It must be a great deal of fun to write fiction with Jack Dann. That, certainly, is the impression given in many of the entertaining headnotes accompanying this eclectic group of short stories. Each of these stories is the result of a collaboration between Dann and one or more others. Gardner Dozois is the most frequent partner, involved in ten of the eighteen stories; Michael Swanwick, Barry Malzberg, and George Zebrowski are also represented. Each author has included a brief note describing the story's birth and development, and while creative writing instructors may be intrigued by the methodologies described here, what comes across most vividly to the casual reader is the sheer excitement of working with close friends in a process everyone loves. Even when the collaborations aren't entirely deliberate — Dann's description of stealing Dozois' initial idea for "The Clowns" is particularly entertaining, for example — what is apparent is the manner in which these collaborators delighted in the process of working together, challenging and supporting one another, and in most cases that energy and excitement translates effectively into the stories themselves.
Originally published in sources as diverse as Penthouse, Amazing Stories, The Twilight Zone Magazine, and Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, Dann's stories range in setting from Mars and Earth orbit to Faerie and the cliffs of Heaven, with side trips to Niagara Falls and the C. Fred Johnson Municipal Pool. This diversity of place is matched by the diversity of tone and style. Some stories are wickedly funny, others just wicked, while "Down among the Dead Men," which features a Jewish vampire in a World War 2 concentration camp, or "The Clowns," in which a young boy is haunted by a clown who may or may not be a ghost, show that Dann and his friends can handle horror expertly. Only a few stories embrace mainstream science fiction; most notable is "High Steel," written with Jack C. Haldeman II, a Nebula award finalist in 1982. In this story the protagonist, John Stranger, is a Native American training to become a medicine man. When he is drafted by a white-owned corporation to do construction work in Earth orbit, he struggles to hold on to his sense of purpose and self, even though that depends upon a harmony with a world that is now only a bright bubble off in the distance. When an industrial accident threatens the station he is helping to build, Stranger's emotional and spiritual integrity are put to their most severe challenge.
Although "High Steel" is the only story in the collection written with Haldeman, its central themes of identity and place are important throughout the volume. It is interesting to read in the headnotes Dann's reminiscences of his own east coast childhood and his "pilgrimages" to meet, eat, talk, and write with his friends and collaborators, especially now that Dann is living in Australia. Many of the protagonists whom we meet in this volume are men or boys who have become disconnected from the places they consider home, and the consequences of that disconnection are a vital dynamic of the stories. One of the best examples of this motif is the brief "Playing the Game," which Dann wrote with Dozois. This story also suggests how successfully "hard" SF ideas can function in a fantasy narrative; originally published in The Twilight Zone Magazine, the impetus for the story was Dann's idea of a boy who could manipulate "quantum uncertainty," according to Dozois' note, to move among alternate realities. The result is Jimmy Daniels, who daily slips away from the house that isn't quite home and sneaks off to the cemetery, where he struggles to reconnect with the one reality that is truly his. What makes the story so effective is its decision to concentrate on Jimmy's familiar sense of dislocation, his awareness that his parents aren't quite the people he knows they should be. That anxiety, so familiar to adolescence, gains poignancy when Jimmy begins playing his "game," reaching out with his mind, trying to reconstruct the reality he'd lost.
As effective as "High Steel" and "Playing the Game" are, they may not be the best choices on which a reviewer should concentrate, because the seriousness of mood that characterize them is something of an anomaly within the collection as a whole. A few other stories, such as "Down among the Dead Men" and "The Clowns," already mentioned, share that tone, but for the most part, the stories here are witty and exuberant, reveling in an energy that must have carried over from those brainstorming sessions described in the headnotes. Another story of displacement and confusion, for instance, resurrects the identity of Jack the Ripper in the body of a New Jersey nebbish named Leon Schwartz, and the struggle for control between the two men suggests that the local prostitutes are quite safe. "Touring" also explores the possibilities of life after death, and watching Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Janis Joplin jam together is well worth the price of admission.
The Fiction Factory is an appealing collection of high-spirited and thought-provoking stories. Not all of the stories here are equally successful, but there is a delightful sense of being invited in to share the fun with a creative and committed group of writers.
— Bill Dynes, SFRA Review #275, Jan/Feb/March 2006