MIND MELD: Memorable Short Stories to Add to Your Reading List (Part 1 of 2)
This week’s question is a simple one, but yielded lots of responses. We asked this week’s panelists:
Read on to see some great reading suggestions, then check out Part 2. And be sure to tell us your own favorites!
One of my favorite horror stories would have to be David J. Schow’s “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy”. It’s the quintessential zombie tale that originally appeared in Skipp and Spector’s classic Book of the Dead anthology. In a collection of great stories by Stephen King, Joe Lansdale and others, this one stands out for humor that is as black as pitch, gore that is both horrifying and hilarious and an unbelievably weird protagonist in the five-hundred pound zombie apocalypse survivor Wormboy. I guarantee anyone who loves stories set in a Romero-esque zombified universe, J.K.M.W cannot be beat. Not with a baseball bat, an axe-handle or out of control spinning helicopter blades.
My favorite recent science fiction story is “Understand“, a great thriller by Ted Chiang. It’s about a coma victim who is injected with an experimental drug after suffering extreme brain damage in a near drowning. The drug not only repairs him; it also makes him smarter. The rest of the story involves the supercritical protagonist trying to find more of the drug to increase his intellect while preparing to meet the one person on Earth who may actually be smarter than he is. It’s a great story. The supercritical Leon’s struggle to live in a world in which he is rapidly becoming smarter and smarter, is fascinating. I actually felt smarter after I’d finished reading it.
- “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin (because of the emotional impact and the way it illuminates us so completely).
- “Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk“ by Ken Scholes. This is the story where I discovered Ken, who is one of our best short story writers, and also has a lovely new fantasy series out.
- “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven – a great logic piece of classic sf by a favorite writer and collaborator.
- “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, the Novella version – for the emotional draw.
- “Blood Music” by Greg Bear – both my introduction to nanotechnology, and to Greg.
- “Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss. Well, Molly is a favorite anyway, I love most of her work, fantastic and mainstream. I like how this is so quiet and yet so vast.
- “The Days of Solomon Gursky” by Ian McDonald – my favorite ever. I don’t even know why – except maybe that it’s elegant, big and small at once, and cleaver as hell.
There are more – many of Nancy Kress’s (“Beggars in Spain” comes to mind). James Van Pelt is doing some wonderful literary work, and I just got to blurb his forthcoming collection and loved it. Tobias Buckell. I’ll stop now, just because I have to.
A handful from my personal Golden Age:
“Surface Tension“ by James Blish. One of his pantropy stories, set in a future where human beings are radically adapted to survive on other planets. Here, microscopic colonists inhabiting a pond in a low-energy water world decide to find out what’s on the other side of their sky, and build a wooden spaceship. Rigorous world-building (and a neat parody of pulp planetary adventure) that culminates in a dizzily perfect evocation, via sudden expansion of scale, of that good old sense of wonder:
Under the two moons of Hydrot, and under the eternal stars, the two-inch wooden spaceship and its microscopic cargo toiled down the slope towards the drying little rivulet.
“Aye and Gomorrah…“ Samuel R Delany. Vividly evoked exoticism, the queasy link between space travel and sex – polymorphous perversity the only human link androgyne astronauts can hope for – and sheer narrative pace. How do the astronauts go up? The story absorbs the technology completely, which is as it should be.
“When It Changed” by Joanna Russ. Men return to a women-only world – a world that isn’t the usual feminist utopia of the time (the 1970s), but a world of ordinary people facing an alien invasion. Subversive at every level.
“Running Down” by M John Harrison. Hapless narrator becomes entangled with a man who accelerates the entropic decay of every system around him, and (this is the brilliant part) *can’t escape.* Tough-minded yet tenderly lyrical.
“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” by Gene Wolfe. A boy trying to make sense of his lonely life with his vivid but self-destructive divorced mother is helped by characters from a pulp novel, The Island of Doctor Death, who begin to appear in the real world. A marvellously controlled and multilayered story within a story told in second person (the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, but here an essential structural element rather than a gimmick) by a writer coming into the height of his powers.
For various reasons (novel snobbery, basically) I didn’t intentionally start reading SF/F/H short stories until 2002, when I went to Viable Paradise and realized learning to appreciate shorts could help me become a better writer. So my repertoire of shorts is fairly limited. That said, there are several over the years that have knocked my socks off.
First among them is China Mieville’s “Reports of Certain Events in London,” which I first read in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror a few years back. It snuck up on me. The slightly snarky, somehow old-fashioned voice made me settle in for a quaint pseudo-period piece, maybe with the usual vampires or Cthulhu, nothing too exciting. Instead I got wild streets! Secret societies of urban planners! Lost travelers! I was so excited by this story that I ran out and immediately bought his short story collection, Looking for Jake. Found several more loves in that one — in particular the title story and “The Tain”, both set amid urban fantastic postapocalypses. Which were pretty much two! two! two! of my favorite subjects in one.
Speaking of postapocalypses, my next favorite is probably Corey Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth“, which I read in John Joseph Adams’ Wastelands anthology. The plot of the story is obvious in the title, in which a mysterious virus devastates the earth and leaves IT teams in hermetically sealed server farms as the only survivors. The story could’ve been played for laughs, given the geeky subject matter, and to a degree Doctorow does this, but he never forgets that this is a story about the end of the world, and the tale goes down some very grim pathways amid the lulz.
I’m also a huge fan of Octavia Butler, and absolutely loved her novelette “Bloodchild”. In her short story collection of the same title, she said that the story was both her chance to write about pregnant men (you can never have too many of those) and also a different take on colonialism from what’s usually seen in science fiction. In this case, human beings who occupy other sentient beings’ worlds have to “pay the rent” in order to do so. The story pulls no punches on the grotesquerie, but there’s a plausible cross-species love story amid the squickiness, and the protagonist makes a decision that actually surprised me.
Then there’s the only short story that moved me so much I wrote a fan-note to its author: David Gerrold’s “Dancer in the Dark”, which I read in F&SF. It’s a bizarre story, set in a creepy artificially darkened Middle America. The locals fear a strange light that will drive them all mad — or so they say. But the protagonist, a young orphan boy, gets a chance to glimpse the light, and is tempted into it by the image of a beautiful boy dancing. The homoerotic subtext is obvious, as is the symbolism of change-resistant people inflicting horrors on their own children rather than allowing nature to run its course. Still, the creeping mood of the story was really effective, and I cried like a sap at the end.
Speaking of creeping moods, the only short story that has ever literally kept me awake at night was Stephen King’s novella “The Mist”. I think King excels at Lovecraftian stuff — I also liked his recent story “N” from Just After Sunset. He’s great at inserting the quintessential surreality of small-town American life into the horror, and sometimes that’s the scarier part of the story. But forget all that. *Giant spiders with too many legs.* That’s pretty much all you need to mess me up, OK? Bleeeeeagh!
The very act of writing a short story means you have to be on the ball with your use of language and vocabulary. You need to be expressive and evocative with your imagery and you have to hook the reader right away and immerse them in the story. This means painting a picture in those first few sentences that quickly establishes for the reader: where they are, what’s going on, who’s involved and what they’re about to get themselves into for the next hour or two.
With a novel, the author has plenty of time to build a story, a world, a cast of characters – not true in the short story. You have to set everything up in the beginning and as quickly and concisely as possible because you don’t have as much time as the novel writer, so every word is prime real estate and the choices you make with your vocabulary are paramount. The best short stories are the ones that intrigue you with that first sentence, piquing your curiosity and driving you forward into the meat of the tale.
One of my favorites is “The Sea And Little Fishes”, by Terry Pratchett. If there are master wordsmiths in our time, Pratchett is part of the club; heck, he’s probably a senior board member with keys to the clubhouse, access to the hot tub, wine cellar and three weeks each year in the time-share…
From the very first line, you find yourself intrigued. “Trouble began, and not for the first time, with an apple.” Reading that evokes imagery in your mind, a lot of them religious and you find yourself wondering, “What sort of tale is this? A remark on religion? Are we to see Eve in the garden? But no, he’s clearly saying this is after that, right? Trouble began -again- with an apple…” Your mind is now salivating – what’s going on? What is this about? You now have a vested interest in this story. It’s time to kick back in the comfy chair and read. You want to know more, you want to see the characters, the world they live in, move through the story and be rewarded for your attention.
In that first sentence, Pratchett has done what every writer strives to do no matter what they are writing – he’s hooked you. One sentence – eleven words, and you are hooked. That is the power and the envy of the good short story beginning.
From that point on, Pratchett paints a picture of this little piece of a world resting on the shoulders of four elephants standing on the back of a huge turtle, swimming endlessly through space that feels like it could be just down the road and over the next hill, but left, not right, down the old dirt road – past the old coal mine but not as far as the bend in the river… You forget that’s it’s fantasy because you’re immersed in it now, you relate to the characters, you laugh out loud when they laugh, worry when they worry, and it’s all because of the author’s choice of words, his use of language and the power with which he wields both.
Language, humor, evocative imagery, engaging story, character development/relatability (even when they are set in a fantasy/fantastic world) – that’s what makes a short story memorable to me, what makes it stand out in my mind and leaves me always craving more
Listed in no particular order. My tastes are biased towards funny stories.
- Eric Frank Russell’s “Allamagoosa“: Hilarious read that very nicely captures an aspect of madness that was corporate India in mid 1990s. Country had just began opening up. Government controls were coming down, imports were being opened up, & at least some companies had began looking at exports as a viable business. But how the hell do you compete internationally where neither the country nor the company has any credibility? “ISO 9000″ became the silver bullet. This “certificate” was supposed to give companies credibility in markets where they were unknown. Only, it puts such onerous & impossible documentation demands on line managers that there was only one way out – data fudging. We had a lot of fun, until the fad died out by the turn of the century.
- Arthur Clarke’s “Superiority”; may be able to read online in some countries: Hilarious read about how not to go about deploying new technology in a large organization.
- Henry Kuttner & C L Moore’s “The Twonky”, “The Proud Robot”, & “Exit the Professor”: All are hilarious reads – first one about a mysterious gadget, second one about a robot in love with itself, & last one about some people with magical powers. Last two are parts of two series, but other stories I’ve read from both series aren’t as good.
- Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations“ & Daniel Keys’ “Flowers for Algernon”: Former invokes very strong emotions. Later too is among the best emotional stories I’ve seen.
- Hal Clement’s “Bulge” & “Longline”: Very unusual premises – negative gravity in former (conditions where the world you are standing on throws you out to space rather than holding you to its surface!), & “what if speed of light is not a barrier but a divider” in later (so we share the universe with matter than cannot move slower than light!)
- Murray Leinster’s “The Grandfathers’ War“ & “Dear Charles“: Former is an emotional story that very nicely captures a tragedy that plays out all too often in a lot of families; later is a funny read, & among the best I’ve seen on “grandfather’s paradox”,
- Ted Kosmatka’s “Divining Light“: Very technical for a lot of readers & boring first half; but fantastic second half with a very unusual premise: “double-slit experiment” implies we can build a gadget that can detect whether something has a “soul” (or whatever the heck it is that separates humans from “lower” animals, or whether nature makes such a distinction).
- Aditya Sudarshan’s “Live & exclusive“ & Rahul Jaisheel’s “21 Minutes“: Two of the coolest sf stories I’ve seen from India recently. Former is a funny read about a thief-proof house; later is a very fine & shorter retelling of Henry Kuttner & C L Moore’s disturbing “Vintage Season”.
- Vishu Sharma’s “Kaulik & the Princess“: This actually should be called a precursor to science fiction rather than genre proper; original is Sanskrit from about 200 BC, but link goes to an English translation. I read it in a different language at a much younger age & loved it; not sure how adult readers will respond on first exposure.
- Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent Into The Maelstrom“: Among the earliest hard sf stories with a daring premise; interesting parts are in later half.
There are some questions which many hesitate to answer and this is one of those. There are so many options and we as readers continually evolve (and new short stories are being published) so yesterday’s answers will not necessarily be tomorrow’s answers. Still, not giving an answer is no help either, so here’s my opinion on the matter.
What’s interesting with the genre is that there are a lot of novels which are based on short stories (or novelettes or novellas). Classics of science fiction include Greg Bear’s “Blood Music” or Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon”, but the story that really hits it home for me is Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”. As much as I might dislike the politics of the author, “Ender’s Game” is easily the most memorable short story-turned-novel for me: it’s very readable in terms of language, there’s a distinct set of characters, and includes the successful execution of a powerful concept that science fiction is known for. Even without the novel, this short story has changed military science fiction, and continues to be one of the most insightful stories in our literary history.
While perhaps not as popular as “Ender’s Game”, another short story that altered my entire paradigm when I first read it is Lucius Shepard’s “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”. This is classic Lucius Shepard with his detailed and verbose descriptions but there are two points which make this a remarkable story for me: 1) that Shepard manages to make a genre-staple like dragons sound new and fresh, and 2) the way the piece straddles the line between metaphorical and literal evil. It’s the latter that made me realize the strengths of speculative fiction and how it fits into the larger literary scene, and how it can convey “truth” better than other literary modes such as realism.
Another lengthy piece I want to mention is Paul Witcover’s “Left of the Dial”. On its own, this is a piece that has great emotional resonance and a good chunk of the story is written in a realist-mode that makes the speculative fiction element, when it is introduced, all the more relevant and compelling. Also due to the length, Witcover layers the story and there are actually two crisis points here instead of just one. But personally, another element going for “Left of the Dial” is that this is an RPG gamer’s story that doesn’t sound cheesy or cheap.
For me, one of the underrated authors in America is John Grant. The first story I read of his was “Lives” from Ellen Datlow’s Inferno and it immediately hooked me but one of the best story of his, in my opinion, is “Wooden Horse”. Much like “Left of the Dial”, it’s a story that slowly creeps up on you. At first, it reads like a powerful realist story but as the narrative progresses, one eventually discovers that there’s more to the piece than what was initially conveyed and when the speculative fiction element comes in, it’s a doozy.
The last novelette I want to mention is Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate“. In certain ways, I feel Chiang is an overrated author but this story really blew me away. In many ways, it’s the tightest and most sophisticated Ted Chiang story to date: the language is accessible, there’s a flavorful Arabian Nights tone to it, the nested stories is commendable, and despite the length, it doesn’t feel like one is reading a novelette. Let’s also not forget the conceit of the story and the tear-jerking emotional resonance it has, easily satisfying two different types of readers. If there’s any one Ted Chiang story which everyone should read, it’s this.
When talking about short stories, I wasn’t always the reader that I am today and one good example of that is Jeffrey Ford’s “Creation”. When I initially read it, it left me cold; it lacked the excitement of, say, an Orson Scott Card story and I felt there was simply too many details. Rereading it later on though, this is one of the best stories I’ve encountered. The vividness of Ford’s imagery is terrific and while I’ve bandied around the term “emotional resonance” more than a few times now, that’s also the case here. I also love the ambiguous ending–where it’s left to the reader to decide what really happened, and this is far from an easy feat for a writer to accomplish. Much like John Grant’s “Wooden Horse”, this is the story that made me fall in love with Jeffrey Ford.
For what we might classify as horror, there are two writers that strike out to me. One is Paul Tremblay and a good example of his powerful fiction is “There Is No Light Between Floors”. When we speak of horror, most people expect that readers will be scared due to some surprise or sudden revelation but that’s not the case here. Tremblay succeeds because of his powerful characterization and successful replication of claustrophobia in text. This is a sophisticated piece, admittedly perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but for me this is one of those stories that showcased what speculative fiction and horror is further capable of.
The other horror writer that made an impact on me is Joe Hill. Easily one of my favorite stories of his is “Pop Art” and what makes this remarkable is how the fantastical element of the piece–having an inflatable boy as a best friend–is treated as if it were the most normal thing in the world and serves to heighten the thesis of the story. Sure, some people might read this as a metaphor, but in the mind of the speculative fiction reader, the possibilities come together and the inflatable boy concept is both a literal and metaphorical conceit. And at the end of the day, the true horror isn’t the presence of the speculative element, but a concern that’s very mundane and character-centric.
I’ve met a lot of smart, pretty girls and to my crushes, I always refer them to Tim Pratt’s “Little Gods”. If this story won’t melt your hearts, I don’t know what will. Every time I read this, it elicits tears from me and continues to be one of my favorite stories. There are other elements to be praised such as Pratt’s elegant use of language but in terms of the ratio between brevity and effectiveness, this can’t be beat.
There’s a couple of recent authors who are amazing when it comes to a technicalities of writing. Take for example Kij Johnson’s “The Empress Jingu Fishes”. In many ways, this could have been a Ted Chiang story in the way that it revolves around with time and the concept of inevitability but what’s amazing with Johnson is how she leverages tenses in the service of the story. There are many areas in which she could have made a misstep and make the story collapse but that’s not the case. This is a complex fiction piece but it’s not lacking in poignancy or resonance either.
Another story I want to highlight is Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica“. Valente uses a different form to tell her story but buried in the details is the richness of the narrative: why the maps of one protagonist is worth more than the other or the subtle biases in what is supposed to be an objective tone of the narrative. The story works on multiple levels and rewards the observant reader.
I also want to dwell on short stories that are quite short but still very effective. When it comes to language, what comes to mind is Hal Duncan’s “The Toymaker’s Grief“. Each line is well thought-out and conveys so much, at the same time retaining a fairy tale tone. This brevity is also in the service of the story, the ever shrinking life of the protagonist and this in turn accomplishes a feat which wouldn’t otherwise be possible in another mode of fiction.
A master of short fiction that’s also underrated in my opinion is Mary Robinette Kowal. “For Solo Cello, op.12“ is a good example and the strength of Kowal is that she is a master of subtlety. The only details she includes are the necessary ones and undertones can be found in the dialogue. Her sparse language also gives her text a certain rhythm and charm at the same time retaining the potency of what could have been a much longer work.
Lastly, there are two international authors I want to highlight. The modern Borges for me is Zoran Zivkovic as he tends to favor atmospheric concept stories but there are other merits to his stories such as “The Teashop”. A certain playfulness is evident and despite the bizarre situation his characters are placed in, Zivkovic makes it all sound credible and I as a reader am simply amazed at the legerdemain he employs as he weaves several interconnected stories that end at the beginning. His language is also to be lauded with the “less is more” philosophy at work here.
I am also amazed with fellow Filipino writer Dean Francis Alfar and the story everyone falls in love with is “L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)“. There’s a magic-realist sensibility at work here with all the details he mentions and the way he crafts an emotional rollercoaster that’s neither patronizing nor simplistic. The subtle inclusion of his own secondary world is also to be commended since it’s not the focus of the story and remains in the background.
Tom Godwin’s most famous short story may be “The Cold Equations”, but my favorite of his is “Too Soon to Die”, which he later expanded into a novella called “The Survivors” (I’ve seen other versions called “Space Prison“). It’s about a group of colonists whose ship is captured by their enemies and they are consequently marooned on a harsh alien planet called Ragnorak where they are not expected to survive. But some do adapt and they leave a legacy that is hungry for revenge.
“Too Soon to Die” was one of the first sci-fi short stories that I ever read that didn’t pull any punches when it came to how brutal life’s circumstances can be. Adapt or die. It doesn’t get much matter of fact than that. The scope of the story spans generations, which is impressive considering that it’s a short story.
It’s available free online at ManyBooks.net.
L. Sprague de Camp has two of my favorite short stories. “The Gnarly Man“ is about an anthropologist who meets an “ape man” in a circus sideshow only to find out he’s actually a Neanderthal who stopped aging thousands of years ago and has been an eyewitness to history.
My other favorite L. Sprague de Camp story is “A Gun for Dinosaur“, which tells the story of big game hunters who go on safari in the Cretaceous period by using a time machine. Think of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” but with a T-Rex included and bask in the gentle glow of pure awesomeness.
It’s hard choosing a favorite short story- since there so small, and there are so many of them, it’s hard just sitting down and choosing a favorite. So, instead I;ll go with a quick list of stories that completely changed what I thought was possible in science fiction and fantasy, and completely changed my preconception of short fiction in general.
“The Screwfly Solution“ – James Tiptree Jr. – Frightening, interesting, and harrowing. My second favorite Tiptree story. The Women Men Don’t See – James Tiptree Jr. -Which is my favorite one. The story kind of unfolds at a manic pace, and there is the same unsettling feeling as the Screw Fly Solution…but unsettling in a more subtle way. Both of these stories challenged my ideas of how character (and gender) relate to story structure.
“Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons“ – Cordwainer Smith- How can I explain the effect this story had on my brain? The language was frenetic and amazing, the landscape, the world. It was high octane insanity. And it led like a gateway drug to other Smith stories, which were just as mad, just as crazed, just as wonderful. The language was the biggest influence- it read like kerouac doing space opera. I’ve actually tried my hand at imitating this voice a few times (in Apex Magazine‘s “PostFlesh”, and then again in Sybil’s Garage “Heaven’s Fire”) and I think I didn’t even come close to hitting the mark.
“The Specialist’s Hat“ – Kelly Link – This was the first Kelly Link story I read, and it made me realize that the style of short fiction I wanted to do was possible. I’d been toying with non linear, surreal fantasy works but was afraid they would never sell. I read this story, felt like it was lightning. It could be done- but the standard was pretty high.
There are more- but those really blew my mind wide open.
See also: Part 2.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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