A simple list today.
Last semester, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a science fiction literature course with a professor I very much appreciate. We had a great time, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite readings among the short stories that we read.
Take a look at the list and tell me in the comments if you’ve read any of these or if you’d add some other spec fic short stories to the required reading list!
It’s time for the Electric Didact!
This list, of course, is not definitive nor superior to any other, but it will provide a good variety of speculative fiction to choose from. The class in which I read these was a lot of fun, and these stories provided a lot of good discussion because many are so thought-provoking in the way only speculative fiction can really be. These stories span subgenres and time period from the so-called Golden Age to more contemporary fiction.
- “When I Was Miss Dow” (Sonya Dorman)
A compelling story about gender performance following a species of asexual aliens who, when confronted by human colonizers, decide to take advantage of them by splitting their single-lobed brains and assuming masculinity or femininity. The result is an exploration of how performance of gender roles can be commoditized and manipulated.
- “Faster Than Empires and More Slow” (Ursula K. Le Guin)
Though a bit long, this story fashions a microcosm of psychological pathology on a single spaceship searching for planets suitable for colonization. Everything revolves around the protagonist, an unlikeable character at first, whose extreme empathy means that he mirrors and reflects the psychopathies of his fellow crewmembers.
- “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler)
“This is a creepy tale set on an alien planet where humans have been brought and placed in preserves for the sake of impregnation. Far from a good-vs.-evil story, however, Butler weaves a complicated web of relationships that make visceral the emotional paradox of abuse.
- “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (James Tiptree, Jr.)
This story should be read aloud and without pause. It’s long, but fast-moving and written with a peculiar style that I would describe as “beat” prose. It’s a half-poetic, half-narrative story about a future world where the prohibition of advertising has led to more and more subliminal and hyperreal methods of media influence. It’s a heartbreaking and angry story, and one worth reading.
- “When We Went to See the End of the World” (Robert Silverberg)
The story takes place during a block party in a future suburban home where the guests compete for social capital by comparing stories of when they went on a new time-tourist trip to see the end of the world. Quietly in the background, destruction and chaos threatens to quicken the apocalypse. The result is hilarious and disturbing.
- “The Nine Billion Names of God” (Arthur C. Clarke)
A very short tale, this apocalypse story depends upon a Buddhist monastery acquiring a computer to speed up their tabulation of all the names of God, which they say would instigate the end of the world. It begs the question of whether the end of the world is a choice we have yet to make or if it is a plan already set in motion by a higher power. An older, more gimmicky story, its pluck and absurdity is part of a hefty tradition of making fun of the end of the world in order to poke fun at the human race right now.
- “Blood Music” (Greg Bear)
It’s rare that a story really creeps me out, but this was one that definitely did. The story revolves around a doctor, whose friend has injected himself with microscopic computers that begin to rebuild his body on the molecular level. Far from inert computers, they begin rapidly evolving and growing more intelligent, putting all of humankind at risk as they move through eons of civilization on a microscopic scale. The story wonders what universes yet await our exploration–not in outer space, but the inner spaces of our own world.
- “Bears Discover Fire” (Terry Bisson)
This story belongs to a certain Surrealist subgenre of speculative fiction. It’s a quiet evolution story that follows a man and his nephew as North American bears move into the wooded highway medians, having discovered how to make fire. The “magic of the ordinary” in this story (an understated mentor relationship between the man and his nephew, the passing of the family matriarch) defies what should be the magic of the extraordinary. The story’s characters are ordinary people, trying to move through the world in normalcy and good-neighborliness and so, it seems, are the bears.