Let’s face it, most sf ideas get re-used and developed and built-up and changed as they spread across the genre. H.G. Wells invents the time machine, but it is other writers who use it to go back and change the past, or kill your grandfather, or any number of other variations on the theme you’ll find in hundred and hundreds of stories. Whoever invented the spaceship (possibly Francis Godwin with his 17th century conveyance to the Moon drawn by wild geese) cannot possibly have imagined how ubiquitous it would become in science fiction ever since. Robots have gone from clanking metal machines to something that passes for human to AIs in an incredible range of appearances. And that goes for practically every idea you’ll find in science fiction, they become an accepted, unexceptional part of every other sf story we read. We may applaud when someone invents a startling new twist on the alien invasion or the idea of immortality, but they are still, at heart, things we recognise, things we are very familiar with from countless previous sf stories.
But every so often an author will come up with some stunning new idea that works perfectly for one groundbreaking story. But that’s it, the idea and the story are so intimately connected that it turns out that no one else can pick up the idea and use it in a totally different context. They are brilliant ideas that continue to astound everyone who encounters them, but they remain inseparable from that initial story. It’s a one-off idea, and it can’t be duplicated.
Interestingly, they are ideas that seem to work best as short stories. Each of the one-off ideas we’ve picked started as a short story, though one was expanded into a novel, and one became the basis for a collection of linked stories. They can have a devastating emotional impact, but they are still stories where the idea is king, and that is the domain of the short story.
So, in chronological order, these are five of the most striking and inventive stories in science fiction.
“The Xi Effect” by Philip Latham
Philip Latham was a pseudonym used by an American astronomer, and this devastating story, first published in 1950, remains the one for which he is best known. The story begins when two astronomers, attempting to make infra-red observations, find that they are no longer able to do so. It is as if the appropriate wavelengths are no longer accessible. As they investigate, they come across an eccentric cosmological theory that postulates the Xi-Effect. Galaxies in Xi-space are not receeding but rather collapsing and shrinking, and as a result wavelengths are progressively disappearing from our ability to detect them. The effect continues until first our ability to communicate by radio waves disappears, and eventually colours disappear and the world descends into permanent darkness. The story has been included in many anthologies, the most recent of which is The Ascent of Wonder edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.
“Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
Slow Glass is, perhaps, not altogether a one-off idea, you can find something similar in earlier stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Anthony Boucher, for instance, but Shaw still managed to make something sui generis from the idea. Slow glass has a refractive index so high that light can take months or even years to pass through. “Farms” are set up in beautiful landscapes, with panes of glass preserving the scene; the glass is then set up in the windows of rich urban homes so the inhabitants have something lovely to look out on. But when travellers happen upon one such farm, they find the supervisor sitting stolidly outside his own home, because through his own window he can glimpse his wife who has died. Shaw collected this into a book, Other Days, Other Eyes, with other slow glass stories, but these are more routine accounts of the glass used in the detection of crime or as a weapon, and lack the emotional punch of the original.
“All Pieces of a River Shore” by R.A. Lafferty
Lafferty was the grand master of the one-off, oddball idea. His collections are full of pieces that no one other than Lafferty could have written, stories that make perfect sense as you read them but you don’t want to try and think about them too deeply afterwards. Brilliant one-off ideas include “Narrow Valley” in which Native Americans twist the landscape to retain their land, or “The World as Will and Wallpaper” in which a character sets off from one location only to walk through endless reiterations of exactly the same place so it is impossible to tell when he has walked around the world. And this story, from 1970, in which a rich collector sets out to gather together dioramas of the Mississippi river, only to find he is building up a set of images that predate the human arrival in the Americas. This story can be found in R.A. Lafferty’s collection, Lafferty in Orbit.
Inverted World by Christopher Priest
Like everything else referred to in this post, this started out as a short story, but it is much better known as the novel. It is set aboard a mobile city, Earth City, which is in perpetual motion across a hyperboloid world. Ahead of the city the ground rises to an ever-unreachable point, and behind them it flattens out to a featureless plain; anyone ahead of the city grows tall and thin, anyone behind the city becomes squat. But the land flows from the point towards the plain, and so to remain in the sweet spot where they are normal size, the citizens of Earth city have to continually remove rails behind them and reposition them ahead of the city so that they can keep moving forward. The story concerns the gradual discovery of the truth about both Earth City and the landscape across which it moves. Inverted World was first published in 1974.
“Chromatic Aberration” by John M. Ford
One of the things that links many of these one-off stories is that they represent an implicit paradigm shift; that is, the story forces us to understand the world differently to how we see it in everyday life. Such a paradigm shift is the subject of this extraordinary short story by John M. Ford. It tells of a revolution so successful that the new masters are able to change our colours. I don’t mean that they impose new names for the colours we already see; rather, they abolish old colours like red and blue and green and introduce completely new colours, Redor, Angeyel, Lowgre. And just as our colours are symbolic of other things, so these new colours are symbols also, but in this case the new colours represent hopes and dreams, armour, or truth. So the revolution doesn’t just change the way we see the world, it changes the way we understand the world as well. This story is included in John M. Ford’s collection, Heat of Fusion.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.