Like the list, big fan of Borges, Egan and Chiang, but very surprised to see no Lem. He has to be on a list like that. A Perfect Vacuum is brilliant and the Cyberiad is a great candidate as well.
Another thing I’m surprised to not see on the list is Chinese short-story sci-fi, there’s been a lot of great stuff coming out of the country in recent years much of it translated by Ken Liu.
Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang is great and free to read, there’s The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin whose Three Body books got a lot of attention, and there’s another collection called Invisible Planets, which has a few good stories by Chen Qiufan. He’s also written a very good novel called Waste Tide.
The affect may be touching but the social and economic system it describes makes no sense on any level. If you’re going to make something so blithering your ridiculous at least make it magical realism so it’s obvious nothing is supposed to make sense, just happen.
Can you explain what the second sentence is supposed to say? I can’t really understand it.
I think the writer’s intent would be served if you deleted “blithering your” from the sentence.
I found the first of the Three Body Problem series to be very dry and about twice as long as it should have been.
Are the other stories translated by Liu any better do you think? I want to give Chinese sci-fi an honest try but my attempt with Three Body Problem wasn’t great.
I am with you on the first of the Three Body Problem. The second is _much_ better and the third is still better than the first, imvho.
The trilogy overall is worth wading through, if only for the ridiculo-scienceFiction on offer – but if you enjoy good characterisation and dialogue, I’m afraid it doesn’t improve on the first.
seconding riffraff, the second book is a much easier and more entertaining read, I’d definitely give it a shot.
that’s good to know. i have been struggling with the first one.
one thing i am wondering is if having different translators for the books is noticeable in any way
My first introduction to sci-fi, I think, at the tender age of maybe eight, was Ray Bradbury’s All Summer In A Day. It uses the fantastical setting of human colonies on Venus to starkly illustrate both the thoughtless cruelty of children and their ability to later understand what they’ve done. I don’t think of it often, but it was formative. So thanks OP for the reminder. At that age, with my experience then, it had the same effect that The Lottery had on a lot of older people, I think.
An engaging novella by a now-dead luminary is The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, 1972. It’s a book of three short stories, written in three different styles, all interrelated and containing a central mystery.
Wolfe is well-known for hiding puzzles in his books that deepen your understanding and appreciation of his stories without detracting at all from a more casual reading. He’s my favorite author, and I’ll freely admit that he’s hit-or-miss sometimes. His best works, this one included, are in worlds (usually some iteration of our own) where long-established systems are in a state of decay. More like an ill-maintained shed that’s still used while being slowly pulled apart by a beautiful trumpet vine than some catastrophic dystopia, and not without hope. He also has a knack for making sci-fi look like fantasy until you pay closer attention that I really like.
If you’re someone who likes to re-read your books, check him out. I’m still holding out for Book of the Long Sun to be made into a miniseries; it’s one of the reasons I bring him up so often. Someday, the right set of eyes may read this=)
Thanks for the Wolfe rec; sounds like we have some tastes in common. Along those lines, I heartily recommend basically everything by David Mitchell — and reading his works in their published order. They stand on their own, but there are myriad narrative threads and subtle literary puzzles throughout. I look forward to re-reading them in sequence — after I devour “Utopia Avenue”, which I just now learned to my delight was published 12 days ago! 🙂
I’ll check him out, thanks in kind! The name threw me at first, because the David Mitchell I’m familiar with is a British comedian who I’m already fond of.
And I’ve just learned that he wrote Cloud Atlas, a film that I started watching in the wrong headspace so didn’t get far, but I remember being intrigued by the synopsis I read beforehand. Ghostwritten is where to start, yes? Or are there short stories that I should seek out first?
Your timing is perfect: I’m waiting for 3 (!) unfinished series to release their next volumes, so a writer who will keep me busy for a month or two is most welcome!
For (in)completeness’ sake, because I can’t help sharing my excitement about these, even though they are strictly off topic at this point and this post will be too damn long, the unfinished series I’m waiting for are:
NK Jemisin (an author in OP’s list) – Great Cities series (One book complete). What if cities can become (once they grow complex enough) living beings? What if there are extra-dimensional forces arrayed against them, and the cities raise humans as avatars to help themselves? Only one book is finished, and it’s a good one. Self-aware Lovecraft for the modern world, focused on NYC. Her complete Broken Earth trilogy is also good.
Robert Jackson Bennett – The Founders Trilogy (two books complete). In this world, “scribing” is a way to make physical objects behave as if their physical constants were altered, much like variables in programming. A thief who can “see” these scribings gets in touch with a “talking” key who has a much greater understanding of them. But what kind of graybeard made the key ages ago? What’s their long game? Why can the thief even see this stuff? Being a programmer probably adds a lot to this one, but it’s not a requirement. Reminds me some of Stephenson’s wit with a lot less of his expository narrative (no slight there—he’s easily in my top 5, and some narrative asides are some of his best bits.)
Peter Newman – The Deathless (Two books complete). This one really surprised me. Royals with flying armor live in floating castles and cultivate “heirs” who will host their consciousnesses when they die, while commoners scrabble near The Wild that grows just outside the influence of the royals’ magical roads. I‘m sorry to say that I read a preview out of incredulity, with the intent of hating on the premise. Turns out it intrigued me enough to buy the first book, and then I was hooked because the world and its inhabitants are super interesting. “Don’t judge a book by its synopsis,” etc.
Bonus, ‘cause why not: James A. Corey – The Expanse. Read your own summary for this one=)
The Bone Clocks and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are both greatly entertaining novels as well (and tangentially related to both, the shorter novel Slade House).
Personally I found these more enjoyable than Cloud Atlas, which is good and a must-read nonetheless, but relies a lot on its narrative structure for its effect (this is not a negative, but the Matryoshka doll structure of the book does define it rather strongly).
All Summer in A Day was used by one of my primary school teachers. It’s fantastic, and so simple.
Quite a few on this list are sci-fi legends but I’m most glad to see the tail-end: both Maria Machado and Jemisin are amazing voices who write thick and lush prose, something that sci-fi lacks sometimes. Charlie Jane Anders, meanwhile, is delightfully off-beat and every novel of hers was a pleasant time so far.
In general, I’d recommend to not stick to the oldies. Read a bit of the classics and then venture into the modern stuff, there’s a lot to like there. Martha Wells, Matt Wallace, T. Kingfisher, K.B. Wagers, to name a few.
Quite a few on this list are sci-fi legends.
“The Machine Stops” is a must-read. It’s over a century old and is not dated.
I’ve always liked “With the Night Mail”. Kipling wrote two SF stories, and this is one of them.
“A Logic Named Joe” – the Internet and Google, from 1946.
“Ender’s Game”, the short story, was of course expanded into a series of books and a movie. The original short story is better.
That’s also true of “Farewell to the Master”, not on the list. That’s the basis for “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. The original short story is very rarely seen. Nor is the ending well known. It should be. Wikipedia summarizes it.
I read farewell to the master in a Hugo winners collection. I then saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and felt the movie was much better. The ending of the short story was IMO the weakest part, but ymmv.
I had forgotten there even was a remake. I think I heard it was pretty bad and didn’t want to ruin my memory of the original.
I thought about that one. Yes, different from the film. And in the original The Science Fiction Hall of Fame chosen by the SFWA. There were just other stories I preferred to include so it wasn’t all “classics.”
Thanks. There are a lot of recent Hugo and Nebula Award winners I can’t really bring myself to like. But one of the things I liked about this project was it got me to explore some recent voices that are really fantastic. (ADDED: And I probably didn’t pull in enough of them.) I feel a little guilty about ending on that Machado story in our current times, but it was really beautifully written and I had no idea it was going there when I started reading it.
Good list, but a few notable gaps.
Not a lot of people know, perhaps, that Gene Wolfe was a fantastic short story writer. Among my favourites are “Hero as Werewolf” and “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” , the latter a pitch-perfect analysis of why we need to read stories.
R. A. Lafferty is also notably absent. If he needs to be known for just one short story, it’s “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne” . Probably the funniest time-travel story ever written.
I’ve never tried his short fiction, but Gene Wolfe has always been a writer that I knew I was supposed to appreciate as literary SF but never really could. Maybe I should try his shorter fiction.
Of his novels, I always recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus as a starting point. It’s relatively short (it was expanded from a short story), and it marks the point when Wolfe’s fiction matured. It’s as deep as anything else he has written. If you end up liking it, you will almost certainly love The Book of the New Sun, his masterpiece.
I suppose “The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allen Poe is more “mystery”, but it seems of the same pedigree of some of Bradbury’s stuff….
An excellent story regardless. Just throwing that in the ring.
I actually wasn’t sure I had picked my favorite Ballard entry. I’ve been reading through his main collection. Wyndham is also fantastic in somewhat the same vein (although with narrower focus) but I don’t love any of his short stories as opposed to novels.
Agreed. Ballard’s sci-fi novels — before he changed tracks and verred over into contemporary fiction — are also worth a read. I recently finished The Crystal World, which, while seriously flawed, was very enjoyable.
OP here. I really appreciate everyone’s helpful feedback and recommendations. It definitely encourages me to do some reading and come up with an addendum for some additional stories.
Ted Chiang is one of my all-time favorites. I keep going back to his stories. Other than “Story of your life” which is listed here, I highly recommend “Tower of Babylon” and “Hell Is the Absence of God”.
Also, there are some gems in Fred Saberhagen Bereserkers series.
Absolutely loved Chiang’s short story collection “Exhalation”. I didn’t quite see SF as essential reading before reading this book.
I liked Saberhagen’s Berserker novels. I wasn’t really aware of the short stories which I should probably check out.
Regarding the Le Guin selection: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is perhaps my least favourite Le Guin story. I understand (and appreciate) the theme but its presentation is so tritely and artificially delivered that I think it undermines itself. It frankly reads like a morally earnest high schooler’s piece of creative writing (albeit with more polished prose). I find Le Guin a mediocre writer when she is at her most didactic. Conversely, when she writes from a more subconscious, mystical space she is brilliant. And this is mostly her earlier work.
I’m no literary critic, but I really liked Omelas. She makes this huge push to make it very clear that she is setting up a moral allegory, and in the end, she leaves the actual point completely vague. It feels like a windup to “this society is bad,” but then she just weakens the condemnation down to a mild suggestion. It was neat.
I went back and forth on this one and, to be honest, I’m not a particular Le Guin fan except for The Dispossessed. I could be persuaded that I should have gone with maybe Buffalo Girls instead. But maybe this is a case where I’ve been called out including something I felt I needed to.
The first story I read by Le Guin was “Semley’s Necklace” – I had to read it multiple times to complete the mental imagery (I was quite young) – see if you like it.
Thanks for posting this! I’ve been enjoing short stories more than I thought after picking up Men Without Women recently. They make for very nice lunchtime reading 😀 I also appreciate that the list is full of classics. I quite like the feeling of reading an established canon.
Flowers For Algernon never interested me much, but learning now that it was originally a short story, I’ll put it on my list.
Here is a neat pdf of Asimov’s The Last Question, for those who are into that sort of thing: https://docdro.id/GQfVN6o
Nice list. There is lots of new stuff here for me.
The obvious miss is John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (1938), which is the inspiration for the movie The Thing.
I have that “book”. I have read it several times and it is a great read. There is also an expanded version and John Betancourt is working on a sequel to it.
I’m surprised to not find Stanley G. Weinbaum in the list or the comments. He was early in sci-fi (mid 1930s) and died not too long after his career took off, but a bunch of his writing laid the foundation for many SF writers that came after.
I reread “A Martian Odyssey” and I know it appears on a lot of top 10 lists but I honestly don’t think it’s a terribly interesting story for a modern audience.
That book is a collection of very short stories. It’s fine given that focus but I read through it recently and I don’t personally find much in there that I consider to be particularly great.
It’s a Good Life – the article mentions it was made into a Twilight Zone episode. I saw this episode like a month ago on MeTV, accidentally, late at night. Wow it was freaky. Really disturbing.
The article doesn’t really do it justice. The kid in the story has God powers and can do whatever he wants, so he creates Cronenberg creatures and wantonly kills people. All of the adults have to agree that it’s a good thing, otherwise he gets irritated and disappears them. So you get scenes like where a wife has to emphatically agree that it was a good thing her husband was killed.
The whole thing was like a scary David Lynch scene.
It’s actually a complaint of mine that I can’t mostly buy these for $1-2 on Amazon and call it a day. Rather I have to head around the web and find “free” copies that may or may not be legit or buy collections off Amazon (which may be OK). But, yes, it’s annoying I can’t legit just pay for the whole collection, much of which is pretty old.
Popular collections tend to stay in print in softback for a while. The late Gardner Dozois edited “Years Best Science Fiction” every year which is a hefty collection of good short SF from that year, usually takes me a few months to consume one of those, and it’s nice to have a mix even if not all the stories are to my taste. The collection is paying the authors for their work to appear, so if your concern is whether authors get paid that’s covered.
Even really old stuff is not infrequently still in print. Somebody else mentioned Lem, the English translations of Lem’s short fiction are generally in print, though it can be a struggle to find things like Hospital of the Transfiguration that are a bit niche (and not Science Fiction) or his literary criticism (Lem thought most SF in his day was crap, I am tempted to agree)
You will struggle to buy individual stories because that’s not really a thing. Some professional writers only write shorts to introduce an idea or setting before novel-length publication e.g. Egan gives away shorts about the Amalgam, the setting for his novel Incandescence, and the intro to some of his novels works as a short (e.g. “Orphanogensis” is actually the start of a novel, but it’s also a perfectly functional short story about “orphans”, people created randomly in a society where people are just software…). So for those the author believes they are essentially advertising the larger product with a free story.
Finding (print) anthologies that contain a specific short story can be a challenge though.
I got introduced to Bujold’s Vorkosigan series via the short story “The Borders of Infinity” which is (amongst plenty of other anthologies and a collection of three Vorkosigan shorts confusingly called Borders of Infinity itself) included in Infinite Stars (ed. Bryan Thomas Schmidt). Getting most of the novels was easy enough, but hunting down the remaining short stories meant foraging for second-hand out-of-print anthologies.
It’s a bit of a pain, but I’ve had some luck using isfdb.org. I search for the author, search and click on the desired title, and then check to see if it’s in an inexpensive ebook collection.
For example, I see that Asimov’s ‘The Last Question’ is in a giant collection called ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ which can be found on Amazon for 6$.
OP here. Thanks. I’ll check those out. I tried to cast a fairly wide net here although I’m probably less into surreal.
Liking this list a lot! I’ve read a bunch of these and enjoyed them so if that’s any indication of the quality of the rest for me, then I’ll enjoy many of the others!
I think I’ll catch some flack for saying this, but skimming I’m only seeing 14% of the authors are female. I’m sure there are many reasons why one might say the proportion of female to male SF writers is not the same as the proportion of male to female in society at large, but it would have been nice to see more female representation on the list.
I think your numbers are about right even allowing for the pseudonyms of husband and wife teams (Lewis Pladgett) and women individually (James Tiptree Jr) but it just reflects what has been a rather male-dominated genre. You’d see the flip case I’m sure if we were talking romance novels.
One of my favorite scifi short stories is Manna by Michael Brain (creator of howstuffworks.com)
It two futures based around easy industrial production/ai and feels closer to reality then it did a few years ago.
Here is the link for anyone interested: https://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm
I had a vague idea that I had read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery from this list. I checked it out and I do recall it, and it was really shocking to read. Apparently subscribers of The New Yorker, where it was first serialized, cancelled their subscriptions in disgust. Early cancel culture.
Although it’s from a “newer” author, one of my favourite short stories is Diamond Dogs, by Alastair Reynolds. For me, it’s perfect sci-fi, it gets a re-read every couple of years..
searches for Murderbot
I’m surprised to see it’s not mentioned yet! Martha Wells’ Murderbot series is really fun reading.
+1 for Murderbot, but I think it’s a little long for the list! Great read though if anyone is looking for recommendations.
This is a great list. Given my limited attention span, I’ve always been drawn to short fiction. I’m familiar with a number of the stories mentioned and some of the “runners up”. And now I’ve got a list of new stories to hunt down.
One typo: “Speaker of the Dead” should be “Speaker for the Dead”.
Thanks. Fixed. I admit a lot of these stories tend towards novelette or novella length. But it’s still easier for me than a novel these days in general.
I couldn’t find “The Desire Machine” by the Strugatsky brothers which is a prelude to “Roadside Picnic”. For those who watched “The Stalker” by Tarkovsky this is a must read.
Great list. It’s too bad there wasn’t room to squeeze an early John Varley story on there. Maybe Press Enter _.
Great to help my reading list. Thanks for sharing! I think many great science fiction ideas don’t require a full novel to get the reader to open their mind. That’s why I love the short stories. Thanks again!
I was surprised not to see Ken Liu on there, given just how many really good short stories he’s written. If I had to pick just one, _Paper Menagerie_ deserves to be on this list.
No alt-history on this list? Or maybe I didn’t read carefully enough.
There’s a lot of interesting short alt-history, the nice thing about the genre for shorts is that the reader needs little introduction to the setting – it’s our world, except a little different, and discovering how it’s different is often the core of the story.
A great many of the famous examples involve Nazis winning World War II, though e.g. Weinachtsabend by Keith Roberts puts an very interesting spin on that (Britain agrees terms with Germany and the war is over quickly, but decades later things aren’t so simple) but much less obviously how about Howard Waldrop’s “Custer’s Last Jump” in which the Battle of the Little Bighorn happens in an alternate 19th century America that has powered flight…
Harry Turtledove has some very interesting short stories, such as “Road Not Taken” that concerns alien invaders in our near future.
But overall he’s a master of the alt-history genre and worth the attention of reading his books. Guns of the South: General Lee on the cover holding an AK-47. He’s a historian and did original primary research for it, but, ’nuff said. Worldwar In the Balance: Aliens attack in 1941, during fierce WWII fighting. Well fleshed out.
“The road not taken” is one of my favourites.
It gives a very interesting alternative way to think about science and technological progress.
And the ending gives such an amazing feeling…
The only drawback is that as a non-native English speaker, the “pirate english” language at the beginning made it very hard for me to understand, so it is a story that is difficult to recommend to my friends.
I like alt-history, and mention one in the comments, but I’m not sure of less than novel length examples that really stood out on their own. It may be because it’s a relatively easy scenario to put out there.
I recently started reading Neuromancer thinking it was going to be an interesting sci-fi short story. Boy was I mistaken (happy but still mistaken)
Not yet a mention of Charles Stross in this thread! For a short story, I recommend his Lovecraftian A Colder War.
The only ones I’ve read are the ones by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Orson Scott Card. Looks like I have a lot of reading to do.
I remember reading several of these in school, as school assignments. I remember being surprised years later to find how recent they were, as well as how uncontroversial their inclusion in the curriculum was.
On that note, kinda sad that they chose “True Names” over “Fast Times at Fairmont High” for Vinge’s entry. Though I haven’t read the former, the latter reads like TN’s description, except for phenomena that haven’t fully unfurled their existence and possibility yet. AR glasses, anyone?
I love True Names, it is an absolute gem. I got Vinge to sign my copy of “True Names and Other Dangers”, a collection of his short stories.
I’m actually not sure I have read that and I will have to. True Names was much earlier and I think probably more prescient as a result. (And I personally read it during that earlier period so my reaction is probably much different.)
ADDED: It’s also very much a story about people, not just technology.
I would not be surprised if Vinge considered RE an update or reboot of TN, because they share many qualities. TN was prescient because a lot of what it imagined came to pass. I think RE ultimately will be, too; we’re just in the middle of watching it unfold. I think that’s profound. We haven’t seen a massive pitched battle between players of Pokemon Go and some other fandom (Vinge thought it would be Terry Pratchett fans, but I’m thinking Yu-Gi-Oh or Harry Potter stans are more likely), but just you wait.
Fast Times is essentially the short-story “pilot” for Rainbows End, which is, yes, fantastic. If you like the former it justifies the longer time commitment of the latter.
I recommend it as much as possible, and one of my pet hopes is that it ends up getting a Ghibli-style film adaptation.