June 3, 2011

Friday Review: "Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers"

It’s not every day that you read an award-winning short story that takes place in your ancestral home. Much less one that involves trans-dimensional travel and the world’s most serendipitously located diner.

The narrator in “Why I Left Harry’s . . .” explains how he grew up near Sutton, West Virginia, and convinced the owner of a local diner (the titular Harry) to give him a job. Working the graveyard shift, the narrator comes into contact with the eclectic clientele that frequent Harry’s in the wee morning hours after the truckers have disappeared.

They have funny accents, weird money, and, in the case of three women who show up his first night, no shirts. But, as our narrator assures us, they’re nothing so silly as aliens visiting from other planets. In fact, they are travelers from the infinite variety of Earths located in parallel universes. Sutton, it turns out, is a good place to travel between worlds because it’s so far away from anything that such things won’t draw undue attention.

Our narrator desperately wants to get away from Sutton. How far is he willing to go to do it? You’ll have to read and find out. And you want to. Trust me.

My parents grew up in Sutton and my mom’s parents lived there for most of my childhood. It truly is in the middle of nowhere – it’s pretty much the dead center of the state. But it’s a charming little town, nestled in the hills along the Elk River. Recently it’s been reborn as a sort of regional arts center. Still, I can understand why the narrator would want out. A charming small town is still a small town.

I came across this story, written by Lawrence Watt Evans, in a volume called The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century, which includes 12 stories, 9 of which were Hugo winners (including this one), some of which are real gems. Harlan Ellison’s “Jeffey Is Five” is heartbreaking, while Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of Gods” goes precisely where it must to have any impact. Another cracker is David Brin’s “The Crystal Spheres,” which imagines a unique impediment to interstellar contact. And did I mention Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”? Yeah, this thing’s loaded.

Which is not to say everything works. The stories in the collection were first published between 1934 and 1988, so there are some older stories that haven’t aged quite as well. For example, “That Only a Mother,” by Judith Merril, uses radiation and mutation as a means of examining the fears of childbirth. It’s a little incongruous when mom-to-be worries over and over about radiation from an ongoing nuclear war, but cheerfully chugs down cups of coffee! Still, that’s a small quibble.

Another small quibble, brought up by some reviewers, is that the title is misleading. Although most of these stories are award winners and many are wonderful, “greatest” is probably a stretch. In addition, several of them don’t fit the standard definition of “sci-fi,” although I’m not a huge fan of genre purity when it comes to things like this. Bottom line, for the price (or either the hard copy or Audible download), it’s hard to find a better collection.

The Details
"Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers," by Lawrence Watt Evan
First published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, July 1987
Found in  The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century (1998)
Winner - Hugo Award, Best Short Story (1988)

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