Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories

The short of it

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When I was thirteen, I picked up a used paperback copy of the anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, which was first published in 1978. A quarter of a century later, it’s still on my bookshelf, and I’ve just finished reading through it again, solely for my own pleasure. I’ve spoken here before of how my taste in fiction, movies, television, music, and just about everything else in life was shaped by what I happened to stumble across in seventh grade, and this little book may turn out to be as influential as any of the others. It was the first science fiction collection that I ever owned, and with a few caveats, it’s still the one that I’d recommend to anyone who was looking to get into the genre for the first time. None of the selections are longer than five pages or so, and some are a less than a page. A few are little more than shaggy dog stories that hinge on a bad pun at the end—“A niche in time saves Stein”—but others are genuinely funny, scary, or haunting. The best serve as a perfect illustration of the Borges test, which states that many stories should only be as long as it takes to verbally explain the idea to an intelligent listener. And the range of voices presented here still catches me by surprise. When I first read this book, I hadn’t heard of any of them, apart from Asimov, and I didn’t pay much attention to the names of the authors. As a result, when I skim the table of contents, I’m amazed to find that I was reading stories in my early teens by Cyril M. Kornbluth, Joanna Russ, Larry Niven, Damon Knight, Barry N. Malzberg, Alfred Bester, Gregory Benford, and even George R.R. Martin.

And I didn’t read these stories out of obligation, but out of sheer joy. They don’t demand anything from the reader except for a few minutes of his or her attention, but the return on investment is considerable. There are ideas here that I’ve never forgotten, which makes a good case for the power of speculative fiction itself, especially when compared to other genres. I have another anthology on my shelf titled This Week’s Short Short Stories, which collects fifty examples from the Sunday supplement magazine This Week, which at the time—and this isn’t a typo—had a circulation of ten and a half million. Given the size of the audience, none of the stories could be particularly strange or challenging, and few of them have stuck in my mind. The genius of the science fiction short short, by contrast, is that it uses its modest length as an opportunity to go to darker, weirder places than a conventional narrative could sustain. It has often been used as an entry point for new writers, most famously in Astounding’s Probability Zero department, but it also requires a fair amount of skill to pull off, as Asimov points out in his introduction:

As a story grows shorter and shorter, all the fancy embroidery that length makes possible must go. In the short story, there can be no subplots; there is no time for philosophy; what description and character delineation there is must be accomplished with concision…Everything is eliminated but the point. The short short story reduces itself to the point alone and presents that to you like a bare needle fired from a blowgun; a needle that can tickle or sting or leave its effect buried within you for a long time.

And the best way to get a sense of the form’s possibilities is to pick up a copy of a collection like 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories and dive right in. (For some reason, I was never quite as entranced by its companion volume, 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories, maybe because it seemed too much like playing tennis without the net. There’s also an earlier anthology, Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales, edited by Asimov and Groff Conklin, which is equally worthwhile, and some of the stories that I recommend here appear there instead.) My personal favorites include “The Figure” by Edward Grendon, a time travel story that saves an unforgettably sick twist for the very last word; “Tiger by the Tail” by Alan E. Nourse, about a mysterious pocketbook that leads to a parallel universe; “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” by Damon Knight, which first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions; and “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim, which was loosely adapted into the Guillermo del Toro movie of the same name. Other strong selections from the Asimov/Greenberg/Olander anthology, plucked essentially at random, include “Punch” by Frederik Pohl, “Upstart” by Steven Utley, “Safe at Any Speed” by Larry Niven, “Innocence” by Joanna Russ, and “Synchronicity” by James E. Thompson. Many of them end at the moment that a more conventional work might begin, with the core premise turned into a closing twist rather than an inciting incident, and when I look back, I see that many of my earliest attempts at writing fiction grew from a seed that one of these stories had planted.

Of course, not every short short story is worth reading. As Asimov points out, the form leaves the writer with nowhere to hide, and the whole effort stands or falls on the originality of its core idea. That’s part of the reason why I’ve never tried it myself, although I’m currently working on a story—an adaptation of my audio script “Retention”—that might technically qualify. And the low barriers to entry imply that there’s more forgettable work produced in this form than any other. As Stewart Beach, the fiction editor of This Week, writes in the anthology that I mentioned above: “Nothing loses interest quite as quickly a short-short which isn’t going anywhere except to a so-called surprise ending with ‘surprise, surprise’ telegraphed so hard through a lifeless middle that the reader either throws the story aside in disgust or skips forward to the ‘surprise’ he has been warned to expect.” That’s as true of science fiction as anything else, and my praise of the form is skewed by the fact that I know it best from anthologies of published stories, which have already gone through two levels of selection. (These days, we’re more likely to use the term flash fiction, which carries the unfortunate implication, at least to me, that they should be written quickly.) But even when you come across a clunker, you’ve only wasted a few minutes of your time, and I can’t think of a better way to rapidly familiarize yourself with the style and themes of a wide range of writers. An ambitious anthology by a good editor, covering the forty years since 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories was released, is a book that I would buy in a second. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Why science fiction?

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When I look at my writing from the past few years, I’m struck by a sharp division in my work, which sometimes resembles the output of two different authors. On the novel side, I’ve focused almost exclusively on suspense fiction, with the occasional literary touch: The Icon Thief is basically my take on the paranoid conspiracy novel, while its sequel—once called Midrash, currently untitled—is even more of a straight thriller. I love writing books like this, and one of the great pleasures of my recent life has been exploring the genre’s conventions and learning what makes such novels tick. But at the same time, I’ve been living an alternate, almost entirely separate life as a writer of short science fiction. And now that my novelette “Kawataro” is in stores, it’s probably worth asking why I write this stuff in the first place.

Because it certainly isn’t for the money. Analog‘s payment rate is pretty modest—at the moment, for a novelette, it’s between five and six cents a word—and while it still pays better than most other magazines, where payment can consist of nothing but a few contributors’ copies, devoting two or more weeks to writing a 12,000-word novelette isn’t an especially lucrative way of spending one’s time. And while I’m always immensely gratified to read reviews of my short fiction online, the fact remains that a writer can make a bigger impression with a single novel than with a dozen short stories. There doesn’t seem to be any rational reason, then, why I should spend my time writing stuff for Analog. And yet I still try to write at least a couple of short stories a year, and whenever I’m not writing one, I really miss it.

So why is that? The real question, I suppose, is why I write science fiction at all, instead of some other genre. (Mystery fiction, for one, has an honorable history, and there are still a couple of good genre magazines on the market.) Writers, not surprisingly, are drawn to science fiction for all sorts of reasons. Many of the writers in Analog, which remains the leading voice of hard science fiction, seem to have been brought to it by a deep love of science itself, with stories that methodically work out the details of a particular scientific problem. Other authors write science fiction because it gives them the opportunity to discuss major issues involving humanity’s future, to build entire worlds, or to allegorize a contemporary issue (as in Children of Men, which takes our reluctance to plan for the future and turns it into a world in which there is no future). Others, maybe most, are drawn to science fiction simply because it was the kind of fiction they loved best growing up.

This last reason comes fairly close for me, although it isn’t the whole story. Growing up, one of my favorite books was the wonderful anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I highly recommend if you can track down a copy. Reading these and similar stories—many of which I still know practically by heart—I was deeply impressed by their clarity, their precision, and above all their ingenuity. On the cinematic side, my favorite movie for many years was 2001, which, in turn, served as a gateway to such authors as Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, and Robert Anton Wilson—the last of whom, in particular, remains one of my intellectual heroes. And I’ve already spoken of my love for The X-Files, which has given my stories much of their overall tone and shape.

Above all else, though, I love science fiction because it gives me a chance to make beautiful toys. The toymaking aspect of fiction has always been important to me, and hopefully this comes through in my novels, which I like to think of as intricate games between myself and the reader. And the science fiction short story—because of its love of ideas, its range of possible subjects, and the rewards it offers to ingenuity—has always been an ideal medium for play. While my stories occasionally tackle larger social themes, the motivation for writing them in the first place is always one of playfulness: I have an idea, an image, a twist, and want to see how far I can mislead the reader while still making the story an exciting one.  Writing novels is joyous work, but it’s still work. Writing short fiction, especially science fiction, is closer to a game. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest game in the world.

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