Other worlds and alternate realities are close at hand in Baker’s Dozen: 13 Short Science Fiction Novels Presented by Isaac Asimov. Collected here for the first time is a rich offering of wonderful short novels by renowned writers in the field. The strange places they write of are sometimes remote worlds—other planets in faraway galaxies—or, more often, our own planet in a different time, in the far past or the distant (and not-so-distant) future.
The works in this volume are by thirteen science fiction luminaries, among them Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Frederik Pohl, Philip José Farmer, John Jakes, and others. They take place in vastly varied settings and times and offer a stunning array of characters: creatures from other planets, sea monsters, left-over beings from ages past, and, of course, humans—people just like the rest of us. These characters are beautiful and awful, murderous and friendly, strange and familiar, deadly earnest and happy-go-lucky. But one thing this host of different beings has in common is that they seek fulfillment of a dream of some kind—of a vision they hold of themselves and their own worlds.
In Profession, Isaac Asimov offers a story about the plight of an original thinker in a tomorrow where existence is strictly programmed from childhood on. When one man’s vision of his future is shattered, he strikes out on his own to rebuild, with results that defy even his greatest imaginings.
In Gordon R. Dickson’s The Mortal and the Monster, a researcher’s dream-come-true turns into a life-threatening nightmare and the surprising outcome causes him to alter his quest to give another individual the chance to pursue her own vision.
The Sellers of the Dream by John Jakes presents a dystopian view of the future, while Larry Niven’s Flash Crowd examines a version of utopia—an America where social and environmental ills are a thing of the past—that is beginning to crumble from within.
In Barry Longyear’s Enemy Mine, perhaps the most moving novel in this wonder-packed collection, mortal enemies—a Human and a Dracon—shoot each other out of the sky onto a harsh, remote island. As their peoples fight a deadly war far away, the two are forced to cooperate for survival and end up creating their own world of peace and harmony, a visionary ideal they pledge to take back to their home planets—if they ever manage to get off the island.
There are also wonderful short novels by John W. Campbell, Jr., Lester Del Rey, David Drake, Phyllis Eisenstein, Philip José Farmer, Donald Kingsbury, Frederik Pohl, and Robert Silverberg.
As an added bonus, Isaac Asimov’s introduction offers an informative and appreciate look at that odd little creature of fiction, the novella, or short novel, and its special palce in the sphere of science fiction.
And so here they are: thirteen splendid short novels—beautifully written, chock-full of clever invention, adventure, humor, danger, and the wonders of distant times and palces—all only as far away as the nearest bookshelf.
This book is a companion to Baker’s Dozen: Thirteen Short Fantasy Novels, and it has an advantage over that earlier anthology of containing several worthwhile stories. And yet—
It does have stories that I cannot stand (e.g., Philip José Farmer’s “Alley Man”), stories that I don’t particularly care for (Lester del Rey’s “For I am a Jealous People!,” Robert Silverberg’s “The Desert of Stolen Dreams”), and stories that are good but from the perspective of anthologies edited by Asimov overexposed (John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”).
And in many places, the choices are just odd. Asimov’s own “Profession” is a story that I like very much—but why “Profession” over the much better “The Dead Past”? Niven’s “Flash Crowd” is an interesting look at the potential impact of teleportation, but as a story it’s rather weak. A much better story along the same lines is his “Cloak of Anarchy” (found in Tin Stars). (Similarly, David Drake’s “Time Safari” suffers for me from the fact that it isn’t the ultimate dinosaur hunting story, Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder.”)
One more note. There is a certain irony to the fact that Asimov in his introduction discusses the novella as a literary form, and revels in the fact that it gives the writer the chance to incorporate some of the complexity of a novel into a shorter form, e.g., greater characterization, subplots, and so on. Yet few of the stories actually in this anthology illustrate his thesis. “Profession,” “Who Goes There?” and “Flash Crowd” are very weak on characterization, for example. Few of the stories have anything other than a single, linear plot.
Moreover, Asimov waxes eloquent over the fact that sf as a genre has an unusual number of really, really good novellas. This makes this generally weak anthology, then, all the more disappointing.
If you want a better survey of the good stories sf has to offer in the novella length, reread the Hugo winners series or the Mammoth anthologies. Skip this book.