Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Short Stories

Poul Anderson, "Prophecy," Astounding Science Fiction, May 1949; and IN Anderson, The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson (Framingham, MA, 2009), pp. 439-443.

Although this post is occasioned by rereading the above story, it has a more general relevance.

Sf can be:

large-scale, i.e., a big idea in a novel or series;
small-scale, i.e., a clever idea in a one-off short story.

Although I prefer large-scale, small-scale is a big part of sf, especially in magazine publication. A short story can be like a political cartoon in a newspaper. The cartoonist uses a single panel and usually also a single caption to make a point. Good art and amusing content help but it is the point that counts. Similarly, the author of a particular kind of sf short story uses a few pages of prose narrative to make a point. Good writing and imaginative content help but, longer term, it is the point that is remembered, that might get the story collected and that might also influence other writers. Without necessarily remembering either title or author, an sf reader will recount the gist of a remembered story like other people tell jokes.

All that the writer needs is a familiar idea like time travel or "First Contact" (with aliens). All that he needs to do is to present a new twist on this idea or a previously unthought of implication of the idea. We could make a list of Poul Anderson's First Contact stories, which include "Prophecy." A story might be overtly about aliens but really make a point about humanity.

As it happens, one of Anderson's competitors had a knack of writing particularly memorable stories of this type so here is another quiz question. Who wrote the stories summarized below?

(i) A drunk claims to be a time traveler and to know what killed the dinosaurs...

(ii) A man from the thirtieth century wants to make his mark in the World War II period and is called George Kilroy...

(iii) William Shakespeare travels to the twentieth century, studies English Literature and sits an exam on Shakespeare's plays...

(iv) Successive computers are asked whether there is a way to reverse entropy...

(v) As soon as a planetary population harnesses nuclear energy and achieves local interplanetary space travel, the planet is inducted into the galactic federation. When a galactic bureaucrat is told that Earth has met the criteria, he begins to prepare the appropriate paperwork. However, when he is informed that the Terrestrials are testing nuclear weapons inside their own planetary atmosphere, he throws the paperwork into his wastepaper basket...

The point of (v) is not that a galactic civilization is likely to have either bureaucrats or wastepaper baskets. When we want to read serious speculation about alien life forms, we turn to large-scale sf and to novels by Poul Anderson.


  1. Paul:
    Isaac Asimov. (i) is "Day of the Hunters"; (iv) is "The Last Question"; and although I've heard about (iii) and (v), I didn't read either and don't recall their titles.

    Asimov's "Homo Sol" had another clever twist on welcoming us into Galactic Culture. He didn't, though, like to write about alien life -- because his publisher, John W. Campbell, Jr., had a thing about ALWAYS portraying humans as superior to aliens. Rather than argue with Campbell, Asimov simply preferred to write stories in which there weren't any aliens to contact.

    1. David,
      Yes. (i)-(v)are all by Asimov but I don't remember most of the titles.

  2. I am rather ashamed to admit I can't do was as well in remember Asimov stories as did Dave and Paul. I think "The Final Question" is the answer to (iv).

    I do remember one Anderson story where the criteria for joining a galactic federation is for Earth to SURVIVE a period of nuclear wars. As the alien ambassador told the US president, ALL races which had achieved nuclear technology went thru a phase of nuclear wars.


    1. Sean,
      That sounds like "Prophecy."

    2. Kaor, Paul!

      I checked, you are correct!