Is a serial still a serial if it is only one entry long?

Once, so long ago that I can’t remember any details, one of the science fiction magazines ran a series of vignettes, then ran a contest for “The Shortest Science Fiction Story Ever Told.” The subject of the contest was, “The last man on Earth sat alone in his room. There was a knock on the door . . .”

Most of the entries were forgettable, but one stuck in my mind for its cleverness, brevity, and sheer laziness – yes, what else would you call adding only seven words.

The entire story read:

The last man on Earth sat alone in his room. There was a knock on the door. It was the last woman on Earth.

Koan wasn’t part of a contest; it merely came to me one day and I wrote it down. Think of it a a sherbet to cleanse your mental palate between longer courses. It is short enough that I have not provided virtual chapters.


Black ink on a white card; bilaterally symmetrical with a mirror reversal. Lobes and pseudopodia reaching out from a central blotch.

The young woman in white lifted the card from the pile before her and held it up for her patient to see. “What is it?”


She frowned slightly and replaced the card, then chose another. No symmetry this time; the blot sprawled haphazardly across the card, filling most of one corner and scattering in discontinuous segments across the rest. “What do you see here?”


This time he had answered more slowly, and her frown deepened. She looked closely at him for a moment, as if wondering at his motives. Then she chose another card and reversed it. Holding its empty back toward him with a trace of smugness she said, “Now?”


She placed her hands flat on the table and leaned toward him. “You aren’t hurting anyone but yourself, you know. If you don’t cooperate, we can’t help you.” She raised another card. “Now tell me what you really see?”

“An inkblot.”


Koan was written with tongue firmly in cheek, remembering college days.

LATE BREAKING NEWS, LIFE MIMICS ART DIVISION. Perhaps a month after I had put Koan into the queue to be posted, I read Wally Schirra’s memoir. He tells a story about Pete Conrad undergoing psychological testing as a potential astronaut. Conrad was a noted joker. Perhaps in retaliation,  the tester held up the inkblot card with its blank side turned toward Conrad. He claimed it was upside down.