Bruce McAllister is one of those writers whose work has never quite gotten the attention it deserves. If there was justice in the universe, he would be a lot more famous than he currently is. Most of his work is science fiction, but anyone who appreciates great writing should be reading his work. As someone who has read hundreds of short story collections, I can state unequivocally that THE GIRL WHO LOVED ANIMALS is one of the best that I have ever read.
THE GIRL WHO LOVED ANIMALS is a collection of 17 stories spanning the 40+ years since McAllister began his writing career. He was certainly precocious; his first published story ("The Faces Outside", included in this collection) was sold at the tender age of 16, and was subsequently reprinted in The 9th Annual of the Year's Best SF (1964). This might make him the youngest writer to appear in a year's best collection. Since then, he has only improved his craft. While other, more prolific writers have garnered more attention, he has quietly continued to produce a thought-provoking body of work of astonishing emotional power.
A common theme in several of McAllister's stories involves the intensity of the bond between parents and children. "The Ark" is set in a near-future where species extinction has increased exponentially; the larger zoos have become the last sanctuaries for the remaining endangered species. In this haunting story, a young girl's life seems to be linked to the survival of two pandas, and her father is faced with a horrifying decision to ensure their survival. The final few pages are devastating. Set in the same future, "The Girl Who Loved Animals" features the relationship between a mentally-challenged girl who rents her womb to ensure the survival of an endangered species and the social worker who is assigned to her. In protecting the girl, the older woman finds a chance of redemption for her tragically failed relationship with her real daughter. In "The Man Inside", a young boy discovers why his father has become catatonic when a computer prints a transcript of his thoughts. "World of the Wars" cleverly conflates a near-future Los Angeles being torn apart by racial tensions with a young boy's imagination of the planet Mars.
Another fascinating set of stories deals with the Cold War/Vietnam War era. The Hugo and Nebula-nominated novelette "Dream Baby" is a searing first-person account of an Army nurse in Vietnam who is shattered by precognitive dreams predicting the deaths of soldiers whom she is unable to save. It was later expanded into a tour de force novel that is also a classic. "The Boy in Zaquitos" is narrated by a former CIA agent who was involved in a secret biological warfare program designed to destabilize third world countries in the 1960s and 1970s. McAllister did such a convincing job on this story that you find yourself believing that it might be true, which may be why some readers did not consider this story science fiction. The story has been selected to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2007 (guest-edited by Stephen King), an honor received by only a bare handful of stories by science fiction writers over the last 70 years. Set in the early 1950s, "Southpaw" is an alternate history story where Fidel Castro became a major-league pitcher for the New York Giants, but is tortured by dreams where he is a revolutionary in Cuba. "Stu" is a wonderful story that follows the career of an eccentric Navy inventor from the early 1950s to the present; although his inventions are most often ignored or misused, the story has an uplifting ending.
Even in an absurd situation, McAllister always makes you care about the characters. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the story "Hero: The Movie", where young Rick Rowe saves his town from giant locusts in true 1950s-monster movie fashion, but subsequently falls apart when his fame inevitably fades away and his life becomes dull and average. He can find no meaning in the day-to-day struggles of ordinary life, until circumstances force him to become a different kind of hero. McAllister brilliantly balances the humor and pathos inherent in Rick's predicament.
All of McAllister's stories are filled with incident and three-dimensional characters facing haunting emotional dilemmas. The speculative elements often drive or heighten the conflicts within the stories. Their intensity is reminiscent of the best stories of Lucius Shepard and James Tiptree jr. (yes, he really is that good), although thematically McAllister's work is quite unique. As an added bonus, the collection contains extensive story notes providing background and insights that enhance appreciation of the stories, as well as an Introduction and Afterword by noted authors Harry Harrison and Barry Malzberg.
Again, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough to readers who appreciate top-notch writing that combines nuanced characterization with intriguing speculation. Buy this book! I doubt that you will be disappointed. Also seek out the novel version of DREAM BABY (although sadly out-of-print, used copies are easy to find online). Bruce McAllister has been an undiscovered secret for far too long.