Short stories are the lifeblood of science fiction and fantasy — novels get all the buzz and the parties, but short fiction is where the wildest ideas and coolest characters come out. And here are 15 or so anthologies that will show you just how superb science fiction and fantasy storytelling can get.
Top image: Artwork from the Very Best of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Volume 2
Note: These are pretty much entirely general-interest, rather than themed, anthologies. Partly as a means of cutting this list down to size, and partly because I wanted to focus on general-interest anthologies, where the focus was just on next-level storytelling.
This is a collection celebrating the first 60 years of the famous digest-sized magazine, and it's basically chock full of some of the greatest stories in the genre. You almost won't believe these stories all appeared in the same magazine, from Ray Bradbury's "All Summer and a Day" to Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" to Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" to James Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See." Other authors include Shirley Jackson, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler. And a second volume is coming this July.
Editors David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden compiled a collection of "the new science fiction writers of the new century," and it really is a Who's Who of authors who've broken out since 2000. You've probably heard of a lot of these authors, like Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, Mary Robinette Kowal and Ken Liu — but most of these names have appeared on award shortlists with great regularity. And these tend not to be just well-chosen authors, but really decent picks for the best stories to read by each of them. In quite a few cases, they managed to pinpoint my favorite story by an author, like Kowal's "Evil Robot Monkey" or Yoon Ha Lee's "A Vector Alphabet For Interstellar Travel." Sadly, this book is already out of date — there's no Ann Leckie, for example.
But what if you really want a comprehensive overview of the genre's history? Then there's this 700-plus-page tome, which starts in 1844 with "Rapaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne and ends up in 2008 with "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang. Pretty much every famous science fiction author is represented here, often by their most famous stories. There's Heinlein's "All You Zombies...", there's Brian Aldiss' "Super Toys Last All Summer Long," there's Harlan Ellison's "Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman." The selections get a bit more adventurous and eccentric starting around 1970, but this tries to be a comprehensive overview, and does a credible job.
This is the definitive collection of creepy and uncanny tales, usually dealing with supernatural nightmares, comprising a whopping 110 stories of the dark and fantastical. Just check out the table of contents! Editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer argue that the Weird begins with authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, but they reach back much earlier than that, into the early 20th century. And they draw in literary fiction as well as some off-the-wall experimental fiction, for a weirdness that's all-encompassing. Read all 750,000 words in this volume and you'll have total permission to be as weird as you need to be.
The VanderMeers also put out a collection of just cutting-edge fiction in the burgeoning "New Weird" subgenre, including names like Clive Barker, Felix Gilman, Sarah Monette, Jeffrey Ford, China Mieville, and of course Michael Moorcock.
In the wake of his triumph with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon made an attempt to prove that short fiction could be fun and literary, with this ambitious collection that includes some of the hottest writers from both worlds. The standouts include Glen David Gold, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender and Carol Emshwiller, but every one of these stories is an interesting attempt to rebuff what Chabon calls "plotless and sparkling" literary fiction. Originally a special issue of McSweeney's, it's available as a paperback from Vintage.
"Weird Fiction" doesn't have a monopoly on pushing the envelope in speculative fiction - there's also the taboo exploration of sexuality. Circlet Press has been valiantly expanding the borders of our sexual imagination for two decades, and this book is a particularly potent distillation of speculative erotica. N.K. Jemisin's "Dancer's War" is a particular standout, but there's also sex with a Lovecraftian horror, and some surprisingly hot angel/demon sex.
Editor Jonathan Strahan compiled four volumes of the freshest, most fascinating stories you'll see anywhere. There's a reason why that Wesleyan book, attempting to be the definitive look at science fiction, ends with Ted Chiang's story from Eclipse 2. All four volumes are absolutely astounding, but volume three is probably my single favorite story collection of all time, starting with Karen Joy Fowler's heart-ruining "Pelican Bar" and continuing with some of my favorite stories by Molly Gloss, Peter S. Beagle, Nicola Griffith and others.
Lumping these together because it's sort of a fascinating contrast — the science fiction volume takes off from an essay by Jonathan Lethem about the squandered promise of the genre. If only SF had recognized and coopted authors like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon earlier, we might have had something more literary and less beholden to pulp traditions. (I'm paraphrasing wildly.) James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel put together a collection of what that would look like, including great literary SF writers like Gene Wolfe and Maureen McHugh alongside George Saunders and Lethem himself. The genre questions aside, this winds up being a great bunch of stories. In the fantasy volume, editor Peter S. Beagle appears to have less of an agenda, but he brings together fabulist tales by everyone from Neil Gaiman to Aimee Bender to Yann Martel to Susanna Clarke. Lovely stuff.
Before Strahan's Eclipse anthologies, this was another series that just published excellent, brazen stories that stick with you after you read them. Editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden helped introduce the world to authors like Susanna Clarke, but also published a ton of great stories by the likes of Maureen McHugh, John M. Ford, Ellen Kushner and Jonathan Lethem. Michael Swanwick's story of using zombies as free labor is one of his most mordant tales, which will stick with you long after you read it. But in general, these three volumes still have the power to make short fiction feel astonishing again. Full disclosure: Nielsen Hayden is currently my editor at Tor Books.
Editor Bryan Cholfin started Crank! back in the 1990s as a protest against stagnation within science fiction, but also at rigid genre boundaries that kept literary audiences from recognizing that science fiction could be great. Each of the first six issues featured a story by Jonathan Lethem, so it's not surprising that Lethem is massively represented in this volume as well. There are also big names like Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gwyneth Jones and Brian Aldiss, alongside up-and-comers like A.M. Dellamonica and Eliot Fintushel. Cholfin seems to have coaxed some serious insanity out of his contributors, with Le Guin's "The Matter of Seggri" being one of her more oddball stories, and one of the most memorably nutso tales is "Nixon in Space" by Rob McCleary.
This book, edited by Bruce Sterling, helped crystallize cyberpunk in a lot of people's minds, and it includes the most essential cyberpunk authors, from William Gibson to Pat Cadigan to Rudy Rucker to John Shirley to Sterling himself. This is pretty much the only one of these anthologies that I don't own a copy of, but it's definitely a great list of authors and a survey of the state of the art of science fiction in the 1980s, and Tom Maddox's story about a fighter pilot whose brain is wired into his jet — only to suffer brain damage — sounds especially intense.
Editor Ellen Datlow put together a collection of 16 stories from famous authors as well as then-newcomers, and the mix very much reflects what she was publishing at Omni and at SciFi.com: cracking great stories that don't go too far in the direction of hard science fiction, space opera, sword and sorcery or epic fantasy. This is the volume that gave us Nathan Ballingrud's "North American Lake Monsters," along with a bizarre prison story by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman. Authors like Lavie Tidhar, Anna Tambour Jason Stoddard and Margo Lanagan are featured alongside Jeffrey Ford and Barry N. Malzberg.
The Slipstream movement was aimed at breaking down genre divisions and introducing more weirdness — so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that the authors featured in this book are largely the same ones as in the Secret History of Science Fiction book and the Best of Crank!. But it's not as if you can ever get too much of Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders or Karen Joy Fowler, is it? Plus this has extra Theodora Goss and Howard Waldrop. Consider this an extra helping of literary weirdness.
Don't worry, we were never going to leave this out. Back in the 1960s, Harlan Ellison felt the same rebellious urge that Sterling and Cholfin experienced later on. And he put together two collections of fiction that was considered too radical or weird for regular science fiction publishers. So, of course, at this point this is practically a foundational text and these stories are considered classics. Notably Le Guin's "Word for World is Forest" and Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah!" tend to be considered among the genre's most indelible works. Part of what's great here is the attempts to tell really personal, visceral, in some cases autobiographical stories using the toolkit of science fiction as it existed in 1967, and you can see a very different kind of science fiction as a result.
Co-edited by Nicola Griffith, these three volumes bring gay and lesbian perspectives to fantasy, science fiction and horror respectively. The "fantasy" volume kicks off with a beautiful story by Carolyn Ives Gilman and includes "The Fall of the Kings" by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, and a lovely fairytale by Richard Bowes. The science fiction volume includes Leslie What's famous story "The Were Slut of Avenue A," plus Ellen Klages' time-traveling lesbian romance "Time Gypsy." Plus Nancy Kress and Stephen Baxter! These stories use science fiction and fantasy tropes to capture an outsider perspective, and deal with not just desire but also alienation in often clever and unpredictable ways.
Conjunctions is a fancy literary magazine whose editorial board, at the time, included Chinua Achebe and Rick Moody. And they devoted a special issue to "The New Wave Fabulists." But this isn't just another attempt to break down barriers between literary fiction and genre fiction — not exactly, anyway. It's more to prove that authors like Gene Wolfe, Kelly Link, Nalo Hopkinson, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Hand, M. John Harrison and John Crowley have been creating a new kind of "fabulist" writing that defies genre classifications and uses the fantastical to create a troubled portrait of the here and now. This volume is pretty much entirely made up of authors associated (to some extent) with "genre," and it's some of the best storytelling you'll find anywhere.
And last but definitely not least, there are these two delightful volumes of "interstitial" fiction — stories that don't quite fit into any genre box, and which "demand that you engage with [them] on [their] own terms." Delia Sherman, Theodora Goss and Christopher Barzak pull together a lot of challenging and sometimes poetic examinations of the fringes of reality. Authors include Brian Francis Slattery, Alan DeNiro, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Lavie Tidhar, K. Tempest Bradford, Catherynne M. Valente and Vandana Singh, and in a lot of cases you can see the author striding across a high tightrope, trying a trick they've never even seen performed.