[You can use our Classics of Science Fiction Query Database to recreate this work, or test it with another author.]
We identify the best short stories by looking at which stories were most anthologized. Robert A. Heinlein was a prolific, well-loved writer, but one who might have hurt himself under our system because he charged so much to reprint his short stories that many anthologists couldn’t afford to include his work. Under our “citation” system, we include fan polls, awards, and even writer recommendation lists, as well as anthologies as our citation sources. Many Heinlein stories have multiple citations because of fan polls. Here’s our raw data – stories with at least 1 citation.
Heinlein had 59 short stories published in his lifetime, reprinted in 16 of his own collections. Which is probably one reason why he didn’t feel the need to have his stories anthologized by others. But the list above seems to include most of his famous stories. I’m surprised that “Jerry Was A Man” was never anthologized by a major retrospective anthology of the genre. (But it was made for a television anthology show.)
To get an idea which was his better stories, I’m going to show the stories that had at least 2 citations.
This list drops from 26 to 20 stories. That’s still a very long list of short stories. As we worked with our system, we saw we had to up the minimum citation cutoff to get a better idea which stories significantly stood out. By looking at the changes in the lists, we had to ask why about each story that fell out. For example, “Misfit” disappears here. It’s a fun story and might be considered Heinlein’s first juvenile, but ultimately, it is a weaker story. Look what happens when we up the cutoff to 3 citations.
This is a much better list. We lose five stories, such as the outrageous “The Year of the Jackpot,” which is one of my favorites. But is it really a standout story, or just one with a very neat idea? I personally rate it higher than “Gulf” and “It’s Great to Be Back.” If Heinlein had let it been anthologized more often I think it would be better remembered. Heinlein should have at least let Bleiler & Dikty include it in their annual best of the year collection. Or maybe those editors didn’t like it as much as I do. Terry Carr did include “The Year of the Jackpot” in Science Fiction for People Who Hate Science Fiction in 1966, and it did make it to Sci-Fi Lists Top 200 in 2018.
But let’s jump up the cutoff to 5, the one we used for our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list.
This list drops out my all-time favorite Heinlein short story, “The Menace From Earth.” I suppose I like that story so much because it came out in 1957 at the height of Heinlein’s career, was a young adult story, and I think Heinlein’s best novels were young adult novels, and it had a marvelous gimmick, human-powered flight on the Moon. Sadly, it doesn’t make the cut. Nor was it up for a Hugo. However, “The Menace from Earth” was eligible for Ted Dikty’s last annual collection, and Judith Merril’s third annual collection of best science fiction. Did Heinlein charge too much for it back in 1957, or did Dikty and Merril just not like the story? I can’t believe they wouldn’t have considered it one of the best short stories of the year. If they had anthologized “The Menace From Earth” it would have made our 5 citation cutoff.
But let’s look at just one more cutoff, 7. These are Heinlein’s most popular stories using our system. This time I’ve opened the citation source list for each story.
It’s the fan polls that put Heinlein over the top. Fans remember Heinlein, for example, “Requiem” was up for a Retro Hugo. Heinlein just wasn’t anthologized that much, at least by the major anthologies we included in our system. And the two citations from The Great SF Stories edited by Asimov and Greenberg are a kind of cheat. They leave a page for each story but say they couldn’t get the rights to include the actual stories. Probably meaning, Heinlein was charging too much. James Gunn did buy two Heinlein stories. And “All You Zombies–” got into three textbook anthologies. I guess they can afford to pay more.
“Requiem” is a beautiful story, and I consider a lovely tribute to our genre. “By His Bootstraps” is a razzle-dazzle plot story, but I’m not sure how much heart it contains. And “All You Zombies–” is another razzle-dazzle plotter, which is impressive, but on the other hand, is rather cynical. It’s very popular in the fan polls, and it’s one of few Heinlein stories that got made into a movie.
Ultimately, our system fails me. I love “The Menace from Earth.” It’s a positive story. It’s full of science fiction speculation. At its heart, it speaks to people who love science fiction. Maybe our system for identifying the best short stories works for telling me what the average reader thinks about Heinlein. No system is perfect. If you don’t agree with our statistical process, just assume your tastes run uniquely different from the average.
By the way, you can use our Classics of Science Fiction Query Database to analyze the popular stories for your favorite SF author.
James Wallace Harris, December 26, 2018
6 thoughts on “What Were Heinlein’s Best Short Stories?”
What a great resource. I have begun reading classic science fiction from 30a thru current. Just finished a couple of Heinlein books.
Another Heinlein story based on a really neat idea, that didn’t make the cut, is “Searchlight” (1962). This was Heinlein’s last piece of short fiction, other than scraps and rarities that were written earlier, but surfaced later. He wrote, as you say, only about 59 works of short fiction, so it’s possible to read them all. You could leave out the three stories which Heinlein disowned—he stipulated that they should not be reprinted in his lifetime.
I believe that you would find an even greater skewing if you did an analysis of Ray Bradbury (the only writer of whom I’ve read all the important works). The reasons are at least partly similar to Heinlein’s case: reprint rights were and are difficult to obtain, but I think the omissions are even more disappointing. For example “Frost and Fire”, which for many years was my favorite Bradbury story, doesn’t make the cut. Neither does “And the Rock Cried Out”, for which a reasonable case can be made as his best story.
The only way to even start addressing the problem would be to include vastly more sources, perhaps including anthologies and author collections based on popularity. The Locus Poll provides good data going back to 1971. But even then I believe that you’d still have baffling omissions.
Omission of Green Hils of Earth is mistake .It is very gpood science fiction short story,unfortunately critisied by Lem.Some stories that Lem write about is good ,also Common Denominator by John D Mac Donald ,while Heinlein Green Hils of Earth is better.
One of Heinlein’s novellas revolved around the three heroes developing telepathy and going to a large mountain where they met the Elders. (One was Ambrose Bierce.) They then fought the evil magic users and won.
Which novella was this?
The story you’re looking for is “Lost Legacy” from the collection Assignment in Eternity. You can read about it here:
Here are some letters where Heinlein mentions “Lost Legacy”
. You have so much literary freedom in this genre, so do not waste such freedom by limiting your ideas according to what you think can be acceptable to people. To make your science fiction story good and outstanding, you need to make it unique – and to do this, you must fill your story with ideas that will surely blow the minds of your readers.
You can check this blog https://www.lenstagebooks.com/the-keys-to-writing-a-good-science-fiction-story/ the keys to writing a good science fiction.