Stephen King once wrote that "a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger" -- that is, sudden, pleasant, mysterious, dangerous and exiting, and the collected short fiction of Jo Walton, contained between covers in the newly published Starlings, is exemplary of the principle. Walton, after all, is one of science fiction's major talents, and despite her protests that she "doesn't really know how to write stories," all the evidence is to the contrary.

Walton's sf often deals with the field's classics. Her Hugo-winning fictionalized memoir Among Others is a tour through the genre's roots, and its nonfiction companion, the reviews collected in What Makes This Book So Great, are a brilliant look at the way that the pulp/mass-market era of sf influenced Walton and a generation.

There's something classical in Walton's approach to fiction. These stories, often very short, are the kind of thing you can imagine Judith Merril publishing in an issue of Galaxy or If, a forgotten Frederic Brown or Theodore Sturgeon story that makes you laugh long and hard when you find it in an anthology you pluck from a sun-bleached shelf in a rented beach-cottage on a rainy day.

Her stories have the great, O Henry-ish sting-in-the-tail structure of the kinds of shorts I grew up on, leavened with enormous wit and the kind of profound compassion that made My Real Children such a tear-jerker that I literally couldn't have it on the desk while I reviewed it, because I'd have dissolved into sobs again.

The longest piece in the story is a work of pure absurdism, a script for a playlet based on the Irish myth of the sons of Tuireann, and it is so convulsively funny that I was filled with instant regret when I learned it had been performed at a sf convention that I was invited to, but couldn't attend.

The last pages of the volume are filled with a smattering of Walton's best-loved poems, which were her entry into the field, published on Usenet and Livejournal in the dim origin-days of the science fictional internet. These are every bit as crisp as they were they day they were written.

Starlings [Jo Walton/Tachyon]

(Image: David Dyer-Bennet, CC-BY)