I was looking at Anthology Builder, a website that lets you choose short stories (up to 350 pages) from their selection and then prints out a physical book and sends it to you—your own anthology for $14.95. They have some terrific stories on there, but of course they only let you choose from the stories they have.
This led me to wonder what would be in my ideal anthology—in the ideal world where you could pick from all the stories there ever were, and not just from the available selection. 350 pages sounds like about eighteen stories to me. I like short stories, but I don’t generally tend to re-read them all that much. The title of my anthology would therefore be Jo’s Perfect Anthology: Eighteen Stories I Like to Re-Read.
My eighteen stories would be:
“Great Work of Time,” John Crowley
“The Serial Garden,” Joan Aiken
“Story of Your Life,” Ted Chiang
“Flight,” Peter Dickinson
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” James Tiptree, Jr.
“Scrabble With God,” John M. Ford
“In the House of the Seven Librarians,” Ellen Klages
“Owlswater,” Pamela Dean.
A Plague of Life,” Robert Reed
“Gestella,” Susan Palwick
“The Man Who Came Early,” Poul Anderson
“Bitterblooms,” George R.R. Martin
“The Liberation of Earth,” William Tenn
“Epiphany,” Connie Willis
“Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” Samuel Delany
“Air Raid,” John Varley
“Paradises Lost,” Ursula K. Le Guin
This isn’t a “world’s best” anthology—these really are all stories where I really have picked up the book they’re in just to re-read. It’s also perfectly balanced to my own slightly odd tastes. There are ten science fiction stories, one is mainstream (or maybe fantasy), and seven are definitely fantasy. They are by eleven men and seven women, and they range in date from 1905 to 2006.
“Great Work of Time” is a brilliant and convoluted alternate history, which I come back to because of its intricacy. It’s a brilliant idea, but it’s also so much more than that. Besides, it has the last flight of the venerable old R101 from the Cape to Cairo.
“A Habitation Enforced” continues the British Empire theme, but in a very different key. This would be my desert island story—I can read it and read it, and I frequently want to read it. It’s a simple enough story about a married American couple who find themselves taking over a country estate in England, or perhaps it would be better to say they are taken over by it. It’s not necessarily a genre story… I always want to read it when I am unsettled, because it is a story where every word falls perfectly in its place and every line sets off every other line, and it is a story about things fitting together.
“The Serial Garden” is also British, and whimsical, and a little old fashioned. And it’s also perfect. I have read this story aloud fairly often, and I once tried to cut some of the description to make it shorter, only to realise that there isn’t a wasted word and that supposedly extraneous description was setting up the tragedy of the end. This is a children’s story, and it’s an extremely funny tragedy.
“The Story of Your Life” is about communicating with aliens, and demonstrates how they communicate. I think it’s the cleverest and most poignant story I’ve ever read, and it always blows my head off with how brilliant it is.
“Flight” is the history of a fantasy empire. I don’t think there’s any Dickinson I don’t like, and this is one of my favourites of his. I’ve read this one aloud too, though it’s very long for that.
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is another tragedy, in the technical Aristotelean sense. It’s also cyberpunk before there was any such thing.
“Scrabble With God,” on the other hand, is comedy. It’s Mike Ford at his most characteristic, wry, funny, clever, deceptively simple but with so many balls in the air you can’t possibly see how he’s doing it.
“In the House of the Seven Librarians” is a modern fairy tale—not a retelling, a new modern fairytale. There’s a closed Carnegie library with seven librarians living in it, and one day they find a basket with a baby with a book that’s been returned so late the owner thought the late fine had better be a firstborn child. It just gets better from there on.
“Owlswater” is the only one that’s part of something longer. It’s connected to Dean’s Secret Country books, and I don’t often read it without reading them too, though it stands entirely alone and is about different characters. But I’d definitely want it in my anthology so I’d have it somewhere solid. It’s about a wizard who goes to watch a song happening, and what happens to him.
I only own “A Plague of Life” in the original magazine publication. Robert Reed is one of the finest writers of short fiction working today, and every year he produces enough stories for a collection—and of course he doesn’t bring out one every year. David Hartwell and I were joking that you could produce an annual The Year’s Best Robert Reed Stories. (If someone did, I’d buy it!) “A Plague of Life” is a wonderful and chilling novella about what the world would be like if people, and animals, didn’t die. You could kill them of course, but otherwise they would just stay alive indefinitely. Within that, it’s a coming of age story in a dysfunctional family.
“Gestella” is a very dark story about a werewolf, except that it isn’t the werewolf who’s the monster. It’s absolutely chilling and has a wonderfully perfect point of view.
“The Man Who Came Early” is another time travel story. It was hard to decide which Poul Anderson story to pick, as he’s someone who has a lot of short work I love. This one is a classic example of culture shock, seen from an unusual angle.
Probably everybody knows that Martin’s “For a Single Yesterday” is connected to the Kristofferson song “Me and Bobbie McGee.” However, I figured out for myself that “Bitterblooms” is Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” only with the metaphors literalised as only science fiction can do. I liked the story even before that, and now I adore it.
“The Liberation of Earth” was the first science fiction story I ever fell in love with, in the excellent old Penguin Best SF collection, edited by Brian Aldiss. It’s about how successive sets of aliens liberate Earth from each other, until it’s virtually uninhabitable. It’s funny, it works as a story and it has applicability without being allegory.
“Epiphany” is just amazing. Yet when I try to talk about it, it’s like picking up jelly (er, jello) with a fork. It’s about going on trying, and it’s about traveling in bad weather. I’d read all the other stories in Miracle before, and I’d liked most of them, enough to buy the collection. But this one is the absolute standout.
“Time Considered As a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” is an even better story than the title is a title. Delany is a poet really, his words sing, and yet his worldbuilding is as solid as anyone could want.
“Air Raid” isn’t a feel good story. In fact, almost the opposite. I didn’t figure out exactly what was so brilliant about it until I read the messed up extended version. “Air Raid” has perfect timing and perfect point of view and the timing of revelation is just staggering. You’re reading away and you think you have an idea why people are doing this, but you don’t, so when you do it jars all through you. Varley is an absolute master of short length, and this is his masterpiece.
I was going to end with my favourite short story of all time, Ursula Le Guin’s “The Day Before the Revolution.” There’s a way in which I think every collection could end with that, in the same way every sonnet could end “Silent, upon a peak, in Darien.” But as I was looking up the information on it, I realised that in recent times I have far more often read “Paradises Lost.” Le Guin is so brilliant, and so famous, that an amazing story like this can pass unnoticed—this wasn’t on any awards ballots that I saw and didn’t get any attention. It’s in the collection The Birthday of the World and I had it on the shelf for ages thinking I’d read all of it already, and I had, except for this one. It’s the story of a generation ship that develops a religion in which the ship itself is heaven, what matters is sailing endlessly forward, the world left behind and the world ahead are equally undesirable. It’s a gem.
What would you choose? And what order would you put them in?