Ellen Klages is the kind of sf writer that comes along about once a decade — a
short-story-centered writer who produces just one or two brilliant stories a year, stories that end up on practically every awards-ballot in the field. Another in this mould is Ted Chiang, and, like Ted, Ellen is also such an all-fired mensch that it shines through in her work.
Portable Childhoods is Ellen's first book-length collection of short stories, a book that was a decade in the making. I remember many of these stories' initial publications, because Ellen Klages stories make an impression when you read them. They're the kind of stories that make you remember where you first encountered them, little life-changing events, like a Shuttle disaster or a major promotion.
Klages's stories are infused with Bradbury-like nostalgia, and her recurring young girl character is clearly some version of her own childhood, studious and funny, a little introverted and enchanted with the world. This is a Madeline L'Engle heroine, a Philip Pullman heroine, utterly likable, but also drawn with enough honesty that she's anything but a benign cherub.
These stories are mostly very short — half the stories in the book run just a few pages — and the very short ones have the feel of the best of the golden age of science fiction, like stories from Avram Davidson. They're funny and witty and have great skiffy conceits that'll turn your head around.
But the real treasures are the handful of longer stories. "In the House of the Seven Librarians," an arch little fairy-tale about feral librarians. "Time Gypsy," a bit of gender-bent time-travel that'll wrench your heart. "Guys Day Out," a story about bringing up a Down's Syndrome child (Ellen's has a sister with Down's) that'll do more than wrench your heart. And "A Taste of Summer," a story so sweet and perfect that I want to read it again this summer, the way I sometimes read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine on a beach in the summer, just to cement the fine day and the finest season.