Most Important Short Stories

Everything you read, I think, changes you at least a little bit. But then there are stories, or book, that you read that change the way you think about something, or start a lifelong obsession with some topic or other, or just stay with you, for a very long time.

For me, these are those stories.

A quick caveat: this is in no way intended to be a definitive list of the best short stories, just some of my personal favorites, and the ones that have been the most important to me.)

1. The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin

What’s it About?

A girl hitchhikes on a spaceship, not realizing that, because the fuel for each journey is precisely calculated, she won’t be allowed to reach her destination.

Why is it Important (to you)?

This is a sort of infamous story within the SF community, but when I read it I was eleven, twelve at the most. I was one of those supremely nerdy people who actually read their English textbooks, and occasionally I took mine home to read the different short stories in it. One of the short stories was “The Cold Equations”  It was one of my first clear experiences with Hard SF,  and the ending stuck with me for a long time, for years after I’d forgotten the title or author of the story. I stumbled across it in a “best of” anthology years and years after I’d first read it.  May have permanently molded my mind into liking science fiction stories with horribly depressing endings.

Where Can I Read It?

You can find it, online, here. If you’d rather read it in print, it’s in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, vol. 1, which is a great anthology all around.

2. There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

What’s it About?

Another classic of SF that I didn’t know was a classic when I read it. An automated house goes through its daily routine after its human inhabitants have already been killed in a nuclear explosion.

Why is it Important (to you)?

I think everyone who’s read it remembers this story. It’s a pretty poignant argument against nuclear war, written in a time where nuclear disaster seemed imminent. But, for me, it was another example of how powerful a story can be by just implying disaster. This and “The Cold Equations” made me want to read more short stories, and probably made me the insane short story consuming machine I am today.

Where Can I read it?

It’s included in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. If you haven’t read The Martian Chronicles yet, go find a copy and read it. We’ll wait.

3. Impossible Dreams by Tim Pratt

What’s it About?

A movie buff finds a video store he’s never seen before, that leads to a different universe.

Why is it Important (to you)?

I watched Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons because of this story. I don’t want to over exaggerate and say that it changed the way I think about movies, but it certainly gave me more of an appreciation for the medium, for the malleability of the finished product based on an impossibly large amount of variables, for its ability to connect people across all sorts of lines. It’s still one of my favorites to listen to, and, to me, it’s a clear example of how to do Alternate Universes, and quiet science fiction, correctly.

Where Can I Read It?

The Escape Pod episode is free to listen to.

4. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

What’s it About?

A young boy watches a cult tv show with his friends while trying to cope with his parents’ impending divorce, while all the time receiving phone calls from

Why is it Important (to you)?

This is my favorite of Kelly Link’s stories, and it’s just so brilliant, on a meta-textual level. She starts out the story by saying that our protagonist is a character on the television show The Library, but by the time you’re two pages in, you’ve already forgotten that. For anyone who’s ever been torn away from people they love, or who’s ever been fannishly obsessed with a tv show, or who’s ever wished they could live in one of the worlds they’ve read about, this story makes a lot of sense. It’s so hard for me to describe why I love this story so much, but it’s clever without reminding us how clever it is, heartfelt without being sappy, and mysterious without being unreadably enigmatic. It erases the boundaries between fiction and reality until the distinction is meaningless.

Where Can I Read It?

In Kelly Link’s short story collection Magic for Beginners or her other short story collection Pretty Monsters.

5. All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein

What’s it About?

A bartender listens to a pulp writer’s life story late one night. And well, the rest? I’ll let you read for yourself.

Why is it Important (to me)?

As has already been established by this point, I like any story that can send chills up my spine or make me think I should call my mother and tell her I love her.  After I finished reading this story, late one night in college, I just stared at the ceiling for a long moment.It was one of those moments where you’re simultaneously thinking, “that was brilliant” and “I will never be that good” and “what the hell did I just read?” all at the same time.  I don’t usually like Heinlein much, but he’s a masterful storyteller, and he deftly pulls off something that most people would’ve botched.

Where Can I Read It?

Another Escape Pod episode! Thanks, Steve.

6. The House of the Seven Librarians by Ellen Klages

What’s it About?

A little girl is raised by librarians.

Why is it Important (to You?)

I have no real justification for this one. It’s not a particularly famous story, or an award-winning one. I just love it so much. I mean, come on! It’s a story about a little girl being raised by librarians, in an abandoned library. That’s beautiful. That’s just awesome. There’s something very, very comforting about this story, and I still read it when I’m in a bad mood. It’s a story you never really want to end.

Where Can I Read It?

Ellen Klages’s short story collection Portable Childhoods

What you can gather from this list, I guess, is that I’m not very original in my favorites. But I blame the fact that my house had tons of old fiction anthologies lying around that had all these dusty old Golden Age stories in them.

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