I know the short story is an obscure art form on the wane, and the minority of readers who still enjoy reading short stories mostly read new ones as they come out in online periodicals, but I’m concerned with remembering the best science fiction short stories from the past. Old novels, movies, and television shows have massive support systems for being remembered and introduced to new potential fans. Have you ever seen a book 1,001 Short Stories to Read Before You Die? YouTube is overrun with YouTubers devoted to their favorite books, movies, albums, and television shows, but has YouTube every offered to show you one devoted to short stories? And how often do you see a Top 100 list of all-time best short stories on the web where they live and die by Top 100 lists? Or even the equivalent of the Billboard Hot 100 for current short fiction releases?

About the best a short story can hope for is getting anthologized, and even then, damn few anthologies stay in print. Anthologies that reprinted science fiction short stories were common on twirling book racks in the drugstores of the 1950s through the 1970s, but they’ve about disappeared today. Of course, the science fiction magazines that published the stories originally, have faded into obscurity only loved by the last 10,000 subscribers. The internet has brought about a renaissance of online publication of short stories, and that’s reflected in the annual awards which pretty much ignore the printed magazines nowadays.

Science fiction short stories published in periodicals go back at least two hundred years, and there are fans who still read them too, just not that many. And those fans are dying off. There’s barely enough storyworms to keep the memory of classic short SF alive. (Which probably explains why so few anthologies are for sale.)

Last night I read “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight for the fourth time this century. And it wasn’t because the mood struck me to read it again. I’m reading The Great SF Stories 18 (1956) (1988) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg and it’s included in that anthology. It was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg which I listened to when it came out on audio in 2017, and then listened to again when the book club I’m in read it last year. I first read The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology back in the 1970s when it came out. I also read “The Country of the Kind” recently in Science Fiction of the Fifties (1979) edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Orlander.

I have this self-imposed rule that I don’t skip short stories I’ve read before when reading anthologies. I’ve discovered it takes multiple readings to fully appreciate a short story. “The Country of the Kind” has gotten better on every rereading.

This got me to thinking. How do average science fiction fans stumbleupon old science fiction short stories to read? I figure it’s the same way I discover older SF short stories, by reading anthologies. But like I said, anthologies aren’t as common as they once were. How often do young science fiction fans buy a SF anthology? Or a collection? Do they even know the difference between an anthology and collection? Many people selling them on eBay don’t. The collection is a book of short stories by a single author, and I believe this is the most common way that bookworms still read short stories today. It’s when they decide to consume everything by their favorite author that they finally turn to the short story.

An anthology is a book of short stories by multiple authors. Most readers today see them as annual best-of-the-year volumes that collect the top short stories from the previous year. About every five years a large retrospective anthology comes out that presents the best of the genre’s past. I hardly ever see them anymore, but some theme anthologies reprint short stories with similar subjects are still being published. Baen used to do this, but I haven’t seen any in a while. One exciting new anthology that just came out is The Best of World SF: Volume 1 edited by Lavie Tidhar.

Yesterday I went looking for 21st-century anthologies that look back on science fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s what I found currently in print. A few of these titles are aimed at the textbook market, reminding me that school reading is another way young readers encounter old SF stories.

Hyperlinks in the titles below are to the CSF database were you can see their table of contents by story in order by year published. That page also has additional links for more information about all the stories. If you don’t want to lose your place here, do a right-click and select Open in New Window, and then close that window after you’ve poked around.

Here’s how these anthologies remember short stories by decades. Like I said, science fiction short stories have been around a very long time. But looking at the numbers below makes it look like something happened in the 1930s. Amazing Stories began in 1926, which some claim was the start of the genre, but others think it really began when John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of Astounding Science-Fiction in the late 1930s. (See my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” for an overview of a baker’s dozen of anthologies that remember that century.)

It’s interesting to see the distribution of stories by decades. Both The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and The Big Book of Science Fiction have something from every decade. In terms of totals, the 1950s win, with the 1980s coming in second. The so-called Golden Age of the 1940s seems to be fading.

If you want to read some of the classics of SF anthologies, check out Mark R. Kelly’s Anthology page.

The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, which is set to a minimum of 8 citations produces a list of 97 stories. It remembers stories from 1934-2010, which is a kind of a moving memory bubble. The entire database contains 4,554 stories from 1809-2010 with at least 1 citation. We currently believe that 7-8 citations represent a certain level of popularity or remembrance.

“The Country of the Kind” is reprinted in the Sense of Wonder (2011) anthology, so it’s still being remembered. Here’s the history of where it’s been anthologized since its original publication in 1956. The last major anthology it was in was The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 (2014) edited by Gordon Van Gelder.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note “The Country of the Kind” gets reprinted every few years in an anthology. That’s how Damon Knight’s little classic stays alive. I doubt many young readers today read anthologies, so it’s probably just barely hanging on in our collective memory.

When I researched this story on Google, I did notice that several sites devoted to writing school papers offered an analysis of the story for a fee. Being taught in school is another way for a short story to survive. There are other ways. Getting made into a movie or TV show sometimes happens, but that mostly seems to happen to stories by Philip K. Dick. Several episodes of Love, Death & Robots were based on recently published SF stories. I’m also in a Facebook group that helps.

Speaking of reading science fiction short stories in school, I can tell from my stat pages that some are probably popular with teachers. I doubt that many Googlers would be searching on these stories unless they were forced to by a school assignment. Another indicator they are assigned reading is they get hits only during the school year.

It’s rather telling that “The Country of the Kind,” “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin seem to be very popular in the classroom. And each of those stories deal with a particular incidence of violence. It’s almost as if controversial nastiness makes for teachability.

Finally, I’ve thought of one other new way that short stories are presented to help them be remembered: audiobooks. Both audiobook publishers and podcasters present audio productions short stories. For example, here’s one for “The Country of the Kind.” I noticed yesterday that Audible came out with The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. in June with over 20 hours of readings of Miller’s short stories. That made me very happy. Audible has some SF anthologies, but not many. The best way to find audio productions of short stories is to look for collections by your favorite author. For example, they have The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard that runs over 63 hours, or five volumes of The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick.

James Wallace Harris, 7/6/21

15 thoughts on “How The 21st Century Remembers Old Science Fiction Short Stories

  1. SUCH an excellent article, Jim. Really great. I finally have started a new spreadsheet TAB called “stories to READ” — first entry is Damon Knight’s. Personally I dot recall reading it.

    ALL the best, Ken

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  2. A thought:

    The list of 21st Century anthologies cited in your article could perhaps have included 20th century anthologies that were reprinted in the 21st century. You would then also include The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (three volumes) and Hartwell’s The Science Fiction Century, and perhaps others.

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  3. You can count yourself lucky in the Anglo-American-speaking world, that classical SF short stories are being republished in anthologies. This is practically unknown here in Germany. I’ve only seen three or four republished anthologies. All of them have been published in the last ten years and contain only more recent short stories. There are one or two small publishers that have republished collections of works by early German SF authors such as Kurd Laßwitz, Carl Grunert or Hans Dominik. But these short stories were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After that there is a yawning emptiness.

    The SF short story had a hard time in post-war Germany for a long time. For decades there were virtually no publication opportunities for German authors. Magazines like Astounding or Amazing were unknown and are still missing today. Occasionally, stories appeared in magazines or yearbooks. The market for German writers was dominated by the Groschenhefte, in which stories the length of a Novella were published.

    The situation got a little better in the mid-1970s. In 1974 the first anthology was published, which exclusively contained short stories by German authors. Heyne-Verlag began to publish short stories by German authors in addition to stories by foreign authors in its regular “Heyne SF Story Reader” (note the English title). Other publishers followed, but short stories remained a marginal issue for a long time.

    That only changed when, at the beginning of the new millennium, thanks to digitization, printing costs fell significantly and numerous small publishers were founded. There are now two magazines (Nova, Exodus), and around a dozen anthologies appear annually, but they can hardly pay the authors any fees. This situation has been lamented for years, but nothing changes because there aren’t enough buyers and the big publishers aren’t interested in short stories.

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    1. Is it just the SF short story that’s unpopular in Germany, or science fiction itself?

      I assume we have retrospective anthologies today because older readers are nostalgic to reread what they read when they were adolescents. One reason why there were hundreds of anthologies in the 1950s and 1960s is that they were reprinting stories from the magazines that came out pre-1950 and readers who were teens in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s wanted to reread them. Most of the people in my Facebook group devoted to SF short stories are older and are looking back.

      If y’all didn’t have SF magazines decades ago, then there is nothing to look back to.

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  4. You are probably right. In Germany we have the same phenomenon with the Groschenhefte. Old fans rave about them, so there’s a market for reprints as paperbacks and even as hardcovers. And not only that. Old series that were discontinued in the 1970s and 1980s due to low sales are continued nowadays with new novels.
    As for the unpopularity of short stories – it was particularly prevalent in the SF community.

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  5. If short stories are on the wane with readers, that’s a shame. They can fill an itch to read when you don’t have the energy or time for a novel. And they can be gems of stories. I’m a big fan of Harlan Ellison’s writing, and if someone turns their nose down at short stories, they will miss out on wonderful stories of his. Same with George Saunders and Karen Russell. I recently finished Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild and Other Stories,” and I enjoyed it more than her novel “Mind of My Mind” (although I liked “Parable of the Sower” more than the other two). Short stories can resonate well after reading them. I’ve enjoyed some shorts more than novels that felt slapped together, like the author followed a pattern to complete a book. Also, anthologies are a great way to discover writers without the time investment of a novel. If you like a short by an author, you can then check out the feasts they’ve prepared.

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  6. When I take a deep dive into an author, I usually start with the short fiction. It’s the form I first encountered sf in and still prefer though even I have let my paper subscriptions lapse and am mostly reading old stuff lately.

    As you noted elsewhere, though, good anthologies are a pain to review as a book.

    I used to buy, in the pre-kindle days, anthologies over novels I was interested in because, even starting in the 1980s, anthologies didn’t get reprinted much.

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  7. I grew up on short story science fiction. One of the first was “The Illustrated Man”. Thinking back on it now, it was a fantastic way to tie a group of stories together.

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