What is a science fiction fairy tale?

Seeking revenge for her Grandma, Little Red journeys to the City of the Wolves

Teika Bellamy

Since Noel Chidwick (editor supreme of Shoreline of Infinity) announced the call for submissions for the special science fiction fairy tales issue of SOI which I’ll be editing (the opening being 4th-14th April 2022), I’ve had a couple of people ask the following two questions: “What is a science fiction fairy tale?” and “What makes for a good one?” Both excellent questions, so I’ll do my best to answer them as succinctly as possible. 

First, I’d say that the most straightforward kind of scifi fairy tale is one in which an already existing fairy tale or piece of folklore is given a science fictional setting. So, the writer immediately has two aspects of their story sorted: the plot, as well as the heart/morality of the tale, (though it’s lacking the usual traditional milieu of the fairy tale).

Some of the stories I write follow this formula, and as an example, why not check out my story, ‘ATU334 the Wise’ in issue 10 of Shoreline of Infinity. (Or you can listen to this flash piece for free on Episode Zero of the Shoreline of Infinity podcast known as Soundwave. It starts at 19.50 minutes.) My story is basically ‘Vasilisa the Wise’ but set in outer space – in a hut that’s been built perilously close to a black hole. And if you’re wondering, yes, there is a good reason for why I chose the name ‘ATU334’. Bonus points to those who figure out what it means! 

But, there’s definitely an argument for saying that a story like this is simply retreading old ground and not offering anything particularly new to the reader. I think that might be true – particularly if the SF milieu is rather conventional as well. But, in my opinion, I believe that a story like this can work really well, particularly if it’s all done in a smallish number of words. Basically, short and sweet. Then again, some writers produce whole novels using this formula – and I think that perhaps the trick to spinning a wonderful novel out of a fairy tale is to weave in lots of original characters and compelling subplots to keep the reader turning the pages.

Another way to approach the story is to take a recognizable figure (or figures) from folklore or mythology and to insert them into a science fictional story of your own making. Some stories that do this brilliantly are Noel Chidwick’s ‘Darling Grace’ from The Forgotten and Fantastical 5 as well as Nathan Ramsden’s ‘Airless’ which was first published in The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3 and then reprinted in Best of British Science Fiction 2017, edited by Donna Scott. Two of my own stories that do this are ‘The Cyclops’ published in issue 19 of Shoreline of Infinity (this was reprinted in Best of British Science Fiction 2020) and ‘The Green Man’ in issue 3 of Reckoning which you can read for free online. (And my version of the Green Man pops up again in ‘Songs from the Wood’ in issue 15 Shoreline of Infinity.) By now you’ve probably guessed that I’m a fan of the Green Man and Greek mythology!

But what all these stories have in common is the fact that each author chose not to be bound by the usual plot/framework of a traditional fairy tale.

Lastly… there’s the original fairy tale in a science fictional setting, which, in my opinion, is one of the hardest things to write well. Chris Beckett’s ‘The Land of Grunts and Squeaks’ published within Once Upon a Parsec, edited by David Gullen, is a great example of this. And Aliya Whiteley gives us a rather brilliant and alien-point-of-view fairy tale in ‘The Tiny Traveller’ from within the same anthology. In fact, all the stories in this anthology are fantastic and make for good examples of a scifi fairy tale. I’d probably also argue that there are many wonderful folkloric elements to the books of Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series.

When it comes to the submissions, I’m very much looking forward to seeing a variety of the above kinds of stories, and I’d certainly like to read fairy tales or folklore from outside Europe as well as within it serving as inspiration. I want to be surprised. And if your story is based on a little-known tale let me know in the cover letter.

A last few tips: as tempting as it might be to mash up a whole load of stories and characters into one tale, remember that, often, less is more in a short story. Know what your story is truly about and focus on that, cutting away anything extraneous or unnecessary to the story’s needs. Also, it might be worth knowing that I’m a fan of Jung’s analytical psychology and I very much view fairy tales through a Jungian lens. (If you want to know more about this, do read Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s excellent Women Who Run With The Wolves.) And, of course, clean, clear prose as well as an exciting plot will make me want to read on and on…

Happy writing and best of luck with your submissions!

More guidelines can be found here: https://www.shorelineofinfinity.com/submissions/


Teika Bellamy is a UK-based writer, freelance editor and the former managing director of Mother’s Milk Books. She is also an Editor-at-Large at Valley Press. As Teika Marija Smits she writes poetry and fiction, and her speculative short stories have been widely published. She is delighted by the fact that Teika means fairy tale in Latvian.