Sunday, July 26, 2020

50 authors, 50 science fiction stories shorter than novels

I've been playing around with re-reading favorite science fiction short stories while also seeing if there's anything that has managed to elude me over the years. I've also tried to catch up with more recent authors given that I don't read as many books as I used to. (The market for science fiction short stories, in general, is in something of a decline but there are still some fabulous recent stories out there.)

A few rules I set for myself:
  • One story per author. Certainly there are many on this list for whom I could effortlessly reel off multiple deserving entries. A side effect of this rule is that it brought a fair bit of organic diversity to the list which would otherwise have been more heavily populated by a handful of favorite authors.
  • Nothing is novel length but you'll find plenty of novelettes and novellas alongside the short stories. (But I've tried to favor shorter works all other things being equal.)
  • I also didn't include authors whose novels I enjoy but just don't have any short stories I'm aware of that wowed me. 
  • Everything here can be plausibly categorized as science fiction although some hew far closer to traditional sf tropes than others that are at least adjacent to horror, fantasy, and philosophical fiction.
I used various lists and recommendations to tickle my memory and to ferret out works I might not be familiar with. But I've read everything here and don't think I've included anything just because it's "expected." These are personal favorites, or at least a coin flip among favorite stories by a given author. I did aim for some overall variety of time period, style, and subject matter but I think anything here can be enjoyed by a modern reader without making too many allowances.

Many of these stories can be found online and others in popular "best of" collections.

Anyway, my initial list (sorted chronologically) is below. While it's one story per author I do include pointers to other works in the comments. I've been careful to err on the side of avoiding spoilers but if you want to go into the stories completely cold, by all means, just work from this list of titles and authors.

"A Dream of Armageddon" H. G. Wells (1901)

This story comes from prolific Victorian writer Herbert George Wells. Wells wrote in a variety of genres including social commentary and history. However, he's most remembered for his science fiction novels like War of the Worlds (which was famously made into a radio play as well as films of varying levels of quality). This story used the fictional device of a man recounting dreams of a future time in which he is a political figure who has withdrawn from life to live with a younger woman on the island of Capri, even though this withdrawal is enabling opponents to start a great war with futuristic aircraft. Wells would later build on the concept for his novel The Shape of Things to Come which would itself serve as the loose basis for a film of the same name in 1936.

"With the Night Mail" Rudyard Kipling (1905)

Rudyard Kipling would win the Nobel Prize in Literature a couple years after this story was published. Unlike Wells, Kipling is not remembered for science fiction; rather he's mostly associated with stories and poetry often set in colonial India, where he was born and lived much of his early life. "With the Night Mail" is one of only two science fiction stories that Kipling wrote. Both concern the workings and activities of The Aerial Board of Control, a 21st century fictional organization that manages the dirigible and other air traffic for the whole world and acts as a de facto world government. 

"The Machine Stops" E. M. Forster (1909)

Rounding out this trio of Victorian English authors, Forster's reputation also comes in part from a novel, A Passage to India, that concerns the relationship between East and West as seen through the lens of India in the latter days of the British Raj--as well as other novels that primarily focused on class differences in England. However, Forster wrote that "'The Machine Stops' is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells." [The Eloi of The Time Machine.] In this novella, humanity lives underground and relies on a giant machine to provide its needs. There are technologies similar to video conferencing and the Internet. But the machine begins to fail and no one remembers how to fix it. This story is widely considered to be one of the most prescient short works of early science fiction.

"At the Mountains of Madness" H.P. Lovecraft (1936)

H.P. Lovecraft's primary reputation is as a horror writer. However, his stories that were part of the Cthulhu Mythos (such as this one) borrow premises often associated with science fiction such as alien invasion, other dimensions, and interference with human cultural and physiological evolution. For example, this novella popularized ancient astronaut theories as it details the events of a disastrous expedition to the Antarctic continent and what was found there by a group of explorers led by the narrator, Dr. William Dyer of Miskatonic University. 

"Microcosmic God" Theodore Sturgeon (1941)

Originally published in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, this story is an early example of the use of the 'pocket universe' concept in science fiction. A biochemist develops a synthetic life form which lives (and invents) far more quickly than humans can. This biochemist, Kidder, is their "god" who exerts his power over them and profits from them. Sturgeon is not generally very well known but this particular story regularly and deservedly appears in collections and best of lists.

"The Library of Babel" Jorge Luis Borges (1941)

This short story, originally written in Spanish by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges, is  more of a philosophical exploration than a science fiction story in the usual sense. It asks you to imagine a library whose books contain every possible combination of letters and numbers. Every great work is there, the account of your death is there, every possible scientific discovery that can be written down exists in the library. But any true information would be buried in, and rendered indistinguishable from, all possible forms of false information and complete gibberish. 

"The Weapon Shop" A. E. van Vogt (1942)

This story was developed from a much shorter 1941 story, "The Seesaw." It was, in turn, used as the basis for a portion of the 1951 fix-up novel The Weapon Shops of Isher. Another closely related novel published during the same period was The Weapon Makers. These books revolve around the immortal Robert Hedrock who once created the Weapon Shops as a force to counteract the imperial world government long dominant on earth. These two novels bring together van Vogt's style of hard science fiction and transcendent superheroes more than his other books. However, this short story may do an even better job on its own.

"Mimsy were the Borogoves" Lewis Padgett (1943)

Padgett was the pseudonym of spouses Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore when they were writing together, often to humorous effect. This story title was inspired by a verse from “Jabberwocky,” a poem found in the classic novel Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. It imagines mysterious educative toys timeslipped in from the future, which leads to the children discovering them to start thinking in new patterns and communicating in strange ways. "Twonky" and "The Time Locker" are other Padgett stories for which they're often remembered.

"Arena" Frederic Brown (1944)

Brown, who also wrote detective fiction, was noted for stories that were written with, what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls "professional economies of effect." This short story is one of those. It tells of the settling of an interstellar war through single combat between a human and an alien. Either the story name or the plot summary may seem familiar to Star Trek fans; it was a popular episode during the first season of the classic series. Brown experimented with narrative styles. "The Sentry" is a micro-short which may seem more predictable today than when it was written. 

"A Logic Named Joe" Murray Leinster (1946)

This story, originally published under Leinster's real name (William F. Jenkins) contains an early description of a computer (called a "logic") in fiction. In the story, he imagined the Internet in many respects. He envisioned logics in every home, linked through a distributed system of servers (called "tanks"), to provide communications, entertainment, data access, and commerce; one character says that "logics are civilization."

"The Lottery" Shirley Jackson (1948)

Jackson was known for writing mystery and horror and this story strays as far as any on this list from what's usually considered science fiction. (This story was published in The New Yorker and few of her short works were in traditional science fiction magazines.) "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." To say much more is to probably give too much about this powerful short story away. To quote Martin Cahill: "If you asked anyone about a American short story that stuck with them for their entire lives, it would not shock me if they were to think for a moment, and then say, “that one story, ‘The Lottery,’” followed up with some form of, “that shit is fucked up.” Many of her best stories appear in the collection The Lottery and Other Stories.

"The Little Black Bag" C. M. Kornbluth (1950)

One might say that this story shares a similar premise with "Mimsy were the Borogoves" in that an object, in this case, a doctor's little black bag, gets sent back in time. However, suffice it to say that this is not an equally playful story. Kornbluth's classic works are this story and its sequel "The Marching Morons." However, he was a prolific author and his other works include "Two Dooms" which is considered to be one of the better What if the Nazis Won WWII treatments.

"There Will Come Soft Rains" Ray Bradbury (1950)

Bradbury's work has a poetic and evocative style that can tend towards fantasy and horror as much as science fiction. Charlie Jane Anders, who appears later on this list, had this to say about this particular story: "But this one, in which basically a smart house keeps going after its human inhabitants are all dead, is in a special league in the knife-twisting sweepstakes. Like a lot of stories in the years following World War II, it's concerned with the threat of nuclear annihilation, but also with how our technology might outlive us." This story appears in The Martian Chronicles, which is Bradbury's greatest work and you should just read the whole thing even if you're not a particular Bradbury enthusiast. But if you're looking for a single more Martian-themed story in that collection of linked stories, give "The Third Expedition" a try.

"Surface Tension" James Blish (1952)

During the 1950s, Blish wrote his Okie stories which envision a time when earthbound cities take to migrant wandering among the stars. Epic in scope, these stories were eventually wrangled into a single volume, Cities in Flight. During the same period, he was writing short stories of which "Surface Tension" is my favorite. The story concerns the events that follow after a spaceship crew genetically engineering their descendants into something that can survive after the ship crashlanded on a planet with only puddles of water. The miniaturized descendants must overcome surface tension if they're to get beyond their single puddle. Other well-regarded Blish short stories include "Common Time."

"It's a Good Life" Jerome Bixby (1953)

This story, more horror than science fiction, was the basis of a particularly good episode of the original Twilight Zone; it also has led to various remakes and riffs that played off of the idea including an episode of The Simpsons. At the center of the story is Anthony Fremont, a three-year-old boy with near-godlike powers; he can transform other people or objects into anything he wishes, think new things into being, teleport himself and others where he wants, read the minds of people and animals, and even revive the dead. As Anthony can read minds, the town's population must not only act content with the situation when near him, but also think they are happy at all times. 

"Fondly Fahrenheit" Alfred Bester (1954)

This is a breathless story of a man and his android whose personalities intermesh to become two aspects of a single insane murderous personality. Author Robert Silverberg has described it as a "paragon of story construction and exuberant style" which is what really makes it stand out on this exalted list. Other Bester short stories of particular note are "Adam and No Eve" and "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed."

"The Star" Arthur C. Clarke (1955)

Now we get into tough and at least somewhat arbitrary choices. Clarke is one of the authors on this list--two others, Asimov and Heinlein, are coming up shortly--who produced such an astonishing volume of quality short stories that picking just one is really impossible. But here we are. I give "The Star" the nod because there's deeper emotion than in much of Clarke's work. It's hard to say too much about this story without giving things away. Let's just say it concerns an expedition that has discovered the remnants of an advanced civilization destroyed when its star went supernova. Other favorite Clarke shorts include "The Nine Billion Names of God," "The Wall of Darkness," "Rescue Party," and "Meeting with Medusa." I might also throw in "The Sentinel" but mostly because it was the inspiration for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"Fiat Homo" Walter M. Miller Jr. (1955)

This one is a bit of a cheat. In the early 1950s, Miller published a series of short stories which would shortly be combined and reworked into A Canticle for Leibowitiz, his only novel and the work for which he is known. A Canticle for Leibowitz is arguably the best post-apocalyptic work of science fiction and differs significantly from the more common "Mad Max" model. The novel is set in a sort of Dark Ages hundreds of years after the holocaust and tells its story from the point of view of monks preserving knowledge as in the previous Dark Ages. The reworked "Fiat Homo" makes up the first part of Canticle and is arguably the strongest but, in practice, it's the full novel that you'll read. 

"Time in Advance" William Tenn (1956)

While not especially well-known (he never won a science fiction writing award), Tenn, the pseudonym of Philip Klass, wrote sharp-witted stories, often with a darkly comic side. This story, written fairly near the end of his active writing career, is set in a far future where a law has been passed enabling citizens to serve out sentences for crimes they intend to commit, serving the full term, but with a 50% pre-criminal discount. When two such pre-criminals return to earth intending to carry out the crimes they've earned, things don't go as planned. "The Brooklyn Project" is another story well-worth your time and was pretty much a toss-up with this one.

"The Last Question" Isaac Asimov (1956)

Asimov himself suggested that this was one of his favorite short stories. "I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of thing endears any story to any writer," he once wrote. It really is almost a perfect idea-based science fiction short story. It deals with the development of a series of computers called Multivac and their relationships with humanity through the courses of seven historic settings, beginning on the day in 2061 when Earth becomes a planetary civilization. In each of the first six scenes a different character presents the computer with the same question; namely, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted. it's tight, it's funny, and it's got a killer ending. His original novella "Nightfall" is also wonderful but I think this short story gets the nod. One or more of his Robot stories could make their way onto this list as well but I think of them as more of a group achievement award than individual standouts.

"All You Zombies" Robert Heinlein (1959)

This story involves time travel paradoxes and further explores themes introduced in Heinlein's earlier "By His Bootstraps." In his analysis of the story, Davi Ramos writes that "Individualism and the free expression of love and sexuality are among its main themes. The work analyzed here pushes the boundaries of causality to mind-bending extremes, in order to discuss the boundaries of sexuality and the logic of identity." The narrative flow is complex and you probably won't totally get it on your own the first time around. The film Predestination is based on this story. Some other short stories I'd put on the list are "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" and many of the stories collected in The Past Through Tomorrow future history including "Requiem" and the prequel to his Lazarus Long immortality saga Time Enough for Love, "Methuselah's Children."

"Flowers for Algernon" Daniel Keyes (1959)

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human subject for the surgery, and it touches on ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled. The short story was later expanded into a novel and made into the film Charly (for which Cliff Robertson won the Oscar for Best Actor) and many other adaptations but I think the original story is still the most effective. 

"Chronopolis" J. G. Ballard (1960)

Ballard probably became best known (whether people knew his name or not) for his war novel, Empire of the Sun, a semi-autobiographical account of a young British boy's experiences in Shanghai during Japanese occupation--which Stephen Spielberg later made into a film. But he also had a career as a science fiction author which spanned the "world destroying" genre (The Drowned World, The Wind from Nowhere) like other British authors such as John Wyndham to experimental efforts some of which were adapted into films like  David Cronenberg's Crash. However, he also wrote some enticing short stories. One of them is "Chronopolis" which begins with a man in prison, Newman, and proceeds to examine his fascination with the concept of time in a world where clocks have been prohibited and are regulated by time police. Other Ballard shorts that aren't too experimental include "The Drowned Giant, The Overloaded Man," and especially "Thirteen for Centaurus."

"The Lady Who Sailed the Soul" Cordwainer Smith (1960)

The nom de plume of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, Smith (not to be confused with E. E. Doc Smith of Lensman fame) wrote relatively little, in part because he held jobs that required extensive foreign travel. Most of his science fiction was in the Instrumentality Universe and author Frederik Pohl described his stories as "a wonderful and inimitable blend of a strange, raucous poetry and a detailed technological scene, we begin to read of human beings in worlds so far from our own in space in time that they were no longer quite Earth." This story is one of his more lyrical works. It's adjacent in timeline to "Scanners Live in Vain" which is another Smith story written ten years earlier near the beginning of his science fiction writing. While Scanners is often cited as Smith's best work, I find its older provenance gives it a more archaic feel.  

"Harrison Bergeron" Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1961)

Although Vonnegut was a mainstream author, whatever that means exactly, many of his novels contained fantastical or science fictional elements whether the Ice Nine of Cat's Cradle, the time displacement of Slaughterhouse Five, or just about anything related to The Sirens of Titan. The premise of this story is that amendments to the Constitution dictate that all Americans are fully equal and not allowed to be smarter, better-looking, or more physically able than anyone else. The Handicapper General's agents enforce the equality laws, forcing citizens to wear "handicaps" such as masks for those who are too beautiful, loud radios that disrupt thoughts inside the ears of intelligent people, and heavy weights for the strong or athletic.

"A Rose for Ecclesiastes" Roger Zelazny (1963)

This is another one of those stories that the reader is probably best discovering on their own. It involves the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, language, Mars, and prophesy and we should probably leave it at that. This story was an early career work for Zelazny who would go on to write many novels, most notably Lord of Light and his Amber series.

"'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" Harlan Ellison (1965)

I had the pleasure of seeing Ellison speak a couple of times when I was an undergrad and he was simultaneously both entertaining and thought-provoking. If I'm being honest though, I've tended to admire rather than love many of his short stories. That said, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" opens with a passage from Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. The story is a satirical look at a dystopian future in which time is strictly regulated and everyone must do everything according to an extremely precise time schedule. And breaking the law has severe consequences. Another perpetual Ellison favorite is "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream."

"Light of Other Days" Bob Shaw (1966)

With Shaw we return to a writer, who in spite of a body of work, is mostly known for a single story and, to a lesser degree, its sequel "Burden of Proof" and an associated novel, Other Days, Other Eyes. The melancholy "Light of Other Days" builds on the idea of "slow glass," glass through which light takes years to pass, to explore the preservation of the past into the present.

"We Can Remember it for you Wholesale" Philip K. Dick (1966)

Dick's fiction explored varied philosophical and social themes, and featured recurrent elements such as alternate realities, simulacra, monopolistic corporations, drug abuse, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness. He was prolific but a number of his works were arguably more successful as screen adaptations than in their original print form. This story about memory implants and the nature of reality stands well by itself but also was the basis for the 1990 film Total Recall directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger--which is probably best interpreted in light of its original source material. 

"Neutron Star" Larry Niven 1(966)

Niven is best known for his hard-science Known Space series populated by imaginatively-drawn strange aliens and exotic technologies in a far-future. This story is the first to feature Beowulf Shaeffer, the ex-pilot and reluctant hero of many stories. It also marked the first appearance of the nearly indestructible General Products starship hull, as well as its creators, the Pierson's Puppeteers, a cowardly but advanced race that have an appearance somewhat in common with centaurs. Shaeffer's mission is to explore a neutron star and things go wrong; it turns out the science in the story in the story isn't quite right but it's still a great example of Niven's work. Niven's shorts tend to be stronger than his solo-authored novels. Many of the stories in the known space series are good reads, including those in the collection named after this story, Neutron Star. Outside the Known Space universe, "Inconstant Moon" is a great read and arguably his best if just picking stories in isolation.

"Aye, and Gomorrah" Samuel Delany (1967)

This first appeared as the final story in Harlan Ellison's seminal 1967 anthology, Dangerous Visions. It was controversial because of its disturbing sexual subject matter although, like many of the stories in that anthology, stories that pushed the envelope in 1967 don't necessarily do so today. The narrative involves a world where astronauts, known as Spacers, are neutered before puberty to avoid the effects of space radiation on gametes. Aside from making them sterile, the neutering also prevents puberty from occurring and results in androgynous adults whose birth-sex is unclear to others. Spacers are fetishized by a subculture of "frelks" attracted by the Spacers' lack of arrousability.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" Ursula Le Guin (1973)

Le Guin wrote over a course of almost 60 years to a variety of audiences in a variety of genres. This story is essentially philosophical fiction that explores a summer festival in the utopian city of Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the perpetual misery of a single child. Another, longer, Le Guin story "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" recounts a human girl's meeting with incarnations of Native American spirit animals and appears in an eponymous collection.

"Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" Kate Wilhelm (1974)

This story is the first of three linked stories later published as a novel of the same name in 1976. It takes  place as civilization is collapsing; an isolated group prepares for this largely infertile post-collapse world by undertaking a cloning program. Wilhelm wrote novels and stories in the science fiction, mystery, and suspense genres over the course of a long career. One other story especially worth checking out is "The Girl Who Fell into the Sky," which is more supernatural than SF but did win a Nebula for best novelette.

"Houston, Houston, Do You Read" James Tiptree Jr. (1976)

This novella is another one of those stories where just about any description would shortchange readers wanting to experience it without knowing what it's really about and where it's headed. Tiptree was the pen name used by Alice Bradley Sheldon from 1967; her real identity wasn't widely-known but was generally assumed to be that of a man until it leaked out shortly after this story was written. However, there was speculation, based partially on the themes in her stories (including this one), that Tiptree might be female. In any case, this is an interesting story that won both Hugo and Nebula prizes, even if the gender and social stereotypes seem dated for the time it was written.

"Ender's Game" Orson Scott Card (1977)

This story gave birth to a series of novels, starting with a novelization of "Ender's Game" and leading to a series of increasingly undistinguished novels. While the first sequel, Speaker for the Dead, was quite excellent in its own right the initial short story shines brightest in my opinion. This story begins as Ender is made the commander of Dragon Army at Battle School, an institution designed to make young children into military commanders against an unspecified enemy. Armies are groups of students that fight mock battles in the null gravity Battle Room. Due to Ender's genius in leadership, Dragon Army dominates the competition. Go ahead and read the story.

"The Guy with the Eyes" Spider Robinson (1977)

In general, I've tried to pick standalone stories for this list. This one works fine in that vein but it's really here as the first entry in the linked stories that make up Callahan's Crosstime Saloon stories; they've been collected into a number of books beginning with Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. The stories are filled with strange or unusual events and visitors and are an obvious homage to Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp's Tales from Gavagan's Bar and Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart.

"Sandkings" George R. R. Martin (1979)

Martin is, of course, best known for his series of epic fantasy novels A Song of Ice and Fire, which were adapted into the HBO series Game of Thrones. However, before this breakout, he had earlier written a variety of stories that mixed fantasy, horror, and science fiction of which "Sandkings" is a clear example. It certainly includes sensibilities that will be familiar to Game of Thrones viewers. Suffice it to say that Martin was supposedly inspired by a college friend at Northwestern University who had a piranha tank and would sometimes throw goldfish into it between horror film screenings. (This explains a great deal about Martin.)

"The Gernsback Continuum" William Gibson (1981)

This is probably an unconventional choice. "Burning Chrome" or "Johnny Mnemonic," associated with his Sprawl trilogy, would probably be more more conventional picks for Gibson short stories. But I think this story is actually more central to cyberpunk. As Bruce Sterling writes "'The Gernsback Continuum' shows [Gibson] consciously drawing a bead on the shambling figure of the SF tradition. It's a devastating refutation of 'scientifiction' in its guise as narrow technolatry." It takes down the glimmering science fictional cities in which zeppelins rule the airways.

"True Names" Vernor Vinge (1981)

This novella doesn't have the gritty ambiance but it's still a seminal work of the cyberpunk genre. In 2001, The New York Times declared that Vinge's depiction of "a world rife with pseudonymous characters and other elements of online life that now seem almost ho-hum" had been "prophetic." I'd add that the idea of a true name, which is to say the tying of someone's online identity to their identity in the real world, doesn't utilize Vinge's term as much as it should. He subsequently wrote novels that explored a future libertarian society and the impact of a technology which can create impenetrable force fields called 'bobbles' but is probably best known for his 1992 novel A Fire Upon the Deep and, to a lesser degree, its sequels. A newer story that deals with a similar topic updated is "Fast Times at Fairmont High," which can be viewed as a sort of pilot for his Rainbows End.

"The River Styx Runs Upstream" Dan Simmons (1982)

Although his Hyperion Cantos series of (primarily) novels are science fiction, much of Simmons' output is horror and this story certainly bridges both genres. This was the story Simmons published after attracting the attention of Harlan Ellison at a writing workshop. The story imagines a world in which "Resurrectionists" can technologically revive family members but, while they can then function somewhat autonomously, they no longer have higher brain functions. Many of Simmons' short stories are in the collection Prayers to Broken Stones, which also includes "Remembering Siri," originally a part of the aforementioned Hyperion

"Bloodchild" Octavia Butler (1984)

Set on an alien planet, this story depicts the complex relationship between human refugees and the non-humanoid aliens who keep them in a preserve to protect them. Themes of co-existence and breeding appear throughout much of Butler's writing, including the Xenogenesis trilogy that came out during the five years following this story.

"The Crystal Spheres" David Brin (1984)

The Fermi paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi, refers to the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations and the many estimates that suggest such civilizations should be commonplace in a very large and old galaxy and universe. This story postulates a solution, the starting point of which is that every habitable solar system is surrounded by a "crystal sphere" which can only be broken from the inside--once a civilization has the technology to do so. Another good Brin short story is "The Giving Plague" but I figured there were already enough stories with a plague component on this list given the times.

"Schrödinger's Kitten" George Alec Effinger (1988)

Partially sharing the same setting as a number of his novels, this novelette follows a Middle-Eastern woman, Jehan Fatima Ashûfi, through various realities. She perceives these realities as "visions" and assumes they might come to her from Allah. The realities correspond to a form of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the story's title comes from the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment.

"Axiomatic" Greg Egan (1990)

In this story, which appears in a collection of the same name, the protagonist enters a store selling mods not only for every variety of psychedelic experiences, but for altering one's personality traits, sexual orientation, and even religion. The protagonist seeks a custom-made mod that will suspend his moral convictions long enough for him to murder his wife's killer. All the stories in the collection delve into different aspects of self and identity.

"Even the Queen" Connie Willis (1992)

This short story falls squarely on the comic side of Willis' production. The Village Voice called it "a comedy of identity politics and mother-daughter relations" and it's as good an introduction as any to Willis' light-hearted and sometimes madcap writing. She also has a more more somber, even tragic, side with stories such as "The Last of the Winnebagos" and "A Letter from the Clearys." "Fire Watch" is a short story introduction to her works that feature time travel by history students and faculty of a future University of Oxford; noteworthy novels in that series are Doomsday Book and the To Say Nothing of the Dog.

"Story of your Life" Ted Chiang (1998)

Although the decline of science fiction magazines has arguably helped lead to a decline of shorter science fiction overall, the well-awarded Chiang has never written a full-length novel. Moviegoers may recognize this novella as the basis for the 2016 film Arrival. (The film keeps the basic structure of the story but adds what are probably best described as Hollywood elements.) The story is narrated by linguist Dr. Louise Banks who is called in to communicate with alien visitors. It brings in questions of free will and the nature of time but it's another story that rewards discovering its structure on your own. Chiang has many fine works but another particularly noteworthy novella is "The Lifecycle of Software Objects."

"The Janitor on Mars" Martin Amis (1998)

Amis is a British writer who has published very little science fiction; indeed this story, which was originally published in The New Yorker, is the only science fiction in the Heavy Water and Other Stories collection where it appears. In this story, a robot makes contact from Mars and reveals the  truth of mankind's place in the Universe. It's funny and sad at the same time. 

"The Fermi Paradox is our Business Model" Charlie Jane Anders (2010)

This story is a fun take on why the previously mentioned Fermi Paradox might be the result of deliberate outside actions. Aliens may be involved. And they may not be benevolent. Anders has also won a Hugo for her novelette "Six Months, Three Days."

"Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints in the City Beneath the Still Waters" N. K. Jemisin (2010)

Much of Jemisin's writing concerns cultural conflict and oppression. This story is set in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Heather Rose Jones writes that "What makes this story great is the immersive voice and language, the way descriptions of everyday surroundings slide easily into the fantastic, and the way the folklore of cities and peoples is woven into a new mythos."

"Inventory" Carmen Maria Machado (2013)

This is yet another story about which I hesitate to say much of anything. It's more literary than genre and to even say why it's connected to science fiction would be to cheat the reader.

Some of the text in this post is adapted from Wikipedia and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Chute and Peter Nicholls.

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