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.)