Once upon a time, I used to hate short stories. I, like a lot of other people, found them too abrupt. Once I started getting into the story, it finished, and I was quickly ushered onto the next one. It left me feeling robbed, and that the author was holding out. However, that’s all changed now, and the truth is that there are many short stories out there that are just as good as novels – you just have to give them a chance.
Despite their brevity, short stories are rich and powerful, and they have the ability to engage you, no matter how many pages they have. There’s a reason why many of the greatest movies are based on short stories rather than novels. Short fiction is just the right length to blow your mind. Below are 10 short stories that you really should consider reading:
Most people think that “The Lottery” is Jackson’s best short-story, but as Joyce Carol Oates states in her introduction to Jackson’s collected stories, this one is “deeper, more mysterious, and more disturbing.” A woman is engaged, but she has forgotten what her husband looks like. When she goes searching for him, she can’t find him. This is a fantastic gothic horror story, but also a wonderfully written book about vulnerability.
2. The Janitor on Mars by Martin Amis
There’s a robot living on Mars, but it’s been programmed so it doesn’t reveal itself to the people on Earth until we’ve changed the atmosphere of the planet which we have already doomed to extinction. The story takes place in 2049, and the encounter with an ancient, extraterrestrial machine, which calls itself the Janitor, causes a worldwide sensation. The robot on Mars reveals the three-billion-year history of Martian civilization, and why it ended. Meanwhile, back on Earth, a boy named Timmy has been raped so violently he’s in the school infirmary – and the school janitor suspects that the principal did it. The juxtaposition that exists between the huge picture “end of the world” stuff and the personal, small-scale stuff is brilliant.
3. Evil Robot Monkey by Mary Robinette Kowal
This is a simple story, but it has enough ideas and emotional heft to stick with you a long time after you’ve finished reading it. Sly is a monkey who’s been uplifted thanks to a cybernetic implant that gives him human intelligence – but this doesn’t mean he’s not a monkey still. By the end of this short tale, you will feel sorry for Sly, who is one of those tragic characters who cannot escape his fate, but he’s smart enough to understand his situation.
All of Bradbury’s short stories are gems, but this one, in which a smart house keeps going after its human inhabitants are all dead, is in a league of its own. Like a lot of the stories in the years following the Second World War, it’s concerned with the threat of nuclear annihilation and how technology might outlive us.
5. That Only a Mother by Judith Merril
This is a story about a mother and her mutant baby – at just a few months old, her baby can talk and sing. At first, you’ll think it’s kind of sweet that this baby is so precocious, considering all the different kinds of mutations that she could have had. The note of danger and tension in the story comes from the mother’s correspondence with her husband, who’s fighting in World War III. Her letters to her husband are flowery and jubilant, but Hank’s terse telegraphs make you wonder what will happen when he comes home and meets his little girl for the first time.
6. Solitude by Ursula K. Le Guin
This story offers meetings between cultures and the efforts of an outsider to try to understand a strange culture. The main character is in a unique position to discover how the people on another planet communicate because she’s a little girl and will be accepted by them in a way that her mother will not. But, over time, this leads to a rift between the girl and her mother, who wind up having been raised in different cultures. There are so many powerful emotions in this one short story.
7. Stone Animals by Kelly Link
This is the story of a family that goes to live in a house in the middle of nowhere, while the husband keeps commuting back into the city for work. There are not many answers here, and not even any satisfying questions, but you’ll definitely keep looking deeper into this story to find your own meaning in its gothic strangeness.
9. The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees
This is one of those stories that works both as a metaphor (for colonialism, for what happens when one nation makes another a “client state”), but also as a straight-up piece of speculative biology – a group of wasps conquers a group of bees, and some of the highly educated wasps think that they can take some of the bee offspring and turn them into scholars. However, the bee colony also has to work way harder to service the wasps’ needs as well as its own. This arrangement has unpredictable results for both sides. There are huge lessons to be learned by human societies here.
10. The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
This short story swept the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. It’s a tear-jerking story about origami that comes to life, but it’s really about the challenges faced by children who are stuck between two cultures, and how internalized racism can damage a family.