World-building — where an author creates a completely different world than the one we live in (but sometimes with notable similarities) — is one of the many popular attractions of science fiction and fantasy. Now veteran editor John Joseph Adams has gathered together the finest world-building short fiction from the past 15 years in Night Shade Books’ OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE.
As Lev Grossman notes in his foreword, world-building has a rich and varied tradition in fantasy, including Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, the Wonderland of Alice, Narnia and several others. More recent examples include J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, of course, as well as Roger Zelazny’s AMBER works, the DARK MATERIALS novels of Philip Pullman, right up to the satirical DISCWORLD novels of Terry Pratchett.
The same tradition in science fiction includes such early practitioners as H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and extends to such genre notables as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and the more recent works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Alastair Reynolds and many others.
As many and varied as these worlds are, Adams sees these stories falling basically under two main types: a portal fantasy, where a person from one world is transported to another world, usually by some magical or unexplained means; and a parallel world story, where a person from one world discovers another world via scientific or technological means.
Yet he is quick to point out that both “are essentially two sides of the same coin; heads you get fantasy, tails you get science fiction.” After making these distinctions, Adams wisely dismisses them and allows the stories to speak for themselves. And they do so wonderfully.
Several renowned world-builders are included here, such as the aforementioned Le Guin, whose cautionary “Porridge on Islac” tells how a traveler discovers the sad truth behind the fascinating diversity of inhabitants of a far-off planet. George R.R. Martin, creator of the GAME OF THRONES world currently celebrated on HBO, takes us to the savage world of Sharra, where “a girl who goes between the worlds” shares adventures with the man who foresaw her arrival in “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr.” In Stephen Baxter’s “Moon Six,” an astronaut on a lunar exploration is suddenly and reluctantly flung back and forth between six different moons (as best as he can keep count).
Among the surprises of the collection are tales from authors not generally known as world-builders. Joyce Carol Oates, an occasional contributor to genre fiction, presents a tale of a young girl who ventures behind the door of a garden wall to discover a ruined, uncaring world far removed from her privileged life in “The Rose Wall.” The inclusion of Stephen King might confuse those unfamiliar with his DARK TOWER series, but King proves himself more than worthy of the task in “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcuts,” in which a Castle Rock native recalls the wife of a family he once worked for, and the strange consequences of the wife’s obsession with finding shorter local routes to save driving time.
The collection fittingly ends with Robert Silverberg’s “Trips,” both the somber story of a man driven to discover the infinite types of alternative worlds, as well as a meditation on how to best prepare for and undertake such journeys.
A total of 30 worlds and their tales are presented in this generous anthology, including contributions by Orson Scott Card, Carrie Vaughn, Robert Reed and Ian McDonald. In addition to the opening essays, Adams includes Ross E. Lockhart’s recommended list of other individual and series works for those who wish to explore even more varieties.
OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE reminds longtime readers of fantasy and sci-fi what we love about the genre, while also and aptly demonstrating to newcomers that these stories are about so much more than dragons and multitentacled monsters. It comes highly recommended to both and all. —Alan Cranis