Why Short Stories Are Awesome

Friday , 26, August 2016 11 Comments

Back before I did the Appendix N survey, I really didn’t think too much of short stories. I know I skipped over them in things like Dragon and Omni magazine back in the eighties. The ads for things like Amazing Stories just weren’t that convincing at the time, either. I couldn’t imagine it being worth what little lawn mowing money I could scrounge up. Not when I could get the latest copy of Autoduel Quarterly instead.

In the nineties I took advantage of the library that actually had subscriptions to the top three fantasy and science fiction magazines, and I was shocked at just how bad they were. I came away thinking that outside of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories, short sff was lame. And worse… I didn’t know that it didn’t have to be that way!

Now, I get that different people like different things. There are all kinds of readers out there. Some people can take a dozen books to the beach and devour them in short order, I get that. But I was always the type read maybe one or two classics a year. If the book wasn’t on par with Dune, then I pretty well didn’t have time for it.

I’ll tell you though, things like Lost and Honor Harrington have changed me. I’ve been hooked and hooked hard by stuff like that, only to get to the end and find out the the author really didn’t have any idea where they were going with it all. I feel personally betrayed by Stephen R. Donalson and David Brin due to the final installments of The Gap Series and the second Uplift trilogy.

And that gets to the heart of why short stories really are awesome. A good anthology gives you the chance to sort of speed date a bunch of authors in short order. “Best of” collections like the ones for C. L. Moore and Frederic Brown give you a sense of the scope a classic author’s entire career in a very small number of sittings. The best thing about it: nobody strings you along. Heck, reading short stories is like being able to read just the good parts from whole libraries worth of books.

The really good collections not only expand your concept of what’s even possible with the form, but they put you in touch with things you didn’t even know about your own tastes. One such volume is At the Edge of the World, a compilation of some of Lord Dunsany’s best tales that Lin Carter put together as part of his Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series.

Check out this parable about the nature of truth from “Of the Gods of Averon”:

“Far and white and straight lieth the road to Knowing, and down it in the heat and dust go all wise people of the earth, but in the fields before they come to it the very wise lie down  or pluck the flowers. By the side of the road to Knowing– O King, it is hard and hot– stand many temples, and in the doorway of every temple stand many priests, and they cry to the travellers that weary of the road, crying to them:

“‘This is the End.’

“And in the temples are the sounds of music, and from each roof arises the savour of pleasant burning; and all that look at a cool temple, whichever temple they look at, or hear the hidden music, turn in to see whether it be indeed the End. And such as find that their temple is not indeed the End set forth again upon the dusty road, stopping at each temple as they pass for fear they miss the End, or striving onwards on the road, and see nothing in the dust, till they can walk no longer and are taken worn and weary of their journey into some other temple by a kindly priest who shall tell them that this also is the End.”

This opening bit from “Time and the Gods” details the origin story of one of the most incredible cities I’ve ever read about:

Once when the gods were young and only Their swarthy servant Time was without age, the gods lay sleeping by a broad river upon earth. There in a valley that from all the earth the gods had set apart for their repose the gods dreamed marble dreams. And with domes and pinnacles the dreams arose and stood up proudly between the river and the sky, all shimmering white to the morning. In the city’s midst the gleaming marble of a thousand steps climbed to the citadel where arose four pinnacles beckoning to heaven, and midmost between the pinnacles there stood the dome, vast, as the gods had dreamed it. All around, terrace by terrace, there went marble lawns well guarded by onyx lions and carved with effiges of all the gods striding amid the symbols of the worlds. With a sound like tinkling bells, far off in a land of shepherds hidden by some hill, the waters of many fountains turned again home. Then the gods awoke and there stood Sardathrion.

And “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth”, it’s one of those things that managed to stun me in new ways with every single page:

Now in the time I tell of, there was trouble in Allathurion, for of an evening fell dreams were wont to come slipping through the tree trunks and into the peaceful village; and they assumed dominion of men’s minds and led them in watches of the night through the cindery plains of Hell. Then the magician of that village made spells against those fell dreams; yet still the dreams came flitting through the trees as soon as the dark had fallen, and let men’s minds by night into terrible places and caused them to praise Satan openly with their lips.

And men grew afraid of sleep in Allathurion. And they grew worn and pale, some through the want of rest, and others from fear of the things they saw on the cindery plains of Hell.

Then the magician of the village went up into the tower of his house, and all night long those whom fear kept awake could see his window high up in the night glowing softly alone. The next day, when the twilight was far gone and night ws gathering fast, the magician went away to the forest’s edge, and uttered there the spell that he had made. And the spell was a compulsive, terrible thing, having a power over evil dreams and over spirits of ill; for it was a verse of forty lines in many languages, both living and dead, and had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for “wasp.”

And still the dreams came flitting through the forest, and led men’s souls into the plains of Hell. Then the magician knew that the dreams were from Gaznak. Therefore he gathered the people of the village, and told them that he had uttered his mightiest spell– a spell having power over all that were human or of the tribes of beasts; and that since it had not availed the dreams must come from Gaznak, the greatest magician among the spaces of the stars. And he read to the people out of the Book of Magicians, which tells the comings of the comet and foretells his coming again. And he told them how Gaznak rides upon the comet, and how he visits Earth once in every two hundred and thirty years, and makes for himself a vast, invincible fortress and sends out dreams to feed on the minds of men, and may never be vanquished but by the sword of Sacnoth.

Now, if you had asked me before I read these if I wanted to read some sort of fantasy parable, a sort of creation story for somebody’s version of Mount Olympus, and a story that featured a particularly silly magic spell, I’d have told you no way. And yet, this stuff is not only really, really good… it delivers more payoff and more varieties of payoff by the sixty page mark than most authors pack into a pile of their interminable doorstopper books.

Really, you don’t have time not to read short stories.

11 Comments
  • PCBushi says:

    The form is growing on me. Actually I am especially liking the older novellas that are ~200 pages long. Longer than short stories, but short enough that they’re not major time investments.

  • Clearly, something’s in the air. I’m working on a similar piece right now. PCBushi – growing up in the seventies, I don’t think of 200pages as a novella, but as just another yellow spiked book from DAW

  • Anthony says:

    Of course, I still firmly believe that the best short fiction writer of all time is Flannery O’Connor. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is the best short story ever written.

    Asimov rocked too.

  • Steve says:

    I used to love short stories as a boy, when big novels seemed rather daunting to me and I’d yet to learn patience. Nowadays I strongly prefer novel-sized books, preferably part of a series.

    Because if I find one I like, I want more. And because long tales make for better listening in Audible format on long car trips. Burroughs, Wolfe and Niven and Pournelle have been welcome companions on my travels.

    The THERE WILL BE WAR series is an exception. Every book is like a selection box stuffed with your favourite sweeties. And I love finding the odd spot of 70’s zeerust when people on starships are using magnetic tape based media or whatever.

    Some folks may not care for zeerust in their stories, but I find it a charming little fingerprint of the the time it was written in. Like seeing fins on classic cars or men in shirts and ties smoking at their consoles in old NASA footage. It’s simultaneously interesting and comforting, somehow.

    THERE WILL BE WAR offers lots of those fascinating little glimpses into how people imagined the future in the days before internet and mobile phones. And sometimes they’re startlingly prescient, such as “On the Shadow of a Phosphor Screen” by William Wu. That tale was first published in 1979, but describes a sort of multiplayer RTS computer game that sounds very much like the TOTAL WAR series.

    I have to admit that, as a hairy-knuckled philistine, I don’t much care for the poems though.

  • judgedeadd says:

    Some time ago, I heard that the short fiction form in SF is dying. I was confused and dismayed. For as a child, I was reared on SF short stories: Russian, Polish, French; stories by Dick, Bradbury, Bulychev and others. (They tend to blow most of today’s shortfiction out of the water, too.)

    I’d rather read a short story these days, too, because it’s daunting to try and get yourself into a brand new 600-page novel each time.

  • I loved Orson Scott Card’s original short story, “Ender’s Game”, which I originally read in his collection “Unaccompanied Sonata”.

    His expansion of that story into a novel, I felt, added a lot of details without improving on the original story and so, to me, much of the novel felt like filler. (And another of the stories in that collection, “The Lost Boys” felt even more so.)

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