Novels have to do many things, novellas a few things. But a short story is a pure, distilled idea, crystallized down to the core, drilling down through a reader’s shields and evoking a reaction, branding a reader’s memory forever. With this in mind, we asked our contributors:
This is what they said…
I discovered short stories quite early in my reading life. As a child, I was allowed to read anything on the shelves at home. We were our own custodians in terms of quality and in terms of whether we were the right age for reading any book or magazine. Any at all. This means I went from John and Betty (my very first reader – I didn’t learn to read until I started school) to adult books and stories quite quickly. My father bought any magazine edited by John Campbell (for his own reading) and also had an eye for magazines such as Playboy and the New Yorker. These magazines were hard to obtain in Melbourne in the 1960s, so I read some of those stories over and over and over again. This applied especially to the Campbell!
My family also owned a set of the thousand best short stories of the world. I read that all the way through at least twice. As well as these canonical stories, however, I read all the fairy tales I could get hold of, whenever I could. The whole of the Andrew Lang versions, and every word by Mme d’Aulnoy and other French writers (at first in translation and later in the original) and also Andersen and Grimm. I read stories of gods and adventurers. I read The Girls’ Story Book and the Big Adventure Book for Boys. And I read these things all at the same time. If it was a short story, I had to read it, then ad there. I was a fast reader, so I could devour a couple of short stories at a friend’s place while they went to get something or to shout at a sibling.
In my late teens I discovered James Joyce’s Dubliners and the French short stories of Guy de Maupassant and Marcel Aymé: these have never let me go. I learned about folklore studies at university and explored the relationship between form and story. I also had amazing fun discovering just how Eurocentric most of my favourite stories were. My late teens, teens, then, was the period I learned to read stories intelligently. I read Ring Lardner’s “Who Dealt?” and my notions of what short stories could do suddenly flowered.
My late teens was also when I started writing my own short stories. The first three I wrote were all published, pretty much at once. The fourth won a prize. Then I lost 31 of them due to shifting from Mac to PC in the days when that was a parlous undertaking. I mourn the loss of 31 stories, but letting go of so much work at once helped me learn how to write. I only write stories sometimes, now, because I have things to say in other forms. My earliest published writing was, however, of short stories and I still am happily addicted to both reading them and editing them. One of my anthologies (Baggage) was not only my dream project, it was also a Ditmar finalist. Short stories say such very different things to longer works – the best of them is some of the best writing in the world.
There’s one very good definition of a short story but that distilled essence of an idea isn’t the only thing short fiction can be. Not for me, anyway. I’m also a fan of short stories that revisit my favourite fantasy worlds. These can show us beloved characters before or after the stories we know; explaining how they met, or perhaps why they hate each other. Maybe revealing something which everyone refers to in a book but no one ever needs to explain. Then there are the sketches of new people and places within an already familiar setting, often giving us a fresh perspective on what we think we already know. As I write this, I’m thinking of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern short stories. “The Smallest Dragon Boy” and “Runner of Pern” must have been the first such tales I enjoyed.
Then there are the stories whose only point is to set up a final joke, up to and including truly groanworthy puns. The first one of those I encountered was probably Isaac Asimov’s “Shah Guido G.” There’s no weight or substance to stories like this, they’re simply a bit of fun – but fun has a value in its own right. We all need light relief now and then.
When it comes to short stories that stand alone, and offer more thought-provoking depth, I particularly like the ones which deal in unexpected consequences or offer a set up which gets abruptly turned around to reveal something entirely new. Possibly because the short fiction which I read and re-read most often in my teens was written by Saki (HH Munro). A good few of his stories are distinctly fantastic, even science fictional. Genre divisions had yet to congeal into their current rigid form when he was writing in the years before World War One, where he died on the Western Front. Anyone not familiar with his work really should seek it out. “The Open Window” is quite possibly my very favourite.
This probably goes a long way towards explaining why I think a good candidate for the perfect SF short story is the Arthur C Clarke classic, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” It’s short and wholly self-contained, with just enough scene setting to give an impression of a wider and familiar world, with a marked lack of the sorts of detail which can all too easily mean a story quickly ends up badly dated. Granted, there are aspects of the technology which do look distinctly quaint, such as the electromatic typewriters. Though there probably comes a point where such a detail is no longer problematic because new readers won’t actually know anything about the original so it might just as well be something the writer’s invented. I wonder how old a reader has to be to know what a DC3 is, these days.
Overall, for a story written in 1953, it holds up remarkably well, quite possibly because the technology’s not the central point. It’s a story about the unexpected consequences of the ways technology can be used, and we’d still do well to be wary of those. The narrative’s dialogue driven so we get a sense of immediacy as well as a personal connection with characters whom we’ve never met before and won’t ever meet again. Most of all, no word is wasted. What might look like casual asides subtly add up, creating impressions and expectations of people and places that are essential to the conclusion’s impact. Other sentences pack a real punch. I don’t only mean the justly famous last line. Try the paragraph before that and tell me this doesn’t raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)
I have read plenty of short stories written since the ones I’m citing here, honest! But these do serve to illustrate the points I’m making – and to explain the sort of short fiction I write myself.
We read several short stories and discussed them. In hindsight, some of the most powerful went over our heads, but the impression they made lasted decades.
One story begins with a man in a prison. We don’t know what prison or why he’s there. He’s been in solitary confinement for a couple of years. He knows his release date — his prison term is about 5 years — so, as Mr Thorne pointed out, that ruled out certain types of extended imprisonment.
Every day he follows the same routine, partly imposed by the prison, partly by himself. His life is simple. His mind is locked down, shutting out everything but the barest facts, the barest necessities.
In the end, he’s in the prison yard and a feather blows in. This token from outside breaks his mind, shattering his discipline. The authorities who’ve been watching and waiting come.
End of story.
Not what you’d expect a teacher to introduce to a class of 10 to 13 year olds.
Although I was 10, I’ve never forgotten. Partly because of the class discussion, Mr Thorne explaining and asking questions. Partly because the author paints a stark image leading to a dramatic twist.
Mr Thorne insisted that all good short stories have a twist at the end and, indeed, all the stories he assigned us ended abruptly after a twist.
Prior to this, my experience with short stories was reading books of fairy tales and Enid Blyton-type books. When I was about 7 I read Snow White and Cinderella to my disgust: I didn’t want to wait for a man to rescue me, I wanted agency in my own story. Thus Mr Thorne and his short stories made a lasting impression.
Fast forward a few years: in high school I was an avid science fiction fan and used to borrow SF anthologies from libraries. I can’t tell you who wrote the stories or what they were called but I remember a few stories from back then.
Like the one where a guy invented a machine that gave him everything he wanted, literally. When he asked for a girl, a prepubescent naked human female appeared. That wasn’t what he wanted at all, so he said, ‘Hell!’ The story ended with the post-fire investigation, a paragraph or two after his exclamation.
There were stories about relationships that were, frankly, unhealthy, like one where the author was commenting on the human condition using romance in a science fiction (alien world) setting as an allegory. Again, the short, sharp end. I felt uncomfortable, I wanted them to run away from each other; instead they grappled, striving to reach one another through a wall where they joined many skeletons hanging, trapped for eternity, while another couple approached each other to repeat the cycle.
There was the one about the Martian and human who pitied each other for lack of a form of eyesight the other did not have. The human could achieve Martian vision for 5 minutes; it was a mistake. He was shattered. I was 12 when I read that story and I loved it so much I talked about it with my mother, a rare occurrence. It just occurs to me: that discussion may have been the turning point after which my mother stopped comparing my eyesight to my siblings’. >:-]
There were the horror stories my grade 8 teacher made us read as time-filler; these are part of the reason I say I don’t like horror. I can still recite the plots of at least 2 of them. Both gave me nightmares and I try to forget them.
So many stories have stayed with me for decades.
As a teenager I think the quality of the short stories I was reading went downhill. This isn’t a comment on what was generally available, just on what I, library-rat that I was, could access. Thus I leaned more towards larger books with characters and plots. However, I discovered ‘5 minute fiction’ and other short stories in magazines in waiting rooms; I used to read these, whether good or bad, while waiting until my eyesight deteriorated to the point where I couldn’t read them any more (without magnification, which I didn’t have). The overall quality of those stories was lower; I may be biased but I can only remember 1 out of countless stories from many years of sitting in waiting rooms and that 1 story was a mediocre horror story.
These days I find reading short stories frustrating. An anthology may have a few stories that I love and many that I want to edit. Or burn.
One bad story at the beginning of an anthology or, indeed, at any point in an anthology, can put me off. Like an anthology beginning with a short story about a person with spina bifida who could urinate without a catheter but, according to the author, was ‘missing spine’ and couldn’t walk. If a story is specific and medical, the story has to be medically accurate or risk causing harm in the real world with its misinformation. Yay for representation in literature but it has to be good representation. As a speaker at PAX Australia said, if there are 100 examples and some are poor, that’s ok. But if there is 1 example and it is bad, that’s really bad and something needs to be done. (The speaker was talking about queers but the same applies to disability: people with disabilities are less well-represented and more negatively represented. Evil/faker/magically-healed person with a disability, anyone?)
Over the past few years, I’ve started reading several anthologies and collections. Even good ones find it difficult to keep my attention because, once I put a book down, I may not pick it up again. This is ironic as shorter reading times are becoming necessary and, when commuting while studying, I enjoyed reading short stories that could fit within the train ride. In my opinion, short stories are better in electronic format so I can take them with me, read in a waiting room, read in a coffee shop and read while I’m waiting for gym class to start. (Yoga class books out early!) And yet I prefer the tactile sensation of reading paper even though paper books require me to sit at a desktop magnifier, holding the book under a camera so I can read the words on a monitor. I also love the artifact, a beautifully-presented book, preferably in hardcover, to have, to hold, to wave at me when I’m selecting my next review book, to seduce me, to sit on my bookshelf…
I’m unlikely to read a short story on its own. This isn’t bias against the media as much as it is the habit of a lifetime: reading books. I’m not so much into reading short-form that comes in electronic copy and, TBH, I even bought the Doctor Who copy of The Big Issue and lost it before reading the short stories that were the reason I bought it.
So what is the perfect science fiction short story? It comments on real life in some way: the human condition, scientific possibilities, ethics, philosophy, ideas; something happens; it ends with a twist that stays with the reader, preferably making them think but, perhaps, just giving them nightmares — if that’s your thing. The perfect science fiction or fantasy story comes packaged in a bundle of stories of equal merit, preferably in beautiful hardcover with an electronic copy for actual reading. Even better, the perfect short story should come with a reading group, providing both motivation to finish and discussion afterwards.
‘Unzipped the sky’ by Rob Porteous is an excellent example of a science fiction short story: it has action, social comment, well-built tension and a twist.
I don’t ask for much.
I love stories that break me. That leave me a bit of a wreck. Stories that inspire. That make me laugh. That make me cry. That show me something I wasn’t expecting and take me somewhere I didn’t know I needed to go. Stories that can do all of that are rare indeed, but they exist. Tight plotting mixes with solid character work mixes with complicating our understanding of the world, or at least some part of it. Because they have such a small space to work with, the best short stories for me are ones that feel larger than their word counts. Like a ripe melon, I look for stories with weight and heft, stories that can do some serious damage when lobbed into the faces of my enemies.
I’m not quite so interested in strict definitions of genre, I will admit. My definition of SFF is at times nebulous, and I find that fitting. I like stories that refuse to fall neatly into any one speculative category. Science fiction can mix with fantasy can mix with horror can mix with mystery can…well, you get the idea (I’m in favor of a chocolate/peanut butter cup approach to genre). And I like to be entertained as much as the next person, but my favorite stories are ones that challenge me, that provoke me. I don’t know that I could ever pick the perfect story, but below are a few that I would consider exemplars of short SFF.
“Candy Girl” by Chikodili Emelumadu (published by Apex Magazine way back in November 2014) does it with a great voice and a story of a woman being transformed into chocolate. It’s tightly paced and funny despite being dark as hell and taking on some Big Ideas (colonialism, lack of agency, consumption). It’s probably my favorite story of 2014 and one that I find myself thinking of often, one that I want to pass along to friends, that I want to return to every few months.
I’m someone who has a rather…complicated relationship with the classics of SFF. If I were to look at the stories that inspired me when I first got into the genre, though, I’d have to point to Ray Bradbury and probably more specifically “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950). Slow and building and stark and lonely, the story again manages to condense some serious and dense themes into a very short space. The result is a almost nostalgic look at the future and mankind’s footprint, perhaps more meaningful now in the light of climate change than in its original, Cold War context.
One of my very favorite stories out this year has been the very recent “Demon in Aisle 6″ by Matthew Kressel” (in the November 2015 issue of Nightmare Magazine), which combines a deeply tragic story about loss and guilt and also examines insular communities and the vulnerability of people without support. I will admit that this story had me in tears reading it and did so with a strong tension and a mastery of pathos. More than that, the story made me think about how far the world has come in recognizing certain kinds of people and just how little that can mean to those living under a constant threat of violence.
Overall, I think that a perfect SFF short story is one that sticks with me. One that creeps its way back into my head time and time again. And there are so many amazing stories being produced, so many lurking in back issues and collections to be read for the first time. So many to be treasured and dusted off year after year that I could go on and on with examples of perfection. But what is the perfect SFF story? The perfect story is legion, and shifting, and personal, and unforgettable. It’s the story stuck in my brain at any given moment that inspires me and pushes me to be better. Perhaps not a great definition of “perfect,” but it’s mine nonetheless.
don’t think there’s necessarily one approach that results in an effective speculative short story, or any particular boxes every story must tick to be a great SF/F story. But I can definitely tell you what seems to make a short story work for me and what keeps me reading hundreds of them each year.
When I think of instances where certain sentences, images or themes from a work of fiction have really resonated with me and stayed in my mind over the years, most of them have come from short fiction. If I had to guess why, I would say that it was because short fiction allows an author to focus on one key idea or theme and use it to maximum effect without having to draw it out across a longer work or necessarily deal with subplots and other novel trappings. Short fiction can be a sudden, sharp blow that fells the reader while a novel has to let them get up again at some point to continue the fight, so to speak.
I think great short fiction is often the result of strong personal investment in the story and its theme from the author. There is something they really want to say or an idea they really must explore and it can’t wait.
That doesn’t mean that short fiction has to be didactic, but I feel that to be truly memorable, a short story does need to say something or include something (whether it is an image, an idea, a question or one of many other things) that the author wants the reader to walk away with after its conclusion.
As a side note, this is partly why I feel that good short fiction very rarely comes about when an author solely writes short stories in order to rack up publication credits in the hope it will make it easier to sell a novel later.
I also think that, in general, some ideas are short story ideas, some are novella ideas and some are novel ideas. (However, as a writer, I often have trouble telling how much room an idea will need before a story is in progress). While a short story can be expanded to become part of a larger work, and many authors have done this successfully, it almost always requires building substantially upon the original idea and including additional ideas. On the other hand, trying to shove a novel concept into a few thousand words almost always goes badly, although I think almost all writers have probably tried to do it at some point when they first started writing.
Generally, I think the short story is a fundamentally different form than the novel and there are some things you can do in one form and not the other. Certain, more experimental types of narrative are very difficult to sustain in a longer piece. I also think you can often get away with making the reader work a bit harder to draw meaning from the text in a shorter work.
This is probably related to the fact reader expectations can vary dramatically between forms. Often I’ll read short stories for different reasons than I’ll read novels. I don’t think I’ve ever picked up short fiction to relax and I don’t usually pick them up if I’m in the mood for light reading. I’m also not going to be reading a short story in order to escape into a fictional world for an extended period – that need is better served by a novel. I read short stories expecting to be challenged, to be kept on my toes and to do my share of work as a reader.
Possibly my attraction to short fiction also relates to the kind of content I enjoy reading. I think you can often get away with weirder content in short fiction, as you are breaking the reader away from reality for a shorter period of time. I also believe that short fiction can profoundly discomfort the reader in ways that might exhaust them in a novel-length work. In a short story you can keep elevating the level of unease throughout the entire piece without needing peaks and troughs to diffuse the tension and let the reader catch their breath. The element of discomfort doesn’t have to be explicit horror or suspense – it can also come from making the reader ask themselves uncomfortable questions.
I’m not sure what enjoying this aspect of short fiction says about me as a person.
As for personal favourites, that’s a difficult question. In making any list I’ll inevitably forget some of my favourites and probably list examples that suit my state of mind on the day I’m asked. However, off the top of my head, some stories that I have enjoyed recently include “Blackwood’s Baby” by Laird Barron, “The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick, “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan, “The Elvis Room” by Stephen Graham Jones, Kirstyn McDermott’s “A Home for Broken Dolls,” “The Cage” by Jeff VanderMeer, Anna Tambour’s “The Dog Who Wished He’d Never Heard of Lovecraft,” Kaaron Warren’s “Sky” (although that is probably novella length now that I think of it), “Shadow of a Drought” by Jo Anderton, “Shadows of the Lonely Dead” by Alan Baxter, “Poppies” by S. G. Larner and Michael Shea’s “The Autopsy.”
A few of the collections I’ve enjoyed recently include Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, The Female Factory by Angela Slatter and Lisa L. Hannet, Cherry Crow Children by Deborah Kalin and Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey.
In many ways, the short story is still the quintessential form for science fiction and fantasy. For even though our genre is dominated by doorstopper novels and lengthy series these days, the short story is where SFF as we known it was born a little over ninety years ago.
By their very nature, short stories are stripped down to the most essential elements. For SFF, this essential element is often the so-called “big idea” or even a little idea. But in short fiction, I also value characterisation and worldbuilding, which hint at a credible wider world or even universe beyond the confines of the story in question and suggest that the characters have lives beyond the naturally limited events in the story. I also like stories that deliver some kind of emotional resonance, whether they make me laugh (still all too rare in SFF) or smile or cry or think.
Because of its pulp origins, our genre is littered with classic short stories, many of which hold up fifty, sixty or even seventy years after they were first published. For example, Judith Merril’s story “That Only a Mother”, first published in 1948, delivers the above mentioned emotional punch even long after the historical situation that inspired it has long evaporated. Ditto for “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in 1973. And talking of Judith Merril, of course she also wrote a lot more stories than the one she is best remembered for. A lesser known Judith Merril story I like a lot is “The Lady was a Tramp” (first published under the pen name Rose Sharon in 1956), which not just offers a space freighter with a quirky crew, but also a surprisingly frank exploration of sexuality for a story from the 1950s.
A lot of short science fiction makes the point – or rather drives it home with a sledgehammer – that the universe is a harsh and unforgiving environment which shows zero consideration for human beings. Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”, first published in 1954, is the most famous story of this type and probably one of the best known SFF short stories in general. However, I have always intensely disliked that particular story. “Breaking Strain” by Arthur C. Clarke, which predates “The Cold Equations” by five years, is a much better exploration of the same theme (in spite of the anachronism of astronauts smoking in space, which is surprisingly common in Golden Age stories), plus the crewmember who gets spaced is the one we all want to see go out of the airlock.
I also like stories that combine science fiction with the other genre that thrives in the short form, namely mystery. Isaac Asimov was a master of the science fiction puzzle story (and of course also a mystery writer on the side). Many classic Asimov short stories are actually science fiction mysteries, including the Susan Calvin stories (Susan Calvin was the idol of my teen years with her no-nonsense manner and her total disregard for men) and the Powell and Donovan stories. However, my favourite Isaac Asimov short story is the fairly obscure “Victory Unintentional”, first published in 1942, because it’s not just clever, it’s also laugh out loud funny, still a rare quality for SFF of any length.
So much for the classics – let’s take a look at contemporary SFF short fiction. A lot of people like to claim that the short story is dead, laid to rest along with the majority of the magazines that once were their natural habitat. These people could not be more wrong, for short SFF is not just far from dead, it’s actually thriving. There is so much wonderful short SFF published these days, most of it in online magazines that didn’t even exist ten to fifteen years ago. It’s also much more diverse and much better written than the often clunky prose and cardboard characterisation of the Golden Age.
One thing I have noticed in the past few years is that short fiction experiments a lot more with all sorts of literary and non-literary forms with some very exciting results. Hence, “Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado and “Bucket List Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14, Written Two Weeks Before the Great Uplifting of All Mankind” by Erica L. Satifka are both stories told in the form of lists. “Application for the Delegation of First Contact: Questionnaire, Part B” by Kathrin Köhler is a story that’s quite literally in the form of an application form. “So Much Cooking” by Naomi Kritzer (which is actually a novelette) recounts a nigh apocalyptic flu pandemic in the style of a food blog, complete with recipes. “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead” by Carmen Maria Machado takes the form of a Kickstarter appeal and “I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything” by Laura Pearlman (coincidentally one of my favourite stories of 2015) is a short story told in the style of a Reddit AMA.
In recent years, I also loved the poignancy of “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar, “A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap, “Points of Origin” by Marissa Lingen and “Midnight Hour” by Mary Robinette Kowal. I got a kick out of the plot twists and revelations of “Never the Same” by Polenth Blake and “Damages” by David Levine. I enjoyed “Ghosts of Home” by Sam J. Miller, even though I disagree with the underlying message. I loved the whimsy of “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer and “Whaliens” by Lavie Tidhar made me laugh out loud with its satirical take on ongoing debates in the SFF community.
So in short, I think that today is an exciting time for both writers and fans of short fiction. The internet and the rise of e-publishing have given the short story and its longer sisters the novelette and the novella a shot in the arm. As a result, there are not just a lot more venues for short fiction than ten or even five years ago, but we are also seeing a lot of fascinating and innovative short stories, some of which may well turn out to be the classics of tomorrow.
In The Ambition of the Short Story, published at New York Times back in 2008, author Steven Millhauser writes about the short story – “[…] Large things tend to be unwieldy, clumsy, crude; smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection. […] By excluding almost everything, [short stories] can give perfect shape to what remains. And the short story can even lay claim to a kind of completeness that eludes the novel — after the initial act of radical exclusion, it can include all of the little that’s left.”
To search for perfection in SF/F is to search for this ambition to “body forth the whole world” as Millhauser puts it. The perfect SF/F story doesn’t allow for its narrative to fray and readers to pick apart and examine individual threads; it’s a symphony, seamless in its execution. The perfect SF/F story has to be lean since it’s running a sprint compared to the novel, but it has to carry the world inside itself so the reader knows what the writer is telling is the absolute truth and nothing less.
The perfect SF/F story should take readers to the most daring frontier of imagination but must always be a homecoming to your humanity. Such a story has to speak to your spirit with every word, whether it’s to disturb as is the case with the fascinating and decadent “Aunts” by Karin Tidbeck, make you believe in the potential of love as the comforting, somewhat bittersweet “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu does or remind you just how vulnerable love makes you as Angela Slatter does in the heartbreaking “By My Voice I Shall Be Known”, which slices through you as if you’re butter.
All three examples couldn’t be any different from one another as they occupy vastly different positions in science fiction and fantasy, yet, they are perfect in what they set out to do – tell a truth. It might be a truth about how fantastical worlds function that informs our relationship with our own reality or it might be a truth about our hearts’ inner workings. Either way, each story seeks out the most poignant and direct way to deliver itself into being and that’s how all three achieve perfection. On their way, each achieves synergy of form, language, pacing and worldbuilding.
“The perfect SF/F short story” is a demanding thing, more so than novels or novellas, for reasons I’m sure their writers are all too aware of. They have to tell a complete tale, or at least a well-rounded fragment of one, and they have a smaller window in which to do it. I’m fairly new to the reading of short stories, but I’ve quickly found that the ones I enjoy most do all of this, plus provoking a strong emotional reaction. This has become the key to what I consider the perfect short story, because as demanding as it might be, I remember best the ones that make me feel something. Anything. And I have to remember that feeling when I remember the story. Whether my emotional reaction is good or bad in terms of the specific feeling I’m left with, it has to be there at all for the story to be a hit in my book.
There are a few that I hold dear in that respect, that can make me thoughtful, make me smile or make me tense or uncomfortable; like favourite songs for certain moods. “Requiem, for Solo Cello” from Damien Angelica Walters’ collection Sing Me Your Scars has introspective bittersweetness covered. Amal El-Mohtar’s “Pockets” never fails to cheer me up, and more recently, her poem “Biting Tongues” (both published in Uncanny Magazine) is a sense of restless catharsis to my introverted, sometimes very angry self. In the same sense but in a much more forward manner, Delilah S. Dawson’s “Catcall” is all about the rage, but at the same time it’s my cautionary tale of “be angry, but be careful what you wish for”.
So, short stories can be fun, frivolous ways to pass the time, and those are great too! I enjoy that every bit as much as the next reader. But for one to reach that special place in my memory and/or in my heart, it’s got to really hit me there. That means no pulling the emotional punches.
Perfect stories, like perfect baseball games, are rare. Unlike baseball, however, there is no objective measurement of perfection in fiction. Perfection rests in the eye of the beholder. For me, perfection is not necessarily neat and tidy. A perfect game can be won in messy fashion, but the outcome is still perfection. The same is true of a perfect story. Because “perfect” stories are subjective, it is difficult to define what makes a story perfect. Nevertheless, I will do my best to provide an example of what I think of as a perfect story, and explain why.
Back in 1993, I began reading Science Fiction Age, which remains one of my favorite science fiction magazines of all time. Edited by Scott Edelman (science fiction’s Anthony Bourdain), the magazine brought together the genres best writers, along with a rich crop of newcomers to produce eight fabulous years worth of science fiction stories.
Science Fiction Age published a lot of fantastic stories during its run, including the Nebula Award-winning “A Defense of Social Contracts” by Martha Soukup. Among those great stories was a single perfect one.
“Two Paths in the Forest Toulemonde” by D. William Shunn (who writes these days as William Shunn, and who has recently published his memoir, The Accidental Terrorist) appeared in the January 1994 issue of the magazine, and I can still remember settling down on the couch of my Riverside, California apartment to read the issue cover-to-cover. Mary Turzillo, James Morrow, and Bruce Boston all had great stories in the issue. But it was Bill Shunn’s story that took my breath away. So:
Item 1. A perfect story takes your breath away.
“Two Paths” is a fable. Part of the magic of the story is that the journey of the protagonists represents many things. What seems like a love story on the surface is much richer when you dig beneath the topsoil.
In a perfect game, a pitcher rarely relies on one pitch, and in a perfect story, there are often many elements working together to give the story a vibrant, memorable feel. Three wonderful characters populate “Two Paths.” (Three? Three, you say? Yes, Étienne, Marie, and the forest Toulemonde itself.) But the language of the story also works in its favor. The story is a fable, but it is melodious. You can almost hear the old man or old woman telling the story to a brace of younglings sitting before a roaring fire. There is a rhythm to the words that echo the pace of the story; there is a sonorousness to the voice that gives it an artful clarity. Or, put another way:
Item 2. A perfect story presents a unique voice.
As we follow the paths of Étienne and Marie through the forest, a feeling of inevitability begins to form. Their paths mingle, diverge, come together again. It is not the inevitability of plot or contrivance, but of what Roland of Gilead might call ka. It is a puzzle piece fitting into place against a mosaic we could not initially see, but that is slowly revealed through the telling of the story. We are told a fable of these two young lovers entering the forest. We come away understanding everything that happenedbefore the story began, and everything that will happen after the story has ended. More simply:
Item 3. A perfect story possesses natural inevitability.
When I first read “Two Paths in the Forest Toulemonde” I remember thinking, glumly, that I would never be able to write a story like it. Over time, I’ve learned that that is okay. Some of the greatest pitchers of all time never tossed a perfect game. I was also wary of reading the story again. What if it wasn’t as good as on that first reading? There have been many stories that I have loved, only to find, years later, that, upon re-reading, they leave something to be desired.
Yet in the 22 years since the story was first published, I’ve probably re-read it half a dozen times. Not only does the story continue to hold up, but it gets better with each reading. I read it most recently just before sitting down to write this. Not only was it just as good as I remembered, but I discovered new facets within the story that I had not seen before. So, for me:
Item 4. A perfect story gets better with each subsequent reading.
There is one more thing. Baseball people talk of “intangibles”: the stuff that you can’t quite quantify, but you know is there. This can be leadership, or a good sense of the game, or any number of unquantifiable aspects of talent. Perfect stories also have intangibles, things that you can’t quite put your finger on, but without which they would not achieve perfection. They are the secret ingredient, the gift the writer gives to the story to make it something special.
Perhaps it is a combination of all four of the things I’ve listed above, but something draws me back to “Two Paths” again and again. Perhaps it was the time and place I first read it, sitting on the couch in my college apartment. Perhaps it was something that resonated with me personally at the time, and has since been lost, yet the bond remains. All of this is to say:
Item 5: A perfect story has some intangible quality that pushes it above and beyond the level of ordinary, or even extraordinary fiction.
I don’t know if I can say that there’s a ‘perfect’ work of fiction of any length, but I can tell you what gets me every time I see it in a slushpile: a beautifully-written, audacious, challenging story that’s going to cause a lot of readers to leave reviews that boil down to either “WTF?!” or “OMG!!!!”
A perfect short story does have a few certain things across the board though. It makes every word count. It doesn’t try for too much—in a novel, it’s easy to spend time indulging in world building or description—but a solid short story will keep a lean, fast balance between story and setting. It’s experimental—the short form allows the author to take risks. And above all, the perfect short story can only be read once, because it leaves such a strong impression…or half a dozen times, because there’s so much to unpack…or a hundred times, because it enriches your life every time.
I can’t pick one or two stories that are ‘perfect’, because I’m a magpie: must collect all the shiny things. A few authors I’m particularly in love with right now though (and forgive the ‘because I’ve published them recently’ focus, it’s been a long editing period) include Haralambi Markov, Nisi Shawl, Tiffany Trent, Karin Lowachee, Fran Wilde, Laura Anne Gilman, Ken Liu, Thoraiya Dyer, Bo Bolander…
…wow, I could keep going for a while. For a full list of the short story authors I highly recommend, feel free to pick up one of my anthologies, I guess? Because we’re spoiled for choice right now.
For me, the perfect short story is written in clear, concise language with a memorable plot; a beginning, middle, and end; and a twist or two along the way. While I’ve read plenty of stories that fit this criteria, I’d have to say the science fiction story I love the most would be Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.” Part of the appeal of science fiction is its ability to produce memorable social commentary in new and unique settings—whether that be the far future or an alternate reality. Time travel is always fun to read about; Bradbury hooks the reader from the beginning, draws him along with danger, intrigue, and interesting characters, and ends—not only with a twist—but commentary on the nature of human society. It’s brilliant.
Other classics come to mind though such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or even Stephen King’s “The Boogeyman.” Though they are not all considered science fiction or fantasy, every single one has had a lasting impact on my psyche. In an age where many authors churn out series after series of thick novels, I often return to short form for sheer love of its brevity—for in the words of the bard himself, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
I love so many different types of short stories. Character pieces, humor, explorations, fairy tale retellings, stories that dive inevitably toward a foregone conclusion . . . I’ve enjoyed all these types of tales.
But my catnip is the short story that has a twist — one that reveals something about human nature. The one which, three-quarters of the way through, has a reveal that whiplashes everything I just read into something stunningly different,but becomes something so fitting and perfect that it never could have been anything else.
And I want that twist to have something to do with a deep vein of humanity. I want to see my own darkness in it, or my own hope. I want to be bowled over with how it describes some quality of human nature I didn’t even have words in me to frame.
I want the revelation to smash into me so hard I’m still thinking about the story days or months or years afterward.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say these sorts of stories are the perfect speculative fiction stories. After all, these stories are necessarily a sort of high-concept, premise-driven category, and I think stories that have other structures or motivations can certainly be just as good. But I would absolutely say these are my perfect stories: I get an emotional high off them I just can’t get anywhere else.
The perfect sf/f short story? I know some people would say Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” because it boils sf down to one incident, and it’s hard sf. I’ve always found the story offensive and a set-up. A young woman’s fate, decided by a male pilot, based on math. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll write an answer story some day.
I tend to like sf stories with a bit of hope and heroism. It doesn’t have to be much. The world can be bleak, but I like that glimmer of hope. And I tend to like longer sf/f works, things that will flesh out the world-building, give us more character.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading for my Women in SF project, so I’ve read a lot of short stories. Some are just wonderful and lost to history, like Daphne Du Murier’s original short story for “The Birds” (very different from the movie)–and quite dark. Lots of great Leigh Brackett, some wonderful lost stories by names no longer thought of like Mildred Clingerman.
But best..oh, I have trouble with best. So I’ll give you one that’s bleak, that I couldn’t use in my Women of Futures Past because the man controlling the rights to this story wanted more than my entire advance for it. (The short fiction part of estate is being poorly managed, imho.) And that story is Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds.” It manages to comment on society like good sf does, but without blatantly shoving something down our throat. It’s powerful, scary, bleak, and futuristic—and there’s good people and it has hope.
Next week, if you were to ask me what the best short story is I might list Esther M. Friesners “A Birthday” or pretty much any short story by Stephen King—such as “That Bus is Another World.”
Strange, most of what I’ve chosen this week is bleak. So if you need uplifting, read shorts by Connie Willis or my favorite Nina Kiriki Hoffman story, “Savage Breasts.”
We’re fortunate: sf is filled with marvelous short fiction, with more being published every day.
I know, I know, there’s one in every crowd. Somebody’s gotta be difficult. I guess this time it’s me. And it’s not that I don’t have a bunch of short fiction that I love. Just ten minutes ago I read Zen Cho’s “The House of Aunts,” and I really liked that a lot, or I could go back to the short fiction writers I learned the most from at the beginning of my career–John M. Ford, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Nancy Kress, more. I can still go back and learn from rereading those stories.
But I’m really uncomfortable holding any of them up as perfect–and the author I knew best among the above, Mike Ford, would have squirmed at the notion, too. Even going with a more conceptual notion of the topic–“a perfect short story hits with a great, hooky opening line,” for example–is too prescriptivist for me.
“The House of Aunts” is drawing on prose and influences that I wouldn’t have thought of when I picked up Aliens of Earth in 1998. Other stories that I’ve loved this year have taken very familiar influences and done things with them that were the author’s own–so I can’t even say “the perfect short story runs off in a direction I haven’t seen.”
Sometimes the direction is familiar and it’s the heart that’s unique. I can read so many short stories. Try whatever you like. See if it works. Then try something else. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Embrace the imperfection.
I’m one of those who has been arguing for half a century (and even a bit more) that the most important thing in any fiction, including science fiction, is character. If you have a good idea, so much the better — but if the characters can’t make you react emotionally, can’t make you laugh or cry or fear or hate, then the author has written a nice science fiction crossword puzzle or polemic, nothing more.
Based on that, you can assume — correctly — that I prefer most of, say, Ray Bradbury’s stories to most of Arthur C. Clarke’s.
The single story I most admire for skill and innovation is Alfie Bester’s “5,271,009” — absolutely brilliant, especially when you consider the source (a cover painting showing a prisoner wearing that number to identify him) but emotionally rather empty. So I’d have to say that the story that moved me the most — and it also came from one of my favorite writers (and a close personal friend) — was Jim White’s “Tableau”, the ultimately touching tale of two seemingly ferocious opposing warriors frozen in mid-battle.
Short stories are my go-to for so many reasons. When life is too busy to invest time in a larger book or I want to try out a new author. When I need a palate cleanser after a particularly heavy book, or I’ve been binging on one sub-genre or series. Perhaps I get to revisit a character from one of my favorite books. It doesn’t take long to finish and usually the price is right.
I enjoy being thrown into the action. Short stories leave little room for explanation. There won’t be pages devoted to complex political alliances, the rules of the magic system, or even the scenery. Instead you get a slice, maybe merely a sliver, just enough.
Recently I read Shades in Shadow by N.K. Jemisin. It’s 3 short stories set in the universe of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Just a little taste of revenge, of searching for parents, of this world that rekindled my interest in epic fantasy. It had been awhile since I read the trilogy, but was so easy to fall back in love with the characters.
I still like to get anthologies, usually because one of my favorite authors has a featured story, but also to get exposure to new authors. In Retold: Six Fairytales Reimagined edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James, “In Her Head, In Her Eyes” by Yukimi Ogawa and “The Mussel Eater” by Octavia Cade have stuck with me. Ogawa’s story about the servant with a pot covering her head and Cade’s tale of carnivorous mermaids were intense, creepy, and put both writers on my watch list.
Of course, the magazines are always a good way to find short stories. Many are just a click away. My current favorite is Fireside Magazine. In Issue 26 there is a short from Stephen Blackmoore, set in Eric Carter’s world. “La Bestia” happens to include one of my favorite supporting characters from this series. Not only did I get a little slice from a beloved series as I (patiently) wait for book 3, but I got to see another side of an already amazing character. Reader win!
When SF Signal recently asked me to provide an answer to this question, I had a dilemma. I had actually just written a piece on a very similar topic for the Apex Magazine Blog. If you’d like to read what I had to say about a particular Isaac Asimov short story, you can find that here.
However, SF Signal’s question did prompt me to answer in a slightly different way. I love short stories and feel that they are the quintessential way of presenting an idea to a reader, particularly in the field of science fiction. So with SF Signal’s permission, I’m looking at the meta-question implied.
When a reader thinks of a “perfect” short story, the idea behind the story is often what comes to mind as being most important. Indeed, the prompt for this question refers to a short story as a “pure, distilled idea, crystallized down to the core.” Many science-fiction writers would agree with this. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay for his magazine once in which he stated emphatically that he would skimp on other aspects of fiction for a short story, but never on idea. As I recall, he might even have made that argument for longer fiction as well, but others have made other arguments. As MWA Grand Master Lawrence Block once noted, a weak idea can carry you through a novel far better than through a short story. In a novel, a writer has room to develop an idea over many pages, and to provide the reader with a longer immersion experience.
That said, as much as idea is important to a short story, I find myself disagreeing somewhat with Asimov when he advised that idea was the most important. It may be ironic, as the short stories that do come to my mind readily often do so because of the idea, but I don’t think those stories would stay with me were it not for the characters that populate them.
A compelling character is vital to make any work of fiction attractive to a reader. If you’re not interested in the person you’re reading about, why would you keep reading about them? You might not like the character in the sense that they are unsympathetic and not someone you would want to break bread with, but are they someone who fascinates you? Are you dying to find out how they resolve their dilemma, and what decisions they make, and the consequences that result?
And that brings me to one piece of advice I learned about short story writing years ago that I have given to others since then. A short story should be about the most important event in a character’s life. This is easily seen by process of elimination. Let’s say you have a character you want to write about. What part of their life should you explore and illuminate for the reader? If not the most important event, why not?
This leads to the final piece of irony. Go back to the beginning of my comments and now read what I wrote for the Apex Magazine blog about an Isaac Asimov short story that has stayed with me for years. Is it the idea that makes it memorable, the character, or the important event? If you can break it down and choose one, you’re smarter than I am. Because in the end, any great short story has to be all of a piece. If any one leg of idea, character, or incident is too weak, the foundation upon which the story stands will come crashing down.
Like the perfect beer, wine or whisky, I think there’s no such thing as ‘the perfect short story’ that everybody will consider perfect, but rather that it depends—among many other things—strongly on your personal taste. So here’s a very personal list.
On top of that, back in 2006 David Moles and Susan Marie Groppi edited an anthology called Twenty Epics, calling for short stories that contained a full ‘epic’. The gimmick being that the shorter your story was, the more you got paid. I loved it, tried my hand at it, and highly recommend the end result. Below are stories that, IMHO, would fit in an alternative ‘Ten Epics’ (mini-)anthology:
What if, through genetic modification, evolution changes from a predominantly Darwinian mode to a more Lamarckian mode, powered by shady megacorporations and covert government agencies, and it accelerates out of control? Paul J McAuley’s “Gene Wars” (Interzone #48, June 1991, available online at Lightspeed Magazine) handles this very deftly. Frenetically paced, episodic snapshots of accelerated genetic change, a genetic singularity if you like. With a devastating conclusion: there is no escape even in death.
Talking about death, when I chanced—through one of SF Signal’s SF/F/H Link Posts—to this article about an Australian start-up that tries to achieve immortality through consciousness transfer, I immediately thought of Greg Egan’s “Learning to Be Me” (Interzone #37, July 1990). Even if your mind is copied, perfectly, to a different substrate, is that other mind still you? If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, and acts like a duck, is it a duck? And if yes, will the original ‘duck’—your original brain and mind—not experience death as your perfect copy takes over? Endless food for thought.
While Benjamin Rosenbaum did have a story in Twenty Epics (“A Siege of Cranes”), I liked “The House Beyond Your Sky” (Strange Horizons, September 2006) much better. A story set at the very end of he ever-expanding Universe, where sole houses learn to survive through the relentlessly expanding night. It rarely gets more epic, while at the same time claustrophobic, than this.
Similarly epic in scope and vision is Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “Third Day Lights” (Interzone #200, September 2005), a story I was honoured to lift from the Interzone electronic slushpile. Incredibly graceful prose, amazing imagery and wild, wild, wild ideas. A search for love so compelling it creates and destroys whole (pocket) Universes. Intense.
Another huge talent whose stories I encountered first in the Interzone slushpile is Aliette de Bodard. Her story “Immersion” (Clarkesworld #69, June 2012) is close to perfect when it comes to encapsulating the tensely-wrought relation between the colonizer and colonized and the pure sense of enstrangement when cultures clash. Of the many things it depicts, the fact that gaps in culture can be much larger than we (like) to think, is put forward very effectively, and recent articles like Nautil.us’s “Drums, Lies and Audiotape” illustrate that some native cultural traits are so innate that outsiders may literally not be able to understand them. A recurrent theme, which I first encountered in Bruce Sterling’s novel Islands in the Net, Robert Sheckley’s “Shall We Have a Little Talk” (Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1965) and Paul Park’s “If Lions Could Speak” (Interzone #177, March 2002), to mention an outstanding few.
While stories about clones can be a dime a dozen, Jae Brim’s “The Nature of the Beast” (Interzone #206, October 2006), where a mysterious death in a swimming pool foreshadows a fierce competition between clones ‘to be the one’, somehow manages to encapsulate both major themes also appearing in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go—note: I hadn’t read the novel when I lifted Jae Brim’s story from the Interzone slush. It might not have even appeared at that point—and a feminist angle: will a female clone from a male original be any less sharp (or ruthless) than the original? She may or may not be, but she will most definitely be underestimated, which the protagonist uses to her advantage. Unfortunately, Jae Brim is the single author in this list of which I haven’t seen any fiction since her 2006 Interzone appearance. Which is a shame, as I think she’s really talented.
‘The nature of the beast’ also applies, in spades, to the alien protagonist in Alice Sheldon’s “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” (The Alien Condition, April 1973, as James Tiptree, Jr). On the surface, an alien exploration of how not to lose one’s intelligence, to ‘not go gentle into that good night’—David Hoing’s “The Healer”(Postscripts #20/21, December 2009) also portrays that in a different yet equally disturbing and compelling manner. Below the surface, power politics and senses of priviledge that pervade until this very day.
A blisteringly paced, hyper-dense, epic near-future story about what happens when quantum mechanical technology goes wild (while still reminiscent of old world story templates) is Hannu Rajaniemi’s “His Master’s Voice” (Interzone #218, October 2008), available online as an Escape Pod podcast. While a superb story in its own right, it also foreshadows great things to come, that is Hannu’s trilogy The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel, which I still consider to be the cutting edge of hard SF today.
Recently I had a discussion on Twitter—initiated by an article on SF Signal—about which was the first published story told through tweets. To the best of my knowledge—and feel free to correct me—it was Mary Ness’s “Twittering the Stars” (Shine, March 2010), available as a single story on Kindle. It may take some effort to get into it, but it rewards it hugely. It can also be read both backwards and forwards.
Now shoot me, but my favourite Shine story—I love them all equally, but some more equally than others—is Madeline Ashby’s “Ishin”. It’s a tender depiction of respect, (mis-)understanding and (unrequited?) love in the war zones of today, that is the countries that the mightiest military force of the world invades, but never, ever truly conquers. It has subtle layers of meaning that reward rereads.
That’s it: I set out to limit myself to ten (even if I slipped in a few more through side remarks), and when I reread this as the Mind Meld goes live, I’ll probably be chiding myself for not including many other, equally worthy stories.
 That story (“Qubit Conflicts”) eventually appeared in Clarkesworld, and is recently reprinted in The Singularity #1;
 As referenced in my story “Connoisseurs of the Eccentric” (Escape Pod #357), recently reprinted in “Second Contacts”;
 I could have included Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” as another example, but preferred to go for both the lesser known, and more personal one;
Perfection is in the eye of the reader. We believe a short story has to do everything that longer stories have to do, but every sentence of a short story has to serve multiple purposes: characterization, plot, ideas, etc. One of these elements may be the focus of the story, but it doesn’t work unless all of the other elements are there, working in concert with the focus. As for our own personal preferences, we’ll just quote our submission guidelines:
“Uncanny Magazine is seeking passionate, diverse SF/F fiction and poetry from writers from every conceivable background. We want intricate, experimental stories and poems with gorgeous prose, verve, and imagination that elicit strong emotions and challenge beliefs. Uncanny believes there’s still plenty of room in the genre for tales that make you feel.”
Some personal favorites not edited by us that hit perfection to us as readers: “Stone Animals” by Kelly Link; “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen McHugh; “The Truth About Owls” by Amal El-Mohtar; “The Traditional” by Maria Dahvana Headley. While we’re proud of every story that we’ve personally edited, the ones we hope get closest to the mark are: “All That Fairy Tale Crap” by Rachel Swirsky; “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu); “A Hollow Play” by Amal El-Mohtar; “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” by Sam J. Miller; “If You Were A Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” by Maria Dahvana Headley; “Translatio Corporis” by Kat Howard; and “Wooden Feathers” by Ursula Vernon. This is, of course, a rather abbreviated list. J
I don’t think I can name “the” perfect short story any more than I could name “the” perfect painting. A short story can be perfect for one person in one mood and moment but probably not everyone all the time. Even if one somehow achieves universal perfection, that doesn’t exclude others.
But “a” perfect short story? Absolutely! Quite a few are perfect in their own ways. Here are several elements that a perfect short story contains, in my mind at least:
- It has to have something happening. Whether there’s concrete action, impending doom, or a revelation, some kind of drama has to be taking place. The story doesn’t necessarily have to have a conclusion — I’ve read a few fine open-ended stories in which the question is the point — but there has to be some kind of crisis. Day-in-the-life vignettes can be really neat, but they’re not complete stories to me.
- It must have a tight focus. Ideally, what’s going on in the short story should reflect and reveal the wider universe where it’s set, through carefully expressive word choices and assumptions made evident, but every bit should be leading toward the climax.
- It must make me care. Usually this is due to at least one well-drawn character with whom I can relate in some way; sometimes it’s because of a culture that’s going through stuff that resonates for me; and very rarely, it’s because of some revelation that evokes a sense of wonder in me.
- It has to stand alone. If it’s part of a series, and reading the others is a prerequisite to fully understand the richness and impact of what’s happening here, it may still be great, but it’s not perfect.
- It has to stand the test of time. That doesn’t mean that a new short story can’t be perfect for me at the moment I read it, but it does make me wary of putting it on a “perfect” list. I have been known to change my mind, after all! Things that help a story endure include memorable language, distinctive characters, and a focus on exploring social conflicts rather than on solving technological/fantastical process puzzles. Ideally, I should be able to discover new aspects of the story when returning to it after years have passed.
Regarding that test of time, there’s a large gap in my familiarity with short stories. Growing up, I had my father’s collection of old science fiction magazines, plus his Analog subscription to keep an eye on the current field, but once I went to college, all I ever saw were some yearly anthologies. Once short stories became widely available online, I started reading them again (and listening to podcasts), but now there are too many for me to keep up! So I can cite a few perfect short stories, but this list certainly isn’t comprehensive.
Some perfect science fiction short stories I’ve read:
The Veldt, by Ray Bradbury, 1950. Bradbury wrote several perfect short stories, but I’ll pick this one for its brooding atmosphere, its depiction of the dangers of over-reliance on technology in general and virtual reality in particular, and those unforgettably ruthless children.
Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, 1959. You may have read it in high school English class, like me. At the time I was struck by the pathos of having one’s mind slipping away; listening to it recently also had me thinking more about medical ethics and how the mentally disabled are treated. And yes, I cried again.
The Man Who Lost the Sea, by Theodore Sturgeon, 1959. Even though I’ve read several collections by Sturgeon, I’d never heard of this story until I caught it on Escape Pod this year, which is a shame! It’s one of the most poetic, beautiful SF works I’ve ever experienced. Although I didn’t really understand what was happening in the story until the end, I then I promptly listened to it again so I could appreciate it more fully. It takes some work, but the revelation gives this story the most “sensawunda” on my list.
When It Changed, by Joanna Russ, 1972. When I first read this in Again, Dangerous Visions, I didn’t realize it was set in an all-female society until the male astronauts arrived, which shows how natural it seemed through Russ’ writing. This is a story that was absolutely right to stay open-ended — there were clues about how things were going to be changing, but the speculative mood of the conclusion also spurred readers to think about why certain aspects of current society are the way they are, and how things might be different.
Tideline, Elizabeth Bear, 2007. We listen to a war machine as it combs through wreckage to make memorials for its fallen human comrades, and then it meets someone … A story about the importance of stories, and remembrance, and how myths evolve and inspire those who follow.
Despite their brief length, the best short stories are telling tales on multiple levels. The words have to do double and triple duty to get the characters and themes across to us. “A Letter from the Clearys,” Connie Willis’s Nebula Award winning short story first published in 1982 remains as vivid in my mind’s eye as it did when I first read it. The narrator is not quite reliable, so the full horror of a family’s situation in the aftermath of a nuclear war has to be revealed through each detail. The letter and its affect on the family are terrible, but it’s the wounds on the hand that won’t heal that haunt me. The letter discloses who these people are and the losses they’ve endured. Other details tell us that they’re striving to survive a nuclear winter by hunting, hiding from looters, and building a greenhouse. Yet, the wound is the understated clue that lets us know that, like the rest of humanity, they probably won’t make it. All of this is only a small part of what’s happening in about 5000 words.
A perfect short story is like a diamond. It’s an author’s crushed obsession, the distillation of a story element into a tale that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. It might be a world, a character, snappy dialogue, a great plot, but all of these things are mainly the engines for delivering some idea to you that keeps you huddling around the campfire.
Take Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed” (1972). “Katie drives like a maniac,” the story begins. Immediately, you are on a lost planetary colony with no men that is suddenly reintroduced to the galaxy. But it’s not a silly male chauvinist fantasy where a planet full of hot virgins don’t know what they’ve been missing until the manly astronauts show up. Nope. These women may be provincial, but they’re not stupid. And they’re not harmless, either. They’ve been doing just fine on their own, and the tough narrator and her wife are very uneasy about the prospect of their unique culture being overwhelmed by a culture their ancestors (unintentionally) left behind. You’re introduced to this entire world that is actually a bit steampunk before there was steampunk and then the story ends with a brief meditation on how the planet’s name reflects the tragic origins of the whole society.
Then there’s Fredric Brown’s “Arena” (1944). Everybody knows this one because it’s been copied so much. In the sturdy and familiar plot, your stereotypical Western Hero (named Carson, naturally) translated into a spacesuit wakes up on the eve of a war with a new and invasive alien species (called the Rollers) in a sort of large fishbowl with an invisible barrier in the middle. On the other side of the barrier is a spherical Roller. Carson is informed by a disembodied intelligence that he and the Roller will fight until one of them is killed. Losing will doom the vanquished party’s entire species, which takes pacifism right off the table.
Considering the year of publication, the allegory for the Pacific Theater in WWII (which began 74 years and a clutch of days ago with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941) seems really obvious, but there’s more going on here than wartime jingoism and xenophobia. Carson initially tries to communicate with his enemy and make some kind of alliance or at least treaty. He’s thwarted both by the sadistic Roller’s telepathic hostility (and ability to fashion superior Stone Age tech) and their “host”’s manipulation. He soon finds himself backed into a strategic and moral corner where he has no choice but to engage in defensive genocide. At one point, Carson realizes that he has more in common with an ordinary Earth spider than with the Roller. That simple statement evokes a chilling image of just how alien the life we might encounter outside our planet could turn out to be, and how minor our own differences really are.
Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” (2000) is one of those stories that make me jealous of the author because I wish I’d written it. It’s a rich meditation both on Afro-Caribbean identity and a certain grim European fairy tale.
A young woman with a rather controlling husband happily discovers she’s pregnant. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for her, she soon after makes a horrifying discovery about his true nature in their large and rambling house that has her rethinking the pregnancy. And then he comes home.
I don’t normally like “Lady or the Tiger” endings, but this one is the best way to end the story.
Minister Faust’s blistering “The Belly of the Crocodile” (2011) has no real twist. It’s quite straightforward, with a plot as old as dirt and blood. From the beginning, you know how this all will end—badly. It sucks you in with the earthy language, dragging you under the tow of the cool, green Nile. It’s Egyptian myth but also Cain and Abel. Bitter line by bitter line as two men grow from beloved brothers into implacable rivals, and the narrator nurses a sense of grievance as deadly as a mistletoe dart.
There’s no such thing as a story that captures everyone in the audience. The very quirks and flaws in the story that draw in one reader may repel another. And the stronger the hue, the stronger the reader’s reaction, for better or worse. So, in that sense, a “perfect” story does not exist. But each of us has that group of tales that sits in our hands like a pile of jewels. To us, those stories are perfect.