Originally published on Nerdclave.com
Nerdclave’s Classic Spec is a semi-regular look back at formative short science fiction from the 19th and 20th century in order to keep it alive for modern genre devotees.
Science fiction short stories of the 20th century forged the massive genre as we know it today.
Although novels have a prominent place, there was a massive influx of inspiring short fiction being published from the late-1940 onward that continue to inspire to this day. As we move into the 21st century, for Classic Spec I thought it might help to look back at the best of those founding stories. Many are included in Project Gutenberg, and others can be found elsewhere with little effort.
Novellas and novelettes qualify as short fiction, but I restricted this list to stories fewer than 7,500 words–true short story length. Also, there is a focus on what I deemed science fiction, leaving fantasy and its sub-genres to future lists.
20.) When It Changed by Joanna Russ (1972)
The classic Amazonian story of an all-female society being discovered by men, except this a human colony, long removed from outside influence, after a plague had wiped out all its males. And Russ’s take is very different from the buxom beauties waiting for a male treat. The story includes same-sex marriage as well as childbirth from same-sex parents through technological methods.
19.) Burning Chrome by William Gibson (1982)
The story contains the first coining of the term “cyberspace,” and yet it also features hackers. If that’s not evidence enough for how ahead of its time Burning Chrome was, ushering in cyberpunk along with the Sprawl trilogy, then maybe you can just appreciate that it’s a cool heist story.
18.) It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1953)
Twilight Zone and The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror II” cemented this story in everyone’s memories, even if they never read it. Anthony is three years old with the powers of a god. Everyone has had to placate him since his birth, when he plucked his town out of existence and accidentally held them hostage. He is not malicious. It’s simply that his whims are commands, and his commands are all powerful.
NOTE: This is by far the most “fantasy” of all the entries on the list, although I take the approach that since only Anthony has these powers, and they’re unknown before, that he could be considered a new species like the X-Men’s Beyonder.
17.) The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
Like other stories on here from the same era, The Star by Arthur C. Clarke was turned into a Twilight Zone episode, except the ending has a much different tone. The spoiler free version: Earth astronauts return from a far off galaxy where they studied the remains of a civilization destroyed by a supernova.
16.) The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein (1947)
Both a song and the title of the first story to include the song, telling of its origin, The Green Hills of Earth lives on as ahead of its time, written before a single picture of the Earth was ever broadcast. Astronauts on Apollo 15 themselves remarked how visionary it was for Heinlein to put himself not only into space but into the mind of a poet in space. Songs about going home, especially those with a tragic story themselves, are an age old tradition. Here, it was shown for the first time from an interstellar perspective, and it turns out it’ll hold up in perpetuity.
15.) The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956)
Isaac Asimov himself considered The Last Question his finest short story, and it’s easy to see why. The question, posed to an evolving supercomputer over the course of eons, concerns thermodynamics and entropy. Yet, its answer still manages to make you shed a tear.
14.) “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison (1965)
The concept is similar to that of Justin Timberlake’s In Time, though Ellison dropped his lawsuit after seeing a screening. Except, Repent Harlequin’s concept is that time is taken as a penalty for breaking rules, making the story more a criticism of rigidity and structure than of income gaps. Oh, and it may be a movie of its own soon.
13.) The Veldt by Ray Bradbury (1950)
A mother and father try to get to the bottom of why their kids keep turning the “nursery” (think: holodeck) from a fairy tale land into a hot African veldt teeming with lions in Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt. A chilling portrait of spoiled children, it raises questions about the true cost of automation and creature comforts.
12.) The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
The precursor to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sentinel concerns humans happening upon an alien object left behind on the moon. If you’re not already familiar with the story, any more details would spoil it all for you.
11.) Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler (1983)
Octavia Butler has written several literary works of science fiction and fantasy. In fact, her work seems to cross genre bounds more than most. Speech Sounds is as much about a woman making her way in a dystopian wasteland as it is about race and gender inequality.
10.) To Serve Man by Damon Knight (1950)
To Serve Man is probably most widely known as the inspiration for the Twilight Zone episode of the same name and for “Hungry are the Damned,” the second segment from the original The Simpsons Halloween Special (later Treehouse of Horror). In today’s cynical world, where we wait for the twist, it might not be so avant garde, but it was shocking for its time.
9.) I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison (1967)
By far, at least to me, the most disturbing science fiction on this list. Set in the distant future, an A.I. spends eternity torturing a group of humans it keeps perpetually alive for that sole purpose. Anything more would spoil it.
8.) A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury (1952)
Ever heard of the Butterfly Effect and wondered why everyone decided butterflies were the theory’s key insect? It’s because, in the 50s. Ray Bradbury decided it would be so in A Sound of Thunder. A butterfly plays a key role in changing history in this time travel tale about a T-Rex safari.
7.) Robbie by Isaac Asimov (1940)
Said to be the first robot story the legend ever penned, Robbie by Isaac Asimov is about a robot that befriends a little girl. What it’s really about is the science fiction community having what Asimov considered an irrational fear of robots. Asimov did a lot to change that, even though we’re trending toward fear nowadays, and this story is the beginning of his bright side approach.
6.) “–All You Zombies–” by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
Paradoxes and more paradoxes. “–All You Zombies–” is hard not to spoil. Let’s just say it involves time travel and more time travel. This one will have readers thinking, and it may be impossible to film (despite attempts to do so) so reading may be the only way to enjoy it.
5.) There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury (1950)
Probably one of the earliest examples of that creepy melancholy feeling one gets from a humanless world left to run on autopilot, such as in Wall-E or the Fallout games. There is something utterly heartbreaking about the house’s sweet stewardship over its missing family in There Will Come Soft Rains, reminding us that nuclear war doesn’t end with a bang.
4.) The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
Often considered the best science fiction short story of the 20th century, including by this Locus Magazine poll, The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke combines science and spirituality. Of course, what would science fiction writers be if not ardent questioners of life’s biggest questions.
3.) Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson (1981)
No, not the horrible (I still can’t shake liking it) movie. The original short story, which introduced things like heroin-addicted dolphins and prosthetic thumbs with monomolecular wire. Johnny Mnemonic serves as the precursor to the Sprawl trilogy.
2.) Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)
Harrison Bergeron raises serious questions about social equality, challenging beliefs about equality. In the story, artificial handicaps (including actual weights) are affixed to society’s more able citizens–strength, intellect, and beauty among the areas intended to be squelched.
1.) The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948)
The chilling tale of a lottery you definitely do not want to win rattled a lot of people’s sensitivities for the time. In a style similar to that of a Twilight Zone episode, where the time is indeterminate but it can be assumed to be near future, the story is one of the few science fiction stories that inspire widespread literary study and interpretation to this day.
Let us know what I left off. The reading list doesn’t have to stop here. There’s an entire century of short science fiction to read and recommend. What’s first?