A few years ago I wrote about three ways to read science fiction short stories to get the best historical overview of the genre. They were:
- Read the original magazines (thousands of magazines)
- Read the annual anthologies (100-200 volumes)
- Read the very best retrospective anthologies (2-25 volumes)
Of course, the same approach can be applied to keeping up with current science fiction. You can read the magazines as they come out, or the best-of-the-year annuals the following year, or the occasional anthology that collect the best SF of recent years, like Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best that covered 2002-2017.
At the time I didn’t have runs of the magazines or a collection of the annual anthologies, but I did have a decent number of great retrospective anthologies. Now I have thousands of magazines, and well over a hundred annual anthologies. I’ve read the annual anthologies for the years 1939-1952, 2016-2018. I’ve also dipped into the magazines whenever I’ve read a reference to them. Finally, I also subscribe to Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed. Unfortunately, I only finish about one story per new issue of a magazine.
Last year I read over 300 science fiction short stories. It’s given me a tremendous feel for the genre. I believe I have a strong sense of the 1940s and early 1950s, and the late 2010s and a vague sense for the other years, including the 19th century.
For the average person, I still think they could gain much of that experience merely by reading one volume, The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Which reiterates my conclusion from the original essay that reading a handful of great retrospective SF anthologies is the practical way to go.
However, I have to say after two years of plowing through seventeen years of the best-SF-of-the-year anthologies there is a much deeper insight into the evolution of science fiction to be found. The time and effort have been very rewarding and I plan to push on through the years. There is one major drawback. I’m spending most of my reading time living in a world of science fiction from sixty years ago.
I’m developing a great appreciation of the past at the cost of letting the present become vaguer and vaguer. In 2019 I read two giant anthologies of 2018 science fiction short stories, and I read a smattering of stories from the 2019 magazines. I’ve been thinking about taking a year off from the past and devoting it completely to reading 2020 science fiction as it comes out. But so far I haven’t been able to do that.
The best retrospective anthologies are distillations of the very best of short science fiction. I don’t like every story, but they are almost uniformly very good to great. Annuals usually have 2-4 great stories, a few very good stories, and several moderately good filler. What I’ve learned is on average, each year only produced 2-4 great SF stories.
Magazines seldom have a great story, and usually have one or two good stories — sometimes a very good one, and then mostly stories I find hard to finish. However, magazines are rewarding because reading them is like taking the pulse of the genre. Between the editorials, essays, book reviews, and ads, there is a sense of now, especially when controversies are brewing and I’m also reading Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Feedly. Seeing new authors emerge is also very appealing, even if their stories aren’t that good.
I used to read science fiction magazines because I dreamed of writing for them. At 68, I’m not sure it’s realistic to dream that dream anymore. However, reading science fiction has always given me a great deal of pleasure. When I read a wonderful new story it gives the illusion I’m living on the cutting edge of the genre. When I read a great old story, it feels like I’m admiring a lasting work of art, a communique from the past with a message to the future.
Sadly, most new stories in the magazines struggle just to be a publishable story. It often feels like the editor must be fighting to fill out the issue. The stories are usually readable, and adequately written but they often lack sparkle. What I love about reading the old magazines and annual anthologies is discovering forgotten stories by unknown writers that still sparkle after all these decades.
And even the forgotten gems I find are far from perfect. I’m probably just in the right mood reading them at the right time for them to work so well. Read “Delay in Transit” by F. L. Wallace. Will it be as much fun for you as it was for me? Or will it be a clunky oddity from the past? There are no absolutes when judging a story.
I always hunger for a masterpiece, and statistically, those are found in the best retrospective anthologies. But if we don’t support the current magazines we won’t have masterpieces to read in the future. The other day I briefly scanned an article challenging old fans to read new science fiction accusing us of being out of touch, and claiming current science fiction wasn’t the same anymore. I meant to go back and study that essay but I can’t remember where I saw it. (If you think you’ve seen it post a link in the comments.)
In a sense, I agree. Current science fiction is different. Sure it’s more woken but I also think it’s written differently. In some ways, I think modern science fiction writers are more sophisticated with their writing, but it also feels more wordy, more baroque. New science fiction feels plot and character-driven, as opposed to the idea-driven stories of yore. However, much of modern SF doesn’t feel like science fiction to me but fantasy. It feels like an MFA graduate trying to sell their work by adding a touch of the fantastic. My friend Mike who regularly reads Analog and Asimov’s, claims modern stories don’t follow the old traditional techniques of structuring a story with a beginning, middle, and end. He says they are especially weak at creating satisfying endings. An example of an old-fashion story we both admired is “Lot” by Ward Moore from May of 1953.
I do have to admit that I’m not giving current SF a proper defense in this essay. My memory has become quite faulty, and I just can’t remember any of the stories from 2018 or 2019 that stood out. I know there were many, but I just can’t remember them. I recently finished three anthologies of 1952 stories, and even they are barely clinging to my aging neurons.
I wish I was a robot that could keep everything perfectly in memory for exact analysis. I disturbs me that I spend so much time and effort finding short stories to love only to forget them in a couple of days. I’ve been wondering if I kept a list of the very best and regularly reread them would they stick to my mind? However, the failures of my aging brain is a topic for another essay.
James Wallace Harris, 2/14/20