Good science fiction spooks, startles, or awes. In this most recent collection of Nebula Award-winning science fiction, three stories are spooky, two startle, and one story gives us a case of awe.
Editor Samuel R. Delany, past winner of several of these Science Fiction Writers of American trophies, selects three of the four "bests" of 1977 and three of the runners-up, as well. He includes "Stardance," best novella; "The Screwfly Solution," best novelette; and "Jeffy Is Five," best short story, as well as "Air Raid," "Partical Theory," and "Aztecs."
Authors of these works include several repeaters in the Nebula competitions; writers include Harlin Ellison, Edward Bryant, Vonda K. McIntyre, and Spider and Jeanne Robinson. Frederick Pohl's "Gateway," winner of "best novel," was not included because of its lenght.
As Delany mentions in his brief introduction, the stories reflect a current trend in science fiction away from "interest in physics and cosmology (which had dominated in the 1950s and 1960s) toward biology." The effect of this trend is to heighten the impact of the writing: It's one thing to read about worlds and creatures light-years and light technologies distant from our familiar landscapes, institutions, and time, and quite another, and more intimate encounter, to read about characters whose mental and biological selves are reshaped before our eyes.
The tension in such stories as "Aztec," by McIntyre, "Screwtape," by Raccoona Sheldon, and "Air Raid," by John Varley, depends more on transformed intimacies like love or cherished identity that it does on remarkable technology. In the first two stories, biological and psychological alterations affect the characters's ability to love (in "Screwtape," a grotesque contagion turns husband against wife and daughter; the ending startles with its explanation of rampant "femicide"). In "Air Raid," too, Varley spooks us with a theme and variation on body snatchers that suggests the tenuousness of physical identity. With each of these three flights of fancy, we feel that "this could happen" -- long before any of us commoners board a flight to the next galaxy.
But the surprise and especially the awe inspired by good science fiction is not just a reaction to believable new biological or intergalactic situations -- it comes from a vision of a new dimension of the human spirit.
For just such a vision, "Stardance" deserves special note here. The authors Robinson have packed their story with all the space gear Buck Rogers could wish for, but the real drama rises from the stardancer's courage in contest against an unscrupulous tycoon (an inscrutable alien from beyond our solar system) and her own limits as a dancer.
What delights in this story is that characters enter into superhuman struggles -- not as space heroes but as artists. Their art expands into new modes of expression with the universe as backdrop, and in the end this art becomes their weapon against an alien invasion.
Dance as the ultimate defense -- think of the applications of that strategy! It puts one in awe. It puts the aliens to flight. It puts "Stardance" among the best in science fiction.