On the subject of science fiction short stories, where do we even begin? There is a massive amount of material in the science fiction megatext, and a large percentage of it is based in the short story form.
My belief is that the short story form is an integral part of the success that the science fiction genre has seen. Moreover, the short story has played a critical role in the exploration of visionary ideas and the genre’s rise in popular culture. Without the short story, science fiction would not be life as we know it, Jim.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more influential short stories in the science fiction genre. I won’t call these the “best” or the “top 100” stories because for many of us, that’s a personal taste. But we can look at these stories with respect to their influence on other writers, on the genre as a whole, on literary analysis, and on popular culture.
19th Century Short Stories
If we look closely enough – and because a definition of “science fiction” is nebulous and ever-changing – we can trace elements of the genre back through to ancient Greek writing. For that matter, some believe that our ancient holy scriptures have more in common with science fiction metaphor than they do anything divine… but I digress!
Let us begin with the rise of modern science, also known as natural philosophy, in the 19th century.
Many readers are familiar with Edgar Allen Poe’s early writing delving into the macabre, but few realize he was one of the first “science fiction” writers (of course, his work was not categorized as SF because the genre didn’t exist then!), bridging early scientific principles with magic, psychology, and voyages fantastiques. Yes, he was influenced by Jules Verne’s stories like many others in his time, and a close reading of Poe’s early short stories reveals this influence.
But never mind… there he was in the 1840s tackling topics like communicating with the spirit world, bringing dead people back to life through galvanism, travels to the moon, and so on. And here we are today still studying those early works.
Then there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter”, written in 1844, about a mad scientist who renders his daughter poisonous to the touch, presumably to protect her from the boys. Well, it’s a trope that is still alive in old Star Trek episodes and in the Batman character “Poison Ivy”. Indeed, the merging of science fiction and comic books is well-entrenched.
Early 20th Century Writings
When H.G. Wells wrote the “The Star” in 1899, did he have any idea that his little story would influence future generations of writers, scientists, philosophers, and film-makers? Or how about E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”? This dark, dystopian view of a mechanized world bereft of what makes us human, written in 1914 during the height of modernism, keeps echoing through sci fi discussion groups and book clubs. It even inspires short films like this one.
The rise of the pulp fiction stories in the 1930s helped popularize SF stories with generations of teenage boys in particular. All those bug-eyed monsters running amok, and the space operas (westerns situated on Mars, for example) that influenced the Star Wars industry, among others.
But more importantly, the origins of the pulps in technical and scientific hobbyist magazines gave rise to a dialogue between writer and reader that was unlike any other genre. Fans would communicate regularly with authors and artists, and this community developed that contributed immensely to the megatext and to the popularization of the genre.
The Golden Years of Science Fiction Short Stories
In the mid-20th century, science fiction short stories truly became literature in the sense that they tackled serious themes and pushed the edges of what could be published. Stories about robots taking over (again with the robots running amok!), nuclear annihilation, early gender-bending experiences, space travel and so on.
Throughout this maturity, writers continued to focus on what it meant to be human in an increasingly dangerous, troublesome world.
Now, science fiction short stories continue to remain popular despite the amount of TV shows and science fiction films. We see the influence of science fiction in everything from adventure movies to comic books, graphic novels, anime and video games.
Today’s writers continue to delve into themes of what it means to be human, and this trope has remained throughout the history of the genre. All aspects of our humanity are exposed and explored, from our behaviour, treatment of each, sexuality, intellectuality, social systems, politics, and so on.
One of the wonderful things about science fiction as a genre and the short story as a form is that a limitless number of ideas can be presented in a way that allows us readers to explore them in our way and within the context of our own experiences.