How do you choose the best stories an author ever wrote? And why should the author be the one doing the choosing?
These are not trivial questions, because they bring along, like the debris unavoidably entangled in a comet’s tail, all the much-debated issues about “standards” in art. Are there objective criteria for judging a story “good”? If so, what are they? Or is the entire question of value purely a subjective one? I once had a woman say to me, “If I like it, it’s good.” Well—what if you like it and I don’t? Can a work of fiction be both good and bad at the same time? That makes nonsense of the very words.
I think that stories are usually good in parts. Some have compelling, realistic, fascinating characters but the plot is predictable. Others are amazingly inventive in narrative but the writing is pedestrian: it never surprises, never soars. Others, especially, in science fiction, explore fascinating ideas, but the characters have all the depth of a solar sail. Every once in a while a story has everything—character, idea, plot, language—and we gasp in admiration. But there are still readers out there who will hate it. This doesn’t imply the absence of standards or even the presence of wholly individual standards; rather, it means that some readers care only about one of the parts of fiction (a hero I care about! Weird aliens! A new scientific idea!). The other parts just don’t register, as all wavelengths of light not near 475 nanometers will be thrown back by an object that is “blue.” Nothing not-blue is absorbed.
I know readers like this. Sometimes I am a reader like this, disappointed by a story that does not satisfy the standards I happen to value most, even as I can recognize that the story includes other excellences. Sometimes this is true of a writer’s entire output. I’m not going to name names; I want to keep my friends.
The stories in this book try to do different things. Some, such as “People Like Us,” are predominately idea stories. Some, like “Laws of Survival,” are mostly interested in what a character would do in an impossible situation. Some, like “Unto the Daughters,” were written because I enjoyed writing the voice. At least one, “Casey’s Empire,” is a comment on writing science fiction: why, how, and at what cost one may become an SF writer. Just as I had different motivations for writing these stories, the stories themselves meet different standards of “good.” Or else they don’t—you, the reader, must judge that for yourself.
As to why the author was the one to choose her “best” from among over a hundred stories: because, after decades of waiting for editors to accept or reject manuscripts, it was just so much fun to finally be the one doing the choosing. A few favorite but very long novellas had to be left out due to length, notably “The Erdmann Nexus” (which won me my second Hugo) and “Fountain of Age” (a Nebula). But for the most part, for better or worse, these are the stories of my own that I like the best.
Now the judging is up to you.