10 Best Science Fiction Short Stories of All Time: From the Golden Age to the Modern Era
Best Science Fiction Stories of All Time
These are the best science fiction stories of all time, according to somebody who spent much of her life thinking that science fiction sucked. You see, it was only a few years ago that I admitted that I don't like modern science fiction short stories. I much prefer the fantastic science fiction shorts of the Golden Age that first appeared in science fiction short story pulp magazines in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, like Astounding Stories, Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
To misquote the late Douglas Adams: "That's when stories were real stories. Plots were real plots. And small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were vivid, exotic, fantastic and all too possible." As hokey as they may seem today, the old sci-fi short stories stand the test of time for good, solid fiction, if not for scientific accuracy.
When I compiled this reader's list of the best science fiction short stories of the 20th century (which is the same as "all time," as the genre became full-fledged only in the 1900s), I noticed I was markedly favoring stories published from the 1940s through the 1960s. I tried to like modern speculative fiction—I really did. And I will again, when writers and publishers once again start turning out science fiction stories that actually give me the same sense of wonder as those old tales from the Golden Age did.
Best Science Fiction Stories Ever: The List
- Alfred Bester, "Fondly Fahrenheit"
- William Tenn, "Time in Advance"
- Connie Willis, "Daisy in the Sun"
- Lewis Padgett, "Time Locker"
- Isaac Asimov, "Nightfall"
- Anson MacDonald (Heinlein), "By His Bootstraps"
- Cordwainer Smith, "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul"
- Henry Bates, "Farewell to the Master"
- Murray Leinster, "Pipeline to Pluto"
- Daniel Keyes, "Flowers for Algernon"
This might be obvious, but these are ten of the best science fiction stories ever in my own opinion. It was anxiety-producing to narrow it down this much, as the body of work is so huge. They are in no particular order—except the first one. That one really is the best.
What you'll find: Short reviews of the stories and why I Iiked them.
What you won't find: Detailed plot summaries. What I personally like about top 10 lists is the reviewer's opinions. So that's what I've put here. Plot summaries can be found in the Wikipedia articles linked to here.
How I Picked This List
Here are my criteria for this "best science fiction short stories" list. I based inclusion on whether or not many of these factors were to the story's credit:
- I read the story (with one exception).
- I loved the story.
- The story was fun to read. It wasn't depressing (with one exception).
- The story stayed with me—I thought about it for a long time, either in my nightmares or giggling about it spontaneously at work.
- The story was well-written. I was either not aware of any major writing flaws or I got a shiver of delight at the way the words are written.
- The story gripped me and didn't let go. I never thought, "I've got to go get my laundry out of the dryer" in the middle of it.
- The story made me feel a sense of wonder. Even decades after it was written, in the age of the iPad and Android and suchlike.
- The story is important. It did something new that changed the way science fiction was written afterward, or it changed society.
1. "Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester
Alfred Bester won a 1953 Hugo Award for his novel The Demolished Man. Besides being a true personality and a novelist, he was a rare beast amongst Golden Age science fiction writers. He didn't just tell a great tale—he could write. Many Golden Age writers (including one of the best-known, Robert Heinlein) were far better storytellers than they were writers. They had vision, but words—not so much.
Bester wrote with a deep understanding of the psychology of language. He knew English well enough to play with it, mangle it, do impossible things with it. With "," the writing doesn't just tell the story—it becomes the story. Which I suspect is why "Fondly Fahrenheit" was not ultimately dismissed as just another science fiction horror story. Fondly Fahrenheit
Though the story's disturbing premise—that a servile android-robot could turn on its human superiors and commit murder—was probably radical at the time, without Bester's way with words, "Fondly Fahrenheit" wouldn't have become the classic science fiction short story that it is today. It's still cited as one of the best sci-fi stories ever.
"Fondly Fahrenheit" isn't "literary" or prosy like Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder." It's just beautifully written, with a suspenseful mystery and a catchy song you won't forget (but will want to). It's a story you have to keep reading. And the end . . . the end changes everything and makes it, in my book, the undisputed best science fiction short story of all time. (But feel free to dispute it if you like.)
Warning: As it is about a serial killer, "Fondly Fahrenheit" is a fairly dark story and may not be suitable for kids.
2. "Time in Advance" by William Tenn
William Tenn is one of those science fiction writers who are well-known by dedicated fans and hardly known by casual readers. When asked to choose a favorite William Tenn science fiction short story, many would name "The Brooklyn Project." And "The Brooklyn Project" is almost a perfect short story—satirical and ironic, with cut-throat social commentary and deftly drawn archetypes.
But maybe because it's a linear, straight-shot fable-like morality tale, "The Brooklyn Project" is almost too perfect. I like character-driven stories, lighthearted humor and a twist that sneaks up on you, and science fiction author William Tenn delivered truly wicked humor and characterization in "Time in Advance."
"Time in Advance" is the story of a man who's about to commit a lethal crime—a crime for which he's already paid his debt to society. Far from being a dark story of a vicious criminal secretly planning a covert murder, Tenn's tale takes a light approach. In this world, society views the crime as perfectly legal, if something of a novelty. The hero is aiming to commit a vile crime, and not only is nobody about to stop him . . . his criminal intentions make him a celebrity. Cool concept, huh?
How many times have you read a story that starts off with a good idea, but has poor execution? This is not one of those times. "Time in Advance" has almost perfect execution. The "what if" in this case is "What if people paid for the crime of murder before they committed it, and the penury was so heinous that nobody ever survived to commit the crime . . . until now?" Tenn takes this premise and develops its permutations with complete and utter mastery.
Tenn excels at twist endings—hilarious "aha" endings, such as in "The Brooklyn Project." "Time in Advance" not only has that, it also has a "feel good" ending, something sorely lacking in science fiction today, as if a happy ending would signify the end of speculative fiction as we know it. Yes, the ending somewhat dulls the cutting edge of the social commentary. But it works. I consider "Time in Advance" truly one of the best science fiction stories of all time.
3. "Daisy, In the Sun" by Connie Willis
Connie Willis, speculative fiction novelist and author of tragic science fiction (Passage) and comic science fiction (To Say Nothing of the Dog), is one of the most popular modern science fiction authors writing today. A story she published back in 1979, "Daisy, In the Sun," appearing in the short story collection Fire Watch, is one of the few (ironically) dark stories I love. And though it's not from the Golden Age, it is a real card-carrying, sense-of-wonder-bringing "what if" story.
Though other readers rave about "Fire Watch," and I'm a sucker for romance and would have loved to choose "Blued Moon" for this list, as it honestly is one of my favorite sci-fi stories ever, I kept coming back to "Daisy, In the Sun."
"Daisy" is disturbing, far more disturbing in its way than the devastating turn Willis takes in "A Letter from the Clearys." Not anywhere as gritty or extreme as the long and chilling "All My Darling Daughters." And its scientific logic leaves . . . well, everything to be desired, mixed up as it is with spiritual fantasy and strange allegorical illogic. Surreal.
It does have the usual Connie Willis twist, however. And despite being told as a kind of dreamy teen angst story, it's one of those stories you think about again and again. It's less character-driven than most of her stories. It's tragic. And happy. Kind of.
And, as inadequate as that is, that's all I can say about it, without giving it away, because the describing of the story is the telling of it, which I suppose is one reason it's on this top 10 list.
4. "The Time Locker" by Lewis Padgett
Henry Kuttner and his wife, C.L. Moore, produced an amazing body of work, both in quantity and quality. These were mostly short stories, written both individually and co-authored under several pseudonyms in the 1940s and 1950s. One major pen name was Lewis Padgett.
As Lewis Padgett, this writing team wrote marvelous science fiction and fantasy stories with great characterization—yes, you read me right, the stories feature that rare animal in science fiction, honestly likable characters. And each story really is a gem.
If asked to cite a favorite science fiction short story by Lewis Padgett, many readers would pick the complex and interesting "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," on which the 2007 movie The Last Mimsy was based. Others might pick the hilarious "The Proud Robot" or the now-not-so-new-and-different, but radical-at-the-time "The Twonky," about a robot that goes wonky.
Me, I'm a sucker for time travel. The kind of time travel many critics scoff at as cliched. Time travel in which the attempt to break the Second Law of Thermodynamics and betray Nature's linear preference causes a shocking paradox. Time travel used as a vehicle to teach bad people the good lesson that enterprise driven by self-serving greed has a price. It's trite. It's old-fashioned. But gee, that's a good story. And that's what's missing from today's fiction.
So my choice for one of the 10 best science fiction stories of all time is the 1943 piece "The Time Locker." It's fun. It's satisfying. It's not new rocket science. But it's creative, and funny, and it's one of the very best. If a bit disgustingly squishy.
5. "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov
I'll probably be lambasted for not putting this one in the number 1 spot. Sorry. "Nightfall," published first in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, is a classic science fiction short story, no doubt about it. Asimov made it into a novel, too. I haven't read the novel. But this story really is mind-blowing. Devastating. But in a good way.
It's not the writing. "Nightfall" is easy and enjoyable to read, but typical of Isaac Asimov, the writing is not as tight as it could be, and the dialogue wanders a bit. It's a tad long for what it is. The characters, though well-defined, lack that spark that would make them truly likable.
But all that doesn't matter. Because the ending is really unexpected—or it was, for me—and has a mind-blowing effect, even now. It's just not what you expect, and you're led to expect a lot of different things.
Since "Nightfall," other stories and films have been written using the premise of a world that never sees night except once in a rare aeon. "Nightfall" is probably the reason why. I saw one such movie, and it was so forgettable, I forget the title. "Nightfall" is not forgettable. "Nightfall" is an example of how wonderful a "what if" story can be if handled by a born storyteller.
6. "By His Bootstraps" by Anson MacDonald (Robert Heinlein)
I'll just say it: I'm not a big Robert Heinlein fan. Yes, I'm possibly the only science fiction fan who doesn't like Robert Heinlein. I've read a couple of his books, including Stranger in a Strange Land, and several short stories. While I found his ideas (occasionally) interesting, his characters and writing never thrilled me. I'm told I haven't given him enough of a chance. That's probably true.
But I loved, loved, loved "By His Bootstraps," which Heinlein wrote as Anson MacDonald. It's another time travel story. I still didn't like the main character; Heinlein's characters just don't do it for me. But at least this story is about a character, not a society that doesn't seem real (which is one of my complaints about Heinlein's stories).
Reading the story is pure fun. The paradoxical logic was terribly clever. And as the story unfolded, it became obvious that it was perhaps the best time travel story I'd ever read. As a bonus, it's re-readable, despite the fact that the ending is not exactly forgettable. It's like re-reading an Agatha Christie novel. You remember whodunnit, but you want to see how you were tricked.
But why is it in the top 10 science fiction short stories? Because it was one of the first science fiction stories to explore the time travel paradox. Because it did so to extremes. The story is a flawless, step-by-step execution of the time travel paradox.
7. "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul" by Cordwainer Smith
Under the pen name Cordwainer Smith, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger wrote a series of related short stories taking place in a futuristic world that is drawn with an eerie combination of cool, clinical precision and fairy tale lyricism. "Scanners Live in Vain," a story clearly inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and one of the first ever featuring a half-man, half-machine protagonist, was published in 1945 and remains his most famous short work.
I've read a few, though, and the one that stands the test of time for me is "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul." Written with an almost poetical quality, "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul" is a dark romance, a psychological study, a haunting space opera, a wildly inventive science and, in the end, a fairy tale. And one of the best sci-fi stories ever. You can find it in . The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith
8. "Farewell to the Master" by Henry Bates
"Farewell to the Master," published in 1940, is the only story I've read by Henry Bates, and it's the basis for the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Henry Bates wasn't just any Golden Age writer. He was the founding editor of the magazine that became Astounding Stories. His fiction went beyond the usual space operas of the time.
"Farewell to the Master" was an important story, while in some senses it was typical of what made Golden Age science fiction great. But it did it so well. It was ahead of its time, delivering a postmodern lesson in the harm of self-importance that eventually became cliched, but at the time must have been awe-inspiring. And in truth, it inspired awe in me reading it from the timeframe of the new millennium, cynic though I am.
Like so many others on this list, the suspense of the story would be compromised with too much revelation of plot. So if you're looking for a summary, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere. But suffice it to say a man and a robot come to Earth. Something bad happens. The robot begins to do something scary. And in the end, something good happens. And bad. Which is bittersweet. And powerful.
9. "Pipeline to Pluto" by Murray Leinster
In his day, author Will Jenkins (pen name Murray Leinster) wrote some incredible stories—in the good sense, not the bad sense—not the least of which was his most famous, "First Contact," and arguably his most fun, "A Logic Named Joe." If you love creative, entertaining and fascinating stories about early computers and their effects on society, then you might think "A Logic Named Joe" belongs on this list instead of "Pipeline to Pluto," and you'd be right. It does. It should be here.
But I chose "Pipeline to Pluto," because while more understated, it's more of a human story, with a larger-than-life lesson, and—are you sensing a trend?—it's got a grand old twist. It's simply a more impressive literary feat.
"Pipeline to Pluto," which you can find in , is a highly detailed and convincing tale of space travel. It's anything but a space opera filled with glamour and adventure, though. The story describes a prosaic world of blue-collar transportation—freight, in fact. First Contacts: The Essential Murray Leinster
Like much Golden Age science fiction, the story, told through fast-paced narrative and dialogue, isn't concerned with conveying a political viewpoint or defending a special interest group. It's concerned with ideas: the concepts, possibilities, and ironies of a newly technological world unfolding for human beings possessed of universal flaws and compromised value systems.
It's the good guys vs. the bad guys in a universe that doesn't care. It's essentially modern and optimistically heroic. It's righteous (in a good way). It's better than Terminator 2. And all of this won't make any sense to you unless you read it.
Suffice it to say that if stories like "Pipeline to Pluto" were written today, I'd be out there reading them instead of writing this. And it's not just because there's a [spoiler alert: do not read on if you don't want to know how it ends] happy ending.
10. "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
This list wouldn't be complete without "Flowers for Algernon," but I almost left it out. This Hugo Award-winning short story and literary classic is simply amazing. Unfortunately, it almost didn't make it onto my list of best science fiction short stories of all time, because I couldn't read it.
I have no spine when it comes to Nazi stories, stories about human lab experiments, and stories about mental disability. This one is not a Nazi story, but it has two out of three, and that's enough for me. But my husband insisted that if I wouldn't read it, at least it should go on this list.
And so here it is. If you're stronger than me, and if you didn't already read it in school, read "Flowers for Algernon." It's one of the few science fiction stories that have become famous in the mainstream, and with good reason.
What Is Your Favorite Science Fiction Short Story of All Time?
What Do You Think?
So what do you think about my selections? What are your favorite short stories in the science fiction genre, past or present? Please leave a comment, and if you feel like it, say why you think it's the best.
Do You Like the Science Fiction Short Stories Published Today?
Questions & Answers
Who wrote The H.O.R.R.A.R.S. of war?
Gene Wolfe? (says the Internet)Helpful 3