I am a science fiction fan. So much so, that my love of the genre is one of my go-to “fun facts” whenever I introduce myself. I have short stories to thank for that. When I was in high school, I had my first deep-dive into the world of science fiction, via the works of Ray Bradbury. I don’t remember exactly what prompted me to pick up The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man from the library, but once I started reading them, I couldn’t put them down. Bradbury’s Mars, while it was nothing like the frigid desert we now know the Red Planet to be, was nonetheless a vividly-rendered world.
Around the same time, I read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot while sitting on the bleachers in my high school’s gym. (The author’s exploration of the relationships between humans and machines were a welcome distraction from being stuck in the same room all day, with all the other seniors who were exempt from the State of New Jersey’s standardized testing.) Whether reading about robots or Martians, I was struck by these authors’ ability to conjure up a world that felt so real in only a few thousand words per story.
One of the things that really interests me about science fiction–especially science fiction written fifty or sixty years ago–is how it can be read as a prediction of the future, and of how people will react to profound changes in technology and society. How will we cope when, for example, companies find a way to beam commercials into our homes 24/7? That is the premise of Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience,” originally published in August 1953 and recently reprinted in Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women, Volume 2 (1953-1957) in 2021. The main characters are constantly bombarded with slogans, jingles, and aggressive advertising pitches, broadcast via radio and picked up by small chips embedded in the products’ packaging. While this particular technology never came to pass, increasingly invasive advertising has–in the form of ultra-specific targeted ads on social media, among other things. It’s always intriguing, as I read these stories, to note the similarities and differences between the author’s imagined future, and the “future” that we are living in.
Some stories explore radically-different worlds, like the ones cataloged in Hao Jingfang’s 2010 story, “Invisible Planets,” collected in the 2016 anthology of the same title. In this story we encounter a world where everyone only speaks in lies, another where a “summer” and “winter” species take turns hibernating, never becoming aware of the other’s existence, and still another whose inhabitants grow taller and taller with age, with some reaching gargantuan heights. Other stories touch upon different types of relationships.
In Charlie Jane Anders’s Love Might Be Too Strong A Word (originally published in 2012, and included in the author’s 2021 collection, Even Greater Mistakes), the citizens of a far-future starship grapple with power dynamics determined by gender, class, and occupation that are thrown into focus when a person from one of the upper classes falls in one-sided love with someone from one of the lower classes. The commentary by the narrator, subject of the unwanted “romance,” reveals a society where power entitles its bearer to whatever, or whoever, they want, while those without power must submit to the whims of the powerful.
The great thing about short stories is that there are a lot of them. Whatever your genre of choice, there is something out there for you. Fans of all things speculative, from science fiction to fantasy to horror, can explore a nearly-limitless range of ideas in the short form, and that is only what has already been written. Personally, I can’t wait to see what the writers of today will imagine tomorrow.
Do you feel like trying some short stories? Rutgers University Libraries has plenty to offer, including:
- The New Voices of Science Fiction – Featuring some of today’s best writers at the top of their game. I’ve read this one as well, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
- Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler – Award-winning stories by one of the greatest science fiction writers, and another one of the books that formed my introduction to the genre.
- The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction – Contemporary Chinese science fiction in translation, including stories by award-winning author Liu Cixin.
- The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction – Large anthology that covers the entire history of the genre and also contains some critical essays.