You can view the spreadsheet here. Thank you, Piet!

My friend Piet Nel loves science fiction short stories. He also loves tracking his reading in Excel. Piet also knows I’m working my way through all the anthologies that collected the best science fiction short stories for a given year. I started with The Great SF Stories 1 (1939) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I just started The Great SF Stories 15 (1953). Things slowed down when I got to 1949 because Everett Bleiler and T. E. Dikty began their anthology series that year. My reading coverage will expand again in 1955 when Judith Merril’s anthologies join the pile. I’ve collected physical copies of most of these anthologies through 1990, and I have many of them from 1990 on in ebook, paper, and audiobook formats.

I didn’t know how big this project was until Piet offered to send me a spreadsheet with all the stories from those anthologies in one long list. There are 4,752 entries, but remember, some year’s stories were anthologized multiple times by different editors for their annual best-of volume. I’ve read at least 1,000 of these stories in recent years.

That’s one humongous pile of short stories to finish. I don’t know if I will live long enough. I will turn 69 this year. I was hoping to keep a year a month pace, but that’s hasn’t worked out. I’d at least like to maintain a decade a year pace. That would mean finishing the 1950s in 2020. After that it would be:

  • 2021 – 1960s (70)
  • 2022 – 1970s (71)
  • 2023 – 1980s (72)
  • 2024 – 1990s (73)
  • 2025 – 2000s (74)
  • 2026 – 2010s (75)
  • 2027 – 2020s (76)

Seen that way, the project actually seems manageable. Of course, I might go raving insane from reading science fiction long before can escape via dying. And that doesn’t consider the number of annual anthologies increases over time. Or that they expanded into giant 250,000-word monsters in the 1990s. But on the other hand, I’ve been keeping up with some of the new annual anthologies as they came out starting in 2017.

At first, my rule was to read every story, and if it was repeated in a second annual, to reread it. I have found some of the stories are worth rereading, but I’ve also discovered a lot of stories I don’t think are worth reading once. I’m not sure why they were collected as one of the bests-of-the-year. Of course, they might have been more relevant when they first were published, but the cruelty of time has made them slight, or silly, if not stupid.

If the project gets too burdensome, I might make a new rule that allows me to abandon any story that I find obviously a waste of time to read. I don’t really like that idea, because I’m anal enough to want to say I read them all. But my real goal is to find all the great stories, so why waste time on boring ones?

What I’ve already learned from this project that I love to find stories I want to reread. Some stories are so delicious they warrant multiple readings. That’s the highest praise I can give a story. And it’s inspiring me to work out a rating system that I might use in an added column on the spreadsheet. Here’s what I’m considering at the moment. I’m still refining it.

  • 5-stars (*****) – Stories I’m anxious to reread
  • 4-stars (****) – Stories I admired highly but once is enough
  • 3-stars (***) – Fun stories I know I’ll forget with hours
  • 2-stars (**) – Stories I had to make myself finish
  • 1-star (*) – Stories I couldn’t finish

I do read other things besides oldie-goldie sci-fi short stories. I’m currently reading/listening to War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. And I’m anxious to find time to read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. I do like to throw in an occasional SF novel, although I’ve reached an age where I just don’t like wasting time on novels. I recently read What Mad Universe and Martians, Go Home by Fredric Brown. I got turned on to Brown by reading his old stories in these anthologies.

This essay might not be wise to post. Other older SF fans are also collecting and reading these old anthologies too. That’s running up the price of these rare books. Paul Fraser and I have a Facebook group devoted to the Best SF/F short stories and it currently has over 130 members. We also have a email list that discusses old SF short stories for people who don’t like using Facebook. I’m also a member of Classic Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Stories. Finally, the Facebook group Science Fiction Book Club discusses one SF short story every week. If you love reading SF/F short stories you might check them out.

James Wallace Harris, 4/27/20


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