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!
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 Love, Cat 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.