Short Fiction as the Seedbed of Speculative Fiction

Written by Cristina Jurado | Translation from Spanish by Inés Galiano


“Every enduring story is like the seed in which the giant tree lies sleeping. That tree will grow in us, will cast its shadow across our memory.”

Julio Cortázar1

We are fascinated by stories: we hear them and read them as children, or we read them to our children, and we write them at any age. Stories exist in every culture all over the world, and they are collected in every language. There is a special tension in stories that starts with the challenge of squeezing in a few pages a portion of a made-up reality. The story’s brevity plays in our favor: it offers a fast answer to our expectations, which are related to the way we process information and make sense of reality.

Short fiction is wired in speculative fiction’s DNA. Science fiction as it is —as we understand it today— arose from the cheap paper magazines published in the USA at the beginning of the last century. These publications started collecting fiction and informative articles, but readers pushed for more short stories or serials. This genre cannot be fully understood without short fiction, which has been the seed of larger novels or even sagas and served as a way for authors to get better known.

Bear in mind that fiction shapes what we can imagine and what we think possible, and that's applied to our projected futures, to our realities and to our conception of the past, as states Jerome Bruner in “Narrative, Culture and Mind”2, an essay in which the scholar explores fiction and how it shapes our way of experiencing the world. Stories that we tell are not just mere entertainment but also illustrate facts, feelings and phenomena, and help to communicate knowledge and values. Our ability to generate fiction allows us to better understand reality and it also impacts significantly in our interpretation of cultural and social relationships. It is one of humanity's most commonly used methods to acquire and organize information about the world.

Mary Rohrberger3 claims that the history of literature is filled with short stories from the beginning: “short fiction is as old as the history of literature… but, as we know it today, is the newest literary genre”. Even though short stories appear in old myths, medieval romances, folklore tales and fables and gothic German ballads from the Romanticism period, it is not until the XIX century that stories take the authenticity from Realism and become, in their own right, a new modern genre.

Flash fiction, stories and even short novellas are known to be an exercise of narrative restraining by eliminating all superfluous elements: too many characters, complex scenarios, endless descriptions about details, etc. The story is stripped of every unnecessary element to provide the reader with a more agile —but not less profound— experience.

Some believe that the story is a hybrid between novels and poetry because, even though they are written in prose like novels, they also share the metaphoric language and suggestive strategies of poetry: ellipsis, experimental narration, etc. As Viorica Patea points out, short fiction focuses on tone and images, and because of its short format, intensity, suggestion and lyricism are maximized.4 That's why short fiction is considered to be a sibling of other short artistic forms, such as essays, letters, short films, photography, painting and visual art.

Patea emphasizes the long tradition in Literary Theory that neglects short fiction: it has been marginalized and regarded as the lowest level in literary hierarchy. That marginalized position helped short fiction become the subversive vehicle for those living on the margins of society. For that matter, Marie Louise Pratt claims there is a link between short fiction and social, regional and political marginalization, and points out that there is an increase in short fiction in communities looking to find their voices in emerging literary traditions or decolonization processes.5

We are currently living in exciting times thanks to the spread of information technologies and the Internet's ubiquity. On top of paper magazines and fanzines, there are now also blogs, websites and online publications allowing authors to make their work visible and to interact with readers directly and immediately. That’s why we are seeing a revival of speculative fiction stories, a format that perfectly adapts to Internet specifications. Anthologies of themed stories (by various authors) and works of collected stories (by one only author) have become supplementary vehicles and have sometimes made up for a shortage of magazines and anthologies.

Speculative fiction can only be kept in good health by promoting a diverse and multicultural short fiction development that offers what every reader expects: big ideas, past, present and future speculation, scientific and technological elements and a critical analysis of society. All of that in a condensed format, which is perhaps more consistent with the fast pace of present times. Let's hope that short fiction keeps doing this, and that many more markets take notice and participate in the renaissance of sci-fi and fantasy short fiction for it to keep growing those trees from Cortazar’s quote: excellent fiction with the ability to transform us by its powerful imagination.

© Cristina Jurado

1-Bernárdez, Aurora y Álvarez Garriga, Carles (2014): Cortázar de la A a la Z. Alfaguara.

2-Bruner, Jerome (2010): “Narrative, culture, and mind.” Telling Stories: Language, Narrative and Social Life. Georgetown University Press.

3-Rohrberger, Mary (1976): “The Short Story: A Proposed Definition”. Short Story Theories, ed. Charles May, Athenks OH: Ohio University Press.

4-Patea, Viorica (2012): “The Short Story: An Overview of the History and Evolution of the Genre”. Short Story Theories: A Twenty-first-Century Perspective. Rodopi.

5-Pratt, Marie Louise (1976): “The Short Story: The Short and the Long of It”. Short Story Theories, ed. Charles May, Athenks OH: Ohio University Press.

Rachael K. Jones

Cristina Jurado studied Advertising and Public Relations at the Universidad de Sevilla (Spain) and holds a Master’s degree in Rhetoric from Northwestern University (USA). She is a bilingual author of science fiction, fantasy, horror and other hybrid genres, as well as editor and translator. In 2019 she became the first female author to win the Best Novel Ignotus Award (Spain’s Hugo) for Bionautas. Her recent fiction includes the novella CloroFilia and her collection of stories Alphaland. She edited anthologies such as Alucinadas, Spanish Women of Wonder, WhiteStar and Infiltradas and has worked as international editor for Apex magazine and as co-editor of The Apex Book of World SF #5.