for the most part, with the exception of a few relatively rare choices (or the previously unpublished entries in the Bester volume). I'll be adding the links to the previous reviews on my blog of such volumes as THE GHOST LIGHT, which with its fine long autobiographical essay by Leiber is very comparable to the similar Jorge Luis Borges THE ALEPH, AND OTHER STORIES 1933-1969...

SteveHL said...

I always enjoy your writing about short stories, particularly when they are all by authors I like a lot. I don't have the Leiber, and there are three stories in that one that I don't recall from the names and may not have read.

As you said, they all have "selections I might tweak, but not change wholesale." For all of them, I have a "How could they have left out..." feeling, but more importantly, I don't have a "How could they have included..." reaction. There are a couple of stories I don't especially like but nothing I think is a truly poor story.

You have pretty much staked out anthologies, short story collections, and old magazines as your personal discussion areas and you do a great job with them. I always look forward to your FFB posts and hope you keep them going.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Steve! We'll see about keeping it going, and getting past the interruptions that have been arising on some of the more labor-intensive projects. I'm rather embarrassed about how long it's been since I could do a Overlooked A/V, given how many have continued to post. And missing Underappreciated Music for August...and drawing together the Seon Manley and GoGo Lewis post...