By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best places to begin exploring the wonderful world of science fiction? Some of the classic novels of the genre, from Frank Herbert’s Dune to Asimov’s Foundation series (which eventually stretched to seven volumes), might appear daunting because of their sheer size and scope.
Below, we introduce ten short science fiction stories which offer the perfect way in to the imaginative wonders of science fiction.
1. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine.
Wells stands at the beginning of science fiction in the English language. Although he wasn’t the very first English science fiction author, his contemporaries, such as George Griffith, have long since been forgotten.
The Time Machine is technically more of a novella than a short story, but it heads Wells’s big, fat complete short stories collection, so we reckon that qualifies it for inclusion here. Published in 1895, this tale centres on a Time Traveller who invents a machine that enables him to travel far into the future.
He ends up in the world of AD 802,701, in a London that has been transformed into a vast garden, and where humankind has evolved into two distinct subspecies: the above-ground Eloi and the sinister subterranean Morlocks …
We have discussed this remarkable novella in more detail here.
2. E. M. Forster, ‘The Machine Stops’.
Is this the most prophetic story of the twentieth century? Published in 1909 and showing Forster’s disdain for technological advancement and the way it would make our lives poorer, this story attracted plenty of new readers in 2020 when so many people’s lives ‘went virtual’.
It’s all here: Zoom, self-isolation, and even the fear of other human beings. Controlling everything is ‘the Machine’, a mysterious technological entity worshipped as a god by many of the inhabitants of this future Earth.
You can read our analysis of this prescient short story here.
3. Shirley Jackson, ‘The Lottery’.
This 1948 story is among the most acclaimed short stories of the twentieth century, and earns its place on this list because of the speculative nature of its scenario (recalling, perhaps, Borges’ ‘The Lottery in Babylon’) and the ambiguous setting.
The story is set in a fictional town. Every year an event known as ‘the lottery’ takes place. This lottery involves a member of the community being selected at random – but the fate of the person selected is truly chilling. Jackson’s story, like Le Guin’s (see below) is about the concept of the scapegoat and the dynamic between the individual and the collective in society.
The story initially attracted much negative reaction from readers of the New Yorker (where it was first published), with many readers cancelling their subscriptions, horrified and disgusted by the story. It is now regarded as a classic.
4. Isaac Asimov, ‘Nightfall’.
This 1941 short story, written while Asimov was still only in his early twenties, is widely regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction short stories of all time. Indeed, in 1968 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it the best science fiction short story written before 1965.
The story is about a planet which doesn’t experience nightfall, except once in every 2,049 years, because it is normally lit by six suns. Since every human being alive will find nightfall a terrifying experience when that rare eclipse occurs, scientists worry about their chaos that will ensue when night falls …
5. Ray Bradbury, ‘A Sound of Thunder’.
This is another classic time travel story, this time involving a journey back into the distant past rather than the far-flung future. The story was first published in Collier’s magazine in 1952 and then collected a year later in Bradbury’s short-story collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun.
The story begins in the future, sometime around 2055. A time-travel safari company in the United States, Time Safari Inc., allows animal-hunters to travel back in time in a Time Machine and kill a long-extinct animal, such as a dinosaur. A man named Eckels turns up ready to undertake his safari … with disastrous results.
You can read more about this story in a separate post.
6. Arthur C. Clarke, ‘The Nine Billion Names for God’.
This 1953 story is another which, like Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’, is often given the title of ‘one of the best short stories written before the Nebula Awards were created in the mid-1960s’.
A group of Buddhist monks think that, once every single name by which ‘God’ is known has been listed, the world – indeed, the whole universe – will end. They predict there are 9 billion different names in total, which new technology will allow them to itemise. Two men are hired to be the computer programmers for the monks’ task. What happens when all nine billion names are printed out? Well, that would be telling …
7. Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’.
This story, like Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, is perhaps more correctly labelled ‘speculative fiction’: it’s set in the fictional town of Omelas, in which everyone is happy and prosperous. But such happiness and prosperity has come at a terrible cost, for the success and contentment of everyone’s life is dependent on the suffering of a small child which is kept in miserable conditions in a room in the town.
Le Guin raises some deeply unsettling but important ethical questions in this classic story, which is told in the beautiful, eloquent prose for which Le Guin’s work is rightly famed.
We tease out some of the elements of this story in a separate post.
8. Philip K. Dick, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’.
Dick (1928-82) has attracted a devoted cult following since his untimely death, and his work fuses Kafkan paranoia and fear over police states and totalitarianism with an interest in psychedelia, drugs, altered consciousness, and related paraphernalia of the 1960s.
In this story, which formed the basis of the 1990 film Total Recall, a man named Douglas Quail learns of a special ‘holiday’ to Mars that can be implanted into the brain so one can experience a trip to another planet without having to go anywhere.
9. J. G. Ballard, ‘Billennium’.
This 1962 story from one of the most original authors of the twentieth century is a dystopian tale set in a vastly overpopulated future, in which the world’s population is around 20 billion. As a result, people live in extraordinarily cramped rooms in vast cities. The story focuses on two friends, Ward and Rossiter, who find new living quarters and then discover a whole new room behind one of their cupboards.
10. William Gibson, ‘Burning Chrome’.
Often credited with coining the term ‘cyberspace’ (a word he certainly helped to popularise), William Gibson (born 1948) is perhaps the greatest living science-fiction author, and one of the most prophetic. His early novels of the 1980s helped to establish ‘cyberpunk’ as a new branch of science fiction, and no writer has engaged so imaginatively and prophetically with our new world of the internet and digital communication as Gibson.
Like many science fiction writers, Gibson started out writing short fiction such as ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ and ‘Burning Chrome’. The latter story prefigures Gibson’s debut novel, Neuromancer, from two years later, in focusing on a computer hacker: a startlingly new character type in the early 1980s.
This story is not available online, but is the title story of the William Gibson collection Burning Chrome.
The last line of Clarke’s “Nine Billion Names for God” sticks with you like the last line of some poems.