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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

Too Many For A Favorite

Too Many For A Favorite

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A well-meaning teacher (who will remain nameless, but she knows who she is) recently asked me to make a copy of my favorite SFF (short) story, with a few typed paragraphs about what makes it good.

Now I'm a teacher myself, and I understand the purpose of the exercise; it would work with pretty much any good story.

But I got completely tied in knots over the task of choosing my "favorite." I've been reading SFF for over forty years, especially short stories, and I've read hundreds, if not thousands, of them. I admire and adore scores of them, all for different reasons.

There are a great many that come to mind right now. Here is a list of "great" stories I was able to think of off the top of my head, without cracking a book. (Okay, that's not entirely true, I had to crack a book or two to remember the exact titles of some of them, but I knew which stories I was looking for.)

  • Baker, "Son Observe the Time"
  • Bester, "5,271,009"
  • Bester, "Adam and No Eve"
  • Bester, "The Four-Hour Fugue"
  • Bester, "Of Time and Third Avenue"
  • Bester, "Star Light, Star Bright"
  • Bradbury, "There Will Come Soft Rains"
  • Bradbury, "Usher II"
  • Crowley, "The Great Work of Time"
  • Crowley, "Snow"
  • Egan, "Dust"
  • Egan, "The Hundred Light-Year Diary"
  • Egan, "Learning To Be Me"
  • Egan, "Reasons to be Cheerful"
  • Egan, "The Safe Deposit Box"
  • Gold, "The Old Die Rich"
  • Gottlieb, "Tauf Aleph"
  • Heinlein, "Gulf"
  • Heinlein, "Lost Legacy"
  • Jablokov, "The Breath of Suspension"
  • Jablokov, "A Deeper Sea"
  • Jablokov, "Living Will"
  • Kress, "Inertia"
  • Kress, "The Price of Oranges"
  • Le Guin, "The Finder"
  • Le Guin, "The Island of the Immortals"
  • Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"
  • Le Guin, "Seasons of the Ansarac"
  • MacDonald, "The Days of Solomon Gursky"
  • Marusek, "The Wedding Album"
  • Pohl, "Outnumbering the Dead"
  • Resnick, "For I Have Touched the Sky"
  • Resnick, "Seven Views of Oldavai Gorge"
  • Reynolds, "Zima Blue"
  • Sheckley, "Child's Play"
  • Sheckley, "The Language of Love."
  • Silverberg, "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another"
  • Simak, "Huddling Place."
  • Sterling, "Dinner in Audoghast"
  • Sterling, "Swarm"
  • Sterling, "We See Things Differently"
  • Tiptree, "A Momentary Taste of Being"
  • Tiptree, "We Who Stole the Dream"
  • Van Vogt, "Far Centaurus"
  • Varley, "Equinoctial."
  • Varley, "In the Hall of the Martian Kings"
  • Varley, "Just Another Perfect Day"
  • Varley, "Lollypop and the Tar Baby."
  • Varley, "Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo."
  • Varley, "The Persistence of Vision."
  • Varley, "The Phantom of Kansas"

I wouldn't dare call this list "definitive" in any way, as there are glaring omissions: nothing by such towering talents of the short form as Connie Willis, Theodore Sturgeon, David Gerrold, Philip K. Dick, Elizabeth Bear, Robert Reed, etc., etc.

But these are stories that have stuck with me, that I have come back to over and over -- although some, like "Far Centaurus," I'm sure I haven't read in over three decades.

You can tell by looking, probably, which authors have whole collections I've read. You can take this list as a recommendation to find collections of short stories by Varley, Egan, Le Guin, Sheckley, Bester.

But of course my tastes are for the sorrowful and tragic. Some of these stories, such as "Tango Charlie," "We Who Stole the Dream," "For I Have Touched the Sky", "Son, Observe the Time" and "The Great Work of Time," had me gasping aloud when I got to the end. And I've tried reading aloud "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" on several occasions (it's very short), and not once have I been able to get through the whole thing without choking up. (I've never bothered trying to read "Tango Charlie" aloud -- who wants to sob like a baby in front of an audience?)

And some are utterly mind-blowing, in the sense of expanding your imaginations in directions you never thought it could go. Pretty much anything by Egan or Varley is like that.

There's more SF than fantasy on this list, because I've read a lot more short work in SF.

When you're trying to write in this field, it's humbling to realize how crowded it already is with blindingly beautiful work, stretching through the decades.
  • I've probably read some of these in anthologies but I'm terrible at remembering titles.

    And since we're on the subject of my forgetting titles ...

    Would you happen to know the title/author of a story I recall fondly from my childhood? Earthmen were being 'held back' from so-much-more-powerful aliens (replete with a full variety of mental powers) in a friendly, "it's in your own interests" way. The humans manage to capture one of the aliens, imprisoning him in a field that breaks his telepathic connection to his peers. They conduct various experiments on him. Finally he gets loose and within a few seconds his colleagues teleport in to destroy the field generators.

    It ends with the revelation that the aliens are essentially immortal ... that when they die they join the 'standing wave around the universe'. But the tale closes with the realisation that ... we humans don't. At least I *think* that was the idea. Frankly I'd love to re-read the story and then check if I'm right with you. :-)

    Any idea what story it was?
    • What an incredible list!

      I have to say that I have read none of them--which isn't to say that I won't, or that I shouldn't, but it is a genre that I've rarely read.

      I will say this though, I did read Connie Willis' "To Say Nothing of the Dog" and absolutely *adored* it. The comedy was wonderful as was the witty dialogue, the plot was intriguing and ridiculous all at the same time, and I will gladly recommend it to anyone--but I don't think it typical of science fiction, is it? Perhaps it is--as I said--I do know very little about science fiction. The mental picture that I instantly draw on is one of space ships, aliens and other worlds--which I know is hardly fair, but it comes from having grown up on Star Wars and Star Trek, I think. Any way. I truly adored Willis' book, and I suspect if I cracked the spine on a few of the stories you recommend above, I would enjoy those, too.
      • Hi Meredith. I'm a fan of Connie Willis too, and I also liked To Say Nothing of the Dog. But her Hugo Winner, The Doomsday Book, is even better. (Another time travel story, Brad!)

        I think a lot of people have images of SF as being about space travel, but practically none of the stories on this list are. As you can see from my comment to Brad, above, a number of them are time travel stories.

        As for the others, a number of them are about the possible future of the human mind -- as in, what happens when we're able either to alter the mind, or to record it? What if there are radical changes to the human mind of other kinds?

        • "Dust"

        • "Learning To Be Me"

        • "Reasons to be Cheerful"

        • "The Safe Deposit Box"

        • "Living Will"

        • "Inertia"

        • "The Wedding Album"

        • "Just Another Perfect Day"

        • "The Phantom of Kansas"

        Still others, like "The Island of the Immortals", "Son Observe the Time", and "Outnumbering the Dead", are about the consequences of immortality.

        ...And so forth. There's sociological SF, psychological SF, economic SF, biological SF, alternate history SF, etc., etc....


    • Whoops! I didn't mean to reply specifically to your comment--not quite sure how that happened. Sorry, there! We'll just blame it on 'technical issues' or 'user error' or something like that... :-)
    • Hi Brad,

      I don't remember that particular story at all.

      Of particular interest to you, a number of these titles are time travel stories (or closely related to them):

      • Son Observe the Time"

      • "Of Time and Third Avenue"

      • "The Great Work of Time"

      • "The Hundred Light-Year Diary"

      • "The Old Die Rich"

      • "The Price of Oranges"

      And, in case I haven't mentioned it before, any Australian who loves SF really ought to read Greg Egan...
      • You have mentioned Greg Egan, back when we first had a chat via e-mail. I most definitely will give him a try one day.

        You might have forgotten, but you've also recommended 'The Man Who Folded Himself' (did I get the title right?). Anyway, I purchased that book over Christmas on your recommendation, it's sitting in my 'to read' pile. If only I could split myself in two so one of me could take the time to read the book ... :-)

        I'll add those short stories to the list!
  • I don't know how many times I've read "Brothers Lionheart" by Astrid Lindgren, I still cry at the beginning. I'm just not able to get past their dying without choking up. I don't know how I would do with some of these stories, when one who's "tastes are for the sorrowful and tragic" choke up... The weird thing is that it's just getting worse with time, wonder why? Anyway, do you have some to recommend that are more happy? I don't mind being held in suspense, as long as the end is good. (I don't think DH had a good end, I really struggled with that book). Impressive list, btw. :-)
    • Okay! Not all of these end sadly, although they go through some sadness on the way. Some with more uplifting ends:

      • "5,271,009"

      • "Of Time and Third Avenue"

      • "Reasons to be Cheerful"

      • "Tauf Aleph"

      • "Lost Legacy"

      • "The Finder"

      • "The Days of Solomon Gursky"

      • "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another"

      • "In the Hall of the Martian Kings"

      • "The Persistence of Vision."

      • "The Phantom of Kansas"

      You don't think DH ended well? Harry finally, finally getting the normal, boring existence he'd always craved, with a loving family and no debt owed to the future? Explain yourself.
      • The ending for Harry was fine, however, I was struggling so much with all the deaths that it didn't help much. So, ok, maybe the end was a good as possible, and I loved the King's Cross scene, but there was too much darkness throughout the book for me. If it wasn't for the fact that I'd read the rest, I doubt I would've finished it. I started weeping when Hedwig died and I didn't stop until right before the epilogue. I've no plan of rereading. Especially not now, when I'm working on attuning myself with my highly sensitive temperament and feel especially jumpy. It's weird, but Dr. Aron (who's book on Highly Sensitive Persons is a godsend) says it's quite normal, and will recede. I look forward to that.
  • I didn't see anything by Fritz Leiber :) He's my favorite Sci Fi writer. But even then...a more edgy kind of Sci Fi. I loved his Gummitch character (a kitten with an IQ of 160)

    So in Sci Fi, if it's weird...I like. For mainstream. I still love The Menance from Earth from Heinlein.
  • I've never been much of an SF fan, but I remember two short stories read to me as a child that really stuck with me (obviously!). I think one was by Heinlein about a child living on Venus and the sun only showing once day, very rarely. The other was a ditty (author unknown) about a piece of gum stuck on the bedstead and reeking havoc.

    As you can see, they made a lasting impression!
    • I think the Venus story you're thinking of is Bradbury, not Heinlein. I remember it myself. Generally Heinlein didn't let that sort of cruelty triumph in his stories. But I could be wrong.

      The ditty isn't SF. It's "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Overnight" (1958) by Marty Bloom, Ernest Breur, and Billy Rose. Lyrics are here.

      Edited at 2009-03-05 08:47 pm (UTC)
      • Oh I grew up singing that song...but this was a story my sister read to me when I was around 8! (long, long time ago!)

        Yup, you're right, Bradbury *smax head* I told you SF wasn't my thing!
  • Great list. I'm going to make a point to read all the ones I haven't.
    • Thanks, JP. I'd be curious to know which ones those are. Or, actually, I'd be curious to know which ones we both have already read and like.
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