Scifi Short Stories, the ISFDB and the Science Fiction Hub: a Reader’s Advisory

I really like science fiction short stories. What I like about them in general is their brevity. You can easily knock them over in one sitting. They’re short, sharp and to the point. And if you don’t like one, there will be plenty of others that come along that you will like. They’re especially a good way to discover authors without the bother of slogging through an entire novel. You find when you discover a good short story you pay attention to the author who wrote it, and you tend to look out for more of their work. It’s not always foolproof – authors aren’t always consistent with the quality of their stories or writing – but it’s usually a good indicator of potential compatibility. I have discovered so many good authors that way, including Pat Cardigan, Cordwainer Smith, and the great unsung Mildred Clingerman.

One of the few problems of short stories is the eventual randomness that is built into any magazine collection, where most short stories first appear. This makes them feel like a lucky dip, which can be nice in their own way; but let’s face it, it’s the good short stories (or the ones that speak to me) that I’m hoping to find in these lucky dips, the ones I can cherish and re-read and recommend to my friends. I have a habit of marking out such favourites on the contents pages of the magazines and anthologies I read. Just a series of penciled-in dashes going down the page. Also, that helps me remember which ones I liked – they go by in such a blur it’s easy to forget.

Outside of the randomness of magazine appearances, there are anthologies that collect short stories together around various themes and sub-genres – time travel stories, scifi romance, steampunk, space war, by year, by author, by country, the ubiquitous best ofs, you name it. They are very convenient, and make the search for good short stories – or the type that I like – that much more attainable. I’m presently reading a collection Called Spirits Abroad, by Zen Cho, a Malaysian author. Great stuff.

I guess what I’m doing here is something like what library professionals call a reader’s advisory – the practice of recommending books and authors to patrons based on their previous reading and tastes. In this case, it’s a reader’s advisory for me. Beyond the sorts of anthologies mentioned above, an obvious guide for good or appropriate short stories would be science fiction encyclopedias and databases, both in print and online, of which there are many. I’m thinking of a site like the Internet Speculative Fiction Database that’s been online for a few years now. It’s a good resource, but it isn’t a dedicated database for short stories, covering as it does all types of writing, fiction, non fiction, novels, magazines, short stories, reviews and such. You have to dig in to its Advanced Search function to get close to what you’re looking for.

Another thing that’s useful on that site is its tags page, where any story’s subject matter or themes are listed. For example, if you want stories set on Mars, just click on the Mars tag to find plenty. Tags are great, but they depend on readers to input them into the database (the ISFDB depends on user input, much like Wikipedia). So, while a lot of stories have tags and other data information (especially ones by the more well-known authors), there’s a lot that don’t – especially when it comes to tags.

I had an idea to organise all these different tags into some kind of coherent order, and this led me to come up with something I call a ‘Science Fiction Hub’ on this site. It’s my own humble attempt at listing and ordering the main themes and areas of science fiction, along with a representative list of authors and titles found in each area. Much of the schema is based on information in various science fiction encyclopedias, particularly the work of John Clute, but the definitions are ultimately my own. Science fiction, to me, is a literature that says ‘no’ to the mundane aspects of reality. It is concerned mostly with predictions of what I call ‘future trends’, as they play out in all the different fields of science and technology. Its point of view can be either utopian, dystopian (themselves sub-genres), or (as Ursula Le Guin emphasised in The Dispossessed) ‘ambiguous’. And any one of these trends or points of view can play out in any of the schemas, which I have categorised as follows:

– Exploration/Colonisation
– Military/War
– Robots/AI
– Time Travel/Alternate Histories/Worlds
– Medicine/Biology/Psychology
– The Media/Economics
– Religion/The End of the World
– Aliens

Which brings us back to Exploration/Colonisation… I don’t assume the schema is exhaustive, and the reader is invited to inform me what schemas, if any, I have missed. Check it out, or at least please think about it.

I didn’t really set out to come up with something like the Science Fiction Hub, I was just trying to find good short stories as part of my reader’s advisory. I guess I’ll continue to dive into that lucky dip of the magazines, which are after all the lifeblood of short stories. But every now and then I’ll crawl around that hub instead. Either way, it’s a good time!

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