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And now the introduction, wherein I’m supposed to tell you how excellent the stories contained in this anthology are, and urge you to go ahead and buy the volume, since you are supposedly holding it in your hands in some dingy and/or floodlit bookstore and riffling through the pages in the venerable act of browsing. If this is true, and you are, then let me discharge my part of the thing right now: (1) the stories in this anthology are all excellent in their various ways or I wouldn’t have bothered to put them together in the first place; and (a) yes, you should buy the book, because I need the money, for one thing, and because you are getting a pretty good hunk of top-quality fiction, for another.

Now that that’s over, and you, swayed by my rhetoric, have supposedly bought this book and are now supposedly relaxing in whatever equivalent of a comfortable reading room you have (mine has a rickety bookcase, a faded convertible couch long past its prime, a wine bottle with some wild flowers poking out of it and a fire escape looking over one’s shoulder), let me move on to the other—and more interesting—things that should be covered by an introduction to an anthology:

Why did I do it at all? and

What did I hope to do with it, besides pay the rent?

This anthology grew, in part, out of frustration. I have been a professional reader for more than two years now, and that is a killing job, as any number of people would be happy to testify. Being a professional reader means being trapped in the same room with a slush pile for long stretches of time, and worse, being forced not only to coexist with it but also to relate to it. A slush pile is a fabulous monster with guts of steel and the head of an idiot—it is an accumulation of unsolicited manuscripts that have been submitted to a magazine or a publishing house. These manuscripts are as numberless and inexhaustible as the grains of sand in the Sahara: scoop them out from the bottom and they pour in again at the top. Most of these manuscripts are science fiction (or SF, as we initiates like to call it), a lot of them are god-awful, the vast majority of them are both SF and god-awful. You can’t ignore a slush pile—you are being paid specifically to read it, to make it go away. So I would sit and try to cope with it, and day after day I would read stirring sagas of the spaceways; I would read galaxy-shaking, sun-busting adventures; I would watch a hundred different avatars of Captain Wasp of the Terran Space Patrol singlehandedly making the universe safe for humanity; I would watch intrepid scientists constructing Amazing New Devices and Secret Weapons in their basement workshops out of birdhouse scraps and bailing wire; I would watch astronauts spacewalking along the hull in spite of a deadly meteorite shower to fix the damaged hyperwarp engine with a hairpin and a prayer; I would watch Jupiter falling out of its orbit “down on top of” the Earth, to be deflected at the last minute by a cobalt ray whipped up in a basement workshop; I would watch galactic conspiracies on a scale so complicated and paranoid as to make Dostoevsky blanch; I would watch star empires grow and wither in numbers as vast as all the tulips in all the Hollands that have ever been; I would read stories so huge and dynamic in scope that I had to struggle to thrust each glittering, bellowing handful of manuscript back into the return-address envelope.

They were all lousy.

And so I would sit at the Formica table every day at lunch, with my submarine sandwich and my cup of coffee, and my eyes dangling limply from their sockets like melted blue crayons, and I would watch the steam from the coffee and think: There must be some way to do all this right.

There is, of course.

This anthology contains eight stories that “do it right”—that take the common subject material of SF and handle it with intelligence, with humanity, with a high degree of literacy.

And they do more than that.

There has been a great deal of talk in the last few years about the “sense of wonder,” and many wailing lamentations that it is forever gone, that SF is no longer capable of delivering that quasi-religious shiver that goes through you when you come into contact with something bigger than yourself, that intuition into systems different from any you will ever know. This is what the nameless wretches in the slush pile were trying to do: they were trying to communicate the sense of wonder, but the only way they could think of to do it was to make their canvases bigger and bigger, and more and more gory. And those particular grooves on the record have worn pretty thin by now. That just doesn’t work anymore.

SF has developed an unfortunate evolutionary tendency to depend on melodrama: on world-shaking plots, heroic deeds, cliff-hanger action. And, as a result, on formula writing, cardboard characters, shallow conceptualization, simplex—or nonexistent—cerebration. On cliché that becomes genre under the weight of years. This makes for staleness, conformity, stagnation—the insistence on wide-screen dreams limiting the range of the field, becoming monotonous, finally defeating its own purpose: the instilling of wonder and awe in the reader. The microcosm of pulp stories becomes so widely divorced from what we know of the macrocosm, the quality of existence of the hero’s life becomes so divergent from the experience of our own everyday lives, that we cease to relate to it, it stops having any relevancy to us. It becomes fantasy, as strongly stylized as a No play. We fail to suspend our disbelief, we cease having any empathy with these supermen and their superdeeds. We cease to care—we know that it’s all nonsense anyway, something that would only happen on that little piece of paper. We know it has nothing to do with us.

And the sense of wonder dies.

The eight stories here find ways around that syndrome. They are stories that we intuit as life, that somehow fool us into thinking—while we are reading them—that they are something more than words on paper, that the events in the story are actually occurring in some dimension congruent with our own, viewed through the window of fiction. Most of them do this by keeping the focus tight, intense, personal, by concentrating on the people involved and letting them live the story from the inside out, so that their viewpoints and values become ours, and we care about the solution of their problems because they have become our own. They show us, with conviction, something we would otherwise never know on this earth: what everyday, day-to-day life would be like in a different society, an alien culture, another world. They are stories that are concerned with more or less ordinary people—however strange they seem to us in their own context—leading ordinary lives, struggling the way we do, loving, losing, dying, getting along. Not that the events portrayed here are mundane—there is more than enough action, color, sweep and drama—but that the action is dramatic exposition consistent with life, not melodrama. The action—Zelazny’s great storm, Roberts’ murderous routiers, Delany’s hostile and slaughtering sea, Leiber’s demoniac prankster, Smith’s battles and confrontations—is the type of sudden, violent incursion on normalcy that happens to us: I have been mugged in the streets of Manhattan, beaten, robbed, I have suffered great storms, I have seen people struck dead and down by cars. I can believe the type of action these authors give us, the senseless violence and uncaring cruelty, much more than I can believe the heroic escapades of Captain Wasp.

These stories translate us into another world in ways we can find believable and consistent, that allow us to share someone/thing else’s skin. And by so doing they engender a far greater sense of wonder than a library full of pulp world-shaking—because we are able to go Out There ourselves, not through a surrogate.

The stories here are all days in someone’s life, someone real, and that’s why we care. That’s what makes the difference.

I enjoyed collecting them. I hope you enjoy reading them.

And keep your cobalt ray dry. We may need it yet.


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