A couple of years ago I took a science fiction literature course, which was probably the only lit class I’ve ever enjoyed. It was a very fast paced class, but it was a lot of fun, too! We only had to read short stories, and every week we had a different theme. This post is dedicated to some of my favorites from that class!
All of the stories listed in this post can be found in either the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction or volume 1 of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
The Machine Stops – E.M. Forster
“Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.”
I love this story because it was written in 1909 and is awesomely futuristic. In the world that Forster envisions, everything is controlled by “The Machine.” All people in the world are confined to their little spaces, and since the Machine takes care of everything, they never leave this room, despite travel being allowed.
The story is about a woman, Vashti, and her son Kuno. Kuno lives in a cell on the other side of the world. After convincing Vashti to visit him, he tells her that he illegally ventured to the earth’s surface, where he saw humans surviving just fine. Vashti thinks this is nonsense and returns to her cell. After this, the machine decides to prohibit all travel. At the same time, the machine also approves “Technopoly,” a new religion in which the machine stands central. Humans start to forget that they made the machine themselves. This last development is the start of the machine’s demise…
Supertoys Last All Summer Long – Brian Aldiss
This science fiction short is honestly more heartbreaking than anything else. It was published in 1969, and centers around the young child David. Only one fourth of the world’s population lives comfortably in this dystopian world. Families must request special permission to bare children. David is the son of Monica and Henry Swinton. Unfortunately, Monica finds herself unable to bond with David, and seeks help from Teddy, a robot toy companion of sorts.
While David yearns for motherly love, Monica seems to be able to bond better with Teddy. David decides to write letters to try to explain his own feelings. Meanwhile, the family has been approved to bare their own child. At which point it is revealed that David was never human after all, merely an IA replacement. Monica finds David’s letters and tells her husband that he has “verbal malfunctioning” problems, and must be sent back to the manufacturer. Poor David does not know what happens next, but we all can guess….
Nightfall – Isaac Asimov
I’m fairly certain this was the first short story we read in my science fiction class. It stuck with me to this day because it’s such a beautiful example of the stupidity of society. The story takes place on the fictional planet Lagash, which is constantly illuminated by the sun. Thus, the people on this planet have never experienced “night.”
We follow a young reporter that visits an observatory. Scientists have discovered that every 2000 years, civilization ceases to exist. The “doomsday cult” claim that Lagash passes through a dark cave every 2000 years, and is attacked by stars that rain down fire. The scientists at the observatory use this myth and simple math to conclude that every 2000 years an unknown moon passes before the sun, causing an eclipse that lasts for several hours.
The big downside is that the Lagashians go mad after fifteen minutes in the dark…
During the story, we read that there is an apparent clash between the rationality of science and the beliefs of the cult. The young reporter remains mostly skeptical of it all. The scientists believe that the universe isn’t that big, and that there may theoretically may a couple of other suns out there. However, when it turns fully dark the entire planet realizes that there are significantly more stars than they thought, and that there small planet is truly insignificant.
This along with the darkness does indeed cause the entire population to go mad. Fires are started everywhere, and humanity brings itself down in a few hours of darkness.
All You Zombies – Robert A. Heinlein
Okay, this one mostly made the list because I tell everyone about it, not because it was necessarily “enjoyable.” It was just so weird. Here is the plot summary:
“‘All You Zombies'” chronicles a young man (later revealed to be intersex, taken back in time and tricked into impregnating his younger, female self (before he underwent sexual reassignment surgery ); he thus turns out to be the offspring of that union, with the paradoxical result that he is his own mother and father. As the story unfolds, all the major characters are revealed to be the same person, at different stages of her/his life.
During class, we were required to make a little discussion post about the stories we read, and I remember opening mine with “what did I just read? I’m pretty sure this gave me a headache.”
Try to think for a second. Really think, about how any of this is possible. It isn’t, obviously, because we don’t have a way to travel in time (yet?). But even if we did, the physics of this just made my brain hurt. How can someone give birth to themself? They’d have to exist in order to do that in the first place, right? But then: how did they exist??
This story is only a couple of pages long, so I recommend giving it a try!