Miniatures: Like pistachios; you won’t stop with one

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi by John ScalziMiniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi by John Scalzi

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (2016), is a collection from John Scalzi, published by Subterranean Press. Sub Press cleverly chose only one blurb for the back cover, from Kirkus reviews: “Often verging on the silly, but on the whole, quite amusing.”

That was a stroke of marketing genius on the part of Sub Press because this collection of works does verge on the silly. It jumps the border of silly. It tap-dances and cartwheels through the world of silly, shrieking “Wheeeee!” the whole time until the end, where there is one serious piece. As a journalist, a columnist, and a long-time blogger, Scalzi works well in the very short form, particularly when he is aiming for humor. And these miniatures aim for humor and hit it, often with a whipped-cream pie.

Scalzi says in his introduction that one piece exceeds 2200 words including the title, but the vast majority of them are under 1500. One is under 500. There are no think-pieces here, no thoughtful examination of the tropes of modern speculative fiction (well, maybe a few); this is a writer having some fun. The pieces go back many years; some were written to be performed, some were columns for AOL and others. I heard one of these, “Cute Adorable Extortionists,” read by Scalzi, and it was fun to experience it again, this time in print. My favorite is “The Other Large Thing,” because of the point of view character, Sanchez, and I enjoyed “Pluto Tells All,” and “When the Yogurt Took Over” which might actually be a think piece. Two stories belong together, “Denise Jones, Superbooker,” and “The State of Super Villainy.” These pieces address some of the questions we’ve all had about superheroes in the modern age.

Several stories in Miniatures are compilations, spoofing the “Person on the Street” column some small-town newspapers used to offer. Some are in the form of memoranda to employees, with instructions on how best to deal with the extra-terrestrials among us. My favorite of these was the grocery store chain’s memo, “New Directives for Human-Manxtse Interactions.” In one or two cases, like “Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth,” the humor felt forced. In the case of “Human Announcements,” this piece was written for a certain group, and it may be the in-jokes that make it feel as if the story is just trying too hard.

This is a book you will breeze through, and because of the length and the style, you may choose to go back and re-read certain pieces. You can also torture, I mean, entertain your family and friends by reading entire sections aloud. Miniatures would be great for Scalzi completists and people who enjoy absurdist humor, done well by a good storyteller. This is a great book to have with you, either hard copy or electronically, while you’re getting that oil change done or your friend who’s meeting you for coffee is delayed, because you can read a story or two while you wait. Just be warned; these are like pistachios, and you probably won’t stop with one or two.

~Marion Deeds


Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi by John ScalziMinatures (2016) is an amusingly absurd collection of seventeen super-short science fiction/fantasy sketches, plus one serious poem, about Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. In large part, these works don’t have any discernible plot; they’re humorous, idea-driven short pieces: what kind of snarky things would your smart appliances have to say about you if they could speak? What if artificial intelligences had a debate about what to do with humans? What if yogurt became sentient and took over the world? If a retail store sent out a memo to employees on how to deal with alien shoppers, what would it say? Perhaps this:

If a Manxtse adult asks to purchase your canned white salmon, be aware that this adult may in fact be proposing betrothal, and is also probably mentally disturbed in some way. Under no circumstances should you respond affirmatively, as the betrothal ritual begins immediately after an acceptance, and the first act is a loud, piercing bellow that acts to warn away other suitors. Such noise is obviously disruptive of our other customers’ shopping experience.

Some of my favorites were:

“Denise Jones, Superbooker”: A mock transcript of an interview with Denise Jones, booker for superhero appearances, who explains the difficulties involved in booking precisely the right superhero for the particular monster attacking your city, and the troubles when the owners of destroyed property try to sue the superhero for negligence (those cities’ calls for help tend not to get returned by the superbooker).

“The State of Super Villainy”: A companion piece, because “villains need love too!” An analyst explains, in a question-and-answer session, how large companies plan for super villain attacks, so they can better plan their investments and asset management.

A: … But this is my point. The overwhelming majority of super villain plans fail and fail hard. We weren’t too concerned about Colonel Unbelievable actually bringing down Iceland. The man’s 0 for 14 in his super villain plans. He didn’t take over Liberia either, which he had planned a year before. He also didn’t revive the zombie Jefferson Davis, turn the world’s oceans to marshmallow or release Guns N Roses’ long-delayed Chinese Democracy album, all of which were on his schedule.

Q: Chinese Democracy did get released, though.

A: Yes, but not with subliminal sonic pain generators encoded into the tracks.

Q: Some would argue.

A: Fine.

“Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back”: The home air ionizer complains about its owner, who eats far too many lentils. The thermostat grumbles about a couple who passively aggressively fight over the temperature of the home, ignoring that it has dual climate zone controls. The intelligent toilet and bidet wails about its life in general (“WHY WOULD ANYONE EVEN THINK TO GIVE A TOILET INTELLIGENCE WHAT HORRIBLE PERSON WOULD DO THAT WHY IS THIS MY LIFE”). The self-cleaning cat box is not impressed with the toilet’s difficulties.

Most of these short works were previously published, but a few are new and exclusive to this collection. Miniatures is quite short ― not just the individual pieces, but the entire collection. Personally I would have liked more plot-driven stories, but there are so many laugh-out-loud moments here. This would be a great bathroom book read … hopefully, however, not on an intelligent toilet.

~Tadiana Jones


Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi by John ScalziI don’t have much to add to the above comments. I found Miniatures  generally amusing enough, though as with most collections, the stories run a spectrum of quality.

My two favorites were:

“Pluto tells All”:  An interview with Pluto after it’s been demoted. The wryly resigned voice is just perfect, as Pluto’s aggrieved sense when it talks about which other celestial denizens didn’t exactly fly to its support:

I don’t want to name names. They know who they are. Oh fine, Mercury. I got into the club, Mercury was suddenly my best buddy… So we hang out, get to know each other, fine, whatever. Then the IAU vote comes down and I haven’t heard from him since. Like the demotion might be catching or something…

“Denise Jones: Superbooker”: An interview with the “Hero Booking Coordinator for the International Society of Super Beings.” Here, the humor derives mostly from the you-can-really-see-this-happening absurdity rather than the voice, as Jones delineates the various contractual issues involved in doing super-work, such as being put on retainer (the route most major cities take) and being indemnified against property damage for when, say,

Class Four monsters claw through skyscrapers looking for people to snack on. A super being shouldn’t be on the hook for that… The Crimson Valkyrie defeated the Gelatinous Menace and then lost everything she had… She works in a Jersey tollbooth now.

These two stood out for their voice and each felt just a bit more present as stories from me, richer.  Others were charmingly amusing, such as his Twitter-run on watching a trainee gremlin try to sabotage his plane wing, or mostly so, such as “Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your back” which had lots of good moments and a few meh ones. Some were fine but felt a bit obvious, one or two had issues where, as Marion noted, the humor felt a little forced. Generally, none overstayed their welcome; Scalzi shows a deft sense of knowing where to end the pieces before the humor grew stale (he should bottle that and sell it to the skit shows).

Between the relatively short overall length and my varying responses to the separate pieces, and the fact that even the funny ones aren’t generally the kind of writing to linger in the mind, either stylistically or content-wise, I’d call it a good book to check out of the local library, as for me at least, nothing was particularly memorable, and I wouldn’t imagine going back in to reread it. I’d also recommend not reading it straight through, where the sameness probably stands out a bit more.

~Bill Capossere

Published December 31, 2016. The ex-planet Pluto has a few choice words about being thrown out of the solar system. A listing of alternate histories tells you all the various ways Hitler has died. A lawyer sues an interplanetary union for dangerous working conditions. And four artificial intelligences explain, in increasingly worrying detail, how they plan not to destroy humanity. Welcome to Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi. These four stories, along with fourteen other pieces, have one thing in common: They’re short, sharp, and to the point—science fiction in miniature, with none of the stories longer than 2,300 words. But in that short space exist entire universes, absurd situations, and the sort of futuristic humor that propelled Scalzi to a Hugo with his novel Redshirts. Not to mention yogurt taking over the world (as it would). Spanning the years from 1991 to 2016, this collection is a quarter century of Scalzi at his briefest and best, and features four never-before-printed stories, exclusive to this collection: “Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth,” “Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back,” “Important Holidays on Gronghu” and “The AI Are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest.” John Scalzi is the New York Times bestselling author of Old Man’s War, Lock In and Redshirts, among others. His work has won the Hugo and Locus Awards and been nominated for the Nebula and Campbell Awards. He lives in Ohio and online. He enjoys pie.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. What a great book to keep on hand for those times when you really need to occupy yourself (or the other people in the waiting room may try to talk to you) or waste just a little bit of time. Thanks, Marion and Tadiana!

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