Ever since encountering “R&R” in an early Asimov’s, I’ve considered Lucius Shepard an important early favorite, but compared to his classic collections, Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories (1997) falls short. It opens and closes with powerhouse pieces, but the five stories in between are middling.
The Hugo-winning novella “Barnacle Bill the Spacer” leads the way, an eloquent, insightful piece of core SF about a power struggle on a space station. Shepard’s depiction of a sociopathic movement called “the Strange Magnificence” is harrowingly prescient of the downward slope of American politics in the years since its publication. It sets a bleak, incisive tone for the collection which continues through to the stunning closer, “Beast of the Heartland,” in which an aging boxer nearing the end of his career faces one last vicious challenge, leading to a startling revelation. I have virtually no interest in boxing, but Shepard’s riveting depiction of his protagonist’s mental and physical struggles had me glued to the page.
Alas, the collection’s midsection felt flabby and indulgent, unmemorable by Shepard standards. Best of these is perhaps “Sports in America,” a gritty crime tale that contributes most to the thematic core of the book in its critique of over-competitive, macho American attitude. “Human History” is an overlong post-collapse western about survivors venturing beyond the boundaries of their isolated village; some interesting elements here, but ultimately a bit tiresome. I rather liked, without quite getting, “All the Perfumes of Araby,” an evocative piece of slipstreamy futurism about a smuggler who takes on a risky job in Egypt. But the final two stories I’ll mention simply didn’t connect: convoluted language gets in the way of “A Little Night Music,” an oddly uninvolving tale of jazz music and the undead, while “The Sun Spider,” a more traditional SF tale involving scientific intrigue on a solar research station, starts interestingly but doesn’t sing through to a satisfying payoff.
The title story and especially “Beast of the Heartland” make this a worthwhile read on points, but overall a disappointing collection by the usual high standards of this author.