By Surangya Kaur:
Science fiction is a genre which is often looked down upon as “lowbrow” literature; one which when shot to popularity was merely being cashed in on with poorly thought out pulp fiction. It is criticized as being dependent on space travel and faraway galaxies as a backdrop while having stories which could otherwise have been easily set on earth. We can choose to club all science fiction this way or we can think about C.S. Lewis’ argument defending it in his book An Experiment in Criticism where he notes that “books classified as “lowbrow”, such as science fiction, are also capable of inducing a passion to re-read and imparting experience which changes reader’s worldview.”
Science fiction, especially today, may play a crucial role in this regard as we advance ourselves relentlessly in technological fields, such as artificial intelligence, seldom putting any thought to its consequences.
Listed below are seven sci-fi short stories which while transporting you to the realms of fantasy, also strike as disturbingly possible in certain aspects.
1. The Last Question – Isaac Asimov
One of the most well known short stories by Isaac Asimov and deemed as one of his best by the author himself, The Last Question narrates the tale of a series of generations of human beings, shrouded in the mystery of the last unanswered question. It is one of the many loosely connected stories involving the fictional computer Multivac which was Asimov’s rendition of the trend towards centralization in computation technology which started in the 1950s.
The story begins in 2061 and continues over a period of trillions of years. It starts with Multivac having seemingly solved all conceivable problems of earth’s energy requirements by efficiently tapping into the energy of the sun and eliminating any need for thermal or nuclear energy. But the one question that still arises is what when the sun runs down? And the other stars? Can entropy be reversed? Read the story here to find out.
2. Ministering Angels — C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis, in this story, questions human instincts and needs and highlights how they are distinguished from other primordial life forms. In a short, sharp, thought provoking narrative, we are taken to a space station on the surface of Mars where we encounter an eclectic group of men on a three year long mission. Having deprived them of extensive human contact for so long, especially with the opposite sex, the authorities back on earth are concerned and expect them to be ravenous for any kind of satisfaction whatsoever. But are they? Know here.
3. The Machine Stops — E.M. Forster
“Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.”
Thousands upon thousands of such cells, each inhabited by a single human, in an underground world where humans have isolated themselves from nature and from direct contact with each other! With no sense of time or space, humans have settled into a diurnal rhythm of monotonousness. They are afraid to venture out, to travel or to see their origins to the extent that the sight of a single star is unsettling. They live in the Machine and worship it with each aspect of their existence; completely dependent on it. But what if the Machine fails? Can humans be atavistic? Find out here.
4. A Sound of Thunder — Ray Bradbury
The story goes on to demonstrate how the smallest of our actions can have major implications. It is the year 2055 and the time machine has been invented. However, its use is still heavily regulated and limited since what consequence the most minor change in the past could have on the future is largely unknown. A hunter by the name of Eckels desires to go to the past and hunt dinosaurs. He contacts the company providing this service and voyages back with a couple of guides. The company only allows killing of animals which are about to die anyway and takes the strictest of measures to not disrupt anything else in the past. But when faced by an angry, rampaging T-Rex, who’s to say what could happen? It makes you think about how our thoughtless killing of the most seemingly trivial beings today could be carving our future in unimaginable ways. Read the story here.
5. 2BR02B — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
“The painter pondered the mournful puzzle of life demanding to be born and, once born, demanding to be fruitful … to multiply and to live as long as possible–to do all that on a very small planet that would have to last forever.”
Surely a world where population control is a reality should be a blissful one. The population of United States stands at an unchanging 40 million, a comfortable number, not too strenuous on the earth and its resources. A man waits with his head in his hands at a hospital for his wife to give birth to their triplets.
“All diseases were conquered. So was old age.
Death barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.”
How can three new people be accommodated in this world?
6. We Can Remember It for You Wholesale — Philip K. Dick
This story was adapted into the 1990 blockbuster film Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The protagonist, Douglas Quail, is a man consumed by the desire to visit Mars once in his lifetime as a secret agent for Interplan for an adventure and a relief from his humdrum life of a clerk. Well aware of the fact that he is incapable of attaining either, he makes an appointment with Rekal Incorporated where he is promised the memories of a trip to Mars he never made. An extra-factual memory, it’s promised that it will feel more real than the actual thing since it will be indelible. However, unforeseen complications arise while the procedure is being performed and false memories evoke real ones which were meant to be erased. Quail finally has the adventure he always wanted. But is worth all the trouble it costs? Read here.
7. Air Raid — John Varley
The basis for the novel and the movie Millennium, Air Raid is a fast paced story which follows the progress of an airline rescue mission. Or is it abduction? Written as a firsthand account of one of the missionaries, the story begins with the rescue team disguising themselves as humans of 1979. The reason why they need the disguise and why they are carrying out the operation in the first place isn’t revealed till the final pages of the story.
Well, that’s about it. For more such stories, you can check out the Science Fiction Century series by David G. Hartwell, an excellent compilation of some of the best tales in the genre by critically acclaimed authors.