The first problem I face with assembling my Top 100 Science Fiction Short Stories list is that I’m partial to crusty old SF stories that younger readers will feel are badly dated. Our discussion group read “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke for today. Here’s my comment:

Some members of the group, and not always the younger ones, have pointed out how dated parts of this story are today, and that the characterization is rather poor. Clarke was never a particularly good writer when it came to characterization, but this story was on par for 1946. Most of our group are older fans, and we’re used to older stories, so even with them, this story might not be a great story. Generally, people liked it, rating it 3-4 stars, with one person giving it 2.

You can read “Rescue Party” for yourself if you want. Here is the story in the original publication, and here it is again at Escape Pod with both audio and text. The group read the story from The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction that came out in 1980. Evidently, Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg considered “Rescue Party” a modern classic 42 years ago even though most anthologies back then were remembering Arthur C. Clarke with “Nine Billion Names of God” and “The Star.” One of our members said Clarke might be remembered for “A Meeting with Medusa” which came out in the 1970s and is a much more polished story by contemporary standards.

“Rescue Party” was anthologized in The World Turned Upside Down edited by David Drake, Eric Flint, and Jim Baen in 2004, but that anthology was promoted as collecting stories that we old SF fans loved when we were growing up. That’s certainly true for me because it has many old science fiction stories I love that I use for my Top 100 list of SF short stories.

In other words, I can make a list of the short science fiction stories I love, but if younger readers read those stories would they be disappointed? First, do I care? It’s my list. Actually, I do. I don’t want to waste readers’ reading time. Nor am I interested in trying to be a teacher pushing young people to read the SF classics.

I realize there are two solutions for me to pursue. One is to find the stories that are great science fiction and are well written that aren’t dated. There’s certainly plenty to choose from. And I might do that. But I had a different idea when I started work on this list. I wanted to show the evolution of science fictional ideas and my evolution as a science fiction reader. It’s not about recognizing the best stories. I no longer believe in the best of anything. This world is too complex and multiplex to order in ranks and ratings. I’ve already bogged down trying to rank my favorites numerically.

I want to start in the 19th century and progress to the 21st by reviewing the science fiction stories that evolved the genre. Contemporary readability or social correctness won’t matter. Figuring this out has given me a direction.

James Wallace Harris, 5/1/22

6 thoughts on “The Problems with Classic Science Fiction

  1. Some people I follow on Mastodon are discovering the slide rule, which was an essential tool in golden age SF. In some ways these stories are dated. But they also provide some great cultural information to the open minded. When I first encountered the word “superheterodyne” in the works of E. E. Smith Phd, I couldn’t google it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Doug, are you following along with us on Facebook? The slide rule was brought up there too.

      I remember reading Doc Smith and other writers from back in the 1930s using radio terms like superheterodyne. They used to imagine robots being built with vacuum tubes. In the 1950s Philip K. Dick imagined robots being built with tape loops. Science fiction writers imagined current tech being future tech even though they were imagining FTL travel and force fields.

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  2. The technologies might be dated (and that, of course, is more apparent in sci fi than in any other genre), but I believe it’s not necessarily problematic. People read fiction — any fiction — primarily for entertainment. The fact that Sam Spade had to run to a pay phone doesn’t detract one bit from a fine story. It’s not even distracting. If our sci fi protagonist has to wait for the radio tubes to warm up before sending an urgent message (on tape), so be it. That analogy might be a little awkward, but the bottom line isn’t. A good story, no matter how dated the technologies within, still has entertainment value.

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  3. I remember that PKD said that for him, the SF short story was about the idea and the SF novel about the people dealing with that idea or something similar. Short stories can be played in a hundred different ways; spare lean and elegant or colourful, poetic and flowery. About people or the idea. Sometimes a mixture. The diversity of the form is it’s richness. Unfortunately, there is a trend to homogenisation.

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  4. I think you’ve decided on the most important element of such a list: a single measurement. You’re not promising a reader will like the story, only that it’s an evolutionary significant relic.

    As to readers who complain about a story being “dated”, it’s a hubristic reaction: “MY contemporaries write in eternally valid styles with an utterly plausible and true understanding of social and physical reality.” It’s a valid matter of taste to not like a story on those grounds. It’s not a valid reason to reject other matters of interest that MAY exist in the story.


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