Two years ago when we completed version 1 of The Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list I proposed a math challenge. Version 1 came up with 275 stories. I asked if there was any mathematically way to decide what were the fewest anthologies that contained all 275 stories using ISFDB.org as a reference database. Version 1 was generated using .csv files. Since then we updated the process to a database for version 2 of the list, which produced 101 stories — we believe that was a more practical reading list.
A science fiction fan could read the entire list over the summer by reading one story a day, or in a year by reading one story every three days, but where would they get the 101 science fiction short stories? It might be possible to track down many stories on the internet, but what if people wanted to read them in a printed book? What would be the minimum number of anthologies to buy to get all the stories? That seem like an fascinating mathematical problem to me.
Well, Szymon Szott just came up with a solution using version 2 of the list. The second link goes to GitHub for Szymon’s Python code and documentation. The first link goes to his bio. Even if you can’t read the programming code you should visit this page that explains his solution. Szymon was able to come up with 22 anthologies that collected the 101 stories on the v. 2 of The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list.
The photo above pictures eight anthologies that get 81 stories of the version 2 list. Of course, those eight anthologies gets you a lot more than 81 stories. I tried to figure out the solution myself by using a spreadsheet and the best I could do was find fifteen anthologies to cover 81 stories, and then gave up. I figured my eyeballing method might have gotten me to 30-35 anthologies.
Here’s what Szymon says about the project:
As a fan of science fiction and a compulsive completionist, Worlds Without End is one of my favorite sites on the Internet. It was there that I learned about Jim and Mike's work on the list of classic science fiction novels which I've been eagerly following. When the list of classic science fiction short stories was announced and Jim blogged about The Mathematics of Buying Science Fiction Anthologies, I knew this was an interesting problem to solve. But it wasn't until I started dabbling in Python that I realized that, along with the 2020 travel-restricted summer holidays, I now had the tools to start chipping away at this. Creating a story-to-anthology mapping using data from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database didn't take too long, but the underlying mathematical problem was harder than I initially thought: it turned out that a brute-force approach of checking all possible combinations is unfeasible. Still, the heuristic used has given us a solution which I'm satisfied with and I don't think there exists a much better global solution. I was most surprised that the Science Fiction Hall of Fame series did not make the list (as I've already read volume one). Thank you Jim for this challenge! Now, all this coding was fun, but it's time to get back to reading: Sense of Wonder is next!
This isn’t an easy problem. Szymon had to screenscrape the table of contents from 290 anthologies from ISFDB.org, which contained one or more of the 101 stories. Just look at this listing to see how often each of these stories was reprinted. Towards the end of his programming loops, he had to use eight anthologies to cover eight stories. If all those singletons had been in one anthology, Szymon’s finally anthology list would have been 15. Most of those singletons were newer stories and there haven’t been enough time for them to be collected into a retrospective anthology. One new anthology could shorten Szymon’s final list.
I know many people won’t follow links, so here is Szymon’s program results:
Sense of Wonder - "Arena" by Fredric Brown - "Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson - "Black Destroyer" by A. E. van Vogt - "Blood Music" by Greg Bear - "Bloodchild" by Octavia E. Butler - "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin - "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight - "Day Million" by Frederik Pohl - "First Contact" by Murray Leinster - "Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester - "The Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith - "Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang - "Jeffty Is Five" by Harlan Ellison - "The Little Black Bag" by C. M. Kornbluth - "Lobsters" by Charles Stross - "The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson - "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum - "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon - "The Mountains of Mourning" by Lois McMaster Bujold - "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov - "The Only Neat Thing to Do" by James Tiptree, Jr. - "Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson - "Passengers" by Robert Silverberg - "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley - "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy - "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" by Roger Zelazny - "The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke - "Seven American Nights" by Gene Wolfe - "Souls" by Joanna Russ - "Surface Tension" by James Blish - "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merril - "Think Like a Dinosaur" by James Patrick Kelly - "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop - "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr. Running story total: 34 The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction - ""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison - "Air Raid" by John Varley - "All You Zombies—" by Robert A. Heinlein - "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" by James Tiptree, Jr. - "Aye, and Gomorrah …" by Samuel R. Delany - "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson - "Coming Attraction" by Fritz Leiber - "Desertion" by Clifford D. Simak - "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. Le Guin - "Speech Sounds" by Octavia E. Butler - "The Star" by H. G. Wells - "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury - "Thunder and Roses" by Theodore Sturgeon - "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick - "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ Running story total: 49 Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts - "At the Rialto" by Connie Willis - "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes - "For a Breath I Tarry" by Roger Zelazny - "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree, Jr. - "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore - "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke - "Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick - "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang - "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" by Ursula K. Le Guin - "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore Running story total: 59 The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection - "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin - "Snow" by John Crowley - "Swarm" by Bruce Sterling - "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov - "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon - "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke - "The Voices of Time" by J. G. Ballard Running story total: 66 The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IV - "A Meeting with Medusa" by Arthur C. Clarke - "Born with the Dead" by Robert Silverberg - "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" by Vonda N. McIntyre - "The Day Before the Revolution" by Ursula K. Le Guin - "The Death of Doctor Island" by Gene Wolfe - "The Queen of Air and Darkness" by Poul Anderson Running story total: 72 The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology - "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. - "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang - "The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr. Running story total: 75 The Science Fiction Century - "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress - "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis - "Great Work of Time" by John Crowley Running story total: 78 The Best of the Nebulas - "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison - "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr. - "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany Running story total: 81 Armageddons - "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven - "The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree, Jr. Running story total: 83 Survival Printout - "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison - "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith Running story total: 85 Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction - "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg - "The Star Pit" by Samuel R. Delany Running story total: 87 The Legend Book of Science Fiction - "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" by Gene Wolfe - "The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance Running story total: 89 The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction - "Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw - "The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov Running story total: 91 The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy - "Even the Queen" by Connie Willis - "The Way of Cross and Dragon" by George R. R. Martin Running story total: 93 Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov's Science Fiction - "Press ENTER ■" by John Varley Running story total: 94 The Hugo Winners, Volume Three - "A Song for Lya" by George R. R. Martin Running story total: 95 The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Six - "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson Running story total: 96 The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Five - "The Things" by Peter Watts Running story total: 97 The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection - "R & R" by Lucius Shepard Running story total: 98 The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin - "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K. Le Guin Running story total: 99 The New Space Opera 2 - "The Island" by Peter Watts Running story total: 100 The New Hugo Winners, Volume III - "The Last of the Winnebagos" by Connie Willis Running story total: 101 Selected books: - Sense of Wonder - The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction - Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts - The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection - The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IV - The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology - The Science Fiction Century - The Best of the Nebulas - Armageddons - Survival Printout - Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction - The Legend Book of Science Fiction - The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction - The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy - Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov's Science Fiction - The Hugo Winners, Volume Three - The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Six - The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Five - The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection - The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin - The New Space Opera 2 - The New Hugo Winners, Volume III Number of selected books: 22
Most of those 22 anthologies are out-of-print and you’ll need to shop ABEbooks.com or eBay.com to find them. I’ve added links to the final 22 anthologies so you can find the various editions of these books that have been published over the years. Clicking on links to individual editions will show you the table of contents and usually a photo of the book’s cover. Some anthologies have been published under multiple titles, and some of those are easier to find used. For Sense of Wonder, I highly recommend getting it in the Kindle edition, the paper edition is much too big to comfortably hold. Ditto for The Big Book of Science Fiction.
If you click on the story title in the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list it will take you to its entry on ISFDB.org where you can see all the anthologies and collections where it’s been reprinted. This will let you find an alternative source for the story, or even let you try to beat Szymon’s results by coming up with another combination of anthologies.
Update: See The Science Fiction Anthology Problem – Kindle Edition for the solution using ebooks.
James Wallace Harris, 8/9/20