I love science fiction. From an 80’s and 90’s childhood watching cartoons like Dino Riders and Widget the World Watcher, to being a teenager pinching my Dad’s collection of Asimov to take to boarding school, science fiction was an escape, a way to look at the world, askew. Novels like The Giver and Aliens: Earth Hive seem like they should probably not even be sold at the same book stores, let alone be categorised as the same genre. But that’s part of the beauty of science fiction – it can cover an entire universe of stories, as there’s an entire universe out there to explore. I have to thank whoever designed the Australian high school English curriculum, as they gave us Brave New World and 1984 to read.
Even though science fiction films like Her or Avatar (ugh) always seem to make a mint at the box office, too often science fiction novels and short story collections are seen as strictly the domain of tragically single nerds, not for general consumption. So, I thought to myself – how can I push science fiction on people who think it’s just written for acne-riddled teenage boys? Short stories are the answer.
1) I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
This collection of short stories is a collection of classics. If you’ve seen the Will Smith film you’ve been misled. From beginning to end, these stories offer unique insights into a future we’ve yet to reach, told through the lens of Susan Calvin, Chief Robopsychologist at U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., the world’s primary manufacturer of robots. Considering that this collection first came out in 1950, casting a woman as the primary narrator seems pretty bold, and is one of the reasons this collection has forced its way onto my list.
Another reason is something that everyone should have heard of by now – the Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These Laws of Robotics have since spread into the real world, leading to suggestions that any humanoid robots be programmed with them. Although fleets of Predator drones seem all too willing to disregard them.
2) Jizzle – John Wyndham
This little collection is a weird one, and in itself probably doesn’t qualify as ‘pure’ science fiction, and is probably closer to speculative fiction, but this is my list, and I’ll put what I want on it.
The eponymous story, Jizzle, is about a chimpanzee, who can accurately recreate whatever she sees in pencil sketches. But does she only draw what she sees?
A Present from Brunswick is another clever short story, where an American soldier sends his mother a gift home from Occupied Germany – a pipe which plays a most enchanting tune, the Pied Piper of Hamlin’s pipe. How do I do? is a time-travel story, Una is about genetic engineering, The Wheel is set in a post-apocalyptic future…see, I knew this was a ‘proper’ sci-fi collection!
Also written in the 50’s, Jizzle is another collection whose stories have made their way into the mainstream’s consciousness, with many of the tropes of modern speculative ficiton being explored here, in an unheralded collection.
I picked mine up for around $2 at a second-hand bookstore.
Well worth it!
3) A Sound of Thunder – Ray Bradbury
The only way that this collection is remiss is that it doesn’t contain There Will Come Soft Rains. But I put the link there for the story, so click it and then come back. I’ll wait…
Anyway, now you now why Ray Bradbury is brilliant. Was brilliant.
This collection (even though it doesn’t have There Will Come Soft Rains) is a masterpiece. I probably should have put it at number one on the list, but instead I’ll just say that the list isn’t in any kind of order.
Bradbury has always shown a keen understanding of both fiction writing and of the human condition, and his science fiction grabs hold of that which makes humans human, and explores our humanity. The Fog Horn (about a strange creature rising from the deep), The Garbage Collector (plans for the clean-up after a nuclear war), The Long Rain (explorers on Venus), The Flying Machine (set in ancient China)…the list goes on and on. You can buy a complete Bradbury collection, which contains more than 100 of his short stories (yes, he was stupendously prolific), but as an introduction you can’t go too far past this one.
If you only get one book on this list – this is the one.
4) I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison
The titular story is horrifying, brilliant, torturous.
It is 109 years after the complete destruction of humanity. The Cold War led to a thermo-nuclear war, and only the supercomputer ‘AM’ survived. ‘AM’, which throughout the work variously stands for ‘Allied Mastercomputer’, ‘Adaptive Manipulator’ and ‘Aggressive Menace’, has grown to hate humanity, and keeps alive (whether in a strictly biological sense or as simulations running inside) the five other characters of the story, solely for its own amusement, manipulating them and their surroundings.
5) The Unreal and the Real – Ursula K. Le Guin
Have I gotten to number five already?
This collection definately deserves a place on the list – I love Le Guin, and so I’ve decided to cheat, and include a two-volume collection to my list (hey, my list, remember?) This collection is divided into (as I said) two volumes, Where on Earth and Outer Space, Inner Lands.
There are some great stories in these two books – including some of my favourites, there’s anthropological science fiction (my favourite blend!) and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a haunting morality tale.
As Le Guin herself says in the introduction to this particular volume (volume two):
“I leave it entirely up to you, O Reader, to decide which volume of these two is the Real and which is the Unreal. I believe the science of deciding such questions is called Ontology, but I never learned it. I am strictly an amateur. I don’t know anything about reality, but I know what I like.”
I know I left out a bunch of collections that I love, like Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors, or James Tiptree Jr.’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Oh, oh – and Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.
What did I leave out? What would you have included?
Let me know in the comments!