All fiction is governed by a principle called willing suspension of disbelief. It means we readers know Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are not real people locked in a complicated tangle of pride and prejudice, but while reading Jane Austen’s story, we pretend they are real — we willingly suspend our disbelief. We do this with every book we read, from The Cat in the Hat to War and Peace.
We have to suspend our disbelief a little bit more when we read a short story. There isn’t time for long histories and endless dialogue, as with a novel. There are no illustrations, as with a picture book. We only have a few pages, so the author has no space to dilly-dally.
For a short story of speculative fiction, we suspend our disbelief even more. Forget in-depth world-building. Forget detailed magic systems. The author gets to the main meal: plot, character, and theme, with a glaze of setting, probably one that is a little unusual.
I think short stories are the perfect introduction to sci-fi, fantasy, and other types of speculative fiction. You don’t have to invest in a fourteen-volume series or decipher every single hobbit song. You’re dumped, as the movie trailers used to say, IN A WORLD, for only a few pages with some interesting folks who have feelings and worries, just like us, but who exist in circumstances that are unlike ours. It’s a place to play. And play Sara Barkat does in her new collection of speculative fiction titled The Shivering Ground.
Her playgrounds are quantum physics, fairy tales, climate change thrillers, and original tales from her own imagination. Her stories aren’t technical, so don’t worry that you’ll have to put up with a version of Star Trek’s Scotty explaining how the spaceship’s engine works. These stories are filled with characters who are almost, but not exactly, like people you know, and the settings are similarly both familiar and strange. Each story is unique, so if one doesn’t catch your fancy, skip on to the next. It’s a lot of fun while giving readers a reason or two to shiver.
The previous sci-fi short story collection I read was purchased on audio, so I listened to one story per walk, allowing space-time to ruminate on each one. For The Shivering Ground, I read one story at a time, with a notepad and pencil nearby and jotted notes and questions. On one I wrote, “What is real?” I must have been jiving with one of the characters in “A Universe Akilter,” who says, “But, surely, I wondered, interpretability only goes so far.”
Because enjoying science fiction is not about interpreting the story — with a simple query and a search engine begging for an easy explanation. Good science fiction, like The Shivering Ground, pulls back the veil on the version of reality we accept unquestioningly and invites us to question it. Do I have to do things the way I’ve always done them? Can I do anything to change life as I know it?
During the pandemic, all of us have made these re-evaluations because we had to. Barkat’s short stories invite us to question what we think we know in a safe, healthful space. You know, before the apocalypse.
Suspend your disbelief. Suspend any of your trepidations about speculative fiction. Hop aboard The Shivering Ground and enjoy the ride. You’ll be thinking about the truth behind the stories long after you’re back in the here and now. Such as they are.
P.S. For fans of The Novelist, by our own L.L. Barkat, there is a one-sentence reference to the novella. It made my day.
1. What is a speculative story you have enjoyed? (It’s okay to reach back to the classic A Wrinkle in Time.)
2. Have you ever accidentally read speculative fiction, not realizing that’s what you were getting into? That happened to a book-loving friend who swears she won’t read sci-fi, but loved The Midnight Library, which is basically string theory with plot and characters.
3. Share your November pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee, photography by Walker Evans
Breastmilk, by ‘Pemi Aguda (short story)
The Shivering Ground, by Sara Barkat
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
The Anthropocene Reviewed, by John Green (essays)
On Being Ill, by Virginia Wolff (essay)
The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis
Browse more Reading Generously
I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro