Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Short Story: 
Science Fiction's Lifeblood

By Cheryl Peugh
©2004, Cheryl Peugh


The first magazine that contained nothing but science fiction hit the newsstands in April, 1926.  The name of the magazine was Amazing Stories, and Hugo Gernsback was its editor.  Amazing did not remain solitary for long.  Other science fiction magazines, one a little-known magazine named Astounding Stories, soon shared shelf-space. 

Amazing and Astounding were part of a breed of magazines generally referred to as pulps, named for the kind of cheap paper publishing companies used at the time.  Pulps crowded the shelves during the 1920s and 1930s.  Romances snuggled next to Detectives, which shouldered next to Sports, and so on.  Since broadcast television did not yet exist, people passed the time by reading, and what many read was pulp fiction.  Not only that, Western lovers wanted to read Westerns, mystery lovers wanted to read mysteries, and sports lovers wanted to read about sports.  Pulp editors soon learned to tailor their magazines to genres.  Inevitably, this led to magazines dedicated to science fiction. 

The most distinguishing characteristic about science-fictional pulps was the short story.  Magazines in other genres also contained short stories, but were better known for serials, sometimes carrying particular characters through many sets of adventures.  What set science fiction apart from these other genres was its speculative nature.  Editors, writers, and readers found that within the realm of science, both real and imagined, existed endless possibilities for story ideas.  During the '30s and '40s, no one understood that fact better than John W. Campbell, Jr, one of science fiction's more colorful and famous editors.

When Campbell came in as editor of Astounding Stories in 1938, he changed the name of the magazine to Astounding Science Fiction to reflect the new direction he planned for it. 

Campbell wanted science fiction short stories that dealt with science in a more realistic way.  He favored stories that introduced a scientific idea and explored its ramifications. He encouraged speculation, but speculation grounded in science. "Space opera," where the science is only tangential to the story, was out, and "hard science fiction," where science is the pivotal element in the story, was in.  Campbell developed some of the most well-known and respected authors in the science fiction field while he edited Astounding.   

Science fiction magazines still maintain a struggling existence against formidable competition in the form of movies, television, and video games.  Other genre magazines have gone the way of the dodo bird, but several science fiction magazines, both professional and semi-professional, are still in the market. 

So why do science fiction magazines still exist?  One answer is that science fiction thrives on short stories. Science fiction is particularly suited for short stories, because the idea that is being presented is more important than the other elements of story.  Short story structure does not allow for much world-building, more than one or two characters, or more than one main idea.  That idea has to be presented immediately and dealt with in the space of a few paragraphs.  Some of the best science fiction short stories in existence are no more than a few idea-driven pages that raise thought-provoking questions.

A good example, and probably the shortest, is Fredric Brown's classic, The Last Man on Earth.  The entire text is two sentences.  "The last man on Earth sat alone in his room.  There came a knock on the door...." 

This little short, originally published in Space on My Hands (Original publication in 1953,  recently republished by Buccaneer Books, Inc. ISBN: 0899683320 ),  is famous and often quoted, both verbally and in print.  The speculation generated by this short explains why itís still around.  These two sentences raise a number of questions in the readersí minds-- about why heís the last man on Earth, why heís alone, about who or what is knocking on the door. 

Short stories like this, and other classic shorts, have kept science fiction fresh and able to grab our attention. Within the pages of Astounding Science Fiction, now known as Analog, and within other existing magazines, science fiction is alive and well.   In these days of twenty-minute-and-under attention spans, the short story is still quick entertainment, and the science fiction short story is still the best way to advance new and exciting ideas about the nature of science, and explore the impact of those ideas on the world around us.

And that's why the short story has been, and still is, science fiction's lifeblood.