Monday, December 23, 2013

Ancient & Modern

So I was asked to recommend two science-fiction stories for National Short Story Day, one classic (published before 1960) and one modern. Here are my choices:

In the 1950s James Blish wrote a short series of stories, collected in The Seedling Stars, about what he called pantropy – radically engineering humans to enable them to live on alien worlds. ‘Surface Tension’ is the best of these, a classic tale of human grit and ingenuity, and an epic journey between two puddles. Offspring of the crew of a crashed spaceship have been shrunk to the size of protists so that they can survive in the ponds and lakes of the single muddy landmass of a water planet. Blish expertly describes a fierce microscopic world and the engineering feat of constructing a wooden spaceship that enables the colonists to pierce the surface tension of the sky of their little world, and the story contains one of the finest evocations of science fiction’s sense of wonder when the tiny astronauts first glimpse the night sky: ‘Under the two moons of Hydrot, and under the eternal stars, the two-inch spaceship and its microscopic cargo toiled down the slope towards the drying rivulet.’

Kelly Link is one of the best writers in contemporary science fiction and fantasy, blending tropes from a variety of genres into fresh and vivid fantastikas. In ‘Two Houses’ (2012), first published in an anthology celebrating the work of Ray Bradbury, the twelve passengers on a starship that has lost its sister ship to a cosmic accident are awakened from suspended animation to celebrate a birthday. They tell each other ghost stories, which the ship illustrates with virtual reality projections, and as the boundary between reality and fiction breaks down a very human story of loss slowly emerges. A beautifully mysterious story within a story.
The full list can be found here. Turns out that all the writers asked to contribute were men; it would be very interesting to repeat the exercise with the choices of women writers. What are your favourites?


Blogger Mark Cooper said...

I'm a big fan of the Vermillion Sands short stories, and anything by JG Ballard in general. Have a good xmas.

December 23, 2013 11:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a classic, I nominate H. Beam Piper's Omnilingual, which appeared in 1957. It is, in my opinion, the second-greatest dying Mars story of all time (1st place going to Zelazny's A Rose for Ecclesiastes, which misses the cutoff date by 3 years). Although it suffers from a few defects common to 1950s visions of the future (everything runs on nuclear power, but people still use notebooks and pencils), overall it is very well written and atmospheric. And although he stacks the deck in the story's favor a little bit by making his Martians pretty much indistinguishable from humans (and at a similar stage of development as 1950s Earth), the scenario that he constructs as to what a difference would make in trying to decipher the language of a civilization for that civilization to have been scientifically literate strikes me as very solid. Bonus points for having evident equality of the sexes and (especially in the context of 1950s-era SF) amazing ethnic diversity in his characters.

For modern, I would pick the amazing Holly Phillip's The Long, Cold Goodbye, which appeared in 2009. As in nearly everything Phillips writes, there is a great deal of ambiguity, so it's not completely clear whether the story is science fiction or fantasy, but she writes like a goddess. Although much less explicit on this point than Piper's story, it nevertheless also conveys the sense that there is an immense weight of history lying behind the events related by the text.

December 30, 2013 9:01 pm  

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