New sci-fi titles span genre's history

Wonder's Child: My Life in Science Fiction, by Jack Williamson. New York: Bluejay Books. 276 pp. $8.95, paper. The Year's Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois. New York: Bluejay Books. 568 pp. $10.95, paper. Trinity and Other Stories, by Nancy Kress. New York: Bluejay Books. 279 pp. $15.95. Fire Watch, stories by Connie Willis. New York: Bluejay Books. 274 pp. $14.95. These four books are published by Bluejay Books, specialists in fantasy and science fiction. In a way they represent the past, present, and future of the genre.

The past is represented by Jack Williamson's autobiography. Mr. Williamson, the acknowledged grandmaster of science fiction, has written 39 novels and more than 100 short stories. ``Legion of Time,'' his novel recently reprinted by Bluejay in an illustrated edition, is a model of the 1930s romantic space adventure of the sort George Lucas has attempted to re-create with his ``Star Wars'' films. Another Williamson novel, ``The Humanoids,'' is for some readers the classic novel about artificial intelligence.

In ``Wonder's Child,'' Williamson's life story becomes virtually a history of science fiction. He was born in 1908 and recalls an America before, during, and between the wars, when stories sold for a penny a word to magazines printed on cheap paper called ``pulps.'' On the covers of those magazines, Martians invaded the world; the heroes were always tall and blond.

Williamson also charts the growth of the genre and its influences, from John W. Campbell to Anthony Boucher. Similarly, he traces the history of the magazine Fantasy and Science Fiction, along with its writers and editors. He has seen the genre change from one that viewed science with optimism to one which, after Hiroshima, looked to the future with a growing sense of pessimism and alarm.

On to the present: ``The Year's Best Science Fiction'' contains stories by, among others, Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler, Frederik Pohl, and Connie Willis. As a selection of the ``best'' stories published during the previous year by new magazines and writers, it is both critical and informative. There's variety here; serious literary stuff jostles for our attention with stories that are mostly just fun to read. As an overview of the field, ``The Year's Best'' compares well with the best annual story collections published by Doubleday (``Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards'') and Houghton Mifflin (``Best Stories 19--''). It's the best single-volume annual representing the best and newest writers of science fiction.

And the future?

Connie Willis (``Fire Watch'') and Nancy Kress (``Trinity''), both new writers, write tightly constructed stories that highlight plot and character. In Willis's ``A Letter From the Clearys,'' a young woman waits for a letter from friends during the last days of a postnuclear-war community.

Nancy Kress's ``With the Original Cast'' -- in which an actress believes she is communicating with Joan of Arc -- ruminates on theater, George Bernard Shaw, and the differences between acting and playing yourself.

Willis and Kress show that science fiction has a bright future, and this reviewer for one intends to spend more time reading than at the movies.

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