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10 Memorable Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories
editorial by David M. Switzer
I don't have a particularly good memory. So for these stories, all of which I first read some time ago, to stick in my mind must mean that they're memorable. I found it difficult to decide which stories by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to include -- the other choices were easier. There are, of course, lots of brilliant stories that I haven't read yet, and I look forward to reading more of them.
"Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov (in Nightfall and Other Stories)
The world of Lagash has six suns, and no night. When you have no night, everyone is afraid of the dark. But once every 2049 years there's a total eclipse: night falls, the stars come out, people go mad, and civilization is destroyed. The astronomers have figured this out, with some help from the religious writings of the Cultists. They've been able to persuade some people to go to a Hideout, where they have food, water, records -- and hopefully safety. But most people didn't believe them. And now that the eclipse is here, there's an angry mob approaching the Observatory…
The end of the world might seem inherently memorable, but the image of night falling once every couple of millennia is particularly vivid. I like the scientists-against-everyone-else aspect of the story. The cyclical nature of the civilization reminds me of A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. As for the psychology, at first glance it may seem silly to go mad just because it's dark. But unless we've lived near one of the poles, we can't have any idea what it would be like to have no night. And it's obvious these days that when some people are presented with logical evidence for something they're still quite willing to disbelieve it.
Asimov wrote many great stories, including "The Bicentennial Man" and "The Last Question." He also wrote some fascinating novels, including the Foundation series and The Gods Themselves. And he also wrote many nonfiction books on all kinds of topics, such as the aptly titled A Roving Mind. I'm not much into biographies or autobiographies, but I found his autobiography, I. Asimov, quite readable.
"Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester (in Virtual Unrealities)
James Paleologue Vandaleur's father was fabulously wealthy but lost all his money just before he died. Now his only way to make money is to hire out his multiple-aptitude android. But his android has been causing trouble lately, and they've had to move from world to world to avoid the authorities. Androids aren't supposed to be able to harm people, and Vandaleur has no idea why his can. On the first hot day of summer, the android began singing -- and continued singing as he killed the woman he was working for. They'll have to move again. But when you live with a murderous android for so long, what happens to you?
What keeps this story in my head is the image of an android killing people when the temperature gets above a certain point. The android acts like we think it should at all other times -- for example, reminding Vandaleur that it is a valuable piece of property. With a very small number of exceptions, Bester's stories read as if they were written yesterday (this one was first published in 1954). They aren't old fashioned like some old stories. Bester allows himself to experiment with his prose a bit more than most of the other authors in this list. The pronouns in the story are a bit confusing, but they make a certain kind of sense when you consider whose point of view the story is from.
I discovered Bester a few years ago, and in addition to his wonderful short stories his novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination are two of my favourites.
"Unaccompanied Sonata" by Orson Scott Card (in Maps in a Mirror)
Christian was identified as a music prodigy at a young age. He was sent to live in the forest so that he wouldn't be corrupted by anyone else's music, and cared for by unsinging servants. He created music on his Instrument, and eventually people came to listen to it. When he went out to see the people, they would all go away. Except one, who handed him a recording of Bach. Although it was forbidden, he listened to it. And although he tried to avoid it, elements of Bach started showing up in his music. He was caught, and forbidden to create music ever again…
This story is sadder than the ones about the end of civilization, because it's more personal. Card always creates characters you care about, and Christian is no exception. Someone for whom music is the most important aspect of life is forbidden to create any more music. Even if you agreed that he broke the law and received a reasonable punishment, it's still tragic. Once Christian makes his choice, his path through life is perhaps somewhat inevitable. But that doesn't make it trivial.
Card is one of my favourite authors, for both short stories and novels. He has written many brilliant novels, from classics such as Ender's Game and Seventh Son to newer works like Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus and Magic Street.
"Tower of Babylon" by Ted Chiang (in Stories of Your Life and Others)
It took four months for a man to walk up to the top of the tower with a load of bricks. The tower was visible from leagues away. When you stood beside it, it rose up farther than the eye could see. If someone fell off the tower, they would have time to say a prayer before they hit the ground. It had taken centuries to build. Why did the Babylonians build the tower? To know Yahweh better. The tower had been planned sensibly and built robustly, and now it was finished -- they had reached the vault of heaven. So they called for miners from Elam and Egypt to break open the vault…
It seems simple when you describe it -- they build a tower that's so high they reach heaven. But it's a fascinating exploration of a universe that works differently than ours (a novel-length example is On by Adam Roberts). Chiang includes so many details that make perfect sense, you believe in this universe -- and you want to find out what happens when they break into heaven.
There are several brilliant stories in Chiang's debut collection, but "Tower of Babylon" is the one that sticks in my mind. Chiang is not prolific, but based on this collection I will be on the lookout for anything that he writes.
"Expedition to Earth" (aka "History Lesson") by Arthur C. Clarke (in Expedition to Earth)
In the far future, our descendents have forgotten all of history and science. They're fleeing from a glacier that's approaching from the north. But then they reached a point where there's another glacier approaching from the south. So they buried the mysterious "treasures" they'd been carrying with them longer than anyone remembered, and they died. Some time later aliens arrived at Earth, which now had no intelligent life. But they found the "treasures," because one of them was a radioactive beacon. When the aliens study the artifacts, what will they be able to find out about humans?
The ending of the story is what's memorable -- it's shocking or amusing, depending on what mood you're in. This is a look at the end of a civilization from a different point of view -- from another civilization coming across the remains. An alien civilization is obviously going to be different from us in unimaginable ways. What will they be able to tell about us from the artifacts? Will their deductions be correct?
Clarke's stories "The Nine Billion Names of God" and "The Star" are also unforgettable. It's been a long time since I read any of Clarke's novels, but I remember enjoying 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous With Rama, and Childhood's End. Like Asimov, Clarke wrote a lot of nonfiction, such as 1984: Spring -- A Choice of Futures.
"Mythological Beast" by Stephen R. Donaldson (in Daughter of Regals & Other Tales)
Norman woke up every morning at the signal of his biomitter, went to work at the signal of his biomitter, and ate lunch at the signal of his biomitter. His biomitter took care of him. Just like everyone else he knew, he was perfectly safe, perfectly sane. But he worked at the National Library and knew about a few things that everyone else didn't -- for one thing, he could read. One day he started undergoing a change, and he could no longer trust his biomitter. People were afraid of him, including his own wife and son. He had to be careful, and figure out what was going on…
I like the idea of what Norman changes into -- it appeals to me on a very basic level. I like how the story is written -- the phrases "safe and sane" and "you are OK" are repeated just enough to give you the idea that people in this society live a somewhat monotonous existence. I enjoy cheering for the man in the man-against-the-system story. It's a combination of science fiction (it takes place in the future, and Norman uses a computer and has a car that drives itself) and fantasy (there's no way that his transformation could really happen) -- but it works for me.
I haven't read any other Donaldson in a long time, but I would like to. His Thomas Covenant series was one of the first fantasy series I read -- maybe when the current Covenant series is done I'll go back and read them all.
"‘Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison (in Paingod and Other Delusions)
In the future life is scheduled so precisely that if you're late the amount of time that you're late by is taken off your life. If you were consistently late you would find yourself receiving a notice from the Ticktockman that you would be terminated. One man dressed up as a clown and went around disrupting things. He dropped millions of jelly beans onto workers on a moving sidewalk -- the workers were delighted, but the sidewalk got jammed and stopped, delaying the next shift by seven minutes. The Ticktockman would terminate the Harlequin, if he only knew who he was…
Both of the main characters, the Harlequin and the Ticktockman, stick in my head. Ellison takes an idea to its logical conclusion -- we will become more and more preoccupied with getting things done on time. The Harlequin reminds me of Zorro -- swinging in and doing something for the people, and then swinging out before the powers that be can get him. Of course, we want to know how this society can change now that it's gotten to this outrageous point. Ellison experiments with language even more than Bester, which can make the story a bit more difficult to read -- but it's worth it.
Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" is a magnificent post-apocalypse story. "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is also memorable but too disturbing for my taste. The City on the Edge of Forever is an illuminating tale about one of the best episodes of Star Trek. I, Robot is Ellison's unproduced adaptation of the Asimov stories for the screen -- and much more faithful to Asimov than the Will Smith movie. Ellison's introductions and essays are remarkable for his willingness to say whatever he feels like and his unparallelled bombastic language. I definitely need to read more Ellison.
"Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large" by James Alan Gardner (in Gravity Wells)
Muffin was only six years old, but she knew that the world was going to end next week. Of course, no one believed her -- except three bald monks in grey robes who showed up and listened to everything she said. Then the big dipper started looking more like a dipper -- if things are going to stop, they might as well stop in a way that makes sense. That's what Muffin thinks, and it turns out that she's actually in charge. She and her brother Jamie get to stick around past the end of the world, but what will happen then?
What's memorable in this story is the combination of the plot, the humour, and the use of language. This is a very different end-of-the-world story. There's no apocalypse -- the world just ends because it's time. There's no sadness about the world ending either -- more of a sense of wonder about what's going to happen next. I like how explaining the meaning of "teleology" and "the Eschaton" fit right into the story.
I've read all of Gardner's novels, and they're well worth reading. I particularly enjoyed Ascending because its narrator is absolutely hilarious.
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin (in The Wind's Twelve Quarters)
Omelas was a place of beauty and happiness. People came from all around to the Festival of Summer for parades, music, dancing, and horses. But the people of Omelas were not simple folk, and they were not barbarians. They had trains, central heating, washing machines, and floating light-sources. But they did not have monarchy, slavery, secret police, or the bomb. Why would anyone want to leave such a perfect place? And yet there were people who walked away from Omelas…
This is another story with a shocking ending. It's a slightly postmodern story, in which the author states that some of the elements are optional -- you can include them if they make Omelas more real to you. The people of Omelas have made a deal. It's not stated who the deal was made with, but it's a horrifying deal. The people of Omelas have rationalized their acceptance of the deal -- except for the ones who walk away.
You can't go wrong picking up a Le Guin book. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and the Earthsea series are some of my favourites. More recent works such as The Telling and The Birthday of the World and Other Stories are also worth reading.
"…And Then There Were None" by Eric Frank Russell (in Major Ingredients)
Many people left Earth hundreds of years ago and colonized other planets. Terrans are now getting around to finding them all and bringing them under the umbrella of the Earth Empire. On this particular planet, Gand, they're having an unprecedented problem. Sometimes the locals' language changes a bit over time. These locals, calling themselves Gands, seem to be speaking the same language, but what they say doesn't make any sense. The first thing the Terrans do when they arrive at a new planet is find the leaders. But according to the locals, there aren't any leaders…
This is an amusing story, but it contains ideas that are worth giving a lot of thought to. At first glance it might seem like the ideas are silly, but they are very real. The Gands have named themselves after Gandhi, and they practise civil disobedience. How can you maintain your way of life in the face of a superior force who wants to make you do things their way? The officials act in a way that we know some officials act, and it's marvelous to watch them realize what's really going on.
This is the story I've added most recently to my list -- I found it in the anthology Give Me Liberty, which has other stories worth reading as well. I haven't yet read anything else by Russell, but I'm certainly interested in doing so.
"A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury (in The Golden Apples of the Sun) is about men who travel back in time to shoot dinosaurs.
"The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick (in Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick) ponders what would happen if pre-cogs could see into the future and the Pre-Crime Office arrested people before they committed crimes.
"Flowers For Algernon" by Daniel Keyes (in Daniel Keyes Collected Stories) reveals the consequences of taking a mentally retarded man and turning him into a genius.
"Shed Skin" by Robert J. Sawyer (in the forthcoming Identity Theft and Other Stories) explores what would happen to your old flesh-and-blood body if you transferred your mind into a shiny new robot body.
"Bluesberry Jam" by Gene Wolfe (in Strange Travelers) is about life in a permanent traffic jam.
Dave Switzer has been teaching computer studies at a high school for the past four months. Although it was difficult, he will be returning in the fall to see what happens when he starts the year off with his own classes rather than continuing from where someone else left off.
Cover artist Jim Warren is one of the most successful and versatile artists in the world today. His versatility ranges from his unique portraits, to his illustrations (from the 1980s) for books, movies and album covers, most notably his Grammy award-winning artwork for Bob Seger's 1981 album Against the Wind. His fine art oil paintings and limited editions are featured in some of the top galleries in the world. About his own art Jim says: "I try to paint the best of what this world has to offer, then take it a few steps further."
Last modified: October 17, 2009
Copyright © 2007 David M. Switzer