1946-SF-Anthologies

If anthologies didn’t exist, the only science fiction short stories we’d read from the past are those by the most famous of writers. For example, from the 1940s we still read science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein because they gained enough readers over a lifetime to keep their short story collections in print.

Short story writing is the minor leagues where authors labor until they can break into the majors writing novels. There are fans of short stories, but most readers prefer novels. Short stories mostly appear in periodicals and online, although some lucky stories make their debut in an original hardback anthology.

Most short stories are never reprinted. Their original publication is their only publication. Since 1949, shorter works of science fiction got a second chance to find new readers when editors of annual best-of-the-year anthologies reprinted them. They got yet another chance to find new readers when they were reprinted in theme, retrospective, and textbook anthologies. Although, the best bet for a short story to stay in print is to be by a very famous author who stays in print.

Anthologies are books collecting short artistic works (short stories, poems, drawings, songs, essays) by a variety of authors. As far I can discover, they developed in the 19th-century when publishers wanted to promote artists who couldn’t sell a solo collection. I have searched hard to discover a 19-century anthology that collected science fiction. The best I could find were anthologies of horror and weird fiction that might have a single story we’d call science fiction today. I still believe an SF anthology from that century could exist, but it must be very rare, like El Dorado. I’d love to know if there were proto-science fiction fans in the 1800’s. Did cowboys riding the range discuss life on other planets while sitting around the campfire?

There are several anthologies published since the 1960’s that unearth 19th-century science fiction. I’m going to devote a future essay to them. My point is those stories wouldn’t be remembered without an anthology editor.

There were earlier science fiction anthologies, but in 1946 Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas was the Amazing Stories beginning of science fiction anthologies. It introduced hardback book buyers to the best pulp science fiction short stories of the 1930’s and 1940’s. However, it was Groff Conklin, in the same year, that began a career editing science fiction anthologies that rescued stories from the pulps for a generation of hardback and paperback readers.

I’ve met readers from my generation all over the internet who got their start reading science fiction by discovering Adventures in Time and Space and the Conklin anthologies at their public library in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Sadly, anthologies seldom stay in print. Every decade or generation new editors emerge to anthologize the best short science fiction of the previous year or redefine the best short science fiction for the genre’s history or illustrate the evolution of a science fiction theme with a series of shorter works. They keep short science fiction in our memories. Of course, newer editors will drop some older stories and discover newer stories for their generation of readers.

My plan is to write a series of essays about this process. As I collected anthologies for our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story lists, I began to notice that anthologies had a collective history. Few people notice this. Histories of books, magazines, and newspapers are common if you know where to look, but I’ve had a very hard time finding histories that recognize the importance of anthologies. For science fiction, I did find Bud Webster’s Anthopology 101 columns which were collected in his book, Anthopology 101: Reflections, Inspects and Dissections of SF Anthologies. But even those 336 pages don’t begin to cover the topic.

For hundreds of science fiction writers, their only chance of literary immortality are the anthologies that remember them. A great example of this are the dozens of women science fiction writers being rediscovered in recent anthologies devoted to them. We need to give more credit to anthologists who mine the past for writers with a sense of wonder. Reading those old stories can give new insights into the evolution of the genre. It also makes us change how we think about our great-grandparents’ generation, and theirs before them.

James Wallace Harris (9/14/18)

One thought on “Why Anthologies Are Important to Science Fiction

  1. I’m looking forward to your further entries on this subject very much.

    My guess is that nineteenth century science fiction stories are mainly remembered because of author collections. Poe, Verne, Hawthorne, and Wells are all still in print (and in the public domain, which helps a lot), so most readers are likely to encounter their SF stories in their own books, rather than in anthologies.

    Plus, there are horror anthologies, which existed before SF ones. A lot of 19th century SF doubles as horror, so a lot of readers would have been introduced to classic SF stories in ghost/horror/fantasy/macabre/supernatural anthologies. I don’t think there were specifically SF anthologies that were actually published in the 19th century. After all, the term came into currency only in 1930 (and “scientifiction” a few years earlier).

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