I’ve not written a post for aaggeeessss! So I thought I’d write a quick one reviewing some of the best collections of science fiction short stories I’ve read.
If you’ve never read any science fiction, or even if you’re a long-time reader, short stories are a great place to start, as they can help you find new interesting authors and sub-genres, and can open whole new worlds of sci-fi for you to explore.
Science fiction is also a genre that is especially suited to short stories. For me, sci-fi is any fiction that is based on scientific ideas, it can be anything from futuristic space operas, to time travel tales, to stories about lone scientists beavering away in isolated laboratories exploring the boundaries of quantum mechanics – as long as the story hangs on an exciting and cutting-edge scientific idea.
Good sci-fi is awe-inspiring, you should feel your mind expand as possibilities flood into your imagination and you experience a kind of intellectual vertigo as you stand on the edge of a scientific precipice, about to plunge into the weird and far-reaching implications of an idea. That’s why I read sci-fi, to be blown-away by the ideas.
However, sometimes the actual writing in sci-fi can be less than mind-blowing, this is why short stories are a great format, they allow a fantastic scientific idea to be explored in sufficient detail, before the story becomes too weighed down in bad dialogue and clichéd characters. I should mention that many sci-fi short stories and full novels are beautifully written, but often this can be the exception. In a sci-fi short story I want to be wowed by an idea, I don’t necessarily want to fall in love with the characters or be enthralled by a complex plot (that’s what a Song of Fire and Ice is for).
Some of my favourites include:
The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 22 (edited by Gardner Dozois)
This is a large book with a decent variety of mostly high-quality stories, some will suit your tastes better than others, but I enjoyed all of them.
These kinds of collections always seem to have awful front covers, usually with a space ship or a laser battle or something, and I think it makes them look a bit childish and cheesy, but I was very surprised by the sophistication of most of the stories.
My favourite was N-words by Ted Kosmakta, in which in our near future scientists manage to clone Neanderthals from surviving DNA in fossils, and they turn out to not be the sub-human idiots we often portray them as. In fact they come to dominate professional sports (beginning with American Football) and begin out perform Homo sapiens in the workplace and in other intellectual domains too. It’s a great commentary on racism and the arrogant superiority-complex that many Homo sapiens seem to revel in.
The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF (edited by Mike Ashley)
This is a similar collection to that mentioned above, it’s another large compendium of high-quality short stories.
It’s got two particularly brilliant tales, one is by the ever-brilliant Stephen Baxter, called The Pevatron Rats and is about a species of rat that evolves the ability to time travel as a survival trait, giving birth to litters in the past rather than the present, allowing the rat to extend its territory not only geographically but into time as well, which has pretty dire implications for just about every other species of animal life on Earth.
The second story is Cascade Point by Timothy Zahn, which is set in the far future in which faster-than-light (FTL) travel has been attained. However, rather than being the effortless jaunt depicted in much science fiction, FTL travel has some pretty unsettling psychological side effects. Despite being set on a space ship in the future, the story has very human characters that are easily identified with, and explores some novel implications of FTL travel with care and with great insight.
J.G. Ballard was a prolific author, both in and outside of sci-fi, his most famous work is probably Empire of the Sun, but he also wrote a great many sci-fi stories, many of them shorts.
This huge compendium covers over 40 years of writing, so you may expect the science to be a bit dated, but this isn’t the case, most of the time. Ballard rarely explores cutting edge scientific ideas, instead he creates exotic and slightly surreal futuristic worlds, that are made possible by science, and he focuses more on exploring the future evolution of particular social trends rather than hard-science.
The most awe-inspiring, but depressing, story is set on a future Earth where the entire surface of our planet appears to be covered by one apartment-block-style city and humanity has collectively lost an understanding of ideas like open space and flight. It’s both claustrophobic and terrifying, and I’m sure anyone living in a busy city today will be able to see the reality in this depiction of a future urban nightmare.
Engineering Infinity (edited by Jonathan Strahan)
This is a smaller collection of short stories that I’ve just finished reading, and has a great range of tales despite the lower page count than many other publications.
One brilliant story, again by Stephen Baxter, explores the implications of the discovery of alien life on humanity’s view of itself. At first the discovery of intelligent life causes many to question religion and our place in the Universe, but when the aliens turn out to be war-like, despite their advanced technology, humanity sinks into a depression as many realise that no matter how advanced life can become, it appears to be unable to escape primitive destructive behaviours like war. It’s an intelligent, but disheartening commentary on the possible destructive inevitability of all life, which seems appropriate, as no matter how ‘civilized’ humanity has become, we’re still basically a tribal ape species that enjoys wiping out other ‘competing tribes’. Maybe this is the way of all intelligent life?
If you’ve got a favourite collection of sci-fi stories that I’ve not mentioned, or you prefer other stories in the collections that I have, then please let me know by posting below. I’d like to hear your opinion (probably).