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Book Review: Collected Stories by Lewis Shiner

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Lewis Shiner is best known — revered, actually, by a devoted following  — as the author of Frontera and Deserted Cities of the Heart (both finalists for the Nebula Award for Best Novel) and Glimpses (winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and the Violet Crown Award for Best Novel), in addition to other acclaimed novels; as one of the progenitors of cyberpunk, represented in this collection by the seminal “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” written with Bruce Sterling; and as creator of pivotal characters in the innovative Wild Cards series of “mosaic novels.”

Given the diminished markets for short fiction, Shiner’s reputation in the field is perhaps lesser than his renown as a novelist. But with Collected Stories, Lewis Shiner establishes himself among the masters of the short story form.

Collected Stories is a beautifully presented, 500-page collection of 41 of his short works, spanning three decades and an impressive range of structures and genres. For future editions, Subterranean Press may want to consider including a caution: “Do not read Lewis Shiner’s writing if you are uncomfortable having your mind expanded, your beliefs undermined, your values questioned, or your sense of reality challenged.” This is not passive reading for the complacent, but rather, is a collection as rich with startling new ideas as a Phillip K. Dick greatest hits anthology.

Effective short fiction requires economy without seeming incomplete or abrupt. As with the classics of the form, Shiner’s stories draw you in, make their point, and snap closed, with often devastating efficiency. “The Circle,” an ominous lesson in the great power of storytelling and ritual, brings the reader to the point of realization just as the doomed characters experience the dread chill that arrives on the howling October wind. The story shares an eerie Sartresque atmosphere with the Twilight Zone adaptation of Charles Beaumont’s “Shadow Play”; in fact, “The Circle” was optioned for NBC’s recent horror anthology series, Fear Itself, before that show’s premature cancellation.

Speaking of Sartre, here’s an existential nightmare that will stick with you: a merging of our world with another in which each of us has a doppelganger. This scenario in the unnerving “Primes,” (a story that the author himself says he find difficult to revisit), raises the question: If there were two of you, wouldn’t one be redundant? In addition to subtle indictments about racism and materialism, Shiner places his protagonist in the subordinate role to his double, inextricably in a situation that would make Camus or Genet blanch. A lesser writer might have Nick contrive to kill his Earth Two version and attempt to take his place, but, as in real life, things are rarely tidily or predictably resolved in any of Shiner’s worlds. (It’s not difficult to imagine the creators of the contemporary series, Fringe, taking inspiration from Shiner’s story for their cosmology of dual Earths and doubles competing for primacy.)

Characters learning tough lessons about their place in existence, or at least having ample opportunity to do so, is a recurring theme in Shiner’s work. An utterly original take on the alien abduction story, the heart-rending “Nine Hard Questions about the Nature of the Universe,” finds nine-year-old Danny taken up into the uncaring vastness of space, growing up in an emotional vacuum and seeking answers to fundamental questions about his role in the universe, his humanity, and how to relate to the opposite sex and equally alien species. Like the narrator in the Seatrain song, “13 Questions,” to Danny, each inquiry becomes “an endless hole.” If nothing else is accomplished by raising these questions, they at least challenge the notion that our most cherished human characteristics and concerns are of any consequence to the whole of existence.

A very different challenge to human dominance takes place in the pulpy “Lizard Men of Los Angeles,” a virtuosic mashup of a Mandrakian magician detective and his enigmatic assistant, Alistair Crowley’s acolytes, and a monstrous sub-culture in 1930s L.A. More than a mere genre exercise, “Lizard Men” delivers a fully-realized world, populated with vivid characters, all rendered with elegant economy.

Take Cairo’s masterful put-down of Crowley, capturing both the tenor of the adversaries’ history and the haughty bravado the seasoned performer employs: “. . . whatever else may be true of me … I can at least console myself that I am not the author of poetry so wretched that it is universally reviled in my lifetime and will be forgotten promptly thereafter.” And a single line of arch dialog from Cairo’s charming assistant, the delightfully mysterious Mrs. Lockhart — “I trust you’re not waxing metaphorical . . . you know how I feel about that” — suggests a John Steed-Emma Peel bond between the two, while the author winks at his readers about literary devices he may, or may not be putting to use. There is even a subtle shout-out to another sorcerer supreme, as Cairo makes a certain mystical hand gesture closely associated with Dr. Strange. It’s a fantastic excursion into a fascinating underworld, one that demands a return appearance for the remarkable duo of Johnny Cairo and Myra Lockhart.

Shiner’s venture, along with Joe R. Lansdale, into hard-boiled detective fiction yielded Private Eye Action As You Like It, now a highly sought-after, out-of-print collectable. Three of Shiner’s stories from that elusive collection are included here, sparing readers laying out the $800 that hardcover now fetches. If Dan Sloane, his Vietnam vet PI, didn’t lead Shiner to a long career as a “tough-guy writer,” the Sloane stories do showcase his economy with rendering unique characters with a few strokes, as when clashing architectural details (in “Deep Without Pity”) “set [the detective’s] teeth on edge.” (A revealing, somewhat painful essay about his “short, unhappy career” as a “tough-guy writer” is available on Shiner’s Fiction Liberation Front, along with a wealth of other essays, more short stories, even several of his novels.)

Telling details that ring true give many of Shiner’s stories their bite — as in “Scales,” wherein a character compares a divorce to “being in a body cast for six months.” In the same story, Ann’s unfaithful husband recounts how his father would make his mother, “bring him the mail, and then he would open it … and throw what he didn’t want on the floor,” leaving it for his mother to “get down on her knees and pick it up.” This kind of economical, effective characterization anchors the stories’ fantastic elements in a reality that often in Shiner’s writing feels flinchingly autobiographical.

Details that seem to come from the author’s personal history must have inspired the harsh vicissitudes Shiner sometimes visits on his characters. Conversely, his writing often has an underlying unsentimental sense of compassion that may also stem from authorial experience; for every bleak scenario, there are abundant opportunities for redemption within these pages. Of course, even when characters come to an awareness of their flaws, as with the tragically addicted Blake in “Stuff of Dreams,” self-awareness comes at a terrible cost. These are people Shiner seems to have known, or even the person he has been, who, in many cases, could as easily have been any one of us.

For all his everyman protagonists, one of the book’s centerpieces showcases Shiner at another extreme, inhabiting historical figures he knows only through research, and weaving an alternate history where the actual and fanciful are indistinguishable. “The Death of Ché Guevara,” a 2010 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award Finalist, is told as an expansive interview with Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider, aka Tania, Ché’s partner in revolution. Her account of U.S. adventurism in Argentina, Eugene McCarthy as president, and an all-too-credible scenario for martial law in the United States is told with such conviction and passion, we want to believe, regardless of our political sympathies.

And that may be Shiner’s greatest talent, the ability —  like all the masters of the short fiction form — to create characters we can care about, can even relate to, in brief tales and in the most incredible circumstances. Regardless of allegory or fantasy, what makes his Collected Stories so memorable is the humanity at their heart.

This is a substantial collection in every sense, one that places Lewis Shiner among the finest of today’s short story practitioners.

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About James A. Gardner

  • Corrections: It’s been kindly pointed out to me, the NBC series I mentioned was not called FEAR, but FEAR ITSELF, and “The Circle” was filmed, just not aired. It is included on the FEAR ITSELF: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON DVD collection.
    Thanks to the reader who provided this information!