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From A(simov) to Z(ahn): The Very Best Science Fiction Short Stories

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When we think of the all-time-greats of science fiction, we tend to think in terms of the novels. It’s all too easy for us to think of science fiction as beginning in the 19th century with books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jane C. Loudon’s The Mummy: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton's utopian novel The Coming Race. It's only natural to assume that the genre then continued with writers like Jules Verne, with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and H. G. Wells, whose The Time Machine remains an archetypical futuristic dystopia.

Science fiction is often seen as having crystalised over the course of those novels, gradually moving from the romance and gothic-horror of Frankenstein, into the stories of the future that we enjoy today. The truth is though, between all of these novels there is an untapped and under-appreciated well of short stories that would now be recognised as science fiction.

As a genre, science fiction seems perfectly suited to the short story. The limited space allows an author to skip over details that might otherwise see the narrative bogged down in lengthy explanation, allowing science fiction writers to jump straight into a narrative set in a distant time or place without the reader feeling as though they’re missing some elements vital to their understanding. The necessities of the format ensure that the content can be delivered as tightly as possible without the details feeling too vague.

It is science fiction’s suitability for short story writing that have given us many of the genre's best adaptations, including its manifold adaptations for radio and film.

That said, it can be extraordinarily tricky to know where to start with endless list of short stories, a task made only more daunting by the endless different collections and anthologies available. Fear not, below you’ll find some of the best science fiction short stories you could hope to read.

    Paycheck and Other Classic Stories

    Philip K. Dick was a prolific writer of short stories, and indeed his style often seems better suited to them than to anything else. In the confines of a short story, he seldom has time to get as meandering and strange as in novels like Ubiq, instead being more constrained and focussed. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, this makes his short stories an excellent first-step into the rest of his work. While The Minority Report and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are better known collections, that feeling of familiarity may be something best avoided. Dick is at his best when he is unfamiliar and strange, thus Beyond Lies the Wub is an excellent starting point. The real highlight here is in stories like The Defenders, which speak to a terror of nuclear apocalypse in such immediate and certain terms that they communicate the spirit of fear of the time they were written beautifully.

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    The Complete Robot

    The complete collection of Isaac Asimov's classic Robot stories. In these stories, Asimov creates the Three Laws of Robotics and ushers in the Robot Age - when Earth is ruled by master-machines and when robots are more human than mankind. The Complete Robot is the ultimate collection of timeless, amazing and amusing robot stories from the greatest science fiction writer of all time, offering golden insights into robot thought processes. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics were programmed into real computers thirty years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - with suprising results. Readers of today still have many surprises in store...

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    Virtual Unrealities: Short Fiction

    Alfred Bester is best known for Tiger Tiger (though most of us will remember it from when it was reprinted under the name The Stars My Destination). In many ways a science-fiction rewrite of The Count of Monte Cristo, Tiger Tiger also shows off Bester’s strange love of repetition and rhyme, which makes itself felt in his short stories. While Tiger Tiger won a Hugo award, it’s easy to forget that Bester was repeatedly nominated for awards for his short stories. While there are a few highlights in the collection, the best of them is almost undoubtedly another android-based story, Fondly Fahrenheit. Fondly Fahrenheit deals with a combination of profound mental illness and some of the economic ramifications of life with artificial humans, and is considered by many to be among the finest examples of short fiction in the genre.

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    I Am Crying All Inside

    Simak is best known for tumultuous, adventurous sci-fi, like his short story “Project Mastadon,” in which a team of time travellers establish a country in the distant past and then attempt to establish diplomatic relations with present-day America. Where “Project Mastadon” might give an impression of Simak’s writing as a little rough around the edges, this collection’s story, “Gleaners,” follows another team of time travellers, though this team is less political. In this case, they’re dispatched to different times to acquire valuable objects. It feels more complete than "Project Mastadon," but maintains some of Simak’s usual sense of wry humour about people and the day-to-day practicalities of something as spectacular as time travel.

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    The Martian Chronicles

    Ray Bradbury is one of the titans of 20th century science fiction. Given how compulsive a writer he was, it’s particularly hard to know where to start with Bradbury, but The Martian Chronicles captures a very particular moment of science fiction from an age when colonising Mars was a goal that seemed not only to be reasonable, but also tantalisingly close to being within our reach. In an age when extra-planetary colonisation and exploration seemed like an optimistic goal, Bradbury was ahead of the curve, recognising somehow the sadness of seeing humanity on these otherwise unspoiled offworld landscapes. The unparalleled highlight is, “–And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” which describes a world in which human illnesses have rendered martians extinct, and man is slowly overrunning the desolate beauty of Mars. It’s heartbreaking, and somehow inescapable.

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    The Best of L. Sprague de Camp

    I know what you're thinking, but please ignore the cover. L. Sprague De Camp is better known for his excellent fantasy than for his science fiction, but his science fiction short stories are a strange combination of a boyish adventure-book style of sci-fi, tinged with something a little more serious, often bordering on the morose. As you might have guessed from its dreadful cover, the best is his 1956 time-travel short story, “A Gun for Dinosaur.” The story follows a duo of time travel tour operators who specialise in bringing patrons back to the Cretaceous so that they can hunt the most ferocious game ever to have walked the Earth. Problems arise during a trip into the past with a pompous blowhard, a man so loud and unreliable that he puts the entire expedition at risk. The whole narrative takes place as an anecdote about a past hunt gone wrong, explaining why the narrator, Rivers, will never again go on a hunt with a man too small to wield "a gun for dinosaur."

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    Platinum Pohl

    For hardcore science fiction fans, it’s hard to hear the name "Frederik Pohl" without immediately calling to mind the word “Gateway.” Beyond Gateway, there’s the rest of the Heechee series to contend with, but Pohl was also an excellent writer of short stories. Where Pohl really excels is in his ability to sell you on characters that other writers might have had a hard time with. In this case, the high point of this collection is probably “Saucery,” in which two experts on alien intelligences find themselves stymied by the appearance of actual Martians. As the two reminisce about the good old days, when people would pay for any old fabrication, it’s hard not to see the whole thing as an allegory for science fiction.

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    The Saucer Of Loneliness

    Of all the writers mentioned so far, Theodore Sturgeon may be the one whose writing deals with the individual humanity of an individual in a truly fantastic situation. “A Saucer of Loneliness” itself is a well-known short story about the effect that one extraordinary moment has on a young woman who many believe to have received a message from an alien race, but it is far from the best in the collection. For us, that honour goes to the truly excellent “The Education of Drusilla Strange.” In many ways, “The Education of Drusilla Strange” is the opposite of “A Saucer of Loneliness,” featuring a prison ship, a telepathic murderess, and a well-meaning young man who finds her naked on a beach. It’s your typical boy-meets-girl, girl-scans-boy’s-mind-and-plucks-his-most-intimate-thoughts-from-it-at-will story. It’s also got an unparalleled sense of low-level menace throughout.

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    Weird Women, Wired Women

    Kit Reed’s Weird Women, Wired Women is an excellent collection all round, but we include it here because of the short story, “Cynosure.” While the focus of the collection is very much on women in the course of the four decades that Reed has been writing sci-fi and speculative fiction, 1964’s “Cynosure” engages beautifully with the idea of a “perfect” home. It also earns some bonus points for its inclusion of some of the most delightfully of-their-time names possible, “Mrs. Brainerd” would be pleased. There is something profoundly uncomfortable about the strange relationship it draws between a tidy home and a happy home, “... she was a little sensitive about the whole thing because clean as she would, her husband had just left her and there wasn’t even an Other Woman to take the blame.” 

    The story paints a picture of a world in which any deviation from the norm is to be frowned-upon, a world in which humans are constantly compared to machines… and found wanting.

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    Pawn's Gambit

    Timothy Zahn is certainly not an author known for his short work. Indeed, among the few for whom Zahn is a household name, it tends to be because of his work writing licensed fiction for Star Wars, where his Thrawn trilogy is generally considered to be the diamond in the (often very) rough. It may come as a surprise even to those who consider themselves Zahn fans that he has also written some excellent short fiction.

    The jewel in this collection is “The Giftie Gie Us,” a story set in a war-torn, postapocalyptic America, in which two people are thrown together by a constant fear of bacterial outbreak. The protagonist, Neil, is a horrifically scarred former soldier who finds himself caring for a blind woman who has been infected with one of the weaponised bacteria used during the war. Until now, he has remained stolidly alone, but when he meets an ailing woman he finds himself surprised at how much he cares for her. As the relationship between the two develops, we learn more and more about the world that threw them together.

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    Professor George Edward Challenger first made a name for himself as a travelling adventurer and investigator. Unfortunately, he has never succeeded in solving the greatest mystery of all... and ... Show More

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