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Short Stories We Read Part II

I’ve talked about short stories on this blog before. To sum up my earlier post, I love the format of the short story because it allows the author and the reader to explore big ideas in small(-ish) packages. They are a great way to “meet” new-to-you authors and expand your reading horizons across genres. The short story lends itself especially well to speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and any number of genre-bending concepts. This post takes a look at a few more short stories that I recently read (or re-read) and that made an impression on me.

It’s fairly common for authors to work out an idea in short story form, before expanding it into a novel. One of my favorite contemporary SFF (science fiction and fantasy) writers, Sarah Pinsker, did this with her novel, A Song for a New Day. The novel grew out of her short story, “Our Lady of the Open Road,” originally published in 2015. Both the novel and the short story are set in the not-too-distant future, in which live performances and other large gatherings of people are outlawed. As the story hints and the novel elaborates, a combination of violent attacks and disease outbreaks led to the world the characters inhabit. I read A Song for a New Day in March 2020, as the world was going into COVID lockdown. To say that this was a story for the moment–indeed, that it is a story for the present moment as well–is an understatement. The characters must navigate a profoundly-changed world, much as we find ourselves doing now.

K. Jemisin is another author who, as she describes in the introduction to her collection, How Long ‘til Black Future Month?, uses short fiction to develop characters and ideas she later incorporates into her long-form fiction. Jemisin’s story, “The City Born Great,” first published online in 2016 and included in How Long ‘til Black Future Month?, later served as the basis for her Great Cities duology. In the story, a young man learns that he is the avatar, the living personification, of New York City. The narrative follows him as he defends the city from malevolent forces that threaten its existence. Later, in the novels, Jemisin expands the cast, with each borough of New York given its own avatar. Another of her stories, “On the Banks of the River Lex,” also incorporates the concept of anthropomorphic personifications. What happens to old gods, the story asks, when humans are no longer around to believe in them? Death is the main character, and we follow him as he and his fellow deities speculate on whose belief will keep them alive in a post-human world. While Jemisin may be best-known for her award-winning Broken Earth trilogy, her short stories are real gems as well. How Long ‘til Black Future Month? is a great place to start for those new to her work.

Other stories resist easy classification. Are they science fiction, fantasy, or something else? Can we even consider them speculative fiction at all? I was surprised, when flipping through an old paperback science fiction anthology, to find a short story by none other than Shirley Jackson: “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.” Jackson is, of course, best known for her works of horror and suspense, including The Haunting of Hill House and her classic short story, “The Lottery.”The speculative element in “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts” is ambiguous. Does the main character possess supernatural abilities, or is he simply in the right place at the right time to offer help to the other characters? It is up to the reader to decide.

When it comes to genre-bending, it’s hard to beat an author like R. A. Lafferty. Many of his stories have an identifiable science fiction element: interplanetary travel, extraterrestrials, alternate histories, parallel dimensions, and so on. Many also feature a touch of whimsy. “Nor Limestone Islands,” for example, features a journalist from plain old planet Earth exploring the title islands, which float above the world like something out of ancient myth. There is also “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne,” in which a few supposedly-brilliant minds attempt to alter the course of history, with curious results. Lafferty’s stories really need to be experienced firsthand. If these short summaries intrigued you, pick up The Best of R. A. Lafferty, which collects these stories and more.

This post is in no way a comprehensive overview of every author or type of story out there. I encourage you to explore some of the online SFF magazines, such as Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and, as well as the anthologies and collections mentioned in this post. Happy reading!