Why Short Fiction?

My literary friends (and my wife) have all wondered at one point or another: Why short fiction? Why am I so obsessed with short stories, reading them and writing them, instead of working on novels? I had incoherent answers about traditions in SF/F and about sketches in charcoal, but last year, Neil Clarke finally put into words what I wasn’t able to say: “As a short fiction editor, I can be subversive.”

I sent Solarpunk Winters a story called “Glâcehouse.” It’s the story of a Haitian-Québécoise history major, her friend, and her father the ecologist reenacting the Breton myth of KêrYs in a post-independence, post-climate change Québec. And it is subversive comme le diable. For one, I don’t think I could sell that as a novel to any editor in America, just on the difficulty of marketing that to an American readership. And for two, this time, when Dahut opens the locks, the cold and the water flow out instead of in, and it is quite definitely a good thing rather than a black betrayal.

The story I sold to Triangulation: Dark Skies, “Earth Epitaph,” is about two venerable astronomers in Tasmania trying to encode an epitaph for humanity into the Sun itself before a gamma ray burst sterilizes the Earth. They choose the Song of Seikilos, the oldest complete musical piece in the Western world, as the fitting words of the human tombstone. To speak to SF fandom and say “this is ancient, this is not secret, and this is valuable” is almost as subversive as asserting that leaving behind a work of art after the death of the Earth is worthwhile would be to regular folks.

I snuck paradox and pacifism into “Sweat and White Cotton,” criticism of cultural bias into “Preta,” and existentialist space exploration into “No More Final Frontiers.” As radical as Fahrenheit 451 and The Left Hand of Darkness were, some of Bradbury’s most powerful prose is in “There Shall Come Soft Rains” and some of LeGuin’s most condemnatory stands are in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The implicit criticism of smug Golden Age SF present in Neuromancer is explicit (and hilarious) in “The Gernsback Continuum.” Even into the present day, it’s in short fiction like Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience ™,” Ken Liu’s “The Paper Tiger,” and Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” that subversive messages, subversive forms, subversive verse are frothing, bubbling, rattling.

Because some of those subversions catch, and thrive, and slowly become established and become the Establishment. The names and ideas you see printed in F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction this year will be what you see on the new releases bookshelves next year, will be what you see in the theater the year after that, and on television the year after that.

In short fiction, I can write about French North America as if anyone cared. I can call vampires “hungry ghosts” and question why anyone would want to be one. I can imagine the Last Quaker Meeting and let the last few pitiful Friends stand to give ministry, if they remember how. As a short fiction writer, I can be subversive.

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About R. Jean Mathieu

They say he speaks five languages, was conceived on a chess board, and once seduced a tong boss' daughter and lived to tell the tale. All we know is, he's called Roscoe. You can find more scurrilous lies at rjeanmathieu.com and buy his books at fedoraarts.com. View all posts by R. Jean Mathieu

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