Tag Archives: short stories

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.


A very short history of very short stories

In just 161 words, as rejected this morning by the Tate’s Shortness Symposium.

The term ‘flash fiction’ first gained currency in 1992 with the publication of Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, an anthology of stories of less than 750 words, which could be read on facing pages of a book.

Since then, flash fiction has reached Haiku-like precision with genre-based sub-forms like the Drabble (100 words), the 55er and the 69er, but there have also been more literary takes, like David Gaffney’s well-regarded Sawn-Off Tales. Despite precursors in Zen Koans and Islamic Hadith, the key feature of contemporary supershort fiction is the miniature but complete story arc.

Social media may be its natural environment. At one end of the scale, someone tweets Moby Dick, 140 characters at a time. At the other end, twitterzine Thaumatrope now tells complete stories in 140 characters or less. While many cry foul at new media which tease short attention spans, the challenge for contemporary writers is packing full and rich narratives into the short time we have.