Yes definitely, if I’m going to be stranded on an island, I want it to be a dessert island, not a desert island. Why does everyone else get this wrong? Here are the short stories that I’d most like to have there. (Several of these are major influences, some are recent discoveries.)
The Winter Market, William Gibson – oh man, when I first read BURNING CHROME, the book of William Gibson short stories in which this appears, it lit me up. The economy and directness of the language are laser-like. This story, despite its sheen of cyberpunk imagery, has a rawness to it, an open-wound acknowledgement of suffering, that is really quite affecting.
Hinterlands, William Gibson, BURNING CHROME – another story from the same volume, this one built over the antique but still road-worthy SF trope of a first alien contact, but handled in a way that highlights its protagonist’s humanity. Honesty prevents me from mentioning one of these stories but not the other. It pains me that Gibson has worked seldom in the short story form since this early collection was completed. It’s really some of his best and most honest work.
Story of Your Life, Ted Chiang. Every word in this story shines. There’s never anything in a Ted Chiang story that feels rushed or unconsidered. It’s a time-travel story, sort of, and again a first-contact story, and also a letter between mother and daughter.
Spar, Kij Johnson – not sure if this constitutes a story complete, but it represents a kind of boundary case – a primal scream of sex and science fiction. Reading this really felt like getting peened in the head with a hammer made from some previously unknown space-age alloy. AT THE MOUTH OF THE RIVER OF BEES is the collection I found it in, but there is also a Clarkesworld podcast that is notorious. (Her story “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is terrific, and a heartbreaker.)
Underfed, Susan Steinberg, in her collection SPECTACLE. The incantatory, streamlined language here is itself a revelation. Ms. Steinberg could write a banana bread recipe with this voice and reading it would make me cry. Honestly this whole book is maybe too much of a good thing, but Underfed is a marvelous artifact proving that new modes of writing are still waiting to be discovered.
Slow Tuesday Night, R. A. Lafferty. An SF classic. At first I thought this might have ‘borrowed’ its surreal compression of time from The Swimmer – the (rightly famous) John Cheever story. Cheever’s story was first published in 1964, in the New Yorker. Slow Tuesday Night was first published in 1965. It seems unlikely to me now, rereading both of them, that the stories are at all related. They’re very different – Lafferty’s story is meant to be taken at face value, it’s literal, its how life is going to be, it’s not metaphorical in the same way Cheever’s is.
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison – another boundary case. Ellison couldn’t have produced a more nasty or horrific end-state for humanity, this is it, this is our just rewards for getting stronger smarter faster but refusing to ever get wiser, to ever grow. I read this during college, and maybe everyone should. Don’t make machines to hate humans.
Night of the Quicken Trees, Claire Keegan, in her collection WALK THE BLUE FIELDS. This is an unabashed fantasy, written with intelligence and sincerity. Not wish fulfillment or escapism – this story, richly imagined, is a tangible proof that fantasy can address the concerns and the full emotional range of realistic literary writing.
Birds of America, Lorrie Moore, in her collection of the same name. Humane, generous, fiercely felt. Her writing feels more honest than almost anything else. Also, it’s hard not to recommend everything in this collection.
Hardfought, Greg Bear. This is surely one of the pieces that altered my own writing, and my thinking about SF. It is a war story, but without a clear hero, and with a sharing of POVs that makes us better humans. If I ever meet Greg Bear, I will shake his hand and thank him for pulling me out of my Starship-Troopers ignorance. I owe him a debt of gratitude.
Smith of Wootton Major, J. R. R. Tolkien – his program entire as a writer is etched into this beautiful miniature. I come back to this again and again, at intervals of time, drinking in the beautiful exact language and feeling for the ghostly residue of his assertions of the purpose of fantasy. It pains me that so many so well-read fantasy aficionados have never held this book in their hands. I was reading this to my children (then ages 5 and 8) and my wife stopped me, saying That’s not a book for children! Well, I disagreed, and still do, but even so, it must be a book for somebody.
Jack Daw’s Pack, Greer Gilman, in Clouds & Ashes. I’m attracted to the things (and people) I can’t quite understand. I’ve read this story through a dozen times, and the first pages many more times. The Jacobean language is stunning and an intense pleasure to read (try reading a page out loud!) I have no idea if the story rightly has any meaning. The ambiguous referents for pronouns seems calculated, leaving me to hunt through a hall of mirrors.
The Balloon, Donald Barthelme. How could this not be taught everywhere? It shows how art can be a very arbitrary thing, that people are compelled to find their own meaning of and uses for it. I want my kids to think about art this way. The shear force of this brilliant metaphor wins one over.
Alice, Donald Barthelme – what is going on with this story? It reads like you’re drunk, even when you’re entirely sober. This reminds me of driving fast, at night, and staring through a windshield at a big city lit up with colorful lights. Somehow the uncertain smear of it intensifies its beauty. I really need to go back and read this more carefully, make an effort to understand what he’s doing here. I love how the power of ellipsis energizes this story – we are dragged into it bodily, forced to make interpretations under the weight of an unstable narrative.
Sticks, George Saunders. Surely the most effective piece of flash fiction I’ve ever read. Maybe a little sentimental. Punching way way over its weight – a whole story built around a single metaphor. Makes me think of my own Dad.
ACK, Joy Williams, in her collection Honored Guest – this all builds to one gorgeous tragic paragraph near the end. It’s brave; the preceding pages are fair nonsense and I nearly didn’t finish the piece. When you arrive at the end though, you’ll know exactly why you’re there. The piece Charity, in the same collection, was a close runner-up.
Some Zombie Contingency Plans, Kelly Link – two things distinguish this piece: the beautifully matter-of-fact language and the didn’t-see-it-coming ending. It’s difficult to pick one Kelly Link story over another – several other stories in MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS are also excellent.
The Bread We Bake in Dreams, Catherynne Valente – gorgeous prose and a surprising shift in sympathy.
Flyers of Gi, Ursula K. Le Guin. This story is the best analogy to writing that I’ve ever found – it just rings for me. This story could have been written a hundred years before, without any difference, and I believe people will be reading it a hundred years from now, to same effect.