Thu
Jan 22 2009 11:14am
My Perfect Anthology

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

A Habitation Enforced,” Rudyard Kipling

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?

27 comments
Amy Sisson
1. amysisson
I'm in the process of creating an anthology at Anthology Builder, and while I'm very happy with the stories that are in it so far, there are some I want that I (so far) can't have. I've even gone so far as to contact some authors and ask them if they'll allow their stories to be added to the Anthology Builder library, with mixed success. Nobody has said no, some have said yes, but several have not answered. (In all cases, I already own the book with the story, so in my case it's not taking away revenue from the author, but rather adding to it slightly.)

My first must-have is Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" -- my all-time favorite short story.

Another is Dirk Strasser's "Waiting for the Rain".

You've reminded me how much I loved Ellen Klages' "In the House of the Seven Librarians". Hmmm, I'd better go send an e-mail....
John D.
2. John D.
My Perfect Anthology: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2005/05/design-your-own-dream-anthology
Jon Evans
3. rezendi
All I know about mine off the top of my head is that it would include Heinlein's "All You Zombies -" and Sterling's "Dori Bangs" back-to-back. Sort of a combined solipsistic requiem.
Jason Henninger
4. jasonhenninger
I feel so illiterate. I haven't read any of the stories you mentioned.
Samantha Brandt
5. Talia
Although I like short stories, I tend not to have a terribly long recollection of them, unlike full length novels. One favorite that comes to mind is one I heard on an Escape Pod episode back in September, 'Private Detective Molly' by A.B. Goelman. Absolutely charming.

As an aside, as people may or may not already know, 'House of Seven Librarians' was podcast on a recent Podcastle episode, which can be found here if you care to enjoy it in audio format. :)
Sol Foster
6. colomon
I don't have the time / available brainpower to make a full list, but the first things that jump to mind are "Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tick-Tock Man" and "Lean Times in Lankmar".
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
OK, new interesting question: If you could add two things to make my anthology up to twenty stories, what would they be?
zaphod beetlebrox
8. platypus rising
Ry?nosuke Akutagawa "In a Grove" or "Spinning Gears"

Jeffrey Ford "The Empire of Ice-Cream"


I've only read the Chiang/Tiptree/Delany/Le Guin.
Patrick Garson
9. patrickg
Hmmm, maybe some Angela Carter? My favourite is The Bloody Chamber (from the same).

As a victorian/edwardian ghost junkie, I would be hard pressed not to include some Algernon Blackwood (the willows, or Wendigo, perhaps), or maybe Arthur Machen.

Du Maurier also wrote some great short stuff, and Michael Chabon, and Dashiell Hammet - oh Jo stop me now!
Andrea Leistra
10. aleistra
I think I'd have to add "Learning to be Me", by Greg Egan, and then I am paralyzed by needing to pick *one* and only *one* more to add. So I'll leave it at that until I can actually go home and look over my books and have my memory jogged. (Looking at my library on LibraryThing just isn't the same, especially since I can't flip to the table of contents.)
Blue Tyson
11. BlueTyson
If I had to pick any twenty, right now, here's one version out of 120 or so possibles :-

Denton, Bradley - Sergeant Chip
Dowling, Terry - Colouring the Captains
Egan, Greg - Border Guards
Ellison, Harlan - Jeffty Is Five
Frahm, Leanne - Rain Season
Howard, Robert E. - Red Nails
King, Stephen - The Gunslinger
Kress, Nancy - Saviour
Leiber, Fritz - Lean Times In Lankhmar
Lovecraft, H. P. - The Colour Out of Space
McDonald, Ian - Verthandi's Ring
Moorcock, Michael - Stealer of Souls,The
Palmer, David R. - Emergence
Reynolds, Alastair - Diamond Dogs
Smith, Cordwainer - Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons
Steele, Allen M. - The Death of Captain Future
Stross, Charles - Lobsters
Tiptree Jr, James - The Only Neat Thing To Do
Turner, George - Flowering Mandrake
Williams, Walter Jon - Green Leopard Plague,The
Blue Tyson
12. BlueTyson
7.

Just the first two that come to mind

Scanners Live In Vain - Cordwainer Smith
Lobsters - Charles Stross

10.

Yes, having your tables of contents in LibraryThing is very, very useful. :)
Blue Tyson
13. BlueTyson
Here's todays 'free online only' twenty :-

Howard, Robert E. - Red Nails
Pratt, Tim - Cup and Table
Lobsters - Charles Stross
The Nine Billion Names Of God - Arthur C. Clarke
Dark Integers - Greg Egan
The Scab's Progress - Paul Di Filippo and Bruce Sterling
Privateers' Moon - Terry Dowling
Scanners Live In Vain - Cordwainer Smith
Unsportsmanlike Conduct - Scott Westerfeld
The Cold Equations - Tom Godwin
The Colour Out of Space - H. P. Lovecraft
Melancholy Elephants - Spider Robinson
The Green Leopard Plague - Walter Jon Williams
When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth - Cory Doctorow
Sergeant Chip - Bradley Denton
Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons - Cordwainer Smith
The Dead - Michael Swanwick
Border Guards - Greg Egan
Who Goes There? - John W. Campbell
Exploration Team - Murray Leinster
Marissa Lingen
14. Mris
Have you read Octavia Butler's "The Evening and the Morning and the Night," Jo? It's in _Bloodchild and Other Stories_, and I love it so very much.

(We can send you _Bloodchild_ if you don't have a copy and would like one.)

(Alas, that parenthetical offer was to Jo only, not the whole internet or even all of Tor.com. I wish I could send copies out to all persons of goodwill who were interested. Free books in the mail from strangers! Wouldn't that be nice?)
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Mris: I own Bloodchild, don't worry! So yes, I have read it, Brilliant.

And your offer reminds me of the time I was with my aunt and Ken and a small Sasha in Kirlby Lonsdale and she paused outside a cake shop just as a tour group were getting out of a coach. She said "Now I'm going to buy everybody a cake!" and was immediately surrounded by very appreciative strangers.
John D.
16. MikiM
7. The two that I'd put in would be:
The Astronaut - Valentina Zhuravlyova
Angel's Egg - Edgar Pangborn

In a way, I guess both are examinations of the end of a life, and proof positive that SF can jerk a tear like no other. I first read The Astronaut in a great collection, although I didn't realise it at the age of 10: just called "Science Fiction Stories", it also contained Allamagoosa, Obedience and Christmas Tree.

To flesh out my list, I'd go for:
The Hob - Judith Moffett
Orange Is For Anguish, Blue For Insanity - David Morell (Although Rio Grande Gothic is also great)
The Distributor - Richard Matheson
Sometimes, I can remember everything about a story except the tile. One of those would be in My Anthology: the Ray Bradbury story about 3 (or 4?) Americans on holiday in Mexico when the Bombs Start Falling. It ends with "the flies returned when the meat stopped swinging".
John D.
17. melopoeia
"Adding two things"...do they have to be genre?

Hmm. Its a hard thing. But if I had to pick one, this one, which isn't even genre, really:

The Old Chevalier, by Isak Dinesen

--

For the second there are several contenders:
The Goodbye Song, by Joan Aiken

Friction, by Will McIntosh

QWERTYUIOP, by Vivien Alcock

The Dragon of Pripyat, by Karl Schroeder

I'm trying to avoid two stories published in 2008 which still have the flush of newness on them, or obvious things like "The Lottery", or maybe potentially twee ones like stuff by Oscar Wilde.

Not having read every story you mention, I'm not sure how they'd fit, since I realize after all an anthology seems to be like an album--some fit together as a whole. Every one goes with a different angle.
John D.
18. R. Emrys
A few that I would want in my ideal anthology (and I'm sure I'll kick myself for leaving something out later):

A Study in Emerald - Neil Gaiman
Bloodchild - Octavia Butler
Traitor - R. M. Meluch
Draco Campestris - Sarah Monette
The Dust Enclosed Here - Kage Baker
For a Foggy Night - Larry Niven
Follow Me Light - Elizabeth Bear
Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby - Susanna Clarke
Easy as ABC - Rudyard Kipling
Mandalay - John M. Ford
"--We Also Walk Dogs" - Robert A. Heinlein.
Labyrinth - Lois McMaster Bujold (possibly a novella?)
Microcosmic God - Theodore Sturgeon

I don't think I've read any of your list except for "Scrabble With God" and "Bitterblooms." Lots to track down!
Chuk Goodin
19. Chuk
I only just discovered "In the House of the Seven Librarians" this past week (it is on Podcastle in audio form right here. (I'm not a huge audiobook listener but a friend pointed it out and I picked up the anthology.)) Excellent story, especially if you like libraries.
Blue Tyson
20. BlueTyson
18

You'll definitely find the Kipling online, RE.
Soon Lee
21. SoonLee
Blue Tyson @13:
Thank you. I would buy that.

As for adding two more stories, the two that spring to mind are:

- "Georgia on my mind" Charles Sheffield
- "A Dry, Quiet War" Tony Daniel

Also considered:
- "Lobsters" Charles Stross
- "24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai" Roger Zelazny

I would totally have that Ted Chiang in my anthology, but building the rest of the anthology, that's tough, but entertaining.
individ ewe-al
22. individ-ewe-al
I don't read a lot of short stories, in any genre. I agree with Jo and others about Chiang's The story of your life, it's just an incredible work of art. The other two that I passionately love are Bujold's Mountains of mourning, and Egan's Orphanogenesis (which became the opening chapter of what I think is a weaker full length novel, Diaspora).

Mountains of mourning is just heart-breaking, and it talks about infanticide of children with disabilities which is a topic that doesn't get much coverage, though it's not at all sentimental. It also works really well as SF, in that it gives you loads of world-building without detracting from the story, which is a kind of murder-mystery. It adds a lot to the whole Miles series, but it would work well as a stand-alone too.

Orphanogenesis is thinky hard SF, but it's also a very creditable attempt to describe the experience of consciousness. And it's a story where stuff happens, not just an exploration of ideas.
individ ewe-al
23. individ-ewe-al
Oh, and on Le Guin: I passionately hated The birthday of the world, the whole collection. I don't hurt books, but I contemplated throwing it across the room. I think the intensity of my negative reaction is mostly due to the execrable Coming of age in Karhide, which ruined The left hand of darkness for me. It would be unforgivable as fanfic but considering that Le Guin herself wrote it I hardly know what to think. I did find Paradises lost the least awful story in the collection, and maybe I would even have liked it if it hadn't been tainted by sharing covers with such a monstrosity.

What might go in my ideal anthology is A very long way from anywhere else, which I think is technically a YA novella rather than a short story, but it's really very short. It's a beautiful love story, intensely romantic but not clichéd or soppy, talking about two young teenagers who really are deeply in love, but not going the easy route of either ignoring the problems of their young ages, or making the romance pathological or unreal.
John Armstrong
24. JohnnyYen
Two more to make 20?

Now Let Us Sleep - Avram Davidson. I can't read this one very often, it's that powerful.

The Census Takers - Frederik Pohl

Help! I Am Dr. Morris Goldpepper (Davidson) was a close third.


But you could pick a different 20 every day, right?
John Armstrong
25. JohnnyYen
Damn - How could I not have two PK Dick stories?

King of the Elves and Roog!
John D.
26. E.E.D. Cyttonn
"Paradises Lost" sounds sort of like "Passenger" by Kevin Brockmeier. (His "The Jesus Stories" is really good, too.) It's a man's thoughts on his life, lived entirely on an airplane that flies endlessly with no destination.
Other good stories are:
*"In Our Hands" by Bruce Coville about freedom vs. equality.
*"Man from the South" and "Royal Jelly" by Roald Dahl.
*Lots of Henry Kuttner's, especially "Absalom," "Endowment Policy," "Mimsy Were the Borogroves," "Nothing but Gingerbread Left," "The Proud Robot," and "What You Need."
*"The Surfer" by Kelly Link about how the world deals with a one-time world-shattering event.
*"The Pale Thin God" by Mike Resnick--it's in the same collection as "Owlswater"--about how other gods view Christianity.
John D.
27. JohnnyYen
Also, E for Effort by T L Sherred
And Now the News by Sturgeon
Reall hard to pick form Silverberg's shorts - I might cheat and call Hawksbll Station a short, or maybe his first published one, the cnannivbalism story.
Heinlien would be tough, as well

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