Science fiction mystery

I grew up on pulp science fiction. Books passed on by my parents, acid-heavy paper already yellow, cheap glue binding already cracking. Novels of course: Asimov, Heinlein, Simak and Niven; but also books and books of short stories: Nebula winners,  Hugo winners, author compilations and best-ofs. The short story is the science fiction form par excellence, where the effervescence of ideas has the most freedom. Clunky characters and minimal plotting are forgiveable in twenty pages. Introduce a story arc and it descends to the level space opera.

And so books come and then they go, or they fall to bits, but the ideas, and fragments of them, stick. These are ten stories that I remember, or remember a part of, but have long lost any clue about who wrote them or what they were called.


An alien approaches a human spaceship, the occupant of which is an astronaut taking recreational drugs to cope with the ardours of a long space journey. The tripping astronaut and the alien regard each other through a porthole glass; the astronaut assumes the alien to be a figment of his trip. As the human astronaut starts coming down, the alien begins to fade out of existence.

A narrator addresses an audience describing the extraordinary power of an ambient weapon that kills people directly without damaging property. At the end of his lecture he tells the audience that they’re dead: he has used the weapon on them.

A man acquires the power of time travel, and travels backwards and forwards along his own life and into the future. Travelling back as far as he can, he meets a female version of himself from an alternate reality who has also acquired the power of time travel. They have sex.

Mars needs water, and Earth is holding her to political ransom for the water from Earth’s oceans. An enterprising group of young men take a spaceship to Saturn and return with a fragment of one of its rings, largely composed of H2O.

Two men begin to wonder why humans must sleep and dream, as no other sentient creatures in the galaxy do. They discover that humans are occupied by a species of mental parasite whose co-habitation of the psyche causes the phenomena of sleep and dreams.

A reality-correction agent relies for clues about the future on an instantaneous communication device called a dirac, from whose signals everything that has ever been said or will be said using it can be decoded.

Aliens arrive on Pluto. The lightspeed time lag makes communication problematic. Someone suggests simply broadcasting a constant stream of information, and the aliens doing likewise. Most potential questions will be answered before they are even asked.

A man called Kilroy travels into the US wartime past of the 1940s, and leaves in a graffito a mark of his presence.

A talking dog explains to a man on a park bench that canines exercise a guiding intelligence over humans, and that it was a dog who gave Thomas Edison the clue enabling him to make a lightbulb with a persistent filament.

In a society where children are aptitude tested and neurologically programmed for their careers, one boy fails the aptitude test: he can’t be programmed. He’s distraught until he discovers he’s one of the elect few who write the programmes.


Trying to remember what you can’t remember is a perplexing exercise in itself: you can’t begin with a book, you have to begin with the fragment that’s stuck with you, the essential piece of the story. It’s the known unknown.

If you can identify any of these stories, please do. I’d like to know how far my memory has distorted them.

12 responses to “Science fiction mystery

  1. The fourth one is called “The Martian Way” by Isaac Asimov

  2. #5 (“Hostess”) and #10 (“Profession”) are both Asimov stories.

    Hmm. I wonder if this is a trick question. Are they all Asimov?

  3. #3 sounds a bit like David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself..

  4. “A talking dog explains to a man ….”
    Kurt Vonnegut. I can’t remember the name of the story but I think it’s from a collection called “Cat in a Canary House”.

  5. Correction – it’s from Welcome to the Monkey House.
    It’s called Thomas Edison’s Shaggy Dog.

  6. The third one is ‘All You Zombies’ by Robert Heinlein, first published in ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ in 1959, but you read it of course in one of those pulp collections the name of which I can’t find. Not only does the man have sex with himself-as-a-woman, she then gives birth to himself. ‘I know who I am,’ he says as he contemplates a ring with a worm eating its own tail, ‘but who are all you zombies?’ Wikipedia has an article tabulating the narrative and the chronological events for those who need it working out for them!

  7. “All You Zombies” was in a volume called “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”, a book which your overprotective mother tried to stop you reading. Heinlein wrote another rather similar story called, if I recall aright, “By His Own Bootstraps”.

  8. Nope, Emily’s right & #3 is very likely to be David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. I remember All You Zombies very well & it wasn’t that I was thinking of.

  9. Don’t recall title of #7, but I believe it was part of a series of science fiction short-shorts commissioned/sponsored by a corporation–possibly one of the phone companies–for some anniversary, with the common topic of “future communication.” I think it was by Isaac Asimov (there’s Asimov, again!), unless it was by A. C. Clarke. As I recall, the solution (suggested by a woman sounding like a Jewish mother) is meant to help Mission Control on Earth communicate with astronauts exploring Pluto who encounter an alien expedition, rather than a direct earthman-alien dialog. “Any woman can tell you. You just keep talking.”

  10. The Dirac transmitter is in some stories by James Blish. Yes it’s been 2 years but I just got here. I too am recently re-excavating little bits and pieces left in my head from a boyhood of science fiction. There was a story in which everyone got these convenient computer assistants that rode on one of their shoulders like a creepy mechanical bird or a ’40s/50s (?) paranoid vision of a smartphone and naturally became more and more in control of everything.

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