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Wednesday 5 December 2001

The Best SF and Fantasy Short Story Writers: A Contemporary Top Ten

by Nick Gevers

Contemplating the multiplex world of genre short fiction writing, it’s dangerous to make evaluative assumptions; but here goes anyway. Based on wide reading of anthologies, collections, magazines, and fiction websites, here is a tentative and opinionated listing of the ten finest short story writers currently active in the SF/Fantasy field, with some justifying and qualifying remarks. Any writer perceived to have been scanted can take comfort in the assumption that he or she is eleventh in these rankings...

  1. Lucius Shepard. The most impressive short fiction writer of the 1980s, Shepard has caught his second wind, and his current output of novellas is breathtaking. This renaissance began with "Crocodile Rock" in 1999 and "Radiant Green Star" in 2000; "Eternity and Afterward", surely one of the great short novels of recent times, appeared in the March 2001 F&SF, followed by "Aztechs" on Sci Fiction, and Colonel Rutherford’s Colt (, imminent). All of Shepard’s strengths are fully on view again: his extraordinary cascades of dark fantastic prose poetry, his rich genius of place, his complex moralism-in-extremis; and three further novellas, "Over Yonder", Valentine, and Louisiana Breakdown, all scheduled to appear in 2002, show no sign of let-up. A resounding Number One.
  2. Michael Swanwick. Swanwick’s two major collections published in 2000, Moon Dogs and Tales of Old Earth, confirmed his eminence; and he has not surrendered any momentum since. His particular strengths are those of the postmodernist: cleverly structured parody, glittering allusive prose, a relentless sardonic revisionism that can turn any topic brilliantly on its head. Always intellectually fecund and expert at narrative compression, Swanwick has recently excelled as a short-short story writer, producing a stream of vignettes for Sci Fiction ("The Periodic Table of Science Fiction"), The Infinite Matrix, Michael Swanwick Online (, and Interzone. His fuller short stories are not being neglected either: "The Dog Said Bow Wow" (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2001) is the precursor of a fresh wave of superb tales.
  3. Andy Duncan. The new speculative voice of the American South, Duncan has a flamboyant genius. His first collection, Beluthahatchie (2000), is a treasure trove of powerfully whimsical narrative voices; Southern Gothic dialects ("The Executioners’ Guild", "Lincoln in Frogmore") alternate with eloquent universality ("Fortitude") in one of the Fantasy field’s greatest displays of stylistic virtuosity ever. Duncan is a deeper, more complete writer than his obvious precursor, Howard Waldrop, engaging in the same Herculean labors of historical research, but realizing his characters and settings far more intensely, with far greater descriptive conviction. As the historian among short story writers, he excels; his 2001 output — "The Pottawatomie Giant" on Sci Fiction, "The Chief Designer" in Asimov’s, and "Senator Bilbo" in Starlight 3 — shows a further growth in energy and ambition. An emerging giant.
  4. Charles Stross. This British writer appears to have cornered the market on density of concept. An ideal pursued by Bruce Sterling and Greg Egan, among others, is the Hard SF narrative packed beyond bursting with ideas, so that every sentence is a revelation; Stross leaves all previous seekers of this grail in the dust. His two major stories from 2000, "A Colder War" and "Antibodies", are restless masterpieces, exploding in every direction with data of profoundly disturbing sorts; his subsequent "Manfred Macx" tales, "Lobsters" and "Troubadour" (both in Asimov’s), are more benign in tone, but if anything even more intellectually packed. A forthcoming collection, Toast and other Burned Out Futures, is likely to intimidate, but in the most enriching possible way.
  5. Ted Chiang. For someone who has only published around half-a-dozen stories, Chiang has had a remarkable impact. Like Stross, he is a practitioner of high-fiber Hard SF, but his approach is cooler, more varied, certainly a lot more compassionate. After his magnificent early stories of a decade or more ago — "Tower of Babylon", "Understand", "Division by Zero" — Chiang has returned with the novellas "Story of Your Life" (Starlight 2) and "Seventy-Two Letters" (Vanishing Acts), as well as the novelette "Hell is the Absence of God" (Starlight 3). An inspired concept writer, Chiang may achieve fuller recognition when his collection, Stories of Your Life, appears in 2002; he certainly deserves it.
  6. Ian R. MacLeod. MacLeod’s many stories are sensitive, musically descriptive, redolent of a distinctively British sort of nostalgia; his first collection, Voyages by Starlight (1996), is a quiet feast of emotional nuance and precisely shaded alienation. Perhaps the heir to Ray Bradbury, but much more consistent and controlled, MacLeod has in recent years demonstrated especial brilliance at novella length, as in "The Summer Isles" (1998), a fraught exploration of a fascist alternate Britain, "New Light On The Drake Equation" (Sci Fiction, 2001), a moody evocation of the loneliness of a future astronomer, and the forthcoming "Breathmoss" (Asimov’s), a striking planetary romance with touches of Ursula Le Guin and Gene Wolfe. Closely connected to "Breathmoss" is the exquisitely written "Isabel of The Fall" (Interzone), one of the best stories of 2001. A second collection is a necessity.
  7. Jeff VanderMeer. A highly enterprising Floridian paladin of small-press fiction, VanderMeer is enormously talented, possessing a painterly mastery of the Grotesque that makes his intensely-wrought dark fantasy an experience to be savored. The particular focus of VanderMeer’s genius is his imaginary city of Ambergris, an eccentric and villainous metropolis haunted by mushroom dwellers, a regal species of riverine squid, and many another horror. The original Ambergris novellas, such as "Dradin, In Love" and "The Transformation of Martin Lake", have been collected, together with ingenious new material, in City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris, to be published soon by the new small press Prime.
  8. Ursula K. Le Guin. The author of one of the finest bodies of short fiction in SF history, going back to the 1960s, Le Guin is currently in her most active phase since her great "purple patch" of twenty-five to thirty years ago. In Fantasy, she has in the last three years added five new stories to her Earthsea series (these collected as Tales From Earthsea), of which the novellas "The Finder" and "Dragonfly" are especially accomplished, dramatically revisioning (Le Guin’s term) the Earthsea milieu and all its mythic implications. Since 1998, four acute tales in the "Interplanary" cycle of anthropological fictions have appeared; and a major new SF short novel, "Paradises Lost", will appear in Le Guin’s latest collection, The Birthday of the World, in March 2002. The title story of that volume was one of the best SF novelettes of 2000, and the book also gathers the excellent later Hainish stories that graced the SF field in the 1990s. Elegant, limpid, very affecting, Le Guin’s short fiction is invaluable for its sheer wise humanity.
  9. Paul Di Filippo. SF’s inspired literary gadfly, Di Filippo is one of the genre’s most prolific story writers. His collections Fractal Paisleys (1997), The Steampunk Trilogy (1995), Lost Pages (1998), Ribofunk (1996), and Strange Trades (2001), as well as numerous stories yet to be collected, have an infectious quality of frenetic mischief, of joking at the expense of genre even as it is congratulated and augmented. Di Filippo, like his models Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick, has his serious side, but allusive bohemian chaos is never far distant, a lovable and funky postmodernism. Two more collections appear in 2002.
  10. Gene Wolfe. Like Le Guin an Old Master, and over thirty-five years the author of a formidable body of short work. Arguably, Wolfe is not quite the force he once was, but his Borgesian subtlety and Nabokovian flair with language remain potent creative properties. His most recent collection, Strange Travelers (2000), is eerie and downbeat, a masterclass in sinister implication. Oblique, offbeat, heterodox, a literary counterpart to David Lynch, Wolfe can strike inappropriate notes or overindulge his characteristic tantalizing obscurity, but even his weaker stories are labyrinths of meaning, a frustrating joy to decode. Major new stories appear on a regular basis; a further collection (or collections) should be an urgent priority.

Nick Gevers is a freelance literary critic and interviewer, whose work appears regularly in Interzone, Infinity Plus (of which he is Associate Editor), SF Site, Nova Express, and Redsine. A resident of Cape Town, South Africa, he has an extensive background in the academic study of SF, and recently was appointed an Acquisitions Editor at Cosmos Books, an imprint of Wildside Press. The anthology Infinity Plus One, co-edited by Gevers and Keith Brooke, appears soon from PS Publishing in the UK.

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