Book Report: Even a grudging reader will like these stories
If you’re a science fiction buff, have I got a book for you to take to the lake. I’m no expert in the field, that’s for sure because some of the science fiction I like isn’t even considered science fiction by its authors.
Years ago, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., came to the college where I was teaching, to spend a week with faculty and students.
At a reception in his honor, the English department professor who specialized in science fiction came up to Vonnegut and told him that he was “the science fiction guy on campus.”
Vonnegut exploded, saying he was definitely not a science fiction writer. As a big fan of his novel “The Sirens of Titan,” definitely a science fiction novel, I decided not to compliment him on that work lest he explode once again.But I just received a wonderful book that I plan to take to the lake for the few hours when I won’t be wetting a fish line.So what I need is not long novels, but short fiction, in this case short science fiction which is admirably provided in a collection by an author I’m not acquainted with. “The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories,” (Ballantine Books, $28) fill the bill nicely.Willis has won more awards than the grand champion heifer at the Pierce County Fair, but because I’m such an sci-fi neophyte I’ve never heard of her.But now I’m going to sing her praises for a collection of earlier short stories that have won every award in the book. It’s full of hilarity (like Vonnegut), a sense of dread (like Vonnegut) and all manner of stories in between.One of my favorites recounts a convention of physicists who have no trouble with quantum physics but have a difficult time negotiating an escalator in their meeting place.On the dread side there’s a story depicting life on the planet after dogs have been banned, which reminded me of Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House” and also his “Harrison Bergeron.”Emily Dickinson fans will like one story, in which the spinster poet of Amherst defeats a cadre of invading aliens.There’s something for everyone here, all of the 10 stories included have won either Hugo or Nebula awards and some have won both. Willis has written new “afterwords” for the stories.The book also publishes some of Willis’s speeches.
When I was a kid, I loved a comic strip in the Sunday papers, “Prince Valiant: In the Days of King Arthur,” by Hal Z. Foster.In fact it was “Prince Valiant” that taught me my first big words. I asked my father the meaning of “synopsis,” which preceded each of the Prince’s episodes. He told me, and I felt really smart.So I also smarted when the Minneapolis Tribune dropped the strip because it had become so right-wing that the editors couldn’t bear to look at it.I missed the elegant drawings, the elegant dialogue and would have been glad to swallow Foster’s fascist nonsense just to get a look at it each Sunday.Thank goodness for Graphic Universe, Minneapolis publishers who have just issued an English language version of a classic French graphic novel, “William and the Lost Spirit,” by Gwen de Bonneval and Matthieu Bonhomme (Graphic Universe, $9.95 paperback), translated by Anne Collins Smith and Owen M. Smith.Here’s a beautifully illustrated book in the manner of Foster.It’s lushly drawn, with highly detailed pictures of ancient vehicles of transportation and torture.Like Prince Valiant, it’s set in the Middle Ages, with its perception of the world, and tells the story of a travel adventure as that takes its hero, William, on a quest to find his sister and perhaps his father whom is thought to be dead.Graphic Universe tells readers that it’s written for grade levels 8-12 and is especially effective for older “reluctant” readers.I’m far from “reluctant” about this book, but can understand why even a kid who hates to read might enjoy this action packed story.Also it needs no “synopsis” because, unlike Prince Valiant, it’s complete in itself and you don’t have to wait to find out how things transpire.
Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.