The Death of the Science Fiction Short Story

Saturday , 12, August 2017 23 Comments

Frequently, fans of the genre will lament that science fiction is dead.  I strongly disagree; there are still talented, imaginative writers producing worthwhile, even great work.  But in one regard, they are correct. Aside from a faint glimmer here and there, the science fiction short story has been snuffed out.

Now, it’s not particularly illuminating to look into the reasons for this, which are obvious in the general sense (the decline and eventual death of magazines) and abstruse in the specifics.  However, it’s instructive to examine why short stories are such an ideal format, the difference between then and now, and what the loss entails.

More than any other genre, I believe short stories are a natural fit for science fiction.  Thinking over the many dozens of works I’ve read by the masters of yesteryear, I can’t think of a single truly bad one. Obviously, some were better than others, but even when a work didn’t hit the mark, it was still perfectly readable and entertaining enough.  Combine that with the shorter length, and none ever left me feeling disappointed.

Consider a great science fiction writer like Clifford Simak.  I’ve read at least 20 of his short stories.  Most were good, a few were great, and even the weakest were decent.  By contrast, I’ve read only two of his novels, and Way Station was a thorough disappointment.

Amusingly, this even applies to bad writers!  Murray Leinster was an awful hack whose works are best forgotten.  In fact, The Forgotten Planet is possibly the single worst science fiction book ever written. An entire expedition and planet is forgotten by a futuristic society that has mastered faster than light travel because an index card is misplaced…and that might not even be the dumbest part of the book’s first five pages!

Ringing endorsement for Doctor to the Stars: “NOT thoroughly terrible” -Internet reviewer

Yet, Leinster’s short story collection Doctor to the Stars is NOT thoroughly terrible!  Oh sure, it’s mediocre and uninspiring, but it’s competent enough, and the first story, Grandfather’s War, seemingly anticipates a hit book by a more recent science fiction hack who knows nothing about science.

What is the reason for this?  Well, it’s because a solid science fiction short story requires only one thing. A good idea.  Think of something creative, and you have enough.  You don’t need anything else.

This explains why the heavy hitters were so consistent with their short stories.  Regardless of their various individual limitations and weaknesses, a great science fiction author is rarely at a loss for worthwhile ideas.

For instance, the aforementioned Way Station by Simak had a creative premise behind it and would have made for a very good short story.  But as a novel, it also required a strong plot, interesting characters, and the right pace, areas in which it faltered.

And it explains why even a hack can occasionally come up with something passable and hide the rest of their weaknesses.

Now, this is unique for the science fiction genre.  Read the short stories (which I highly recommend) of Maugham or Fitzgerald, and they largely resemble their novels, only shorter.  They’re not predicated upon a single neat idea.  But in a genre concerned with such ideas, whether of alien worlds or possible futures, short stories are a distinctly suitable format.

The demise of science fiction short stories has been a tragedy for the reader. Whether Weird Tales or the later tales by Asimov, Farmer, Sheckley, and every other significant author, there was no shortage of exciting content from the 1920’s to the 1980’s.  It was a great way to discover talented new scribes, and for younger readers, a step to becoming a fan of the genre in the first place.

That doesn’t exist anymore, which has contributed to science fiction’s waning popularity and the difficulty in discovering fresh names.  Now, if I want to try out a new author, I have to buy and read an entire book of theirs, instead of reading a short story either for free or as part of a magazine.  Not only is it a larger investment of resources, but we’ve just established that even great science fiction authors, while tremendously consistent with their short stories, can badly miss with novels.  So perhaps the writer is good, but simply wrote a bad work!

I can’t imagine it’s a good situation for writers, either.  Instead of cutting their teeth with short stories before moving on to full-length novels, they’re forced to start with the latter.  And how many of the mistakes of a first-time novelist could be avoided with more short story experience?

Going back to a previous point, this also explains why so many short story forays today, whether If You Were a Dinosaur, My LoveCat Pictures Please, or The Lady Astronaut of Mars, are so dire.  In addition to all their other sins, they contain no ideas!  On the bright side, this informs us, without having to suffer through any of their novels, that these respective authors are not actual science fiction writers.  Rather, they are writing bad, melodramatic chick lit in a vaguely science fiction setting, complete with elementary school blunders any time they feebly touch upon science.

To be sure, it’s not all gloom and doom.  Cirsova Magazine is trying its best to sustain the format, tides of history be damned.  And there is the occasional compilation of short stories by a variety of authors which, if not financially successful, still contains worthwhile fare.

But on the whole, the short story as a major format is finished, and that’s a crying shame for science fiction, its ideal genre.

23 Comments
  • Nicholas Archer says:

    Interesting article. If the Short Story is truly dead does that mean an Author like me who can only write Short Fiction will be restrained to the fringes of Science Fiction? If that is the case I guess that’s not entirely a bad thing, fame and fortune are overrated anyways.

    • Jeffro says:

      Hey, short fiction is coming back in style. Successful authors get something out every month. If you’re focused entirely on short fiction, you can get a sizable portfolio up on Amazon while kibitzing in the various new ‘zines and anthologies that are percolating. It worked for the grandmasters… and I think it’s working right now.

      Of course, being a short fiction guy does NOT preclude you from producing “novels.” All you have to do is be willing to rediscover the fix-up! (See The Face in the Abyss and the Foundation Trilogy for examples….)

  • Stanley Miller says:

    Nicholas, it may be hard to get into an anthology or publish your own short story collection but the option for Kindle short reads is out there. If you take the KU route you have a very low threshold to overcome to make a sale. Once you have readers and reviews the other paths may well open up to you.

    https://www.amazon.com/b/ref=sr_aj?node=8584457011&ajr=0

    Honestly, I’m not paying a buck or more for a 30 page story so to sell to me KU is essential.

    • Nicholas Archer says:

      I’m pretty sure the article had more to do with reaching readers than on getting published but I could be wrong, Mr. James can always correct me.

      • Vlad James says:

        I will defer to a far greater expert than myself on the subject of the short story fiction market, particularly in SF. Namely, Larry Correia.

        In his various posts about the publishing industry and writing as a profession, Correia has mentioned that even the most prolific short story writers, those who have written well over a hundred of them, and already have more of a built-in audience than those starting out, STILL can’t eke out much money or fame from their efforts.

        Attaining fame or fortune as an author is hard enough, but it appears to be nigh impossible in the short story format nowadays. The only possibilities (the SJW Hugos don’t count) are in novels, and particularly in series.

        • Nicholas Archer says:

          Interesting. So, to clarify: The Short Story Writer shall remain obscure or have a brief stint of fame before becoming obscure because they don’t write Novels or Novel Series. Correct?

          • Jeffro says:

            If you are in it simply for the money, then go listen to the people that are putting out and marketing themselves 24/7 and selling.

            If you love short science fiction and fantasy and want to help rebuild the field from nearly nothing regardless of whether picking up cans on the side of the road would earn you more money for your time… then maybe being a big name within the hip cool pulp and pulp-adjacent scene is awesome and fun in and of itself.

            Being an intentional amateur opens the door to a tremendous amount of creative freedom. But not everyone knows where that sweet spot that connects (a) what they are good at with (b) what the market wants. Experimenting heavily with the shorter fiction format will help you find what that is. (The audience that latches on to you may surprise you.)

            But there’s no reason why you can start off as a dedicated amateur and then transition into the “all about the benjamins” type later.

          • Nicholas Archer says:

            I think I understand what you are saying Jeffro. Though it would be nice to live off what I write I have never been about the money but about the message. Though there is something tragically poetic about obscurity. Thank you for the answers.

          • Vlad James says:

            Yes, I will echo Jeffro’s fine advice. If you’re solely looking to win the lottery, then you should write novels and series.

            But your chances of winning the lottery (becoming a very financially successful writer) are so small, no matter how talented you are, that you might as well just write what you love.

    • cirsova says:

      Sell what you can to magazines. That will build up some name recognition and get you some readers. When the rights revert, take the stories you’ve already published and pair them with some unpublished stories and release it as an anthology.

      Fans will buy it for new stories and to have old stories readily available, and word of mouth will spread from fans who’ve read your magazine stories to readers who might pick up an anthology even if they’re not buying magazines.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    The reason for the short story’s disappearance is simple: it no longer pays, and they’re no longer read widely, their function usurped by film.

    • jic says:

      But there were movies from the ’30s to the ’80s too, and the short story did fine. As for “it no longer pays”, that’s entirely true, but I think the question that has to be asked is “why doesn’t it pay anymore?”. I think the answer to that is the narrowing of the SF market, the decline of magazine publishing, and changes to the publishing industry in general.

  • Nathan says:

    The 70s strike again. Changes in the market a nuked backlog thanks to tax law, and the replacement of writers as editors by university students killed off the short story.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Vlad

    That’s very sad. Do you see any possible revival or it the sci fi short story dead?
    I’m assuming that it can be a niche where aspiring authours can write short stories and post them in a dedicated forum.
    The readers and other writers could then constructively critique the stories.
    Eventually the realky good one could then be encouraged to go to the magazines or to Kindle

    xavier

  • Sam says:

    I think if you like writing short stories, your best bet is to see if there is anyone publishing them; Cirsova magazine for example.
    Personally I will pay a dollar or so for an extended short story, Novella if you like, I quite like them.

    In this day and age marketing is indistinguishable from writing. You must do both. You must work on building a reader base. It isn’t optional.

  • Keith West says:

    I would like to respectfully take issue with your assessment of Leinster. Not regarding his novels, I agree with you there, but I think you’ve underestimated his skill as a short fiction writer. DOCTOR TO THE STARS isn’t the best place to start. Try “Sidewise in Time”, the story the Sidewise Award is named after. “Exploration Team” won one of the first Hugos, back when the award meant something. There are reasons why stories like “A Logic Named Joe” (first appearance in SF of the internet), “First Contact”, and “The Strange Case of John Kingman” are considered minor classics in the field.

    Leinster started writing SF before there were dedicated SF pulps, with his first story preceding the appearance of AMAZING STORIES by several years. He supported himself by writing for the pulps, and not just SF. Yes, some of his output is subpar, but when he was hitting on all cylinders, he could really hit. I would suggest the NESFA andthology FIRST CONTACTS: THE ESSENTIAL MURRAY LEINSTER. If the price (it’s a hardcover) is a bit steep, the Del Rey THE BEST OF MURRAY LEINSTER has many of the same stories.

    I agree completely with your thesis that short stories are the lifeblood of the field. It’s rare that I read a short story from before the 90s that I don’t like. There is plenty of entertainment in the old pulps and digests. An aspiring writer can learn a lot from reading them.

    • Vlad James says:

      You talked me into it! I will read another short story or two by Leinster. Again, it’s impossible to understate how wretched The Forgotten Planet is, but as noted in the article above, the beauty of short stories is that they’re less investment.

  • Mark McSherry says:

    H.L. Menckin was buying and praising his writing while Leinster was in his early twenties– And that would be in the late 1910’s.

    His first published SF story was in 1919. While not great literature, “A Thousand Degrees Below Zero” is a solid ‘hard’ extrapolation.

    At the back of his biography (written by his daughters and called THE LIFE AND WORKS OF MURRAY LEINSTER) there is a listing of his published work printed in very small type. And it goes on for twenty pages! Using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature, one can browse almost all of those twenty pages, a grand summary of the 50-year output of The Dean of Science Fiction.

    • Vlad James says:

      Well, if the pretentious, mediocre, religion and America-hating leftist Mencken (not “Menckin”), so beloved by cultural Marxist faux intellectuals, praised Leinster, then he must have been great indeed! Nevermind the actual quality of his writings.

      I’m assuming, based on their decades of output, and praise by other leftist/establishment entities, that you are a big fan of Samuel Delaney and John Scalzi, too?

      • Mark McSherry says:

        Don’t dig your hole any deeper, Mr James, with your assumptions.

        William F Jenkins is no hack and no leftist. Mencken was the first to publish Leinster’s epigrams at $5 a piece when he was 17. It was not by-lined but Mencken did praise his work and encouraged him to send more.

        Spurred on by this early success, by 1919 he was writing adventures, westerns, mysteries, and science fiction. He was a full-time pulp writer by his early twenties, with a daily goal of putting a thousand words on paper every day. During his life he would publish 1,500 short stories and almost 100 books.

        Leinster was no faux intellectual either. He had to quit school at 14 and find work after his father lost his railroad job. But that did not stop him from reading everything he could get his hands on. With no further formal education Mr Leinster was also a tinkerer and received a number of patents for his inventions over the years.

        And I’m not sure what Delaney and Scalzi have to do with any of this. Again, stop digging. You are entitled to your opinion of what you’ve read, but Murray Leinster is one of the good guys.

        • Vlad James says:

          Did you publish a re-release Leinster’s works or something?

          Your moronic response reads like a hagiography on the back of a book jacket. Nowhere do you mention ANYTHING about the quality of Leinster’s actual stories. I don’t give a damn that he had to quit school at 14 after his father lost a railroad job. I care that his writings are shit. “The Forgotten Planet” is the single worst science fiction book I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading.

          And you’re playing dumb (not easy in your case) when you claim not to understand my mention of Delaney or Scalzi, of whom far more impressive-sounding hagiographies can be written.

  • TPC says:

    It would be easy to revive the short story market for speculative fiction. But it would cost money and require coordination and consolidation of effort, so it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Maybe in a decade or so.

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