Take a hop around Wild GalaxyBorn 1928 in Kansas City. Studied at Kansas City Art Institute. Worked for Hallmark Cards.
With credentials like that, you'd think William F. Nolan would've ended up as a graphic designer or studio artist — an affable Midwestern fellow who happens to make his living being creative. It doesn't sound like the launch pad for a horror and science fiction writer whose images can be . . . startling. Thanks to the film adaptation, Nolan's best-known work is Logan's Run. But one of my prized possessions remains the Scream/Press edition of Things Beyond Midnight, a 1984 story collection of wonderfully dank little monstrosities.
Nolan's latest book is Wild Galaxy, a gathering of 19 short science fiction yarns. I don't think his speculative fiction has quite the wallop of his nastier stuff. That said, this is an imaginative book. But you'll have to be patient to enjoy it. Up front we find "Freak" and "How Do I Know You're Real?" These stories demonstrate that even good writers have weaknesses; Nolan's biggest shortcoming is the finale that's supposed to provide resolution or surprise but falls flat. Both these tales left me feeling disappointed, as if they hadn't ended but merely stopped. Fortunately the third, "Starblood," proved much meatier. More complex in its construction, this story offers multiple viewpoints and brief, italicized prologues and epilogues that brought out the wonder behind the story's blood-soaked violence.
Ultimately one of Nolan's great gifts is his ability to populate all his stories, horrific or speculative, with humans and with an attitude of humanity despite hard circumstances or strange goings-on. "The Joy of Living" tackles that old sci-fi standby of the divide between human and machine. Few writers, though, have found as much grace in resolving the schism. Nolan's ending here is everything he meant it to be.
Those unfamiliar with Nolan will recognize a lyric quality he shares with another native Midwesterner, his friend Ray Bradbury, who hails from Illinois. Both live in Southern California now; neither has forgotten the awe of starlit nights in dark fields — nor the darker things that might live in basements and cellars.
My favorite story in Wild Galaxy is "The Small World of Lewis Stillman," first published in 1957. I'd read it years ago but didn't remember the ending. Though it displays science fiction trappings, the story's denouement is decidedly creepy — and just as satisfying the second time around. I'm also pretty sure I'd previously encountered "To Serve the Ship" and "The Day the Gorf Took Over." Again, though, the re-reading was quite pleasant. And that's another sign of a good writer, when the work holds up even though the reader is taking a second or third look.
Both science fiction and fantasy writers lately have evinced a predilection for novellas instead of short stories and long novels over short ones. Nolan prefers to make his point quickly. Not one of the stories here runs to 20 pages, and in many cases Nolan gets his work done in only four or five.
Hence the bracing nature of Wild Galaxy. This is no grand tour of the cosmos but rather a series of short hops from star to star. It works marvelously. If one port of call doesn't suit your fancy, the next one probably will.
Wild Galaxy by William F. Nolan (200 pages; Golden Gryphon Press; $25.95)
— John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star, Sunday, April 17, 2005