Thursday, August 14, 2008

Science Fiction Short Stories I Wish More People Were Familiar With

1. “Journeys End” (1957) -- Poul Anderson.

No connection at all to a recent Dr. Who episode with a similar title. And yes, that title is spelled correctly. (It's based on a Shakespeare quote.)

A short story about two telepathic would-be lovers who learn way too much about each other to enjoy a decent relationship, a fate that oddly enough appears to anticipate the pitfalls of today’s cyber-dating. True, we don’t learn as much about our would-be significant others online as the protagonists of this story learn, but we do share the all-too-common temptation to share way too much personal information with our would-be acquaintances in an effort to jump-start an intimacy on which we might otherwise miss out. It doesn’t exactly help that modern society often seems to discourage alternative ways of building a relationship on the grounds that meeting people offline is just so unfashionable.

2. “Snake And Ocean, Ocean and Snake” aka “The Affair” (1984) -- Robert Silverberg.

A telepath carries on a long-distance romance with a fellow telepath.

Another story that appears to have anticipated modern cyber-relationships, although this time the love story has a happier ending. It does, however, anticipate the disappointment many would-be cyber-daters feel when they meet their cyber-partners face-to-face. And it appears to suggest that a purely non-physical relationship with one’s significant other can sometimes be preferable to even the most daring of physical relationships. (Perhaps because it‘s one thing to share one‘s body with another person, but yet another thing to share one’s mind.)

3. “Tomorrow's Children” (1947) -- Poul Anderson.

Mutations become the norm in a post-World War III society. One of the first short stories I ever read that did not argue that the only good mutant was a dead mutant, though one suspects the story was actually meant to reflect contemporary fears about the aftermath of an atomic war, with mutation meant to be just another side effect that would discourage would-be Cold Warriors from promoting the likelihood of World War III.

4. “Multiples” (1983) -- Robert Silverberg.

A woman decides to pose as a sufferer of MPD--in San Francisco, natch. No doubt this story is meant to be Silverberg’s sly comment on bisexuality but it's a moving one, nonetheless. Of course, the woman’s decision to reject her conventional identity at all costs rings a bell even with those of us who are not inclined to reject heterosexuality.

5. “Absalom” (1946) -- Henry Kuttner.

A man experiences a generation gap with his genius-level son. Interestingly enough, it was written before the generation gap of the 1960s.

6. “A Sound of Thunder” (1952) -- Ray Bradbury.

A butterfly plays havoc with history. No doubt this story was inspired by the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race of 1960 although modern readers will be reminded of a more recent presidential race.

7. “Mute” (1962) -- Richard Matheson.

The story of a young telepath who gets adopted by a childless couple after the death of his birth parents and who is later pressured by the local schoolteacher to reject his telepathic abilities in favor of “conventional“ speech. This story was once adapted for a Twilight Zone episode.

Oddly enough, I find it difficult to read this story today without seeing it as a parable of ethnic assimilation. Indeed, the process the story’s schoolteacher uses to force the telepath to become more like the rest of her class seems uncannily like the process used in some stories I’ve read about English immersion. (Though as one who himself went through the English immersion process, I find it odd that it took me years to pick up on this. Sometimes one can be too close to a subject to see certain things.)

8. “Hobson’s Choice” (1952) -- Alfred Bester.

A story that dares to pose the question of whether even the most rugged individualist can be truly happy outside of his own time and culture. Perhaps the story was meant to be Bester’s response to the Miniver Cheevy syndrome, which glorifies the idea of the man born outside his time.

9. “The Last of the Deliverers” (1958) -- Poul Anderson.

The last Communist and the last Republican kill themselves in a society that no longer recognizes the importance of either philosophy. One of the few short stories to anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union but not necessarily the aftermath.

10. “All You Zombies” (1959) -- Robert Heinlein.

A man has identity issues, to put it mildly. The one science fiction story I keep mentally referencing the more time I spend on the Internet because it's so hard not to wonder about the identity of a lot of the people I communicate with. Are they real people like myself or corporate employees pretending to be real people? That question gets harder to answer every year -- and I've already been fooled once.

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