Our goal here at the Classics of Science Fiction is to discover analytical ways to remember science fiction. We describe our methods in “Remembering Science Fiction.” The trouble is, our methods don’t always work. For short stories, we collect annual anthologies, retrospective anthologies, textbook anthologies about science fiction, fan polls, awards, and a few recommendation lists from authors. We call each source of recognition a “citation” and we have over a 100 citation sources for short science fiction. To get on our final list of Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories a story had to have a minimum of 5 citations.
“A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster from the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction is a definite classic in my mind, yet it only got 1 citation. It was collected in The Great SF Stories 8 (1946) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martina H. Greenberg. But if you look at the entry for “A Logic Named Joe” at ISFDB.org, you’ll see it’s never been collected in a major retrospective anthology of the science fiction genre. Yet, if you go read “A Logic Named Joe” online at Baen Book you’ll discover this 1946 story is very prescience about today’s computers, networking, and social media problems. For example, the illustration above shows kids looking at a film unsuitable for kids. In the story itself, kids are watching a film cannibals and their fertility dances. Leinster even imagined Nanny apps to keep kids from seeing what they shouldn’t, but in this case, Joe overrode that code.
The reason why people should read “A Logic Named Joe” today is for the same reason they should read “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster from 1909. Both are stories where the author has predicted our world and time to a fascinating degree. Science fiction was never meant to be a crystal ball, but sometimes it’s speculations about the future are eerily right. Both of these stories would just seem like nice stories if read before the internet era, but after that, we go, “Wait a minute! How could E. M. Forster in 1909 or Murray Leinster in 1946 imagine what’s happening now?”
“A Logic Named Joe” was written when the term “computer” meant a human that worked all day at a desk doing mathematics. Leinster used the word “logic” to mean what we call computers. I bet future retrospective anthologies will reprint “A Logic Named Joe.”
They will if the editors read it. How do keep short stories alive so readers will remember them? I’d say a majority of modern science fiction readers will never read even one of the anthologies we used to create our system for identifying the best short science fiction from the past. Sure, a few folks might take a science fiction course as an elective and have to read one of the textbook anthologies for their class. Or a small percentage might consume a current anthology like The Big Book Of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, but these readers are few and far between.
We’re hoping people will read our lists and track down the stories. We’ve even put all our research into a database that you can generate your own custom lists. But using our system you probably won’t notice “A Logic Named Joe.” Our system fails to recognize it. There have been no 1947 Retro Hugo Award for 1946 publications so far. This could happen in 2022. In 2018 the Retro Hugo Award voted for the 1943 Hugo awards that covered 1942 stories. In 2019 they’ll vote the 1944 awards. But even if “A Logic Named Joe” gets a Retro Hugo Award, will that be enough to make it into a classic story young readers will remember?
Murray Leinster is not very well remembered today, but he was once called the Dean of Science Fiction. Readers mostly remember him today for “First Contact” which was anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
If you use our database and set the min and max year to 1946, check the Story radio button, and put citations to 1, you’ll get all the stories our system found for 1946:
The ones checked with a red mark are those collected by Asimov and Greenberg for The Great SF Stories 8 (1946). All the others came from other anthologies. 13 of the 22 stories are only remembered by one anthology. Using our cutoff of 5 citation minimum, these are the stories our system deems are the classics of 1946:
Few modern science fiction readers will even read these three stories, but because they’ve been anthologized so many times, their chances are better for being remembered as classics of the genre.
I believe “A Logic Named Joe” should be on that list, but how do we come up with a system that recognizes its worth? We could add Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction (1965) edited by Sam Moskowitz. It’s a major retrospective anthology we missed. That would give “A Logic Named Joe” 2 citations. It would also reinforce the standing of the other stories in the anthology give giving them an additional citation.
We could also add the best theme anthologies. We aimed to pick major anthologies, either recognized as such or because they were large and definitive. Machines That Think (1984) edited by Asimov, Greenberg, and Warrick would be one such anthology. It collected 621 pages of great stories about thinking machines. That would bring “A Logic Named Joe” up to 3 citations. Of course, it’s given Asimov and Greenberg two votes.
I could assemble a committee of well-read specialists in short science fiction and give them each a vote. I’d give it my vote. That brings it up to 4 citations, still under the cutoff.
Are there any other sources of citations that recognize short science fiction? Being made into a television show or movie is a great form of recognition that helps keep a work of fiction in our pop culture memory. Unfortunately, “A Logic Named Joe” will never be filmed.
The gold standard for remembering short stories is being published in a major anthology. But how often do major anthologies get published? And when a large retrospective anthology is assembled, editors tend to look over the field and find exceptional stories that haven’t been well-anthologized before to now compete with the recognized classics. Would they now see “A Logic Named Joe” as one? The large genre remembering anthologies come out every few years, but they have page limits, and always more new stories to remember, and thus older stories that were once classics get left out.
Even among short stories, there’s a survival of the fittest. The question I always ask people, “How many short stories do you remember from the 19th-century?” The competition to become a classic is brutal.
“A Logic Named Joe” is a standout story because of how it anticipated the internet. But is that enough to make it a classic story worth remembering? It lacks the emotional depth to make it a literary classic. And it doesn’t have the beauty of “Vintage Season.” Maybe our system is working. Maybe “A Logic Named Joe” is a story I especially like, but not necessarily loved by others?
“A Logic Named Joe” by Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster’s real name because he had another story in the same issue) came in first place in The Analytical Laboratory. Readers liked it best, but it only got a 2.80 average rating, meaning it wasn’t that popular. A rating of 1.00 meant every reader picked it as their #1 story. A few rare stories back in the day managed that feat. So in 1946, “A Logic Named Joe” was only a slightly better than average story.
If you look at the list above of the 22 stories for 1946, only “Vintage Season” is a real classic. It had 10 citations. If we used a cutoff of 10, there are only 38 classic science fiction short stories that make the list. And even many of these are being forgotten. It’s hard to come up with a system that remembers everything that the average reader will encounter, or should read.
James Wallace Harris, December 25, 2018
One thought on “Not All Great Stories Are Remembered”
On the Coode Street Podcast I’ve heard Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe bring up another factor in which stories get printed: which literary estates grant permissions. You have to track down who owns the rights. The literary executor has to be willing to license a reprint. The price the executor wants has to be reasonable.
The last point turns out to be more significant that you would expect. I’ve heard tales of literary executors wanting unreasonable amounts for a reprint — and the anthology editor only has a limited budget.
On the flip side, you get the unusual case of Robert Silverberg who has had a very long career and is willing to authorize reprints at a cheap price. He figures it’s all found money and keeps his name alive.