Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the sofa with my Mum watching re-runs of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 and the original Star Trek. I’m not sure if she knew I was paying attention, what with Blake’s 7 hardly being suitable viewing for a five year-old. A few years later I was into Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap and would try and get away with staying up late to watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reboots. Then it was The X-Files, Babylon 5 and all the rest of those 90s shows.
Considering how much science fiction I watched on television, I was surprisingly slow to start reading the genre. When I did eventually come to the literature of science fiction, it was through reading short stories and this is a list of the ones that have stayed with me.
1. Henry Slesar, ‘Examination Day’ (1958)
‘Examination Day’ is the first science fiction story that I can remember reading. I must have been about thirteen and we were given it to read for an English class. It’s a very simple story set in a future in which all children must take a government intelligence test at the age of twelve. It’s told mostly from the perspective of Dickie, a child who has just passed this particular milestone and who is about to take the test. Looking back on it, I think the story horrified me because it reflected the fear and ambivalence I was feeling about the entire educational experience. I was terrified of exams and was myself failing in several subjects, one of them being maths, which everyone had told me was essential to getting a job and having any kind of future beyond school. The story probably comes across as heavy-handed now, but as an adult I can see that there is a horrible truth to ‘Examination Day’ because children who don’t fit narrowly defined concepts of intelligence and ability, or who don’t respond well to the formal school environment, are often consigned to the educational scrapheap.
The Jordans never spoke of the exam, not until their son, Dickie, was twelve years old. It was on his birthday that Mrs Jordan first mentioned the subject in his presence, and the anxious manner of her speech caused her husband to answer sharply.
‘Forget about it,’ he said. ‘He’ll do all right.’
Available in Martin H. Greenberg (ed.) New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1993)
2. Harlan Ellison, ‘Shatterday’ (1980)
I read ‘Shatterday’ in Martin H. Greenberg’s collection New Stories from the Twilight Zone, which I picked up somewhere after watching some of the episodes from the 1980s reboot. ‘Shatterday’ is a story about a man who suddenly finds himself in the power of a sinister double. This double locks him out of his apartment and begins to take over his life. Initially the reader is inclined to identify with the guy who’s been expelled from his apartment, but as the story progresses, and the two wage a psychological war by telephone, a more complex story begins to emerge. ‘Shatterday’ is a straightforward morality tale really and I think it appealed to my Catholic sense of myself as “doubled” – if only I could get rid of the “bad” self and just become the “good” self, all my problems would be solved.
Novins wanted to slam the receiver into its rack. He was at once furiously angry and frightened. He knew what the other Novins was saying was true; he had to know, without argument; it was, after all, himself saying it.
“Only one of us is going to make it,” he said, tightly. “And it’s going to be me, old friend.”
“How do you propose to do it, Novins? You’re out there, locked out. I’m in here, in my home, safe where I’m supposed to be.”
“How about we look at it this way,” Novins said quickly, “you’re trapped in there,locked away from the world in three-and-a-half rooms. I’ve got everywhere else to move in. You’re limited. I’m free.”
There was silence for a moment.
3. Ray Bradbury, ‘The Burning Man’ (1970s?)
This is another story that I think I first read in the Greenberg collection. An aunt takes her nephew for a drive out to the lake. On the way there they pick up a hitchhiker, an old man in a dusty suit who starts telling them about his theories concerning genetic evil. The aunt eventually throws him out of the car and they continue to their destination. On the way back they pick up another hitchhiker, a young boy wearing a white suit who claims to have become lost while on a picnic. Then the car breaks down, the boy says “Have you ever wondered if there was such a thing as genetic evil in the world?” and the story abruptly ends. I’ve always found ‘The Burning Man’ deeply unsettling and still ponder the relationship between the older and younger hitchhikers.
4. Arthur C Clarke, ‘The Star’ (1955)
One more from the Greenberg collection, ‘The Star’ is narrated by an astronaut, who also happens to be a Jesuit priest, as he returns to Earth from a trip to another star system where his expedition discovered the remains of an ancient civilization destroyed when its sun went nova. The people of this civilization predicted their doom and placed a record of their history and culture in a vault in the furthest planet in their solar system. As he studies the records, the priest is able to calculate the date of the supernova and makes a devastating discovery. Again, it’s not too difficult to see why this story appealed to a catholic adolescent, such as myself, who was just beginning to question the nature of the religion she’d been raised in. The story’s conclusion suggests that either there is something very disturbing about the nature of God, or that there is no God, and humans have simply attached spiritual significance to random events in the cosmos. This story won the Hugo award in 1956.
It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican.Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed the heavens declared the glory of God’s handwork. Now I have seen that handiwork, and my faith is sorely troubled. I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer, and for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty symbol.
5. Stephen King, ‘The House on Maple Street’ (1993)
I was an enormous Stephen King fan when I was a teenager and while I was eagerly consuming all that horror, he also fed me quite a lot of science fiction. I could have picked a few stories, particularly ‘Night Surf’ in the collection Night Shift (1978) and ‘The Jaunt’ in Skeleton Crew (1985), but I’m going to go for ‘The House on Maple Street’ from Nightmares and Dreamscapes. This is not because it’s the best story – the other two are better – but because it’s the one I loved and read over and over again. It’s the story of four children whose abusive stepfather is slowly destroying their mother before their eyes. As the story progresses, the children realise that their house is some kind of alien spaceship and it’s counting down to lift off. I wasn’t very well in 1993 and I think I found this story comforting in its depiction of a group of children taking care of each other and expelling a monster from their lives, probably because I was feeling helpless and alone in relation to some of the monsters in mine. I would have liked to stick a few people in a spaceship and blast them off the planet.
There they turned back and watched it happen.
The house on Maple Street seemed to gather itself. It no longer looked straight and solid; it seemed to jitter, like a comic-strip picture of a man on a pogo-stick. Huge cracks ran out from it, not only in the cement walk but in the earth surrounding it. The lawn pulled apart in huge pieshaped turves of grass. Roots strained blackly upward below the green, and the whole front yard seemed to become bubble-shaped, as if it were straining to hold the house before which it had spread so long.
Available in Stephen King, Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993)
6. C.L. Moore, ‘Shambleau’ (1933)
‘Shambleau’ is the oldest story on my list. I first read it around 1997 in Alan Ryan’s excellent Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, which I’d definitely recommend if you’re interested in vampire fiction. When ‘Shambleau’ was first published in ‘Weird Tales’ in 1933 it shot C.L. Moore to fame. You can still see why. The story starts with Northwest Smith – your standard “Han Solo” type of science fiction hero – rescuing what appears to be a young woman from an angry mob of people who are trying to kill her. But what begins as a rather bog-standard, pulpy SF adventure story soon turns into something far more disturbing, a play on ancient mythology that delves into uncomfortable areas of sexuality, desire and power. It may be a little dated now, but I still find ‘Shambleau’ stomach-churningly unforgettable.
There was no hair upon her face – neither brows nor lashes, and he could have sworn that the tight scarlet turban bound around her head covered baldness. She had three fingers and a thumb, and her feet had four digits apiece too, and all sixteen of them were tipped with round claws that sheathed back into the flesh like a cat’s. She ran her tongue over her lips – a thin, pink, flat tongue as feline as her eyes – and spoke with difficulty. He felt that that throat and tongue had never been shaped for human speech.
“Not afraid now”, she said softy…
7. Margaret Atwood, ‘When it happens’ (1975)
Depending on how you read it, this story could be defined as speculative fiction or psychological horror as well as science fiction. It’s told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman who lives in the countryside with her husband. She begins to suspect that some kind of apocalypse is about to occur. Her husband heads off to town to find out what’s going on, leaving her alone in the house where she begins to prepare for the worst. The disorientating effect of ‘When it happens’ is created by the suggestion that this apocalypse may be occurring only in Mrs Burridge’s mind. Perhaps this is a woman who has been waiting all her life for ‘something’ to happen and has finally created that something. Then again, perhaps there really is an apocalypse. Either way it’s a frightening and haunting story that also manages to say a lot about the lives of women.
She re-enters the house and closes the door. She is fifty one, her feet hurt, and she does not know where she can go, but she realizes she cannot stay here.
8. Lisa Tuttle, ‘Wives’ (1979)
‘Wives’ is an overtly feminist science fiction story set on a distant planet in the future where a troop of male soldiers engaged in a war have bullied the indigenous population into serving as “wives” in their settlements. The planet’s inhabitants squeeze their bodies into “skintights” that give them the appearance of human women and do everything that a housewife might traditionally be expected to do, cooking, cleaning and serving the men sexually. We don’t really know why they have agreed to accept this life, but threats appear to have been involved. They have since come to perceive their servitude as necessary to their survival, leading to much competition between the “wives”. But then one of the wives, named Susie, begins to remember her true nature and starts to believe they’ve made a terrible mistake in giving up the old ways. The story is clearly a feminist allegory about the traditional ideology of marriage in which men are seen as “deserving” wives and in which “wife” is a social role separate from (perhaps even irrelevant to) any individual person who occupies that role. The nature and gender of the aliens is unimportant to the men as long as they keep on wearing the skintights, serving the coffee and allowing them to indulge in their fantasies. But when “Susie” starts to rebel, the other “wives” turn on her, insisting that there is no other option but to live the way they do.
‘Three tits and the best coffee in the universe,’ he said with satisfaction, squeezing one of the bound lumps of flesh on her chest. ‘With this to come home to, it kind of makes the whole war thing worthwhile’.
9. Octavia E. Butler, ‘The Evening and the Morning and the night’ (1987)
‘The evening and the morning and the night’ is one of the short stories that I regularly re-read. The narrator, Lynn, is one of percentage of the population infected with an incurable disease called Duryea-Gode, the unforeseen and terrible side-effect of a drug intended to cure cancer. The disease remains latent for many years, but eventually it takes hold and causes its victims to begin to destroy their own bodies. Those who survive the onset of the disease are institutionalised for the rest of their lives. Lynn does her best to accept her fate, but then she meets another woman called Beatrice, who suggests the possibility of different future. However, it also comes with a high cost. I think the power of ‘The evening and the morning and the night’ lies in the calm, matter-of-fact narrative tone of voice, which only increases its horror. Octavia Butler had an interest in drug-related illness which is explored more fully in her novel Parable of the Sower (1995). What really struck me when I read this story is the way she uses a very limited situation and characters who have few possibilities in their lives to create something incredibly powerful. This is something that I’ve since realised is a feature of her work.
When I was fifteen and trying to show my independence by getting careless with my diet, my parents took me to a Duryea-Gode disease ward. They wanted me to see, they said, where I was headed if I wasn’t careful. In fact it was where I was headed no matter what. My parents were putting in their vote for later.
10. Ursula Le Guin, ‘The Fliers of Gy’ (2000)
‘The Fliers of Gy’ appears in the collection, Changing Planes (2003) which is the first book I read by Le Guin. I remember liking the stories, but the one that stuck most in my mind was this melancholy tale about a birdlike people. The Gyr have evolved to live on the ground, but a minority of the population still develop wings at adolescence. Some of these winged Gyr take to the skies, after which they can never return to “normal” life, while others bind up their wings and attempt to live among the land-bound. In some parts of Gy the winged are worshipped or killed, while in others, they are tolerated and treated with sympathy. It’s a story about how we treat those who are seen as “different”, but it’s also about how we view creativity. There is something deeply sad about ‘The Fliers of Gy’. At the end of the story, the narrator asks one of the nonflying winged Gyr whether he ever dreams of flying. “Doesn’t everyone?” he replies.
Available in Ursula Le Guin, Changing Planes (2003)
I must have read Changing Planes around 2005 and after that I read more novels by Ursula Le Guin, starting with The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. I also returned to my old anthologies and mined them for more authors to read. These days, science fiction probably makes up at least a third of my reading material.