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Can science fiction save the short story?

There’s a great column by Laura Miller in this week’s New York Times Book Review, about the fate of the modern short story. I used to really like short fiction; now I confess that whenever I pick up a collection, I have the same reaction that Miller reports:

There are some very fine works in both collections, but at a point about midway through each book, I found myself approaching every new story warily. I wanted to buttonhole the central character with a couple of pointed questions: Is anything going to happen? Are you going to do anything? All too often, the answer was no. The stories that failed to rustle up much of a response weren’t necessarily quotidian or plotless, though. They just felt that way. For despite what its champions may assert, the short story doesn’t always demand the most from literary writers; instead it can coddle their weaknesses.

There is, however, one big exception to this rule, which Miller doesn’t note: Science fiction.

In sci-fi, the short story is still an incredibly vibrant form, largely because it doesn’t forgo plot. On the contrary, it slaps it right down in the center of the table. Sci-fi readers are a powerful corrective against sloppy plotting; they’ll instantly cast aside anything that doesn’t immediately offer them a strong, quirky, and smart plot. Granted, sci-fi readers will also tolerate unbelievably purple prose and 1.5-dimensional characters. It’s certainly not a genre for writers who cherish Franzenesque obsessions over the fate of lit-tra-cha.

But for what it’s worth, no self-respecting science fiction short story would ever maunder aimlessly about the living room like the hapless stories Miller reviewed. Indeed, what’s notable about sci-fi short stories is how frequently they’re turned into successful two-hour movies. Recall that Philip K. Dick’s original Minority Report was not only a short story … it was a really short story. The whole thing clocks in at barely 5,000 words or so. Yet even in that tiny space, Dick offers up a dizzying meditation on the nature of causality — and keep in mind, that meditation is delivered via aplot. It’s teased out by the slow, inexorable march of the protagonist towards the conclusion, not via the sort of 1,000-word mini-sermons mouthed by characters in today’s “hysterical realist” novels. Not that I dislike that stuff; I’m a huge fan of the hysterical-realist novel. I’m just pointing out that sci-fi is often amazingly good at including the very stuff that Miller finds lacking in short fiction. That may be why short fiction actually sells reasonably well in sci-fi, at least compared to sci-fi novels.

While Miller doesn’t talk about sci-fi — or mystery short fiction, another genre that crams a lot of plot into a short space — she does hint at them as a corrective force in her final paragraph:

In his contributor’s note, Chaon explains that Chabon had asked for a ”genre” story … ”I had originally conceived it as a melancholy piece about lost connections and guilt,” Chaon writes, ”but the mission to create a horror story gave me … the freedom to plunge the story into more extreme corners of loss and resentment that I might not have dared venture into otherwise.” The result isn’t really a ”horror story,” but rather a literary short story freed from an outdated and restrictive decorum.

One of these days, I’d love to write a piece about how the word “genre” has been drained of any meaning by its constant mis-use — i.e. people say “genre fiction” to distinguish sci-fi and mystery novels from literary fiction. The presumption, of course, is that the latter are ruled by their conventions while the former is governed only by the writer’s literary amibitions, and is thus a more open and creative canvas. That’s crap, of course; any writer — and programmer, actually — knows that limitations, not freedoms, are the things that give birth to creativity. What’s more, the modern literary novel is indeed a genre with its own often-rather-strict formal limits. And what’s-more-the-sequel, the use of “genre” to describe sci-fi and mystery fiction is really just a hilariously transparent ruse to elevate literary fiction over other types of fictive prose. What’s particularly sad is that genre fans now use the word “genre” themselves, aiding and abetting this laughable bit of snobbery. But I’ll save this rant for another time; at this point, I’m boring even myself.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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