Joseph Bloch’s 7 of the Best: The Short Fiction Strikes Back!
Written by Joseph Bloch
When I set out to write a 7 of the Best post, I naturally looked through some of the others that had been posted at Multiverse in the past, and was enormously disappointed. It turns out that most of the things I would choose for such a list had already been chosen by others! So, beaten to the punch, I wanted to do something a little different than what had gone before, so I’m going to go with a fantasy and sci-fi short fiction theme for this outing.
SPOILER ALERT: Some of these descriptions contain spoilers for 30+ year old stories. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon (1941).
Prolific and brilliant inventor Kidder is betrayed by his business manager and has to turn to the rapidly-evolving species he has created in order to thwart his plans. I personally find the first half of the story to be the most compelling. It describes not only many of Kidder’s various inventions, but also the line of reasoning that leads to the creation of the neoterics themselves. It’s Kidder’s combination of a quest for knowledge-for-its-own-sake and practical implementation that impresses me about the character. He doesn’t just indulge in theory; he is interested in practical results. But as soon as he makes one stunning breakthrough (any of which would ensure a reputation for an entire career), he is already moving onto the next.
[Editor’s Note: Theodore Sturgeon was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2000. -TC]
The Five Dragon Bowl by Gary Gygax (1987).
Man, it was tough to pick between this and the terrific story “Twistbuck’s Game”, also in the collection Night Arrant. Set in the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, the story tells of the thief-acrobat, Gord, and his companion Chert, as they aid the forces of good in rooting out an evil from the distant West. What I love so much about this is that it brings to life some of the characters on the sidelines of the World of Greyhawk, like Biff the halfling, as well as giving us our only glimpse into the China-like portion of the continent of Oerik (and, I would argue, the villain is supposed to be of the never-published savant class, which I went ahead and included in my own Adventures Dark and Deep game). It’s a great look into what an ordinary one-shot adventure in that world would look like, and has a nice little fun twist at the end that is worthy of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Speaking of which…
The Lords of Quarmall by Fritz Leiber and Harry Otto Fischer (1964).
Originally begun in 1936 by Harry Otto Fischer and finally finished in 1964 by Fritz Leiber, this is one of the great degenerate-inhabitants-of-an-enclosed-city stories out there, quite on a par with Robert E Howard’s “Red Nails”. The two best thieves in Lankhmar, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, end up serving the two competing factions vying for the rule of the ancient and decadent underground city of Quarmall. The description of the sorceries, and the overall feeling of plodding doom which permeates the piece is memorable enough, but when sparked by Leiber’s enormous wit and wry humor, the whole shines like a beacon. Other highlights in the series are “Thieves’ House,” “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” and “Stardock.”
[Editor’s Note: On a related note, Lankhmar: City of Adventure was published by TSR in 1985 and is fondly remembered as one of the greatest campaign settings for AD&D. – TC]
Sandkings by George RR Martin (1979).
I actually remember reading this in Junior High when it first came out in Omni magazine, and it was my first introduction to George RR Martin’s other great fiction setting, the Thousand Worlds. The protagonist, Simon Kress, is a thoroughly loathsome individual who finds himself in need of a new pet. He happens to find a dealer in alien Sandkings, tiny insects with hive minds that fight wars and literally worship the one who gives them food. But Kress’ nature takes over, and things swiftly go awry. One of the great “he deserved his comeuppance” stories in modern times.
The Thousand Worlds setting deserves a little attention here, as it isn’t just his go-to science-fiction setting, but it’s a setting that is easily as detailed, convoluted, and wonderfully difficult to untangle as Westeros. There are ancient empires which collapsed after ancient wars, weird alien civilizations on the very margins of human space, and a wonderfully diverse and well-crafted variety of human and post-human civilizations. Other highlights in the series include any of the Haviland Tuf stories, “Nightflyers” (being made into a movie for the second time, apparently), and “And Seven Times Never Kill Man.”
Have You Heard the One…? by Spider Robinson (1980).
When one is discussing genre short fiction, there are a few names, and a few series, which are obligatory mentions. Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon is one of those. To the uninitiated (and shame on you – get over to eBay or Amazon and pick up the six Callahan’s books this very instant, young person!), Callahan’s Place is a bar in Suffolk County, Long Island where remarkable things just happen to happen. Aliens, talking dogs, androids, time travelers… and then the clientele gets really odd. Drinks cost a half a buck, and you are left with a choice, after ponying up your dollar bill (if you don’t have any singles, go across the road to the all-night deli to change a five or a ten). Either take fifty cents in change, or step up to the fireplace, make a mandatory toast, and hurl your glass into it. Don’t worry – Callahan buys glasses seemingly by the cargo container-full, and they cost him almost nothing. You won’t find a bunch of friendlier, more open-minded folks than you will at Callahan’s Place, from Fast Eddie the piano player, to Sam “Doc” Webster, who always seems to win Pun Night, to any of two dozen others. Honestly, I could have chosen any story in the corpus (did I mention that two of the books focus on the brothel run by his wife, Lady Sally McGee? They do, and that place is even weirder and more wonderful than Callahan’s Place), but I picked “Have You Heard the One…?” because it perfectly encapsulates the entire series. The whole story, which is fascinating and a wonderful study in character development in and of itself, is a set-up to a pun. And not just any pun, but an inside-baseball pun regarding another science fiction author. It’s pure gold.
Field Test by Keith Laumer (1976).
I so wanted to include one of his Retief stories in this list (which are collectively effing brilliant), but in terms of being a great story, this one has to come out on top. It is one of his Bolo series. Bolos are nearly-unstoppable killing machines, a cybernetic brain inside an armored body the size of a shopping mall, armed with nuclear weapons and other lethalities. These are the inspiration for the Ogres of Steve Jackson Games’ fame, as well as the “Continental Siege Unit” found in SPI’s old “Sword and Sorcery” tongue-in-cheek wargame. This story involves one of the first of the fully independent-thinking model Bolos (a Mark XX), still not yet tested, which is thrown into a battle as a last-ditch effort to hold off an invasion from a hostile power. The Bolo turns out to be a much more effective weapon than either side counted on, and despite all orders to the contrary charges into the enemy advance, blunting it through sheer force of will (if an AI can be said to have such a thing). What gets me about this story is the very end, where the scientist in charge of its development makes contact with the AI, on the verge of death, the combat chassis having been completely obliterated by the enemy onslaught, but the sheer sight of doing so was enough to get them to turn back, their own morale shattered by the display. Unit DNE (“Denny”) is asked why he effectively committed suicide to blunt the attack. Did he calculate that it would have the desired psychological impact? What did he know that his commanders did not?
Denny’s reply, when asked why he sacrificed himself, is simply “for the honor of the regiment.”
The Shadow Over Innsmouth by HP Lovecraft (1931).
To my mind, this is the crowning glory of one of the best horror writers of the twentieth century (although “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu” come close). This is the archetypical isolated town full of degenerated people corrupted by an ancient evil. The masterful element of this story is the ever-building atmosphere and feeling of dread, as the narrator – a young man of antiquarian bent visiting the isolated New England coastal town of Innsmouth after hearing about its queer inhabitants and history – gradually realizes that the rumors of strange goings-on are true. Over the years, after old Obed Marsh had visited a certain island in the South Seas, he imported the islanders’ cult, which involved making offerings to, and ultimately mixing with, the sea-dwelling Deep Ones. The scene in the hotel (the Gilman House… heh), where the townsfolk attempt to capture the narrator, are particularly well-done, and mark a relatively rare (for Lovecraft) action-filled break from the otherwise brooding atmosphere the story creates.
Under the Hammer by David Drake, Rogues in the House by Robert E Howard, The Eyes Have It by Randall Garett, Protest Note by Keith Laumer, and At the Core by Larry Niven.