Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ultra-short science fiction tales - a couple of mine… and one that's better

I just found out something that gave me a moment of envious joy, with a colleague and friend.  While we were both in Fort Worth for a speaking event, Rob Sawyer and I were relaxing over beverages, discussing unusual forms of literature… when I raised the issue of "drabbles" or short-short stories that are constrained to specific lengths.

SixWordStoryFor example, back in 2006, Wired Magazine ran a contest for six word tales…. a rather impossible length, though I sent them a dozen entries.

The one they chose ("Vacuum collision. Orbits diverge. Farewell, love.") did have everything you need in a story… pathos, drama, events, emotion and three separate, sequential scenes!  (None of the other contestants did that, so there...) 

BangPostponedSeveral of mine can be found on my website, including: "Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back."

But I especially like the 250 word story. To meet that precise allotment - no more and no less - is excruciatingly difficult, but it can be done with a full dramatic arc. And so I told Rob about a contest I once entered, "Sci-Fi Scenes" that was run by the Village Voice back in 1981, just a year after my first fiction sale (Sundiver).  I entered the 250 word challenge and my tale is pretty darned good!  (See below.)  But I then told Rob about the brief-epic that won the contest, this cool story about a guy with a malfunctioning teleportation belt who is running desperately from a Tyrannosaur….

"Oh, that was mine," Rob announced, "My first fiction sale, in fact. And it was an Allosaur, not a Tyrannosaur."

Argh!  After much yelping and internal turmoil, I expressed my joy over a serendipity of time.  And now you can read Rob Sawyer's 250 word first publication: If I'm Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage (plus take a look at his new, near-future book, Triggers.)

And then go on to read (below) two of my own  250 word drabbles (which are also gathered in my short story collections: Otherness and The River of Time.


Toujours Voir, from The River of Time
by David Brin

RiverofTimePurple     "Folks!" the bodyguard announced. "In moments Lasselovsky will be here. You all know what that means."
     From my regular booth by the window, I saw several customers abruptly leave. The brave, or curious, remained.
     "He's the Oldtime spacer who returned, but didn't hide, right?" Sam, our bartender, asked.
     "Yeah, so don't bother him! If anyone here strongly resembles someone from his past, and triggers a deja-vu attack, we could find this building on another planet..."

     Deja vu. I suppose everyone's felt this clue to Time's true nature.
     Epileptics once dreaded it as an "aura," foretelling seizures.   And historically, people feared epilepsy, never suspecting grand mal hinted a door to the universe.
     Today only Oldspacers suffer lingering aura shock. I hear neuroconvulsive hyperdrive is perfected nowadays. Modern pilots needn't endure terrifying seizures to attain that special mental state which propels a spaceship starward.
     To modern spacers, induced deja vu is a key.
     To Oldtimers, though, it's pure terror.

     "...sudden recognition could trigger a jump seizure. So don't approach him. If he feels safe, maybe he'll mingle..."
     Talky bodyguard.

     Most Oldtimers retreated to cozy surroundiings and stayed put. Ex-crewmates avoid reunions.
     Stubborn Lasselovsky, though, keeps moving. He's a free man, so the authorities send bodyguards ahead to warn people.

     Time's funny. It flows, then surges like a convulsion.
     I sit and wait, feeling the years.
     Through the window, I see a familiar face...
     I should have left before this. Already my hands are shaking.
     Still, it is nice to see, again, the stars.


Myth Number Twenty-One, from Otherness
by David Brin

NewOthernesscover     Elvis roams the interstates in a big white cadillac.
It has to be him. Flywheel-bus and commuter-zep riders see plumes of dust trailing like rocket exhaust behind something too fast and glittery for the naked eye.
     Squint though, and you might glimpse him behind the wheel, steering with one wrist, fiddling the radio dial, then reaching for that always frosty can of beer.  “Thank you, honey,” he tells the blonde next to him as he steps on the accelerator.

     Roar of V-8 power. Freedom-smell of gasoline. Clean wind blowing back his hair... Elvis hoots and lifts one arm to wave at all true Americans who still believe in him.

     Chatty bit-zines run blurry pictures of him.  “Fakes!” claim those snooty tech types, ignored by the faithful who collect grand old TwenCen automobiles and polish them, saving ration coupons for that once-a-year spin, meeting at the nearest Graceland Shrine for a day of chrome and music and speed and glory.
     They stop at ghostly, abandoned filling stations, checking for signs that he's been by. Some claim to find pumps freshly used, reading empty yet somehow reeking of high octane. Others point to black, bold tire tracks, or claim his music can be heard in the coyotes' midnight serenade.

     Elvis roams the open interstates in a big white cadillac.  How else to explain the traces some have found, sparkling like faery dust across the fading yellow lines?
     A pollen of happier days... the glitter of rhinestones.


locumranch said...

I enjoyed "Otherness" immensely, especially 'The Dogma of Otherness', wherein our host reasons in circles, arguing that our society's reflexive rejection of intellectual dogmatism represents proof positive of societal intellectual dogmatism, and I wonder if he still feels the same as a self-identified contrarian.

Does he consider himself a contrarian first and a dogmatist second, or a dogmatist first and a contrarian second? How does he reconcile this intellectual contradiction? Or, has he simply mastered Newspeak?


Acacia H. said...

Can Locu ever actually pull his head out of his ass long enough to realize all he's doing is spitting bullshit around when he posts, or will he be trapped in the inanity of internet pseudo-trolldom for the rest of his life? (And I say pseudo-trolldom as 4chan and the like would make him look like the child he likely is.)

David Brin said...

As the proud non-owner of a 16 year old, I am sooooo familiar with this kind of smug pseudo-logic that it truly is water off a duck's back. Patience. He has moments of excellent lucidity and it's better that he hang with us than sink into drugs or video game addiction.

Cool story about Rob Sawyer, eh? You should go read his 250 word story!

Anonymous said...

Isn't 'Myth' in Earth? I can't recall and don't have the copy in reach to check, whether you attributed it to yourself? Fun!

Tony Fisk said...

I now see where that strange assertion about oil from dinosaurs came from!

Local newspaper once ran a piece on 'vignettes' (50 words). Pieces by Brian Aldiss and Fred Forsyth stand out.

I once wrote a tale of 76 words for reasons that will come clear if you dare to read on (better go read that dinosaur one,-):

The Moving Finger

A buttonpress and martyrdom. So simple the way to Paradise!
But... only one wife?
The figure removed her veil, greeting him with a wrinkled, gap tooth grin:
’You lads never read the fine print! But really! Isn’t seventy six virgins a bit greedy?'
'Ohnono! One wife of seventy six has far more to teach!'
The crone took the horrified shade’s hand.
'Come, love, we have much to learn about each other.
And eternity for doing it!'

Unknown said...

"Toujours Voir" inspired me enough on first reading that I sat down (at the age of ~18), and wrote a group of 250 word stories I called "Two Pairs of Shorts". Four stories, 250 words each, with two sets of two that were linked by character.

Sadly, the manuscripts are lost in the pre-digital, I've moved too much, Oh-god-did-I-write that mists, but I'm still fond of "Toujours Voir" and the concept of the short short.

David Brin said...

Thanks Craig! And Tony, that's a fine one! And anonymous yes I did first publish the Elvis tale in EARTH.

Patricia Mathews said...

An anti-drabble -

Sorry, dinosaurs.
We used it all up.

rewinn said...

FOIA MACHINE KICKSTARTER! - highly recommended.

The Center for Investigative Reporting is the sponsor; they have a real good rep and their presentation seems to make a heck of a lot of sense. Here's your chance to help w/transparency - but move quickly, the cool swag is going fast!

(This better not be a gummint plot to get all our namez on a black helicopter database grumble grumble)

Unknown said...

I just recently reread Philip K. Dick's _The Day's of Perky Pat_ and couldn't believe how much I had missed when I read it as a kid. What an incredibly weird short. Why hasn't anyone turned that into a film?

Ian said...

The British government is giving 60 million Pound to Reaction Engines to assist in the development of their airbreathing SABRE engine for their proposed Skylon rocketplane.


Paul451 said...

Re: Toujours Voir

Stories like that show just how little you need to bash the audience with back story.

One of the reasons I like SF is that you get, in essence, three stories that you have to put together from fragments as you go. The deep history, the "physics" and history that created the setting; the local history, the immediate backstory of the characters and events; and the story in front of you. So even a cheesy space opera has more creativity than the equivalent story in a more familiar setting.

Some historical stories can provide the same triple-plot, if you aren't familiar with the setting and period.

Re: "Dinosaurs return, want their oil back."

"What perfect timing," the monkeys hooted.

Patricia Mathews,
Re: Sorry, dinosaurs. We used it all up.

No good. That was 7 words.

Paul451 said...

Speaking of self-imposed literary constraints, I remember a trend appearing occasionally on a USEnet conf where we'd write every line to the same number of characters. So each post was a perfect fully-justified block of text. (And no cheating with spacing, either. Normal grammar and punctuation.) Weirdly satisfying hobby.

rewinn said...

Six word SF?
Delightful challenge!

"Seen you somewhen?"
"Scram, time creep!"

Hank Roberts said...

Argh. Ciclops, one of my favorite projects, is (sigh) involved in

"... two contests that Diamond Sky Productions, LLC is
running in association with the July 19 event.

We will be choosing the best original contributions submitted by members of the pubic --
an image in one case and a musical composition in another -- to a Message to the Milky
Way that will be beamed in about a year from the most powerful radio telescope on Earth,
the Areceibo dish in Puerto Rico, in a long-distance call to our fellow galactic citizens."


It's the John Sedgwick Memorial Announcement.

You remember him? The Civil War general whose famous last words were:

"They Couldn't Hit An Elephant At This Dist..."

My suggestion for our signal:
"Here we are, nya nya nya bet you can't hit me ..."

David Brin said...

I love the Sedgwick metaphor! Will use it. Paul's "monkeys" reply was perfect. I liked Patricia's too! Can be fixed by removing one word!

Tony Fisk said...

Here's a silly one:

Aliens colonise Earth.
In cows.

I would also like to point out that twitter is a good medium for haikus.

David Brin said...

A good haiku need nature imagery plus some irony (zenlike:

Twittering fools tweet
like droppings from sick starlings
Reversing Darwin

Tony Fisk said...


An supporting argument:
One hundred forty,
Twitter's limit still permits
full five seven five!

...and a rueful acknowledgment:
Twit's alluring trill
of staccato induced high.
Pavlov! Need. More. Feed!

(Nature? What could be more natural than biochemistry?)

Ian said...

This should be of interest to our host:


The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development proposed a blueprint for cracking down on tax-dodging strategies used by companies such as Google Inc. (GOOG), Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO)

Prepared for a meeting of the Group of 20 finance ministers in Moscow beginning today, the plan aims to develop rules over the next two years preventing companies from escaping taxes by putting patent rights into shell companies, taking interest deductions in one country without reporting taxable profit in another, and forcing them to disclose where they report to regulators their income around the world.

“The golden era of ‘we don’t pay taxes anywhere’ is over,” Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the Center for Tax Policy and Administration for the Paris-based OECD, told reporters at the agency’s headquarters. The OECD is a government funded think tank that was charged by the G-20 to tackle the issue. "


David Brin said...

The last man on earth sat alone in a room filled from the floor to the ceiling with boxes of Girl Scout cookies.

Suddenly, once again, there was that damn knock on the door.
--Bill Taylor.

David Brin said...


GeronL said...

Eat. Breathe. Burp. Poop... Life. Yay.

Gary Ansorge said...

Poor Guy,,,

I prefer...Life, where we eat,shit and die...

Anonymous said...

Double Pun in Haiku. One is a Japanese - Japanese pun, one is a Japanese - English pun.

Kusai dewanaku
Tensai da

Kusai - primary meaning "Smelly" but can also mean "nine years old"
Tensai - Japanese meaning "Genius" English/Japanese meaning "ten years old"

From now on (implied - I am)
Not smelly - or Not nine years old
I am a genius - or I am ten years old

Anonymous said...

Maybe it isn't controlled deja vu that standardizes intersteller travel.
Maybe it's multiple simultaneous puns, minimum of 3, I would expect.