Short Fiction Matters

I would recommend the short story form, which is a lot harder to write since you have to be so careful with words, until there is plenty of time to doodle through a novel.

-Anne McCaffrey

Modern science fiction, and by modern I mean science fiction published after 1920, got its start in the fan and pulp magazines of the era. There was no real market for science fiction novels at that time. Science fiction writers were, and still are, science fiction fans. So magazines like Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and later Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Interzone were the places where authors could get their ideas and stories published. And fans eagerly devoured them.


Issues of Amazing Stories. The science fiction magazine started by Hugo Gernsback in 1926.


Today’s short science fiction market is severely diminished. When I was growing up I could go to any newsagents or bookshop and find half a dozen or more magazines or periodicals containing new science fiction, and to a lesser extent, fantasy stories. At the time I took it for granted that this would always be so. Now, I struggle to find any magazines dedicated to science fiction (and/or fantasy) unless I go to a specialist shop. And even then the selection is far fewer than it was.

With the advent of electronic publishing, it is much easier for authors to churn out stories of 100, 200, or 300 thousand words or more, and publishers are encouraging this it seems. The number of 2+ kilogram tomes on the shelves in shops is rising, and with e-books, publishing costs are dropping.

This is severely hurting the short fiction market. To be able to tell a complete story, one that is thoughtful, entertaining, and relevant, in less than 5,000 words is a marvellous thing. A great short story can give you an emotional shift in just a few minutes. Something that can be an addictive feeling for a reader.

The thing about short fiction is that as a reader you can keep the entire story in your head for the entire time you are reading it. With a novel, especially long ones, you can forget or misremember plot points. This can lead to confusion, causing the reader to have to go back and refresh their memory, or worse, become irritated and set the novel aside, disheartened. Not something an author wants to happen too often.

Short fiction stories are jewels of imagination passed from author to reader. The best short fiction will open up whole universes with little or no effort required on the part of the reader. Authors can use short fiction like a scalpel to open our minds and get to the heart of an idea.

Short fiction doesn’t have to be one-shot moments to which you never return. It can also be built into something larger. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953) were originally a series of eight short stories published in Astounding Magazine over a period of eight years. Frank Herbert’s Dune was first published as Dune World serialized in Analog Magazine and combined with the sequel, The Prophet of Dune, to create his classic novel. These are only a couple of examples of authors using their short fiction to create a grander and more epic story.

Ray Bradbury, was especially known for his short fiction collections, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and I Sing the Body Electric. These collections are every bit the equal of any novel Bradbury, or any other author wrote and are extremely well regarded by fans.

Keith Laumer's
Keith Laumer’s “The Yillian Way”, a Jame Retief story was the inspiration for the cover of the January 1962 issue of If.

A couple of personal favourite characters are Jame Retief, created by Keith Laumer, and James ‘Slippery Jim’ diGriz, created by Harry Harrison, and were developed first as heroes in short fiction, then later expanded upon. In the case of Jame Retief, Laumer used short fiction almost exclusively. Harrison started Slippery Jim in short fiction but later switched to novels to tell the stories of The Stainless Steel Rat. In both cases, the characters would probably not have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the vibrant market for short fiction at the time.

Also, the film and television industries would also be far duller without great short fiction. The films we see in the cinemas and the programmes on television are often the result of a short story being adapted for the screen. Philip K. Dick’s works are a prime example of this. No less than twenty-three of his short stories and novels have been adapted for television and cinema. This recently includes the Channel 4 series Electric Dreams, and most famously Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into Blade Runner in 1982, and the Amazon Studios programme The Man in the High Castle, both of the same title. And this is only a single author. Other adapted science fiction authors include William Gibson, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Ted Chiang, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, and the list goes on. That doesn’t even touch on the recent rash of comic book films, or non-genre adaptations.

Short stories are also one of the best ways for new authors to learn the skills needed to craft great longer stories. With the advent of easy self-publishing, there are many, many new novels available, but few of them are of the quality you would expect of a traditionally published novel.

This one of the problems with the diminished short fiction market. There just isn’t the same number of places for new authors to send their stories to try and be published. In the past, the process of writing, polishing, submitting, rejecting, rewriting, resubmitting, and hopeful acceptance helped writers immensely because if an editor accepts a story often it is sent back for a final polish. This includes notes from the editor that help the writer then and in the future. A tough system to be sure, but one that has a historical record of developing writing talent.

The smaller short fiction market also makes it even harder for new authors to get published when competing with established authors. If an editor has a choice to publish a story by a well-known author or an unknown author, the story from the unknown author will have to be exceptional to be put ahead of the established name.

For writers, short fiction offers a way to exercise their creative muscles and take risks that they might not take in longer forms of fiction. It’s a way to polish and hone to razor sharpness their ability to tell a story quickly and effectively. A skill that all writers should have in their arsenal.

I’ve already said that science fiction is in need of a serious resurgence, and the place to start that resurgence is with the expansion of the short science fiction market. As readers we need to take a little time, a little time each day or each week or whatever we can manage, and absorb more of these little jewels of imagination up for offer. If we read more short fiction we can expand our imaginations and our feelings in easily digested portions.

I know short fiction will always be written and enjoyed, but it needs a greater focus than we are currently giving it. Short fiction has done so much for science fiction and it can and will do much more. I’m looking forward to the next gem.

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