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My Top Ten Science Fiction Stories

by Michael K. Iwoleit

With the following article I started a while ago a blog on short fiction the content of which is now transfered to this new repository. It was no arbitrary beginning. I am a science fiction writer and probably will always be. There’s a special significance when sf people attempt the impossible and select the ten “best” sf stories of all time – as no other genre science fiction has been in its historic development dependent on achievements and innovations in the short fiction realm. Up to the forties science fiction was almost completely a story genre and few novels of lasting quality were published. It may be argued that the basic idea of science fiction – exploring the impact of a scientific or technological advancement on individuals and society – has been fully realized only in short fiction (I personally would regard this view as too simple). Everywhere in the world science fiction as a developing genre has, with few exceptions, started with story writing. The history of the genre as an international phenomenon is far too complex to justify hasty generalizations and so it is surely a shortcoming that my selection, as many others, features mostly English language writers. Further readings, studies and new insights may change this but for the moment here’s what it is: a personal selection of a reader and writer grown up with Anglo-American sf who is still limited by the horizon he hopes to expand over time.

Adolfo Bioy Casares
THE INVENTION OF MOREL
1940

Bioy Casares’ novella (it is mostly published as a novel which I think it isn’t) made its author, a friend and co-writer of Borges, internationally famous. It is one of the greatest works of Latin American science fiction and fantasy. Readers who still regard science fiction as a primary Anglo-Anerican genre may be surprised to find out that The Invention of Morel is a pioneering work that introduced the concept of virtual reality into science fiction long before Cyberpunk was even dreamed of, even before Dick, Galouye and others first explored this concept. What lifts this tale of a castaway, who finds out that the idle residents of an unknown islands are only projections and includes himself into their endlessly repeated lifes, high above most other VR and cyberspace stories is its poetic language and the slow, masterful unfolding of its central enigma. It tells a lot about a certain ignorance in sf circles that few typical sf readers have recognized this work.

C.L. Moore
NO WOMAN BORN
1944

Catherine Lucille Moore’s (1911-1987) influence on American science fiction and fantasy can hardly be overrated. Her story “Shambleau” introduced a dark, brooding sensuality into pulp fiction long before there was any talk of taboo breakers. Her unique collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) produced maybe the most original body of short works in sf of the forties. Her greatest works are perhaps among her novellas. The stunning opening pages of “No Woman Born”, one of the first and still one of the greatest cyborg stories, with their nuanced description of the artificially recreated dancer Deidre can convince even today’s readers of Moore’s outstanding ability to evoke emotional states (George R.R. Martin in stories such as “A Song for Lya” was one of the very few who came close to her in this regard). Rarely has there been such a convincing narrative treatment of a human being turned into something completely new and different as in the climax of “No Woman Born” when Deidre’s comeback on stage demonstrates her newly acquired modes of expression. If sf critics will ever settle on a canon of sf, Moore’s tales should be acknowledged as some of the genre’s lasting achievements.

J.G. Ballard
THE VOICES OF TIME
1960

The history of science fiction could be written in terms of its big metaphors, the central ideas that became the focus of much of sf writing in its subsequent eras. The central metaphors of the Golden Age science fiction of the Forties have been space and exploration. One of the main metaphors of the British New Wave science fiction of the late Sixties was entropy – a term derived from thermodynamics that was extended into a metaphor for an increasingly disordered and random modern world (not only in science fiction but in mainstream writing as well, as Thomas Pynchon’s famous story “Entropy” from 1960 proves). Two stories have become kind of definitive statements in this regard. One was “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967) by Pamela Zoline. The other one, earlier and more fundamental, was “The Voices of Time” by J.G. Ballard: Earth receives a life countdown from alien intelligences that may hint at the end of the world. Climate changes cause organisms on Earth to access concealed genetic reserves that may be required to survive in a grotesquely changed world. The main character of the story, one of those lethargic drifting anti-heroes typical for Ballard’s early work, risks a bold experiment to mobilize his own “dead genes” and reaches the goal of his mental journey in the moment of his death. “The Voices of Time” is a masterpiece of sensual and conceptual condensation. There is no superfluous line, no incidental detail. All elements of the story reflect and complement each other to an enigmatic whole that is among the most artful works in modern science fiction.

David I. Masson
TRAVELER’s REST
1965

In 2003, a small British publisher re-issued The Caltraps of Time, the only story collection by the Scottish librarian and casual sf writer David Irvine Masson (1917-2007). With only seven stories in the sixties and three published later, most of them in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, Masson may seem as a peripheral writer, nonetheless he is remembered as one of the most original and ambitious contributors to British new wave sf, not least for this story, his first one. Masson had a preference for time phenomena and in “Traveler’s Rest” he utilizes the narrative device of time acceleration and deceleration for a pessimistic vision of the human condition of epic proportions. The story follows the way of a soldier who becomes an individual while moving away from the frontline where an eerie war is fought against an invisible enemy behind a border of infinite time acceleration. Only seconds after his relief he is ordered back and years of private happiness shrink to split seconds against a war that may hide a secret of cruel irony. All this is explored in a story perfectly structured and rich in detail, whose unique conception has never been surpassed in the time traveling subgenre.

James Tiptree jr.
HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER
1974

Considering her lifework, I regard Alice Sheldon, who for many years hid behind the male pseudonym James Tiptree jr., as the greatest short story writer in the history of science fiction, surpassing even Ballard, Bester or Cordwainer Smith. It’s hard to select a specific of her many outstanding tales. “The Women Men Don’t See” could stand here, “The Screwfly Solution” and others. I personally find this subtle and beautiful work her most artful and original story. Barry Malzberg, who commissioned it for an anthology about the great topics of science fiction, called it the greatest post doomsday story ever and it may well be. The story is composed of several episodes of lasting emotional impact on the main character and only in the virtuoso closing sequence the reader realizes that these are the traces of a man long dead and fragments of a civilization vanished from Earth whose only remains are the most painful experiences of its members. Showing Alice Sheldon of the height of her powers, I think that even among the best American mainstream stories of the seventies few matched the artistry of this story. If I had to select a single story as the greatest science fiction story ever written, it would be this one.

Barry N. Malzberg
A GALAXY CALLED ROME
1975

Barry Malzberg’s controversial career and personality and his almost schizophrenic relation to the science fiction genre, that he condemned as much for its failures as he praised it for its achievements, has turned him into scapegoat for sf purists in US and abroad. A major part of his short works (featured in his 1994 collection The Passage of Light) belongs to a subgenre that one of his publishers called “recursive science fiction”. Science Fiction about science fiction has a long tradition and many prominent sf writers from Dick to Silverberg to Michael Bishop and others contributed to it. No other writer, however, has advanced it to such an intensity of reflection and self-destructive loathing as Malzberg. “A Galaxy of Rome” is his masterpiece in this regard. It’s not a story in the strictest sense of the word but a series of sketches of a writer how tries to write a story in the Campbellian mode based on two articles by sf grandfather editor John W. Campbell himself. The attempts to explore the possibilities of a story that can never be written, interwoven with self-reflections of the writer, turn out to be much more exciting than a story in the Campbellian mode could ever hope to be. Few writers applied the techniques of post-modernism to science fiction – John Sladek, to name one beside Malzberg – and as this story proves it can be done with stunning results: turning sf into a kind of fiction that is in itself a meditation about its own methods and conventions.

William Gibson
HINTERLANDS
1981

In an essay on Gibson I called him “a writer of surfaces, while not a superficial writer” and dared to claim that he became famous for the wrong reasons. The concept of cyberspace as featured in the Neuromancer trilogy, which became kind of his trademark, is surely among the most flawed and least inspired ideas in his work. Apart from the stylistically immensely influential opening chapters of Neuromancer his whole first trilogy, taken seriously, is a failure and as a novel writer he improved much in his later books. What I find most regrettable is that it has been rarely acknowledged what a fine short story writer he is. “The Winter Market”, along with Tiptree’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, may be still the greatest of all Cyberpunk stories and a perfect expression of the main elements of Cyberpunk aesthetics. “The Gernsback Continuum” is a clever, self-reflective programmatic statement of proto-Cyberpunk and, as David Pringle justly claimed, a word-perfect piece of writing. “Hinterlands”, arguably his best story, belongs to a rare subgenre of science fiction that I want to call “misanthropic sf”. In novels and stories of this subgenre humans are confronted with beings or intelligences high above their own level of technological or biological advancement and fail to convince those others of being rational creatures with their own dignity. Some of the greatest works of science fiction belong to this category, novels such as Solaris by Lem, Roadside Picnic by the brothers Strugatzky, The Genocides by Thomas Disch or Pallas by French writer Capoulet-Junac and stories such as “The Bees of Knowledge” by Barrington Bayley. “Hinterlands” is a worthy successor to all these. Humanity is portrayed here as a scavenger of higher civilizations and madness is the price it pays to live on their achievements. An unusually far-reaching concept in Gibson’s works, this story is one of the bleakest visions of humanity’s place in the cosmos of the last decades.

Geoff Ryman
THE UNCONQUERED COUNTRY
1984

The sf of the eighties, probably perceived by most readers as the decade of cyperpunk, also saw the infusion of elements of magic realism (as blurred this label may have become by now, marking writers as diverse as Mo Yan, Mia Couto and Haruki Murakami) into science fiction, most remarkable in the work of Lucius Shepard but also in this novella that made Geoff Ryman, who later turned to what he called “mundane science fiction”, famous in the science fiction field. One may argue that “The Unconquered Country” shares one basic feature with magic realism: the depiction of a harsh reality, seen through a weave of fantastic metaphors. But apart from this it is a work sui generis. Typical sf plot devices – biotechnology, living houses, artificial creatures for advertising etc. – are applied here to create a shifting reality that at a second glance can be recognized as Cambodia under Pol Pot seen through a distorting mirror. As in much of the best science fiction alienation and distortion serve to lead readers to heightened perception of reality. Ryman’s story ends with a scene full with the forebodings of genocide and here fiction and reality again meet with devastating effect.

Carter Scholz
TRANSIENTS
1988

This is probably the least known story on my list. Published, as far as I know, only once in an anthology in memory of the influential sf editor Terry Carr, it is a neglected masterpiece of modernist science fiction. Scholz, however, is not an unknown name in the field. With only a small output he became rather well-known in the seventies especially for a series of time-travel stories featuring famous composers and later, after abandoning science fiction, earned wider acclaim for his SDI novel Radiance (2002). It’s remarkable that this touching and mysterious story despite the originality of its conception – it portrays a group of young people who move in unforeseeable time and space jumps through the United States – has some striking similarities with two other stories written about the same time, “Blue Shifting” by Eric Brown and “The Save-Deposit Box” by Greg Egan. One may speculate if three writers reacted to the same undercurrents of their time by putting their characters into very similar existential situations. Whatever, “Transients” is maybe the best of this three masterpieces and displays Scholz in full command of his dense, reflected style and his sensibility for form and psychic states. The story does not resolve the character’s strange affliction but closes at the end into a full loop and a powerful parable of detachment and alienation – recurring themes of science fiction that have rarely been approached with such refinement.

Ted Chiang
STORY OF YOUR  LIFE
1999

For the science fiction of the new century’s first two decades Ted Chiang probably is what Australian Greg Egan has been for the nineties: the best sf story writer currently producing (at least within the English language area). With a remarkable small number of works he not just sweeped sf’s highest literary awards but proved that it is still possibly to write stories on the height of contemporary scientific discourse that successfully undertake imaginary and intellectual forays into the unknown (while many critics and quite a lot of writers claim that our present has become so science fictional that the imagination of sf writers fails to convince any longer). “Story of Your Life” – 2016 filmed as Arrival by Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve – is among the best first contact stories in science fiction, fascinating not just for its refined, effectual structure (the story is, in fact, the tale of a mother for a daughter not yet born that she knows will die young) but for its scientifically sound, physically grounded speculation on how language might influence the perception of time. Ted Chiang has so far resisted the temptation to start on a big commercial sf career and only writes when inspiration hits him. Reading this story one may wish that he will continue to do so.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Michael K. Iwoleit