It's startling to sit down to a perfectly good book of short stories, then encounter an introduction that says it isn't a book of short stories. Jo Walton's Starlings has been billed as her first short-fiction collection, but in her prelude, she says she only recently learned to write short fiction, and that she considers Starlings' prose pieces to be jokes, exercises, or "poems with the line breaks taken out." Given Walton's prodigious talent and notoriously puckish humor, it's tempting to take that description as polite modesty. But it's actually insightful and accurate: Many of Starlings' installments are minimal and ephemeral, with no sense of resolution. And they're often more about expressing a concept or building to a punchline than about telling a complete story.
Armed with those expectations, though, Walton's fans will still find plenty to enjoy in Starlings, where every piece is a reminder of her remarkable knack for crafting distinctive voices and tones. Among her many novels, the best illustration of her chimerical tendencies may be Tooth and Claw, an Anthony Trollope pastiche written in the florid, formalistic remove of 19th-century literature, except that all the characters are dragons. She consistently writes science fiction or fantasy, but there are worlds of differences between her historical specificity in the parallel-universes novel My Real Children, and the Plato-esque philosophical debates in her terrific Thessaly trilogy, which begins with The Just City. Starlings' diversity of subjects and styles just makes it feel like her bibliography in miniature.
Some of this writing really is meant as a joke. The collection's longest piece, "Three Shouts on a Hill," is a short play that mixes the ancient Irish myth of the sons of Tuireann with Japanese mecha and a talking cat with a magic cloak. It starts out as a fairy-tale quest, with three siblings charged with collecting impossible items as blood-recompense for killing a man. But it becomes a witty, fourth-wall-breaking defense of the fantasy genre, and a goof on the entire idea of the quest story.
Walton is far more straight-faced in two opening chapters for unwritten novels. In an author's note, she says she decided not to finish "On The Wall," a melancholy "Snow White" prelude from the magic mirror's point of view, because "the first chapter is quite sufficient for you to get the point." And any full version of "Relentlessly Mundane" seems like it would have been a companion piece to Lev Grossman's The Magicians: it introduces three people who fell into a magical, Narnia-esque realm as children, later returned to the mundane world, and have developed radically different ways of coping with the loss. That story is more in-depth, but it's largely a character study in need of a plot.
Starlings includes a handful of Walton's poems, including five sonnets about Godzilla, a retelling of "The Three Bears" in the style of a Norse epic, and the title poem, which turns the linguistic similarity between stars and starlings into a lovely bit of whimsy. There's a stolid story set on a generational spaceship where a new art form has developed, and an artful one about a space station, where a coin passing from hand to hand reveals the hidden workings of an underground economy. In each case, Walton reveals a bit about where the story came from, what her intentions were, and where it was originally published. (Sometimes in anthologies, sometimes in limited-edition chapbooks, and sometimes just on LiveJournal, for fun.) Those liner notes are almost as valuable as the stories, because they reveal so much about the inner workings of Walton's mind — especially how often she writes things just to explore a particular literary or poetic style, or indulge a passing fancy.
As a result, Starlings isn't particularly consistent, and some pieces certainly feel like momentary distractions, preserved for a dubious posterity. But even the fragments are fascinating because of the way they combine keen, resonant ideas with a variety of voices. Walton brings the same pained humanity to a sex-bot that wants to surpass her limited programmed vocabulary as she does to an artificial intelligence contemplating its own morality. But they express themselves very differently. Walton's right in saying that Starlings isn't really a short-story collection. It's something better: a written showreel, illustrating yet again that her imagination stretches to the stars (or the starlings), and that she's endlessly inventive in finding new methods to express it.
Tasha Robinson is the Film and TV Editor at The Verge, Vox Media's technology and culture site.