Reading Short Science Fiction: One Perspective

INTRODUCTION: I have been reading a lot of short science fiction (SF), fantasy and related speculative fiction recently. In the speculative fiction world, short fiction is typically less than 40,000 words (the minimum for novel length; this is discussed further below). Although I am a lifelong fan of reading science fiction and fantasy, I had probably read 60 to 80% novels for most of my life. I had read a substantial amount of short SF and fantasy, but it was not the focus of my reading.

A few years ago, I began nominating and voting on the Hugo Awards for SF and fantasy/horror. Quite a few of the Hugo Award categories are for shorter fiction or for magazines and other sources of shorter fiction, so this led me to read more short SF and fantasy. In August 2020, Paul Fraser (SF Magazines) suggested that I consider joining the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction (BSFFSF) Group on Facebook. I jumped on it, as it sounded like a lot of fun. Since then, I have read probably 2,300 pieces of short speculative fiction.

This has led me to think about reading, reading fiction, reading speculative fiction, reading short speculative fiction, and reading short SF. After mulling this over, I have some thoughts that I want to share. This essay is aimed both at those who read speculative fiction regularly and those who do not. This will result in definitions and other discussions that may be partially superfluous for the regular speculative fiction reader.

READING: Reading is a learned skill, the result of a fairly intense learning process that can continue for years. This is pretty different than a lot of the other skills we generally obtain by observing and interacting with parents and others, like talking, listening, etc.

For many, learning to read is like getting a pass to learn or enjoy something without depending upon others to do it for us directly. We can generally do this for the rest of our lives as long as our eyes and brains cooperate. There are other ways of obtaining information or enjoying a story, such as audio books (and Braille for sight impairment), but reading printed material in paper or e-book format continues to be my personal favorite way of enjoying a story.

FICTION CATEGORIES AND DEFINITIONS: Humans love to classify or categorize things. Sometimes this matters and sometimes it does not. Here, it’s important for me to define what I mean when I use certain terms, and to provide some context for them. I know that there are significant resources (academic and otherwise) that suggest definitions, sometimes conflicting. I may refer to some of these occasionally, but this will generally be just Dave writing what he thinks.

Fiction is generally a story about or featuring people and/or some other living entity. For me, this encompasses all kinds of stories that are not strictly fact based, such as literary fiction, mainstream fiction, magical realism, historical fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror and many other subcategories or genres. Many people enjoy reading fiction for relaxation, entertainment, cultural knowledge, enrichment, to be able to discuss fiction, etc.

One definition of fiction I like is, “Works of fiction are those that tell made up stories” by Masterclass.

I view non-fiction as writing that is fact based. In that context, fiction is all stories and writings that are not fact based, even if the story occurs in our consensus reality.

Some academics, authors, publishers and others like to further break up fiction into “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”. This can be done for a number of reasons, such as academic belief/theory, marketing, or an author’s own beliefs about the work. This can be both deadly serious and also totally meaningless. Some definitions include:

  • One definition that I like is from Wikipedia, “Literary fiction may involve a concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition.[4] This contrasts with genre fiction where plot is the central concern.” See Wikipedia definition of literary fiction.
  • I also like the Wikipedia definition of genre fiction, “Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is a term used in the book-trade for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.[1]”
  • As noted above and elsewhere, one stereotype is that (mainstream) literary fiction is more character driven and perhaps better written, while genre fiction is more plot-driven.
  • I think this stereotype is partially true, but the best genre fiction has great writing, great plot, great dialogue and great characters that grow and change as they experience the world of the story, along with the elements that make them genre.
  • On a personal basis, I don’t really care what something is called but I do care about the content.

SPECULATIVE FICTION: “Speculative fiction”” is my favorite broad term for fiction that does not completely reside or occur in our consensus reality. For me, speculative fiction includes science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, horror, magical realism, interstitial, and related fiction categories too numerous to list.

Wikipedia has a useful discussion of the term, see Wikipedia definition/article on Speculative Fiction. The definition there is “Speculative fiction is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with elements that do not exist in reality, recorded history, nature, or the present universe.” This is not unlike my definition, I think.

“Speculative fiction” is a useful term because some of the concepts and issues I will discuss apply more broadly than just to SF or fantasy. It can be very useful because some stories by some authors are, deliberately or otherwise, impossible to categorize narrowly.

Science Fiction”, or SF, is a subcategory of speculative fiction, as is fantasy, horror, etc. It is also a popular fiction genre. There are many, many, many different and somewhat conflicting definitions, see Wikipedia definitions of Science Fiction.

One of my favorite SF definitions is by author Barry N. Malzberg, who says that science fiction is “that branch of fiction that deals with the possible effects of an altered technology or social system on mankind in an imagined future, an altered present, or an alternative past.” (noted at Wikipidia)

Fantasy is a subcategory of speculative fiction, and a popular fiction genre.

There is not nearly as much conflict or contention about the nature of fantasy and how it is defined, at least at Wikipedia, compared to SF. See Wikipedia definition of Fantasy. The Wikipedia definition reads, “Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction involving magical elements, typically set in a fictional universe and sometimes inspired by mythology and folklore.”

Author Theodore Sturgeon recounts a statement by John W. Campbell, Jr., the longtime editor of Astounding/Analog (SF) and the editor of the somewhat short-lived Unknown (fantasy). “For Astounding, I want stories which are logical, possible and good. For Unknown, I want stories which are logical and good.” This is from “First Voyages”, a 1981 anthology by Damon Knight, in the introduction to the Sturgeon story, “Ether Breather”. I like this statement of one man’s view of the difference between SF and fantasy. I don’t accept it as the only definition or even the most correct one, but there is some truth in what it says.

Horror is a subcategory of speculative fiction, and a popular fiction genre.

I like the definition from Wikipedia, “Horror is a genre of speculative fiction which is intended to frighten, scare, or disgust.” See Horror definition at Wikipedia. Some define the category as horror/dark fantasy, and some don’t. I rather agree with this, but I don’t care strongly.

Horror is not one of my strong literature reading interests, although I do encounter and read it combined with SF and fantasy.

Other subcategories of speculative fiction include magical realism, interstitial fiction, etc. For definition and discussion purposes, I am not breaking these out separately from speculative fiction.

Another way of looking at how the various categories of fiction relate

Dave’s view on how fiction, speculative fiction and subgenres relate

Another view on how fiction, short fiction, etc. relate

Another issue of interest are the substantial and impassioned critical/ academic/author/reader discussions and controversy about whether horror is a subset of fantasy, and of whether SF is a subset of fantasy, etc., etc., etc. You can argue these things many, many ways. I am using my personal set categorization here because I find it a useful way of thinking about and discussing these issues for me. Although it is not always desired or needed, using “speculative fiction” instead of SF or fantasy can side step that completely.

READING FICTION VERSUS SPECULATIVE FICTION: Before we venture into discussing how story length affects story and the reading experience, we need to discuss several issues pertaining to speculative fiction and its subcategories.

For almost all speculative fiction, there is an expectation of encountering and figuring out what is different in the world portrayed than in our “consensus reality“. This is a challenge and puzzle to be addressed in story regardless of length, and part of the fun. This starts with the first word or sentence and continues throughout the work. Many of us have encountered the clumsy and dreaded “infodump” section (from paragraph to pages) that was and perhaps still is occasionally used by less skilled authors to help address this issue. This is generally unfortunate, although a first rate author can pull it off gracefully and in a manner that lets you enjoy the experience without wanting to gnaw off your arm. Today, skillful authors are able to gradually introduce the needed information into story elements so that we pick it up in an almost unconscious process. Of course, if this is incomplete or inconsistent, the story will not succeed fully. This is harder in shorter fiction but must still be done for the story to work.

A basic element of reading speculative fiction is the need for suspension of disbelief. We all have beliefs or a theory or worldview of what could happen in the “real world”. For a work of speculative fiction of any length, the author typically needs you to suspend your disbelief that something could happen or that something could be true which is not true in our work or consensus reality to our knowledge. A graceful and skilled author can perhaps push the boundaries farther with this issue, but your mileage will vary regarding how far you can be pushed on this and still enjoy a work of speculative fiction. Regardless, if your reading of a work of speculative fiction bounces on this issue, either the author has failed or perhaps speculative fiction is just not for you. James Wallace Harris recently wrote a very insightful essay on this issue regarding a story we were reading for the BSFFSF FB Group titled, “Does Too Much Suspension of Disbelief Ruin a Story?

A lot of speculative fiction, and science fiction especially, is in dialog with other works of speculative fiction or science fiction on ideas and themes. This occurs regardless of length, but I suspect it may be more prevalent for short speculative fiction.

When I say “in dialog with”, I mean that a story may be repudiating, arguing with or drawing a different conclusion than a prior story. Having some experience with other speculative fiction works, or at least the ideas, themes and tropes, can be rewarding for both the author and the reader.

One example of this kind of dialog occurs around the famous story by Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations“, a novelette published in the August 1954 Astounding Science Fiction. Without giving away too much, this story uses a classic trolley problem trope which is both powerful and controversial to this day. One of my favorite stories written in dialog with “The Cold Equations” is “Think Like A Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly, Asimov’s Science Fiction June 1995.

With the substantial penetration of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction themes, ideas and tropes into general fiction today, it is more common for authors of literary (mainstream) fiction to use or attempt to use these elements in their fiction. This is a good thing in general, as I think it broadens the conversations and improves both genre and literary fiction. It can also improve the reading experience for an experienced reader. However, it can be problematic when a literary author attempts to use these elements without really understanding them and their implications. When this happens, the story may succeed in a non-genre sense but will fail otherwise due to issues that any experienced speculative fiction author or reader would know and deal with.

WHAT IS A NOVEL? Before we can even talk about the differences of reading short fiction (and short genre fiction) versus novels, we have to define the novel and the short fiction categories.

The definition of what is a “novel” is somewhat slippery and squishy. Historically, a novel was a work of fiction that a publisher thought they could sell profitably in a standalone version. Too small and the reader might feel taken advantage of, too big and the novel was both hard to deal with logistically for the publisher and hard for readers to carry around and manipulate while reading. Also, especially over the last 50 years, the size of the typical novel has grown dramatically.

For reading in many speculative fiction genres, word count lengths emerged in the context of various genre awards over time, which have become somewhat embedded in these areas.

Genres including SF, fantasy and horror generally believe that novels are 40,000 words or more, and short fiction is less, as evidenced by the length definitions found in many major awards. I don’t have any real insight or knowledge regarding where these definitions came from; clearly, they meant something to someone at the time they were developed, and they are still useful in some ways. This is a helpful definitional boundary for a number of reasons; at the same time, we can all agree that for reading purposes a novella of 39,999 words is the same as a novel of 40,000 words. See appendix A below for discussion of the origins of novel and story length definitions for speculative fiction. To summarize, these are the length definitions that are typical within speculative fiction:

  • Novel – 40,000 words or more
  • Novella – between 17,500 and 40,000 words
  • Novelette – between 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Short story – 7,500 words or less.

It’s fun to note that speculative fiction novellas have made a real come back in the publishing arena, substantially due to the efforts of Tor. It’s not uncommon to find speculative fiction novellas available for purchase or at the library now. This is great for all of us, as some stories just work better at long but not quite novel length. Especially when authors and publishers do not adequately deal with this, novel bloat can be a challenge, where the extra word count does not bring value to the story.

READING SHORT FICTION VERSUS NOVELS: I believe that reading short fiction requires more attention than reading a novel.

Reading a novel, once you have a bead on the characters and the plot, does not typically require focused, continued attention on what you are reading and what you remember. You can commonly pick it up, put it down, and very easily pick up the narrative without missing major facets of a novel.

There is a lot more going on typically within short fiction than in a similar number of pages in a novel. Missing or not remembering or understanding details can have a very substantial impact on reading short fiction. Reading short science fiction especially requires paying a lot of attention. In addition to the issues noted regarding reading short fiction, reading short science fiction requires even more attention to deal with the divergences from consensus reality.

I have long since given up reading novels I don’t enjoy. How far into them I’m willing to go is a vague, inconsistent and at times very arbitrary thing. Regardless, if I am 100 pages or 1/3 of the way into a novel and I’m not enjoying it, I’m usually done and moving on to something else (sometimes a lot sooner than that if I just don’t engage with a story). I do find I’m more open to reading short speculative fiction that I don’t immediately find attractive or to appear to be enjoying than in a novel, just because I have less personal investment in a short fiction story than in reading a novel.

READING SHORT SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FOR THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY SHORT FICTION GROUP ON FACEBOOK: We read a lot of short fiction for the group, from novella down to short story or even short short story (short shorts are short stories that are typically a few pages in length or less). We are usually reading and discussing at least two anthologies or groups of stories at the same time. Additionally, I am typically reading at least one or two other anthologies or collections in parallel with the group reads. I am a fast reader with a lot of spare time, so this is not a problem for me.

I discovered fairly early on in this group that I needed to keep notes/reviews/commentary/rating on each story read so that I can both state how I felt about a story, and have a conversation with my fellow group members about the story. Previously, I had kept notes/comments on books that I read in my Book Database, but never for individual stories. These story notes need to be detailed enough so that I can both remember what happened in the story and discuss how I felt about the story, why I felt that way, whether it won any awards or was included in Best of the Year anthologies, whether it is on our Recommended Reading List, etc. Depending upon the story and how well I know/remember it, this could be anywhere from a sentence to a number of paragraphs. Although this is very subjective, I also give a number rating from 5/5 (superlative, a classic) on down to 1/5. Sometimes I decide that I will not finish reading a story, and give it a 2.0 for “did-not-finish” or DNF. I can see rating a DNF or one that I read below 2.0, but it has not happened yet.

One unexpected yet logical outcome from reading a lot more short speculative fiction is a reduction in how many novels I read. This is not a problem, but it is different for me.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I am surprised at how reading short fiction (and especially short speculative and science fiction) differs more from reading novels for me than I was expecting. This was a fun essay to think about and write, and I hope people find it of interest. While a lot of it is my personal opinion, I will be interested to see if comments on this cause me to update my thinking and this essay.

APPENDIX A: NOVEL AND SHORT FICTION STORY LENGTH

Please note that I am simplifying and omitting some of the details that do not matter here.

The Hugo Awards are voted on by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention, for works of science fiction and fantasy.

  • The Hugo Awards started in 1953. Best Novel was awarded starting in that year for works of 40,000 words or more.
  • Starting in 1955, Best Short Story for works of 7,500 words or less and Best Novelette for works between 7,500 to 17,500 words.
  • Starting in 1968, Best Novella for works of between 17,500 and 40,000 words.

The Nebula Awards as voted on by the members of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which is about to become The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association). SFFWA began as The Science Fiction Writers of America based in the US but membership is open to writers worldwide.

  • Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette and Best Short Story were first awarded in 1966.
  • The length definitions match those of the Hugo Awards.
  • Although not germane to this essay, the eligibility, year of publication, etc. differs somewhat from the Hugo Awards.

The Bram Stoker Awards for horror and dark fantasy fiction are voted on by members of the Horror Writers Association (a worldwide nonprofit). Current awards with word length include:

  • Novel (40,000 words or more)
  • Short Fiction (no more than 7,499 words)
  • Long Fiction (7,500 words to 39,999 words)
  • Prior categories of Short Story and Novelette were eliminated in 1997.

I believe the final major genre award that pertains to my primary area of interest in science fiction and fantasy is the World Fantasy Award. It was first awarded in 1975, with voting by the members of the World Fantasy Convention.

  • Novel was awarded in 1975 at 40,000 words or more. Short fiction for 10,000 words or less.
  • In 1982, novella was added for stories of between 10,000 and 40,000 words.

There are innumerable other awards that cover the genres or categories of interest. I am not making value judgements, but this is enough. To summarize, these are the length definitions that are typical within speculative fiction:

  • Novel – 40,000 words or more
  • Novella – between 17,500 and 40,000 words
  • Novelette – between 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Short story – 7,500 words or less.

3 responses to “Reading Short Science Fiction: One Perspective”

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