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?