Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stonekettle Station’s Top Ten Science Fiction Short Stories

I love short stories.

A lot of authors, especially science fiction writers, play around with the format.

Short stories can be a real bitch to write well, and there’s no money in it. Short stories move the onus of imagination from the author to the reader. There’s little room for character development or world building - it’s story telling stripped down to the leanest elements.

But done well, short stories, vignettes, and novellas are my favorite form of science fiction. A collection of shorts by various authors is like a trip around the universe, it’s like the beer sampler tray at an exotic brew pub. You get a little bit of everything.

I own original hardcover copies of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and a number of dog-eared and ragged paperback editions. Volume One was published in 1970 and edited by Robert Silverberg and it contains some of the most incredible short works of the genre ever written. Stories like Stanley Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, Ted Sturgeon’s Microcosmic God, Murray Leinster’s First Contact, and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Little Black Bag. Volume Two, The Greatest Science Fiction Novellas of All Time, edited by Ben Bova was even better, and contained some of my very favorites, such as John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? and Robert Heinlein’s Universe (which later became Part One of Orphans of the Sky), E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops and Fred Pohl’s The Midas Plague. Volume Two was actually published in two, er, volumes, A and B, and there were later volumes in the series containing stories of somewhat lesser quality. I recently picked up The New Space Opera, Volumes One and Two, containing more contemporary shorts by the likes of such writers as Kage Baker, Ken McCleod, and John Scalzi, and I’m looking forward to reading them though I haven’t got there yet.

Here are some of my very favorites. I’ve kind of fudged the numbers. The list contains ten authors, but with multiple stories listed for some. That’s because I couldn’t decide and because some authors, like Alice Sheldon, specialized in short stories and were masters of the format.

James Tiptree Jr. (the nom de plume of Dr. Alice B. Sheldon, AKA Racoona Sheldon): Houston Houston Do You Read? Sheldon was a brilliant but supremely unhappy woman. As a child she travelled darkest Africa on safari, she was a rich New York socialite as a teen, an Army officer in WWII, and one of the first people recruited into the CIA. She lived an amazing life, but one that gave her little joy. She fought against her demons for her entire life, but in the end the depression consumed her and she committed first murder and then suicide. She was an amazing writer however, and Houston is one of her best and most frightening works. As is The Screwfly Solution.

Greg Bear: Hardfought. A complex tale, brilliantly told, about an interstellar war that lasts many millennia and literally changes the very nature and evolution of mankind. It first appeared in Bear’s collection, The Wind from a Burning Woman and was later published as a Tor Doublestar with Timothy Zahn’s most excellent Cascade Point.

George R.R. Martin. Martin is probably best known for his massive incomplete multi-volume A Song of Fire and Ice, but he also a master of the short story. You could close your eyes and randomly pick from any of his collections and be astounded by The Sandkings, Nightflyers, Plague Star, The Way Of Cross and Dragon and The Glass Flower.

John Varley: Press Enter. I love everything Varley ever wrote. The man is simply a brilliant writer. Enter is a bit off the beaten path from the usual Varley, it is a tale of caution and technology gone amok and one poor sap caught in the middle.

James Blish: Surface Tension. Blish was one of the greatest voices of the genre, I read his Cities in Flight at a young age and the image of Manhattan Island ripping loose from the earth and flying away to the stars has haunted me ever since. Tension is one of his best short stories. It’s about a race of microscopic humans adapted by technology to live in the puddles of a distant world and the day they discover the nature of their universe.

Robert Heinlein: The Long Watch. As most of you know, I’m a huge Heinlein fan. I own everything he ever wrote and periodically reread the entire collection. His YA novel, Farmer in the Sky (first published as Star Scout and serialized in Boy’s Life) is the first science fiction book I ever read. Watch is pure golden age Heinlein at his very finest. The story never fails to leave me a bit misty eyed and feeling like I should raise a glass to Johnny Dahlquist who saved the Earth from tyranny.

Larry Niven: Grendal, Neutron Star, and especially Brenda. Niven is another writer who’s works I periodically reread. Brenda, set in his friend and collaborator Jerry Pournelle’s Co-Dominium universe, is, in my opinion, one of the finest short science fiction stories ever written. The story can be found in a number of places including Niven’s retrospective collection, N-Space.

Arthur C. Clarke: The Sentinel, The Nine Billion Names of God. Clarke had two modes of writing, one I liked, one I didn’t much care for. All of his works are full of incredible vision, the unbelievable vastness of the universe, the steadfast belief in science and the quest for knowledge with a healthy caution and respect for it too – but his characters were often two dimensional. At the end of Rendezvous with Rama I could hardly recall a single character. And yet, every once in a while, Clarke could write near poetry and characters that would astound you, such as The Nine Billion Names of God. The final line of that story has stuck with me since the day I read it.

Vernor Vinge: The Blabber. Vinge is another author I can’t get enough of. He writes in directions my brain would never go without help. He’s written four of my favorite novels ever, The Peace War, Marooned in Realtime, A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky. The Blabber is set in the same universe as the latter two and tells the story of an ordinary, yet extraordinary, young man with a very unusual pet.

Keith Laumer: Night of the Trolls. Laumer was a prolific writer who penned some of the best light hearted space opera of the 70’s. Tolls is the first of the Bolo stories and the best of the lot.

Well, there you have it. Stonekettle Station’s list of great short science fiction.

What short fiction do you enjoy?


  1. Isaac Asimov - Nightfall (really, how did you miss this one)

    Harlan Ellison - I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, A Boy and His Dog

    Cordwainer Smith - Ballad of Lost C'Mell, Scanners Live In Vain

    Candas Jane Dorsey - (Learning About) Machine Sex

    Daniel Keyes - Flowers For Algernon

    Isaac Asimov - The Ugly Little Boy

    Philip K Dick - We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

    Brian Aldiss - But Who Can Replace a Man?

    Robert Silverberg - The Pope of the Chimps

    Ray Bradbury - I Sing the Body Electric!

  2. Nightfall is one of the few Asimov stories I like, along with Founding Fathers.

    But I'm really not big on his writing. I enjoyed the Foundation Trilogy, once. But it's like slogging through War and Peace.

  3. Yeah, that last line of "The Nine Billion names of God" still stays with me as well. Because it's funny, insightful, and melancholic all at the same time.

  4. I know you're talking about SF here, but if you love short stories, you might want to check out Charles de Lint, who is one of the best short story writers I've come across.

    Nina Kiriki Hoffman comes in a second, but de Lint is fabulous. He's also a male author who always gets his female characters right.

  5. All of the above- ooh, got to get out the Cordwainer Smith!- plus just about everything Connie Willis has written, plus...... (sorry, my fingers don't know what to type first!)

  6. Absolutely love the Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes.

    If you're looking for other great collections, check out Groff Conklin's A Treasury of Science Fiction (from 1948! Amazon has 24 used and new from $0.89) which includes some of my favorites. Though they're longer than short stories, C.L Moore's "Vintage Season" is superb, as is her "Mimsy were the Borogroves."

    If you want *really* short stories, Asimov's 100 Great Science Fiction Short-Short Stories is amazingly entertaining. The next one he did, called "Microcosmic Tales" wasn't nearly as good.

    Another collection worth checking out is The Hard SF Renaissance by Hartwell / Cramer.

    Stories in particular that have stuck with me recently are Haldeman's "For White Hill" and Greg Egan's "Border Guards" which, hey, is online, along with an applet he wrote that let's you play quantum soccer from the story:


    "For White Hill" is very haunting, but is even more interesting when you know that it's based on Shakespeare's sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day" with each section corresponding to a line in the sonnet.

  7. I've read a great deal of sci-fi short fiction -- like you, Heinlein is my hands-down favorite. First sci-fi I ever read was Methuselah's Children and I devoured everything he ever wrote afterward.

    Another that sticks with me hauntingly is entitled, I believe, If This Goes On--.

    Also, The Roads Must Roll. How fun was that? :)

    However, I'm still light-headed from fighting sinus dreck for a week, which leaves me a little vague on other specific writers I enjoyed over the years. :(

  8. A great list, Jim, but I'm going to join Vince on "Nightfall." You're right that Asimov wasn't much of a writer, but "Nightfall" is just one of those iconic stories, plus it's one of those "all is forgiven" sorts of stories for Asimov--the concept is just so brilliant and beautifully handled that the dialogue and characterizations just get washed away beneath the whole idea of the story.

    Somewhere in the top SF stories there's an across-the-board honorable mention for Frederic Brown, who may well have been the master's master of the short-short story, the one-pager, frequently wrapping up with a zinger or godawful pun. I'm not completely sure that "brilliant" is necessarily the right word considering the medium, but he's worth a nod.

    I'm not sure it counts as SF, but Terry Bison's "Bears Discover Fire" is unbelievably affecting. And--I'm not sure if it's top ten, but it's a solid candidate for eleventh place--Bison's "They're Made Of Meat" has become a modern classic.

    PKD's best short isn't really SF (though it's been published as such), but if we're defining the category broadly, I'd go with "Roog," which is beautiful, tragic and strangely terrifying--the account of a poor dog's heroic or delusional ongoing, ignored war against a sinister menace.

    I actually like all of Vince's suggestions, though I think I'd substitute Bradbury's "I Sing The Body Electric" with either "The Veldt" or "The Sound Of Thunder." "Zero Hour" and "Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms In Your Cellar!" rate honorable mention though they've always struck me as kind of the same story, sort of. (On a tangent: I'm re-reading Dandelion Wine for the first time since junior high; am I the only one here who slightly prefers Uncle Ray's non-SF stories?)

  9. Cordwainer Smith - The Ballad of Lost C'mell

    Ursula LeGuin - The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

    Alfred Bester - 5,271,009 and Fondly Fahrenheit

  10. Arrrgh!

    Re-reading Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire" and realizing (a) I misspelled his name in the earlier comment and (b) the proper title of his modern classic is "They're Made Out Of Meat." So I'm pedantically correcting myself.

    "Bears" still gets me in the gut, by the way.

    And now I'm going to re-read "Meat."

  11. Oh yes, Bisson has been one of my recent finds along with Jeffrey Ford. Bisson has that humor that just gets me. While "Bears Discover Fire" is considered one of his best (and you can read "They're Made Out Of Meat" here) there's a story of his concerning a lawyer who trying to woo a girl while studying for the bar and is receiving faxes from his friend who studies chaos theory on a fax machine that doesn't work. I can't remember the title, that, to me, is one of his best. It is very hilarious form both the social side and the effects of the trapped butterflies his friend is studying (which leads to a pocket of time that is traveling backward). Genius.

  12. "The Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce. One of my favorite early science fiction stories.

  13. I run hot and cold on Charlie Stross' novels. Some (e.g., Singularity Sky, Atrocity Archives, Halting State) are classic must-reads, but others not as much. But everything he ever wrote in the short form floats right to the top of my glass. "Lobsters" and "Antibodies" are two freaking brilliant pieces of work. Check them out, if you will.

    I like many of Catherine Asaro's shorter SF works, a couple of which won Nebulas, if memory serves. As with Stross, I run hot and cold on her novels -- some I read over and over (e.g., Primary Inversions, The Last Hawk, The Ruby Dice) while others are a big meh.

  14. Just about anything by Ray Bradbury. Frederik Pohl but Plague of Pythons is my favorite.

  15. Thanks for the beer sampler, Jim.
    Now about me. I'm looking for a short story I read a couple of decades ago where a lonely astronaut goes to the edge of the solar system and back. One the edge he feels the presence of another intelligence pronouncing "with all of love". Do you or anyone else recognize this story? Thanks


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