Entry updated 3 April 2020. Tagged: Theme.
A currently popular term for very short stories, formerly known as short-shorts or vignettes. Definitions vary; the acceptable length may approach 1000 words but is generally much less. Several publishers of Print Magazines liked short-shorts as a means of filling awkward spaces; they have grown more rather than less popular in the online twenty-first century, where Twitter users were long accustomed to compress significant meaning into 140-character tweets. Flash fiction is of course far from new: Astounding/Analog has long had the regular Probability Zero feature, presenting bizarre ideas with a minimum of fictional framework, while Reginald Bretnor's "Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot" fictions (Feghoots for short, written as by Grendel Briarton) exist only for their fearful climactic puns. The short sf published in Nature, limited by the layout of a single page in the magazine, lies towards the 1000-word end of the flash fiction spectrum. The Infinite Matrix introduced the term "nanotales" for flash fiction, and Richard Kadrey published 64 such pieces in that Online Magazine. Michael Swanwick, another contributor of short-shorts to The Infinite Matrix, wrote 118 brief stories for Sci Fiction which took their names from the Elements and were collected as The Periodic Table of Science Fiction (coll 2005). NFG encouraged "69ers" of, naturally enough, 69 words. Some magazines publish only flash fiction, an example being Antipodean SF with stories of "about 500 words each".
Other fixed-length forms include drabbles and mini-sagas, with varying rules about the permissible length of story titles. A drabble runs to exactly 100 words (the title may or may not be excluded) and is named for a joke game in Monty Python's Big Red Book (anth 1971), based on the television comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974). This form became popular in sf circles: one hundred, many by sf authors from Brian Aldiss to Gene Wolfe, were collected as The Drabble Project (coll 1988) edited by Rob Meades and David B Wake, with two follow-up volumes. Drabbles were welcomed by the British Science Fiction Association's Focus and in Farthing. Brian Aldiss also championed the "mini-saga" of just 50 words: he persuaded the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph to run a mini-saga competition in 1982 – attracting some 33,000 entries – and edited the resulting The Book of Mini-Sagas I (anth 1985). Further Telegraph competitions and anthologies followed.
Approaching reductio ad absurdum, a 1982 Convention game invented by Nick Lowe included a challenge to improvise "micro-sagas" of just eight words. (Colin Greenland: "Aliens disguised as typewriters? I never heard such –") Forrest J Ackerman claimed a short-sf record with "Cosmic Report Card: Earth" (June 1973 Vertex), consisting of the single letter F. Here of course the title does all the work, as with the traditional humour of Everything Men Know About Women: a book of blank pages. Frederik Pohl's Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980) adapts this gag to its enigmatic Alien Forerunners with the blank volume Everything We Know About the Heechee. The charm of flash fiction lies in poetic density and economy of effect rather than such joky extremes. [DRL]
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