I’m the type of reader who hates having to put down a book before I’ve finished a chapter, which means that when I’ve only got a few minutes to spare I often turn to social media instead of reading. But sometimes instead of scrolling I want to optimize that time and that’s where flash fiction comes in to save the day—or, rather, the minutes. If you’re also looking to make the most of your fragments of free time with some short but impactful sci-fi goodness, here are seven of my favorite very short stories.
The longest piece included on this list comes in at 2,100 words, which will take the average reader roughly seven minutes to read. All of these stories are available for free online and provide the perfect quick escape into another world while you’re waiting before an appointment or taking a short break from work. Or you could just read through all seven stories right now; it won’t take you very long! And if you’re currently behind on your yearly reading challenge and want to count these towards your goal, I certainly won’t judge…
They’re Made Out of Meat by Terry Bisson
It’s not easy to build a whole sci-fi world within a limited word count, so some flash fictions play around with restrictive formats. Terry Bisson uses this approach in “They’re Made Out of Meat,” which consists only of dialogue between two unidentified characters. If you want to go in knowing as little as possible then stop reading here; but read on if you need more convincing to give this story a few minutes of your time…
The bulk of the conversation is one alien attempting to convince the other that humans are, as the title indicates, entirely made out of meat, but both are baffled that this is even possible. How could meat think?! Their short chat is not only a funny glimpse into an outsider’s perspective on human life, it is also surprisingly philosophical.
This short story, published in Lightspeed, is the longest one on the list, but trust me when I say that the seven minutes you’ll spend reading it are well worth it. The story is told in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure book (do you really need more reason than that to give it a go?), casting the reader as an employee aboard a space station who is attempting to get medical care after being bitten by an alien bug (which is never good). Yoachim’s story is hilariously self-aware. She lovingly pokes fun at silly sci-fi tropes and makes the real-world difficulties of navigating hospitals comical as she plays with the narrative style of the story.
“When the Yogurt Took Over” by John Scalzi
There are a lot of science fiction stories about what would happen to humanity if the world was taken over by robots or aliens. John Scalzi takes the road less traveled in his short story on the same theme, imagining a future where sentient yogurt is the thing that takes us over. If the concept of a smart dairy product ruling humanity makes you chuckle, then you’re in for a treat! In just 1,000 words it manages to be both amusing and thought-provoking. If Scalzi’s tale ends up coming true then I, for one, welcome our new yogurt overlords.
“When the Yogurt Took Over” was adapted into an episode of Love, Death & Robots—an animated sci-fi anthology show on Netflix that you need to check out if you haven’t already. Most of the episodes, which are all done in different animation styles by different studios, are adapted from short stories so it’s a goldmine for discovering authors you might not have heard of or read before.
These days Grady Hendrix is best known for his excellent horror novels, but years before My Best Friend’s Exorcism and The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires were penned, he wrote (amongst other things, obviously) a little sci-fi short about an astronaut crash-landing on an alien planet. The bulk of the story is a transcript of the conversation between the astronaut and an optimistic but not-very-helpful A.I. Crash Advisor. Hendrix often likes to add a generous dash of comedy into his work and this sci-fi story is no different. Many of the laughs come from the references to well-known stories—which are rarely explicitly named—that the Crash Advisor brings up in trying to find a solution.
“Wikihistory” by Desmond Warzel
The idea of using time travel to go into the past to kill Hitler has been explored many times: Doctor Who tackles it in “Let’s Kill Hitler”; The Twilight Zone did two different versions of the story, in “No Time Like the Past” and “Cradle of Darkness”; and even Deadpool gives it a go in a Deadpool 2 post-credits scene. Desmond Warzel’s Wikihistory offers another fun spin on this trope. It is told entirely through posts on a forum for members of the International Association of Time Travelers, complete with usernames and timestamps.
In Warzel’s version, Hitler is necessary to the development of time travel so his role in the original timeline must be preserved. Unaware noobs keep killing him though, and so a more experienced member has to repeatedly go back in time to save his life. Basically, think of Hitler like a Wikipedia page that people keep messing with, that then has to be fixed. “Wikihistory” puts its format to excellent use, and is as much a comment on online forum culture as it is an amusing take on the Kill Hitler trope.
“In the Forests of Memory” by E. Lily Yu
All of the stories on this list so far have had a comedy element, but if you’re looking for some short form content that takes a more serious tone then check out E. Lily Yu’s “In the Forests of Memory.” Yu’s story is set in a future where graveyards have had an upgrade: pre-recorded holograms allow the living to interact with their departed loved ones. The story follows an old woman, called Sunny, who is homeless and has chosen to live in one of these cemeteries because it provides relatively safe shelter. She spends her days avoiding the security guard and talking to the holograms of the dead. It’s an earnest and honest look at how we remember the dead, but also at how we care (or, rather, don’t care) for the living.
“Presence” by Ken Liu
If you’re in the mood for another poignant story, then “Presence” by Ken Liu has got you covered. It’s about an immigrant protagonist struggling with the decline and death of their mother, but it’s told in the second person, which makes their emotions feel personal. Our unnamed protagonist lives in America, far away from their dying mother, and so can only visit her through what is essentially a timeshare robot. Liu expertly captures the feelings of helplessness and guilt that come with trying to be there for someone who is facing death. In just 1,723 words, “Presence” gives a sci-fi flourish to a heart-wrenching narrative about how immigration shapes both personal identity and familial relationships.
There are countless amazing short stories out there, so please leave your personal favorites in the comments!
Lorna Wallace has a PhD in English Literature and is a lover of all things science fiction and horror. She lives in Scotland with her rescue greyhound, Misty.