One of the most common questions asked of writers at science fiction conventions is: “What are your favorite pieces of science fiction?” I usually name two or three, but they tend to change even from day to day. I’m asking myself that question now. And my answers, for this afternoon, are: “The Million-Year Picnic,” by Ray Bradbury; “Rattlesnake Men,” by Michael Bishop; “Nightfall,” by Isaac Asimov; “The Green Hills of Earth,” by Robert Heinlein; “First Contact,” by Murray Leinster; and “The Star,” by Arthur Clarke.
Ask for a few more, and I’m thinking about it: Maybe “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin. And Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes; “Immortality", by Robert Sawyer; “To Serve Man,” by Damon Knight; and “The Altar at Midnight,” by C.M. Kornbluth.
I could go on for the rest of the day. You will have noticed however that only one novel is mentioned, and that of course is a classic. There’ve been other novels that have blown me away, of course. George Orwell’s 1984; The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin; Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley; The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells; and The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Again, there are of course a substantial number of others. But why was there only one novel in the first two groups? And if I were to go on and come up with forty titles, why would probably thirty-five of them be short fiction?
The same result has surfaced when I’ve asked the question of audiences at panels and presentations. It’s always the short stuff.
I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because short stories get read quicker, and consequently we probably read more of them. There’s certainly some truth to that. And they’re easier to read. But I suspect there’s more to it. It’s certainly true that the nature of science fiction is bound up with wild ideas suggested by the possibilities of scientific advance. And that is almost certainly where the punch is. What happens to us if we eliminate the ageing process? Are we suddenly facing a boss who will still be there a century later? Or if we can influence the birth process to produce kids of supernormal intelligence? And thereby discover in a riveting scene how dumb we are?
If delivered appropriately, the impact from these advances comes as a shock. Shocks are by nature short and to the point. A novel, once the jolt is delivered, may continue and look at other aspects of the social effects of the science. But over time, the effect subsides. When the Frankenstein creature opens a book and begins reading John Milton, we can only feel the impact once.