Tales from the Spaceport Bar and Another Round at the Spaceport Bar
(Avon Books, 1987 and 1989). Covers by James Warhola and Doug Beekman
Science fiction has a rep for being serious stuff. Tales of dystopias, climate catastrophes and environmental collapse, dire warnings about worrying trends, that’s SF in a nutshell. Even dressed up in its best story-telling adventure garb, Star Wars or Mad Max-style, it’s still often perceived as all about desperate battles in apocalyptic settings.
Of course, science fiction is much broader and richer than that, and most of its best writers have amply demonstrated their love of whimsy and fun. One of SF’s best-loved sub-genres is the Club Tale/Bar Story, exemplified by Arthur C. Clarkes famous Tales From the White Hart, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s long-running Gavagan’s Bar stories, Lord Dunsany’s Jorkenstales, Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers mysteries, Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Bar, Larry Niven’s spacefaring tales of Draco Tavern, and many others.
In the late 80s Weird Tales editors George H. Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer assembled a collection of the best such stories, Tales from the Spaceport Bar. It made the Locus Award list of Year’s Best Anthologies (in 11th place), and was quickly followed by Another Round at the Spaceport Bar. Both books are a fine antidote to anyone who’s dabbled just a little too long on the dark side of science fiction.
The New Hugo Winners, Volume I & II and The Super Hugos
(Baen, 1991, 1992, and 1992). Covers by Vincent Di Fate, Bob Eggleton, and Frank Kelly Freas
Last month, as part of my master plan to examine every interesting science fiction paperback ever printed, I surveyed five of the finest SF anthologies of all time: the first Hugo Winners volumes, all edited by Isaac Asimov and published by Doubleday between 1962 and 1986.
Although the first two volumes, collected in one big omnibus by the Science Fiction Book Club in 1972, were on the bookshelf of every serious SF fan in the 70 and 80s (and much of the 90s), by the time Volume IV and V were released in the mid-80s, sales had fallen off so significantly that neither one was reprinted in paperback. Asimov, who frequently noted that “the fine folks at Doubleday have never said no to me” — even indulging him with a massive 1,005-page, highly uncommercial vanity project in 1974, Before the Golden Age, a bunch of pulp stories threaded together with Asimov’s reminiscences of growing up in Brooklyn — found Doubleday saying ‘No” to further Hugo volumes.
It was Martin H. Greenberg, Asimov’s frequent collaborator, who talked him into doing additional installments. Together they produced three more: The New Hugo Winners, Volume 1 (1989) & Volume II (1992) and The Super Hugos, released after Asimov’s death in April 1992.
Beyond the Last Star was the fifth and final anthology put together on SFF.net, a one-time website that served not only as the webhost to numerous science fiction authors from 1996 until 2017. In addition to webhosting, SFF.net also ran a bulletin board analogous to USENET or the GEnie boards out of which it grew. The community that existed at SFF.net not only put out a series of anthologies, but also compiled and submitted the infamous Atlanta Nights, as written by Travis Tea, as a sting operation after PublishAmerica stated that “the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction.”
Kiel Stuart’s story for the final SFF.net anthology, “A Conglomeration of Bees” has a wonderfully nostalgic feel to it, a story that inhabits the same world as Ray Bradbury’s tales of growing up in “Green Town.” The story is set in a small town that could be anywhere in the United States although Stuart defines it as Sag Harbor, Long Island.
The focus is on Kate Demarest, who sold various random items off the front porch of her house. Her day started out normally, including a visit to an antiques shop, when she heard rumors or a swarm of bees moving through town in the shape of a man, apparently walking around and emulating tipping its hat. Although Kate hopes to see the bee-man, with a sense of trepidation, she also has her own business to run, no matter how slow it is.
When dealing with a regular customer, Mrs. Sedgwick, who is sure that Kate is hiding the items she is interested in, Kate’s day is enlivened by the appearance of a mandrill, who enters store on Kate’s porch and begins to rummage through the miscellany she is selling. While Mrs. Sedgwick is disturbed by the creature, Kate treats it as any other customer, knowing that there is a bonus in that the mandrill with cause Mrs. Sedgwick to leave.
In 2014, David G. Hartwell, at Tor Books, edited to second anthology of stories which were based on a specific painting. He provided a piece of art created by Richard Anderson to multiple authors and asked them to write stories inspired by the art. The first of the three novelettes to appear in The Anderson Project is Ken Liu’s “Reborn.”
The world of “Reborn” is one in which humans are living in an uneasy relationship with the alien Tawnin. The story opens with the arrival of a Tawnin ship, returning some of the Reborn, humans who have been altered by the Tawnin, back to Earth. A crowd has gathered for the event and Josh Rennon, a policeman working with the Tawnin, as well as one of the Reborn, is on the scene to see if he can spot anyone who is less than happy with the Tawnin’s residence on Earth. When a bomb explodes, he is able to apprehend someone who appears to be connected with it.
Although the story begins to take on the tone of a police procedural, Liu is interested in following up on several different threads. Rennon is in a relationship with Kai, one of the Tawnin, and Liu explores what their relationship means, from a physical as well as an emotional and intellectual point of view. In some ways, both Kai and Rennon are new. As a Reborn, some of Rennon’s memories have been excised from him while the Tawnin take the view that just as their cells are completely replaced every few years, so too are their memories, and so a Tawnin today is a completely different individual than the person thie was a decade earlier.
The procedural potion of the story also continues and Rennon begins to discover that his suspect appears to be part of a larger conspiracy. As Rennon tracks down the threads that appear during his interrogation of the suspect, he comes across the mysterious Walker Lincoln, who appears to be the key to this particular terrorist cell, even if there doesn’t seem to be a record of Lincoln. Nevertheless, Rennon insists on following up on any leads, which makes his colleague Claire, as well as Kai, concerned about where the investigation is taking him.
The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fiction and The Seven Cardinal Virtues of Science Fiction
(Fawcett Crest, 1980 and 1981). Covers by Jerome Podwil
Back in the day, there was a pretty reliable formula for a successful science fiction anthology.
Went like this: Step one, find a fresh theme. Could be anything. Unicorns, space dreadnaughts, cats (cats were always a good choice). Step two, find a bunch of science fiction stories. Step three, put Isaac Asimov’s name on the cover.
In 1978, Asimov put out his first anthology with Martin H. Greenberg, who was famously gifted at the production side of things, and over the next decade or so they published over a hundred together, usually with Charles G. Waugh, a psychology professor in Maine. Charles picked the stories, Isaac wrote the intros, and Marty did everything else.
It was an inspired partnership, and it produced many celebrated volumes, including Isaac Asimov’s Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction (10 books), Isaac Asimov’s Magical Worlds of Fantasy (12 books), and many Mammoth Books of Science Fiction. But for me the real gems of the enterprise were some of the one-offs, including The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fiction, and its sequel The Seven Cardinal Virtues of Science Fiction.
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (Dover Thrift Editions,
November 2017). Cover: New Orleans Map, Currier and Ives, 1885
Last night I finished re-reading Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. I had not read it in many years — I first read it in the mid-1970s in a graduate seminar on Hawthorne and Melville taught by the wonderful Professor Elizabeth Schultz at the University of Kansas.
It’s perhaps my favorite Melville book, and a significant influence on my writing; my first solo novel Good News From Outer Space was an attempt to cross the figure of the multiply-disguised Confidence Man from Melville’s book with the shape-changing aliens of classic science fiction.
It all takes place in a single day — April Fool’s Day — on a steamboat that leaves St. Louis for points south, carrying a carnival of American character types, among them a confidence man who assumes eight different disguises as he interacts with, and bilks, various passengers during the the course of the day. It’s been described as a series of sketches or conversations. But that description does not do justice to the ways in which this book deconstructs America — and friendship and society and capitalism and progress and nature and religion and language itself — pretty much anything that any of us put faith in.
The Best Science Fiction of the Year 12 (Timescape/Pocket Books, July 1983)
I recently found a copy of Terry Carr’s 1983 anthology The Best Science Fiction of the Year 12 in a paperback collection I bought on eBay, and I was astonished at just how many great tales it contained.
There’s Connie Willis’s Hugo & Nebula Award winner “Firewatch,” the story of a time-traveling history student doing research during the London Blitz who discovers much more than he bargained for; Joanna Russ’s famous novella “Souls,” a Hugo award-winner in which a resourceful Abbess faces off against invading Vikings; Bruce Sterling’s first short story sale, the Shaper/Mechanist novelette “Swarm;” William Gibson’s early cyberpunk classic (and Nebula nominee) “Burning Chrome;” and Robert Silverberg’s Nebula Award nominee “The Pope of the Chimps,” in which a group of chimpanzees taught sign language develop a religion centered around humans.
There’s even a fine tale by my friend Bill Johnson, whom I worked with for years at Motorola in the 90s, “Meet Me at Apogee.”
Because I’ve been asked about the process by which I’ve been selecting stories for the Random Review series, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how the stories are selected.
I have a database of approximately 42,000 short stories that I own sorted by story title. When it comes time for me to select a story to review as part of this series, I role several dice (mostly ten sided) to determine which story should be read. I cross reference the numbers that come up on the die with the database to see what story I’ll be reviewing. This week, I rolled 40,770 which turned out to be Spider Robinson’s short story “The Wonderful Conspiracy.”
One of the things I’m hoping to get out of this series, from a personal point of view, is to discover authors and short stories that I’ve owned and have never read. Of course, I’m also hoping to share those discoveries, good or bad, with the readers of Black Gate.
The Wonderful Conspiracy is the final story of Spider Robinson’s first Callahan book, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon and it has the appropriately maudlin nostalgia of a bar nearing closing time. Robinson has set the story on New Year’s Eve when the bar is mostly empty, save for employees Mike Callahan and Fast Eddie, as well as inveterate drinkers Long-Drink McGonnigle, the Doc, and Robinson’s narrator.
Although “The Wonderful Conspiracy” has many of the signature tropes of a Callahan story, including the series of puns and breaking of glasses, it is a lower energy story, just five men sitting around talking. Set at the end of the year and in a bar that is practically empty, the discussion between the men turns introspective, led by Long-Drink.
The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series VIII (DAW, July 1980). Cover by Michael Whelan
The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series VIII was the eighth volume in DAW’s Year’s Best Horror Stories, copyrighted and printed in 1980. This was the first volume edited by horror author and editor Karl Edward Wagner (1945–1994). Artist Michael Whelan (1950–) appears for a sixth time in a row on the cover. I have been very impressed with Whelan’s variety. The covered and walking corpse is a good horrific image for this volume.
All of the authors of The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series VIII were male. Eleven were American, four were British, one Belgian (Eddy C. Bertin is back). Wagner included four stories from professional magazines, five stories from books (all anthologies), and seven total stories came from professional fanzines, especially Whispers and Midnight Sun. You get the sense that Wagner searched far and wide for horror stories in the most obscure places.
The City, Not Long After (Bantam Spectra, February 1990). Cover by Mark Harrison
Bantam Spectra was, without a doubt, the imprint where the action was at the end of the last century. Founded by Lou Aronica in 1985, it published some of the very best science fiction and fantasy of the 80s and 90s, including David Brin’s The Postman (1985) and The Uplift War (1987), William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1989), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars (1993 – 96), and a little book titled A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (and its sequels). The imprint was eventually retired in 2009, but not until it had published hundreds of fine books and launched a great many careers.
Pat Murphy published two memorable books with Bantam Spectra, both in 1990, the Philip K. Dick Award-winning collection Points of Departure and the Mythopoeic and Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated novel The City, Not Long After, a postapocalyptic tale of a depopulated San Francisco.