A Taxonomy of Recently Published Speculative Fiction Short Stories

Reading through some online short fiction, I found myself naturally placing the stories in certain categories, regardless of genre. When I was done I came up with 7 different story types that pretty much all the stories I read could fit into. I present them here, not as a perfect an inarguable ordering, but as an observation open to discussion.

Most of these stories are from the latest or next to latest edition of these periodicals, with a couple recent Hugo nominees thrown in to get a hint of what the field thinks is the best. I tried to get a good selection of different sources whose stories are available free on the Internet for anyone to read.

There were a number of stories I read that I didn't like, though they fit into these types. I'm not going to talk about those stories. All the fiction presented below I recommend reading.

Something else to consider: change "novum" to any disruption in a person's life, and change "fight the monster" to "fight the villain", and this taxonomy could, I think, work for pretty much any short story. Novels, on the other hand, are more likely to mix the types together since they have the room to do it, thus the monster is also the disruption that brings about character growth, or a modern fable might have elements of monster fighting, character growth, socio-political lens, etc. Indeed, in many ways these types could be seen as patterns that can be mixed and matched.

  1. Fight the Monster

    By far the most popular form of story among those I read, this is any tale whose primary subject is a monster and the character who has to do battle with it. This was one of the main modes of story of the pulp era, but its rootes obviously go back to mythology and it's never really lacked for popularity.

  2. Novum as Socio-Political Lens

    "Novum" is a term first proposed by academic Darko Suvin as a name for the invention, discovery or other speculative concept in a science fiction story that causes a drastic disruption in the current order of things. Usually in a short story, there is one primary novum, the consequences of which form the content of the tale. For more information on this idea, see the excellent entry at The Encylopedia of Science Fiction.

    One of the original types of story that marked the shift of science fiction as pulp genre to science fiction as a serious form in the 40s and 50s was the story that used the novum as a lens to focus on a contemporary social issue (rather than simply using it as a means to create an adventure, as in the pulp era). It is easily the most familiar form for serious science fiction and is still used to great effect by writers like Paolo Bacigalupi.

  3. Novum Brings About Personal Growth

    Unlike the former story type, here the novum's effects are turned inward, bringing characters or usually one character through a story arc as he or she grapples with the effect of the invention or discovery on his or her life.

  4. Romance

    By "romance" here I simply mean any story where the primary subject is the course of a romantic relationship and the growth of the characters within it.

  5. Modern Fable/Fairy Tale

    This is a story that takes the form of a fable or fairy tale, though typically updating it from the Brothers Grimm or Aesop model to reflect contemporary writing styles and ideas.

  6. Mystery

    By mystery I mean any story whose primary subject is a mystery that the characters must unravel.

  7. The Plotless Story

    A style pioneered by modernist writers in Europe in the early 20th century and brought into sf during the New Wave in the 60s and 70s by writers like Carol Emshwiller and JG Ballard. These stories are not really stories at all in the traditional sense, but rather portraits of certain people in a time and place. These pieces rely on style (typically gorgeous) and structured revelations of character and setting for their effect.

  8. The Non-Story Story

    This is any story that is presented as something typically non-narrative, like a test or a laundry list or recipe and so on.

Comments

interesting. how do these fit

interesting. how do these fit robert mckee's taxonomy do you think?

My list may be more general.

My list may be more general. For example he has the education plot (a deep change in the character from negative to positive) and the disillusionment plot (a deep change from positive to negative) while I would call them both inner-growth plots. He also has things like "western" which can encapsulate many different kinds of plots. I guess my system (which is still more notional than concrete here) is just simpler.

I'm thinking more in terms of

I'm thinking more in terms of the "plot, multi-plot, anti-plot" triad and how these trends place on that.

Well, none of the things on

Well, none of the things on my list are multi-plot (though a multi-plot could combine them), and only the plotless and usually the non-story story are typically anti-plot. The rest are usually just plot, though could have more or less of it (you could probably make a mini-plot/anti-plot thing out of any of them if you wanted to).