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The Period Table of Science Fiction

It has been suggested by others in these pages that "short stories are the life-blood of speculative fiction." If that's the case, the question naturally arises, "How short is short?" Speculative fiction, especially science fiction, has a long tradition of "short shorts," stories so short they can be written on just one or two pages. Many of these, such as feghoots, are merely glorified jokes, setups for groaner punch lines catering to SF fans' taste for wordplay. Still, some short shorts -- even if they do lead up to groaner punch lines -- manage to convey the outlines of a powerful idea in a compressed form, trading depth and detail for impact and memorability.

I've always liked short shorts, ever since I encountered some of the classics, such as the one about the daunting logic problem involving a sixty-four node graph on a two dimensional manifold, containing thirty-two actors of six varieties. I happened to pick up the issue of Omni in which "They're made of meat!" appeared, and it remains a favorite to this day; but more on that below.

SciFiction has, over the last year or so, been publishing a series of short shorts entitled "The Periodic Table of Science Fiction". For those who've been locked in a closet for the last couple of years, SciFiction is the SciFi Channel's online magazine, edited by Ellen Datlow. (For those who've been locked in a closet for the last couple of decades, Ellen Datlow is, along with Terri Windling, responsible for the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror collections; she's also the winner of this year's Best Professional Editor Hugo, and a variety of other nice things.) The series, obviously, is centered on that staple of high school science chem classes, the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The mad scientist in charge of this experiment is Michael Swanwick, the self-proclaimed second best writer to attend ReaderCon I. Swanwick has evidently been producing one story after another, every week, for quite an impressive stretch of time, and has another half a year to go. And they're good -- irreverent and whimsical much of the time; but thought-provoking, chilling, even moving, at others.

Perhaps what stands out most about the collection is its variety. Sure, each story is tied to an element, but the nature of that tie varies widely. Some of the shorts simply describe the properties of an element -- though some of those properties will probably not be found in your chemistry textbook. (Do you know which element is made up of particles of pure relevance? How about the element that can be safely predicted to never show up at your door in drag?) Others relate to some notable use of the element -- for example, you may have heard that lithium is used to treat bipolar disorder, but perhaps you are not aware of the notorious patient who may need a much larger dose than is typically prescribed -- or take some known or theoretical technology based on the element and build a hard-SF story around that tech. Still others merely mention the element in passing, or play off of its name, making it a minor prop in what is basically an unrelated tale. There are even occasional connected stories, such as those following the exploits of the eccentric employees of Summergarden Specialty Ores.

Although there's also variation of first and third person, and some use of slightly more experimental techniques, overall, the series has a consistent voice -- a fairly basic, declarative, descriptive voice, but with a satirical edge, a sort of Zen bemusement at the world's simultaneous banality and wonder. The critics who attack genre fiction for lacking the impenetrable subjectivity of capital-L Literature would probably still find it wanting, but they tend not to notice that in speculative fiction, ideas, events, and characters are more important than the oversized ego of the auteur. In any case, the series is recognizable as the work of one writer, but that's fine, because he's a good writer. His ideas are interesting, his jokes are funny, and even after sixty or seventy of his shorts, when he throws one of those twisty "punch line" endings at you, you'll still be surprised.

Another aspect of Swanwick's authorial voice, but one which itself provides yet more variety, is the liberal use of allusions -- historical, literary, cultural, and so on. This is probably partly just Swanwick's personal style, but it also helps make the shorts work, by allowing him to tap into all kinds of external sources of meaning without using any lengthy exposition. When a character says, "There you go again," most of us (at least in the USA) know exactly whom the author has in mind. Perhaps my favorites among these are the ones that invoke other bits of science fiction -- including, as it happens, a wholesale theft of "They're made of meat!" There are numerous nods to the classic SF of Wells and Verne, Heinlein and Asimov. Even comic-book superheroes get a supporting role, here and there. In addition to the hard-SF pieces, there are fairy tales, parables, fantasies, alternate histories, and so on. Swanwick seems to be trying to prove himself a master of this medium -- and, in my judgement, he's succeeding quite admirably.

Probably the most prominent theme running through the series (aside from "elements") is the relationship between intelligent beings and their artificial tools. Quite a few of the stories revolve around AIs -- many onboard devices like cars or spaceships or toasters, but a few traditionally embodied as robots -- that have romantic attachments to humans, or need forgiveness for their sins, or feel maligned by their owners/employers.

Another common theme is humanity's narrow view of itself. People tend to have trouble imagining any kind of people other than themselves, and, Copernicus notwithstanding, they still tend to regard themselves as the center of the universe. . . not as pets, or pests, or backwards savages. Swanwick satirizes our hubris mercilessly, poking our collective puffed-up ego with a dozen pins at once.

So, if you're convinced that it'll be worth your while to at least go take a look, go ahead and do that. Click a few elements at random to see whether the style suits you. If you decide you like what you see, or if you're already a Swanwick fan, I'd recommend starting from Hydrogen and reading through in order -- although most of the stories don't require sorting, a few of the jokes (especially in the Summergarden series) will probably be funnier if read in order.

As a whole, this series is a great example of why short fiction -- especially freely available, web-published short fiction -- is such a valuable part of the field of speculative fiction. You can check in and read one or two shorts in the morning when you get to work, or on your lunch break, and you'll get not just a good chuckle, but also some great ideas to leave simmering in your unconscious for the rest of the day. Novels are great, character-driven fiction is great, but speculative fiction is, at its roots, a literature of ideas, of daring what-ifs. These shorts draw on the rich imagination of one author, and distill his ideas into their most elemental forms.


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R Michael Harman is the New Media Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons.

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