(CLASSIC: first published in The Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader, 1951)
A simple story about an extraordinary discovery on the moon. The Sentinel was the seed from which Clarke developed the awesome 2001: A Space Odyssey. It puts a clear and unforgettable image in your mind – I love short stories that send postcards to your eternal brain. Clarke brings space travel to life with a breathtaking level of specificity. My favourite thing about this story is that the moment the astronaut first sees the alien beacon, he is frying sausages.
(MODERN: from Interzone, 1982)
A former NASA doctor and his wife return to an abandoned Cape Kennedy – the inception point for a bizarre illness affecting the whole of Florida and spreading outwards. Sufferers are afflicted by episodes in which time is temporarily slowed to a point of near stillness – the episodes increasing in frequency and length as the sufferers drift towards their final, never-ending moment. The doctor is trying to track down the astronaut who committed the first murder in space, thereby ending the space age and causing this psychic illness… amazing, glass-clear, Ballardian oddity.
(CLASSIC: from The Brick Moon and Other Stories, Waking Lion Press)
Hale was a prominent 19th-century American preacher and writer, the friend of Presidents and commoners. He wrote all manner of books, including a range of genre-defining science fiction. This tale, for instance, is the first ever ‘space station’ story: American entrepreneurs build am artificial satellite out of brick, 200 metres in diameter. They plan to launch it into polar orbit (passing over Greenwich) via a gigantic flywheel device, so that it will be visible in the sky and sailors can use it to calculate longitude. But it is launched prematurely by accident, with some of its designers and workmen, and women, on board. This turns out not to be a disaster: the inadvertent space travellers find life perfectly agreeable, and even preferable, to earth. The whole thing is written with an easy charm and no little humour, and although the physics are a little screwy (launched via flywheel? somehow preserving its own mini-atmosphere and gravity?) it is an imaginatively spacious and engaging conception, the kind that makes you want to write your own sequel. It’s particularly fascinating to me that Hale, a passionate unionist during the American Civil War, would write this story so soon afterwards, in effect celebrating a little piece of America that successfully secedes from the USA.
(MODERN: from A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories, The Women’s Press)
Tuttle’s modern classic (it was collected in A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories [Women’s Press 1987]) reimagines the alien encounter in a superbly rich and dream-haunting way. ‘Dream-haunting’ is right, I think, in part because the story is built around the notion of a teacher at an American university using dreams as a teaching tool. He himself has a recurring dream in which he visits a ruined desert city, and descends to the tunnels and caverns below where the ancient inhabitants are waiting patiently. He meets a young woman he on the bus, and discovers that she has had the same dream. It transpires many people are dreaming it. The news reports the discovery of a ruined city in the deserts of New Mexico that once housed the long dead Anasazi people; and of course our protagonists recognise it from their dreams. It follows a sort-of dream logic, which is nonetheless written with a beautiful clarity, that the Anasazi people appear amongst modern humanity, as if they have always been there, and the only person who appears surprised by this the hero of the story. He speculates that they are humanoid aliens who used dreaming to ready the world for their coming, so that they can slip neatly into place as just one more culture on the planet. The whole thing is written in so understated, well-observed a manner that it comes beautifully alive.
(CLASSIC: first published in The Illustrated Man, DoubleDay and Company)
Ray Bradbury for me is one of the great writers of short stories, not just within science fiction but within all literature, and this is one of the greatest examples of his deft skill. The story focuses very simply on two character on a long mission into space – one obsessed with forgetting his past and concentrating on now, and the other determined to recall the past he left behind. This is thoughtful science-fiction at its best, and expresses Bradbury’s beautiful manner of using language simply but masterfully.
(MODERN: from Phobic and later Tiny Deaths, Comma Press)
I read a lot of modern short stories, and I struggle to find one that has stuck with me quite to this extent. The story set-up is that everybody receives a notification of when and how they are going to die, apart from our unfortunate narrator. The real action begins when people begin turning up at our lead character’s door, with letters saying that he’s going to kill them… The chaos brought about in society in giving everyone this knowledge is brilliantly portrayed, and Rob’s dry humour really permeates the piece. A fantastic story from one of the modern masters.
(CLASSIC: first published in McClure’s Magazine (USA) and The Windsor Magazine (UK) 1905)
“With the Night Mail” isn’t actually a short story. It’s a journalist’s account of a voyage with the Trans-Atlantic mail, embedded in a magazine with a host of advertisements, book reviews, answers to correspondents’ queries and other “apparatus” surrounding it. But it (first published in 1905) is set in the world of the year 2000 (the original magazine versions have different dates) and this world is remarkably different from Kipling’s own. The story extrapolates from the conquest of the air foreshadowed by the dirigible airships of the time and, especially, the experiments of the Wright Brothers in 1903. The “Aerial Board of Control” – a kind of international Air Traffic Control system – monitors and directs commerce. Nation-states are a thing of the past. War (apart from the occasional policing action) has ceased. Kipling builds up his picture of the future by addressing us as readers in this future. Throughout the story, there are two “readers” addressed: the reader in 2000 who is part of Kipling’s fiction, to whom the world of the mighty airships needs no introduction but who might need guidance about how the technology works and the “real” reader of the story, to whom Kipling must allow access into all aspects of this transformed future. His detailed and often amusing adverts and asides allow us – who now live in the future he imagined – to explore the differences between his “real” and “imagined” worlds. It is one of the first and best examples of a story which is fully immersed in a possible future.
(MODERN: from What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, Small Beer Press)
A woman disappears in the African jungle, possibly abducted by gorillas, and after having had an affair with one (or more?) of the men in her party. “What I Didn’t See” is a kind of “answer-story” to James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Women Men Don’t See”, using some of the themes of alienation explored by Tiptree (Alice Sheldon) but also drawing upon a real African expedition in which one of the participants was Tiptree/Sheldon’s mother. It’s a story about viewpoint and relationships (and about how the truth about relationships can be obscured by blurred or deliberately skewed viewpoints), but it’s also a story about different views of otherness. What the narrator didn’t see is crucially important, but can we work it out from her account? “What I Didn’t See” is a story of deferral – of explanation and even genre. There have been huge arguments as to whether this story, so deeply imbedded in science fiction and a whole range of semi-fantastic images from Tarzan to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is sf at all, even though it won an award in the field. We never reach the point, as we do in “The Women Men Don’t See,” where aliens appear. But it is a story which is exploring the alien in our world just as Tiptree does, even though to some extent it reverses it. And if science fiction did not exist, nor could this story.
(CLASSIC: first published in Winter’s Tales, Putnam UK)
Dinesen is a brilliant writer, and this story is about a family of cottagers who give themselves up to vagabondage, drink, gambling, illegitimate children, and suicide, as some can be managed without breaking the law.
(MODERN: from The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Picador USA)
Eisenberg is a witty American writer, who seems to know instinctively how awful but funny men can be. Here is the final sentence of this story:
“ And I remember so clearly that moment, standing there astride my suitcase, with part of the photograph of Robert in each hand, my legs trembling and my heart racing with a dark exultation, as if I’d just, in the grace of an instant, been thrown wide of some mortal danger.”
(CLASSIC: first published in Orbit Science Fiction, Hanro Corporation)
I like my sci-fi either near-future or contemporary with a twist. Adjustment Team was first published back in 1956 and the themes raised back then still seem to resonate to this very day. You might be familiar with the 2011 film Adjustment Bureau which was based, rather loosely, on this short story. What I love about Dick’s work, and Adjustment Team in particular, are the questions that are raised
about the very nature of reality and our place in the world.
(MODERN: from Rewired, Tachyon Press)
I spent my teenage years reading Gibson and Sterling. I loved cyberpunk back then and I love what the sub-genre has evolved into: post-cyberpunk, biopunk, call it what you will. The Calorie Man, by newish writer-on-the-block, Paolo Bacigalupi, focuses on a number of near-future issues such as the deterioration of the environment, the exhaustion of fossil-based resources, intellectual property misuse and global corporate dominance.
(CLASSIC: from The Knights of the Limits in Barrington Bayley SF Gateway Omnibus, Gollancz)
Does “classic” signify “from the good old days” or “well known and often anthologised”? If the latter, that’s boring. Speaking of boring—through rock—I nominate one of the wittiest, most idiosyncratic, and lesser known of British SF authors, Barrington Bayley. Imagine a solid universe containing only one cavern of a world; and then continue imagining… Here’s where the spirit of H.G. Wells’ scientific romances meets a logical rather than a dreamlike surrealism. Distilled in this tale is the “sense of wonder” which epitomises the best produce from the huge district of science fiction within the city of the Fantastik.
(MODERN: from Last and First Contacts, NewCon Press)
This achingly beautiful story by one of Britain’s leading SF novelists blends immensity and the domestically human as all matter in our universe flies apart over a period of a few months due to dark energy—first distant galaxies, then nearby stars, then the Sun, then the Earth, then our bodies too. Actually, our universe already exists in a ‘false vacuum’ state, which theoretically could collapse at any moment to a lower energy state, although we’d know nothing about this, or only for a fraction of a second—no possible story there. Most of the time most people are oblivious to our universe, to the how, why, and what of our very existence. What science fiction does wonderfully is heighten our awareness of what is actually reality, as Baxter does here on a very humane level.
(CLASSIC: from Strand Magazine)A lovely story featuring Doyle’s other great character, the irascible, brilliant, heavily bearded Professor Challenger. This tale of scientific hubris, war machines and revenge has got it all.
(MODERN: from The Illustrated Man, Harper Voyager)
One of the masterful Bradbury’s most disturbing tales. A future family live a seemingly ideal existence inside their automated home. But the ‘Nursery’ – a sort of holographic playroom – holds a horrible secret…
(CLASSIC: first published in The Seedling Stars, Gnome Press)
In the 1950s James Blish wrote a short series of stories, collected in The Seedling Stars, about what he called pantropy – radically engineering humans to enable them to live on alien worlds. ‘Surface Tension’ is the best of these, a classic tale of human grit and ingenuity, and an epic journey between two puddles. Offspring of the crew of a crashed spaceship have been shrunk to the size of protists so that they can survive in the ponds and lakes of the single muddy landmass of a water planet. Blish expertly describes a fierce microscopic world and the engineering feat of constructing a wooden spaceship that enables the colonists to pierce the surface tension of the sky of their little world, and the story contains one of the finest evocations of science fiction’s sense of wonder when the tiny astronauts first glimpse the night sky: ‘Under the two moons of Hydrot, and under the eternal stars, the two-inch spaceship and its microscopic cargo toiled down the slope towards the drying rivulet.’
(MODERN: from The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2013, Prime Books)
Kelly Link is one of the best writers in contemporary science fiction and fantasy, blending tropes from a variety of genres into fresh and vivid fantastikas. In ‘Two Houses’ (2012), first published in anthology celebrating the work of Ray Bradbury, the twelve passengers on a starship that has lost its sister ship to a cosmic accident are awakened from suspended animation to celebrate a birthday. They tell each other ghost stories, which the ship illustrates with virtual reality projections, and as the boundary between reality and fiction breaks down a very human story of loss slowly emerges. A beautifully mysterious story within a story.
(CLASSIC: first published in The Testament of Andros, Arrow Books)
Like the best of Borges, a short story swarming with ideas – a tale with enough substance for a novel. I first read it in my pre-teens and hardly understood it, but went back to it again and again because I found it so insidiously disturbing. Is it a study of paranoid schizophrenia, a vision of the apocalypse (nearly half a century ago, but maybe the tale undermines our certainty about what happened then), a portrait of the human race in many of its extremes? I’ve just reread it and would say it’s all that and more. A masterpiece by one of the field’s most intelligent authors, and a tribute to the taste of Robert Lowndes, who bought it for Future Science Fiction.
(MODERN: from Untouched by Human Hands, Four Square)
Sheckley was one of science fiction’s wittiest humourists (others include Eric Frank Russell and John Sladek). He was at his sharpest when sketching alien cultures and shining the light of confrontation on them. “Ritual” is hilarious, but by no means only that; in just a few pages it confronts cultural misunderstanding and the way religions (like other systems of belief) can grow monolithic. Highly intelligent fun with an inventively satirical edge.
(CLASSIC: first published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review)
Some SF stories, almost not noticed on publication, become over time more and more central. Most of E.M.Forster’s other tales are fantastical, rather than invoking technology in any way. He always wrote in defense of nature, of the wild. And ‘The Machine Stops’ ends with a glimpse of the outside. But, before this, his portrait of techno-isolation (‘she knew thousands of people’) now seems a founding text of the virtual present. To be read alongside Samuel Beckett’s ‘closed space’ story Company.
(MODERN: from Vermilion Sands, Vintage Classics)
Although it could have been any of the stories in Vermilion Sands – they all interpenetrate, becoming a glamorous indolent continuum of what called his Ballard ‘guess at what the future will actually be like’. That is post-scarcity, art-obsessed, blandly promiscuous and ruthlessly banal. To be read alongside Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time.
(CLASSIC: first published in The Second Astounding Science Fiction Anthology selected by John W Campbell Jr, Grayson & Grayson)
I’ve never read anything else by Dolton Edwards, but this short-short story does what all really good science fiction should do, which is to act as a mind-altering substance. He takes the simplest of ideas, in this case George Bernard Shaw’s campaign for a simplified alphabet, and in just three pages has you learning and reading a new language. Here’s the last line: “Even Mr Yaw, wi beliv, wud have been hapi in ce noleg cat his drims fainali keim tru.”
(MODERN: from Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss, Penguin)
The 1950s for me was the golden age of science fiction. Almost every weekend I’d pick up second-hand copies of Galaxy, Analog and Astounding Science Fiction from Rochdale indoor market for ninepence each (that’s nine old pennies) and enjoy a feast of reading. Every issue had a star name or maybe two or three: Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Poul Anderson, Clifford Simak – including some top-calibre British writers too, such as John Wyndham, Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, and one of my particular favourites, E C Tubb. Robert Sheckley was in that exalted company, and while I’ve forgotten the plots of most of the stories I read in those days, his “The Store of the Worlds” has stayed with me, vividly, its fiendish cleverness (in a good sense) and dramatic impact undiminished after fifty years. (Incidentally, to show how abundantly blessed we were from all quarters in that decade, it appeared originally in Playboy under the title “World of Heart’s Desire”. So, centre-spread in full colour and brilliant SF! What more could a growing boy want?). Without giving away the story’s central conceit, it’s difficult to go into much detail – except to say it’s set in a post-apocalyptic landscape – and as I don’t want to spoil it for you, I won’t. But I’m pretty certain I can guarantee (no, make that dead certain) that the minute you come to the end you’ll go back to the beginning and read it again to see how the devil Sheckley pulled off such a neat trick of fictional magic, and marvel at the seemingly effortless skill it took to do it.
(CLASSIC: first published in The Star Diaries, HMH)
The Star Diaries cycle by my favourite Polish writer is, in general, a parody of the ‘golden age’ science-fiction, where a lone star traveler, named Ijon Tichy, encounters in his spaceship adventures roughly similar to those described in ‘The Voyage of the Space Beagle’ by Van Vogt or Asimovs Foundation, but with a Slavic twist and a crazy sense of humour. In the ‘Seventh Voyage’ Ijon Tichy suffers a malfunction of his spaceship and discovers that it cannot be repaired by a single person. One man must hold the bolt, while the other tightens the nut. But our hero, as usual, is going solo across the Universe. Is he doomed? No! With his expert knowledge of the Einstein’s theory, he turns his spaceship towards a gravitational vortex, to encounter the relativistic phenomenon known as the “time loop” – hoping that he will meet himself, they will fix the rocket together and have the problem solved. He is partially right. The spaceship soon becomes indeed populated by the likes of “Monday-me”, “Tuesday-me”, “Wednesday-me” etc., but now the real problem arises. All the Ijon Tichy’s from all the days of the week have perfectly logical excuses, why someone else should be doing the dirty job. And, of course, everyone has also pretty strong argument, why it should be precisely him, who gets the last bar of chocolate. When logic fails, a lead pipe will do, so poor Tichy is pretty close of clubbing himself to death, until… please finish the story at the following link….
(MODERN: from Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories, Golden Gryphon Press, 1995)
This is a great story. Despite my love for the classic, golden age science-fiction and its parodies, I still feel that level of ambition is just too much. We as a species are not meant to travel through space. Sorry to spoil it for you, guys. It’s just not possible, with our life cycle, biological limitations and psychological requirements, all that bad and good stuff that make us human. But what if we make contact with another civilization, the namesake “dinosaurs” from this story? And they can teach you how to transcend our limitations? All that we need would be learn to “think like a dinosaur”. But this turns out to be the hard part…
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