Short Story Ideas

From time to time, I think of an idea for a short story. I don't actually want to write them--they interest me as ideas, not as stories. But someone else might. If so, feel free.

Several people have now done so, as you can see by following the links. In two of the cases, the story went in a direction that had not occurred to me—and worked.

Search Strategy

A moderately attractive young woman takes a job as secretary or something similar in a department of an elite university, a Silicon Valley startup, or some similar environment. After working there for a while she has an affair with one of the men, leaves.

Some months later, one of her ex-fellow employees encounters her, pregnant and accompanied by a two year old and a four year old—whose existence she had never mentioned. It turns out that she wanted children, did not want a husband, and is sufficiently well off not to need either a husband or a job (lottery winnings, inherited money, ...). Instead of taking her luck with a sperm bank, she gets a job somewhere where there are a substantial number of unusually able men, decides which one she wants to father her next child, seduces him and, once pregnant, leaves.

Extended Child Care

You have a stasis box. About a week after the baby comes home from the hospital--a week of extreme sleep deprivation for both parents--you decide you need a little break. Put the baby in stasis for two days while you recover. Take it out and continue.


Gradually, the breaks get longer--babies are a lot of work. You end up with the parents age seventy or so, the child two or three, and ... .

Tiffany M. Lee used this idea for a story.

Childhood Innocence--the Extended Version

Over the past century or two, age of menarch has fallen quite a lot. Many parents do not regard this as a good thing. An eleven or twelve year old daugher is emotionally a child, biologically a woman. Problems.

With the progress of medicine, we should be able to cure this problem fairly soon--come up with a medicine that delays the onset of puberty. You don't have to worry about your daughter getting pregnant at fourteen, because at fourteen she's still a child.

Fifteen? Sixteen? ...

Two variants:

One lets you slow physical aging. Perhaps it is how we greatly extend life expectancy--slow down the aging processes, starting at age one. So a twenty year old looks like a ten or twelve year old. Physically is a ten or twelve year old. Intellectually--twelve year olds are as bright as adults, they just don't know as much. But this one does. Emotionally? But it gets you to age 180.

The other is much less radical. Kittens are more fun than cats. If only they remained kittens longer. Much longer. Wonders of modern medicine.

Home Sweet Home

Block of houses, all appearing identical. By each doorknob a light, red or green. Someone comes around the corner, goes to the first door with a green light, inserts his key, opens the door. He is home.

What is happening, of course, is that his key contains the complete description of the inside of his house when he left it that morning (or last week or last month or ...). The houses are all identical until a key goes in (red lights are occupied houses).

Now we add one crazy person who actually thinks coming home to the same house matters--who believes the identity of objects (and pets--possibly also children if we push it?) depends on continuity. So he does various things to try to get around the system everyone else takes for granted.

Someone  used this idea for a story, and I like it; the final twist is not one that had occurred to me. 

Exit Exam

Patient in a doctor's office, getting a test which involves wiring patient to a machine. As the description and conversation continue, it becomes clear that the doctor's office is in a prison and this is part of the release procedure. The patient has just been acquitted, and the prison wants to make sure he is healthy before they turn him lose.

Finally, the doctor tells the patient to hold still, and pushes a button. There is an instant of surprise in the patient's face as he slumps over dead.

At which point we discover that the patient was actually convicted, not acquitted--but doesn't know it. This is a very merciful society and they decided that although it was necessary to execute criminals, they could at least be spared the horror of knowing that they were about to be executed.

 Someone used this idea for a story, and I liked it.

[Someone online said that very similar merciful-execution scenarios are central to Bob Shaw's "In the Hereafter Hilton" (Omni 1980) and Robert Rohrer's "Keep Them Happy"(F&SF 1965). I haven't checked.]

How to Live Forever

Time is odd when you are dreaming. Sometimes the whole night goes in a flash. Others, it seems like hours, but on the clock only a few minutes have passed.

Someone discovers that the phenomenon is real. Subjective time slows down when you are asleep and dreaming (either it sometimes slows and sometimes speeds, or it always slows and the speeding is an illusion due to forgetting most of your dreams when you wake up). Eight hours on the clock is forty or fifty in your head.

He reaches the obvious conclusion--and sets out to spend as large a fraction of his life as he can asleep.

Deathbed Repentance

An idea that shows up in some Christian doctrine is that one's fate in the afterlife depends on the state of one's soul at the moment of death--so the sinful man who truly repents on his deathbed ends up, eventually, in heaven.

Has anyone done a science fiction version of this? Imagine, for instance, that we can emulate a person in a computer and can upload people. But the emulation isn't perfect--it emulates the person as he is when uploaded but has much less ability to change thereafter than the person had before uploading.

When you die, you are uploaded. If you happen to die angry, your silicon continuation is an angry person--forever. If you die in a mood of repentance for your sins, on the other hand, your continuation is the good person that you (perhaps, absent death, very temporarily) were at that moment.

Where Are They?

Humans suffer from a serious design problem. Intelligence requires large heads. Skulls are rigid. Childbirth requires the head of the infant—along with the rest of it—to pass through the mother's pelvis on its way through the birth control. It's a tight fit, and making it less tight by widening the female pelvis results in adults less well designed for running hence, in the environment where we evolved, less fit.

We solve the problem by pushing as far as we can on each margin. Women have wider hips than men and run less well. Human babies are, by the standards of most other species, born premature, requiring extended care—compare a six month old human to a one month old kitten. The infant skull has design features that make it a little less rigid than it will be in the adult. And, with all of that, human childbirth, absent modern medicine, is still a difficult, dangerous, and not uncommonly lethal process.

There is a solution to this problem that we missed in our evolution but some of our distant relatives  found in theirs. Get the infant out of the mother's womb early by transferring it to an environment external to the pelvis but still internal to the  mother, designed to shelter and support the infant until it is ready to face the outside world.

Somewhere out there is an intelligent species that followed the marsupial path. Their scientists, struck by the contrast between intelligent marsupials and unintelligent placentals, have reasoned their way to the explanation: On the path to intelligence, the placental design is a dead end. All intelligent species, everywhere, must be marsupials. [This assumes that all intelligent species must be at least vaguely similar to terrestrial species and that other problems block the evolution of non-mammalian intelligence; a little plausible hand-waving will be required to suggest a justification for the assumptions].

The intelligent marsupials,  a century or two ahead of us in their technology, manage interstellar flight, start exploring. They discover other planets, other species intelligent and not, all of which fit their theory. Then they arrive at Earth.

The evidence is clear—radio and television broadcasts, cars, airplanes, skyscrapers, even satellites. The most visible species on the planet is placental, hence cannot be intelligent—presumably pets or domesticated animals, perhaps sub-intelligent slaves, of the dominant intelligent species.

But where is it?

[For an alternative version, the marsupials don't actually get to earth, but they do succeed in receiving and decoding terrestrial television broadcasts.]

Alternative Reproductive Patterns

Consider a lesbian couple which wants children and would prefer that they be as closely related as possible to both mothers. A number of future reproductive technologies have been proposed that would produce either a child who, like the child of a heterosexual couple, gets half his genes from each parent or, more modestly, a child with half his genes from one mother and a quarter from the other.

The latter objective can also be achieved with current, indeed ancient, reproductive technology, by having one member of the couple get pregnant by the father, full brother, or son of the other, producing a child who is the son or daughter of one mother, the half sibling, niece or nephew, or grandchild of the other. This pattern is possible for a lesbian couple in our society and I suspect sometimes occurs.

Imagine a society, perhaps a non-human society in a work of fiction, for which this pattern is the norm. That could happen if behavioral differences between male and female made female/female couples work much better than female/male couples. That could occur in a species where males never made much contribution to child-rearing, or in one that started out with a pattern like ours, but where social changes, perhaps due to technological development, made behavioral differences between males and females become over time a serious problem for the stability of heterosexual couples.

Such a fictional society might be constructed in a variety of ways. At one extreme, males could be entirely unpaired, save for occasional sex with their sisters' partners. At the other, and perhaps more interesting, extreme, the female/female couple is associated with a male/male couple made up of one brother of each of the female partners.

In this latter form, the children of the ff couple are as closely related to the male couple--their "fathers"--as to their mothers, with each child getting half his genes from one father, a quarter from the other. That suggests the possibility that mm couples might also be involved in child rearing. If the species does not nurse its young, perhaps male offspring go directly to the mm couple, female to the ff. If it does nurse its young, the same pattern could be established after weaning. Or if male/female differences in lifestyle make dealing with young more practical for males in one part of the year and females in another, the result might be a time shared version of parenting.

One feature of the sort of stable structure I have described is that all of a woman's children will be full siblings of each other, since they will all be fathered by the same brother of her partner. This has the advantage of providing her daughters with full brothers to carry on the next generation of the system.

One problem, with interesting plot possibilities, is that mating now involves four people rather than two. A woman has to find a female partner for herself who has a brother compatible with one of her brothers. How practical this is may depend in part on family size, in part on how selective the mating preferences of both genders are.

I started with the case of a lesbian couple in our society, but in the fictional case homosexuality is optional. There might be sexual bonds in the ff couple, the mm couple, both or neither.

In any case, it ought to make for interesting social structures. Has anyone done stories along these lines?

Popular Trash

The story starts with a successful author along the lines of Leslie Charteris (The Saint books) or Mickey Spillane. It gradually becomes clear that he is older than he appears—a lot older. He is an immortal or near-immortal story teller who, in order to conceal his nature, changes identities every fifty years or so. Given his particular talents, all of the identities are story tellers, details varying by the culture, but always popular rather than literary.

The modern critics who scorn his work might be embarrassed to discover that the author they look down upon is, among many others, Homer. Also Chaucer. Possibly also Trollope who, on the available evidence, had access to a word processor, presumably hard wired into his brain.