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The Outpost

Upgrade Your Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reading Habits
By Tom Mattson
Published August 10, 2020

This piece is about how I was a moron, but also how I’m all better now, and about how much better it is being better instead of being a not-better-yet moron.

It’s like this: at some point, I stopped reading short stories.

This may not seem like a big deal, but that suggests to me that you’re not reading short stories either. The above-words imply my feelings on that. So here’s how to get better and upgrade your sci-fi and fantasy reading habits.

The Return of Sci-fi Short Stories

I love sci-fi and fantasy and read it constantly, but, until recently, almost exclusively in novel form. Then, an overall resurgence in less-lengthy formats got my attention. Publishers seem more into it, and the audience is talking about it more. Novellas, novelette, short stories, and whatever (I won’t pretend to know all the specific designations) are suddenly part of the conversation in a more prominent way again.

I first noticed (but then ignored) this several years ago when Tor announced a new focus on publishing physical novellas. I didn’t give this much thought, somehow having come to perceive contemporary novellas as little one-offs that don’t bring it the way full novels do, which isn’t for me, as I have a deep affection for it being brought.

That I thought these things about shorter formats was, of course, ridiculous. You probably didn’t feel this way because you’re smarter than me, but looking at the scene in general, I think you were the outlier. Sure, speculative fiction was born in short formats and thrived there for decades, but never discount our ability to ignore history. Annual awards celebrate short format categories, but that’s the word: category. Somewhere along the way, short stories were relegated to niche corner, beloved by a savvy sub-culture, but denied much attention in the broader conversation.

Clarksworld: Upgrade Your Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reading Habits

Then a thing happened: Tor’s novellas started popping up every dang place, including many best-of lists, traditionally reserved for full-length novels. Forums, articles, and podcasts all scrambled to heap accolades and adoration. Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor, kept showing up with its excellent cover. Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells just wouldn’t go away, despite sounding like one-note shallowness. And I got to thinking the thing that most my thoughts start with: “hmm.”

Binti: Upgrade Your Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reading Habits

Next, many authors that I love started spending more time in those formats. Or probably more accurate: the shorter works they’d always been interested in started getting more attention. N.K. Jemisin edited and contributed to an installment of the Best American series, then dropped an entire volume of her own shorter works. Ken Liu kept not-putting-out the longer stuff I was anxiously awaiting because instead: short stories. Brandon Sanderson did a collection. Short formats were having a moment.

I’ve read all these things now, I get it, I’m back and all in. Again, this is ridiculous, since we know the value of short stories, but culture doesn’t work logically, so here we are. It feels like I’ve rekindled an old comfortable relationship, yet somehow it feels exciting and new.

I’m also now attuned to how much my reading habits have been tied to what bloggers and lists point me toward, a situation that shames my sense of self from multiple angles. It’s good shame though, the kind that quickly evolves into exciting growth and betterment.

If you’ve been passing on these formats, having forgotten what makes them so enjoyable, un-forget by considering the following:

Shorter formats allow for weirder concepts and unusual approaches.

Many of my favorite short stories have a strange cadence, style, or mood that would be torturous garbage at novel-length, but are visionary revelations at their shorter ones.

It doesn’t mean they are lesser or read like creative writing exercises, the different format is simply a different art form, and it allows authors to explore their craft in unusual ways.

How Long 'Til Black Future Month

What has genuinely blown me away has been re-discovering how full these small experiences can be. It’s not just offbeat style for the sake of offbeat style, the substance can be profound in new and different ways.

I’ve ugly-cried about ten-page stories with the catharsis and release that I spend weeks looking for in 800-page books. In two hours of reading, I can: be a sentient river rising up against my oppressors, watch androids attempt to convincingly run a restaurant serving only flesh from their own bodies, and hold my child as its soul slips in and out of its body through time. It’s exhilarating.

I’ve seen weird things done with second and fourth person perspectives that would be exhausting at a longer duration but were thrilling demonstrations of mastery and control at their written length. These formats allow toying with style and language-mechanics that stretch the concept of what the written word can be. Again: exhilarating.

The “ways things can be weird” is limitless. I love full-length novels, but the creative energy and different kinds of imagination found in shorter works are breathtaking.

Less-Lengthy Stuff Fits Into My Life Better

This is pretty self-explanatory but worth considering clearly, so do consider it.

And not with that fleeting, “yeah that makes sense, I’m smartish, that’s obvious, I knew that already” thing we (or at least, I) do. How often do I acknowledge an observation as “obvious” but then neglect to act on it? Often—it’s often that I do this.

Invisible Planets

“I don’t read as much as I used to,” can usually be translated as: “Books are friggin long, and I get about a 1/3 of the way into one before life does things to me, and then I don’t read it for a few weeks, and then I don’t remember what was going on, so there’s a barrier to returning, so I don’t, and now my life is less wonderful as I instead use my precious few free-time moments endless-scrolling on some app like some kind of scroll monkey.

Short-form fiction saved me. Two books of imaginative sci-fi short stories—one on the nightstand, one near the bathroom—and a commitment to leaving my phone somewhere else has resulted in much-improved happiness.

Short Formats Give Platform to Voices That Publishers (or at least my own Reading Habits) Have Traditionally Ignored

When I re-embraced shorter formats it quickly stood out to me that, in addition to owning unique styles, these works often offered a refreshing variety of perspectives and voices compared to what I was used to.

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

The speculative genres always feel fresh and relevant, but even more so with an expanded pool of authors bringing in a broader range of experiences and worldviews. It has stood out to me lately (in a way it hasn’t in the past) that my instincts on where a story is headed are pretty intrinsically tied to my own cultural experiences, or the expectations ingrained in me through past reading.

Creators with perspectives different from my own can surprise me in new and exciting ways, and I’m all about it. A whole essay could be written about how fantastic this single point is. A quick glance at my shelves (a decent approximation of sci-fi and fantasy best sellers) reveals a pretty stark lack of variety in cultural perspectives. Short stories have changed that part of my reading experience dramatically.

Basically, Get More of What You Love

I’ll never stop reading Sci-fi novels. Spending thousands of pages with the crew of the Rocinante, or hundreds of hours trying to reconcile all the characters in Malazan are a type of experience I will never tire of.

But dang am I excited I brought shorter formats back into the mix as well, and filled my life with gloriously-more weird concepts and mind-bending trips to the farthest reaches of human imagination.

Don’t miss out.

Want to read more about O-Neb’s thoughts on Sci-fi? Check out this post on Sci-fi’s influence on inventions…

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