The Classics of Science Fiction Books

Science on the March 1952

The new version 5 of the Classics of Science Fiction is here:

      https://csfquery.com

We will maintain this version for reference.

Our goal is to identify science fiction books that are remembered over time. We call them the Classics of Science Fiction, even though the term classics is a loaded word for many, and defined in widely different ways. The term science fiction is also controversial and has never been adequately defined in a precise manner. Working on this project is leading us towards a deeper understanding of both terms. We limit the scope of this project to science fiction because we believe science fiction is a singular concept, even though it can’t be easily defined. Throughout the centuries writers have speculated about the future, distant worlds, alternate histories, time travel, unexplored territories, artificial life, robots, intelligent machines, non-human intelligent beings, and other concepts beyond the mundane that could be a part of our reality if we knew more.

Our technique is simple. We found 65 lists that recommend science fiction books and generated a cumulative list of books that include any title that had been on at least 10 of those lists. We call the resultant list when ordered by being on the highest percentage of lists, the Classics of Science Fiction. We also show that list ordered by title, author, and year.

This is version 4 of the Classics of Science Fiction. The first version appeared in the fanzine Lan’s Lantern in the 1980s. The second in the 1990s, the third in the 2000s. For version 1, the minimum cutoff was being on 3 of 9 lists, for version 2, it was 5 of 13, for version 3, it 7 of 28. For this new version 4, it is 10 of 65.

The most revealing table we produced is a comparison of Versions 1-4. Books in red are those titles that didn’t make it to Version 4. Books in blue are new to Version 4. But look for titles that span the lists with growing numbers. Those books might be the ones still read in fifty years.

Stats by decade shows the number of lists per decade, and what percentage of those lists the book was on. We had to use percentages because some books were not eligible for all lists (list created before the book was published, list for female writers, not eligible for an award, etc.)

Looking at a comparison of lists made in the 20th and 21st centuries show a shift from older books to new books, but it also reveals that some older books are still top favorites.

The Science Fiction by Women Writers list shows the popularity of SF books written by women. We use a cutoff of 4 lists to make a longer list. 28 titles were on the Classics of Science Fiction list. 8 of the 65 lists focused on women writers and 1 list on women and people of color, but they often showed more variety than consistency. We hope this list shows the most consistently remembered science fiction books written by women. If you click on the hyperlinked number of lists to look at the source listings, you’ll see the women writers lists did not affect the overall outcome significantly.

Using a cutoff of a minimum of 10 lists produces a final list of 140 books. That’s probably too many. If the cutoff had been 12, it would have produced a list of 101 titles, which is about perfect. Lists longer than 100 tend to wear out attention spans. But we want to remember as many books as possible. Readers of this list should make their own cutoff number. Scroll down the Rank list until you see books you don’t know. That might be your cutoff figure. I think any books that were on 20 or more lists (the first 45 titles), should be well known to any serious science fiction fan. The cruel reality is in 50-100 years, most of the books on this list will be forgotten by future fans.

These lists come from fan polls, award lists, recommended reading lists, reading lists used in schools, from library science books for collection building, from lists claiming to have the best all-time science fiction, and so on. Currently, we have 65 source lists.

This statistical method is effective but not perfect. We can’t claim you will love reading the most popular books. We can only say they are the most remembered books. However, there does seem to be a correlation between being remembered and the odds of readers liking a book. In the future, we hope to find additional methods to identify the classics.

We did not personally select the books. If your favorite book isn’t on the list it only means you love a book that isn’t popular with other readers. It can still be an outstanding novel. Most novels are forgotten right after they are published, including many excellent works. Popularity has never equaled quality, but the books our society calls classics are usually the books that have survived the test of time and are remembered. There are some books on the Classics of Science Fiction list that we don’t like, and some of our all-time favorite science fiction novels didn’t make the cut. Our lists contain books that we can statistically show are being remembered. That’s all. But we think that’s what defines the term classics.

In the past science fiction was written mostly by white males. That is changing. We have done our best to identify books written by women. With each version of the list, more books by women writers have appeared. We have tried to find as many current lists as possible to reflect these changes. Unfortunately, only about one-fifth of the titles from the main list are written by women. Again, the books on this list are not selected by us, but by the methodology we use. The trend it reveals is readers are reading more books by women, and in the future, the percentage of books by women writers will be greater. Version 5, should come out in the 2020s, but starting with this version, we will be updating the lists on a continual basis, as we find new lists to add to our database.

Our methods also reveal how books are forgotten over time. Not only have we worked to show current trends, we have also worked to help remember books that are being forgotten. In recent years I’ve been reading 19th and early 20th-century science fiction, and those books show that there have always been people thinking about science fictional concepts. These older books may feel dated, invalidated by newer science, but they still represent a yearning to speculate. Science fiction, even before it got its modern label, has always assumed there is more to reality than we can measure. Most fans of science fiction probably feel the current state of SF novels reflect cutting-edge science, but within a few decades, contemporary novels will seem as silly and quaint as old Doc Smith novels from the 1930s do to us today.

We feel studying science fiction as a distinct human effort reveals an aspect to our species that has always existed. We believe science fiction is a unique art form. It is distinctly different from fantasy. It is difficult to define science fiction and to classify books as being science fiction. However, once you comprehend the goals of science fictional speculation, the easier it gets to distinguish between science fiction and not science fiction. However, there are many books that don’t speculate that is called science fiction. Science fiction has become a huge entertainment genre, which essentially means there are two concepts which try to share the same label. If you read a book and are only entertained, and even though it might be called science fiction by everyone, it is not what we’re aiming here to identify as science fiction.

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Can Science Fiction Books Become Classics?

We often think of classic books as:

  • the finest examples of the literary art form
  • timeless stories that continue to endure
  • works that should be studied as cultural literacy
  • confessions of the human heart in conflict with itself
  • times capsules for remembering the past

Yet, there is no agreement as to which books are classics. We hear people say “I study classic novels at the university,” or “I read classics for fun,” or “That book is a classic,” – but few of us think about what that means. We also hear, “Classics bore me,” or “Classics are arbitrary,” or “Classics maintain the status quo of the western white male.” The term can be controversial. Most readers assume being old makes a book a classic. Yet, reviewers often claim a new novel is an instant classic.

Can science fiction novels become classics in the same way scholars recognize literary classics? Some novels from the 19th century are science fiction. However, are the novels of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells held in the same literary regard as the best books by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens? Generally, it takes a century of literary survival of the fittest for a book to earn its reputation as a true classic. Is it possible to predict which younger books will be remembered in the future?

We have developed a quantitative method for analyzing book lists to spot the books being remembered over the past five decades. The Classics of Science Fiction produces a list of books that readers, critics, scholars, librarians, editors, writers have collectively remembered. We have no quantitative method for measuring quality. Can we assume a causal link between literary quality and survival?

For our purposes, when we use the word classics, we merely mean those books that are remembered over time. Of all the books published each year, few are remembered in December. The first step on the road to becoming a classic is when books are chosen for the “Best Books of the Year” lists. The next step is when they are nominated for awards in their second year of life. Some books get added to the public’s memory when they are made into a movie or television miniseries. Other books are kept alive by being studied in school, or promoted at a book club. Well loved books are shared with family and friends, or pushed onto children. Some of these books are remembered when fans vote for them in polls for all-time favorite books.

Books remembered 10, 25, or 50 years, deserve a distinctive label. Can we call them classics yet? Our statistical method also tracks books older than a century, and reveals if they are still being remembered. Since this is the fourth version of this system, we have seen how newer books get on the list, and older books fall off. One of the most interesting aspects of this work is discovering that only a handful of books from any given year are remembered.

Many books we now think of as great classics come from the 19th century. Let’s use a list of those books to study the nature of classic books. I will list the most famous literary survivors of the 1800s. In revising my original list I had to painfully remove a number of titles that once had many readers, but no longer do. Are books once considered classics, still classic when they lose their readers?

Year Titles
1811 Sense and Sensibility
1812 Swiss Family Robinson
1813 Pride and Prejudice
1814 Mansfield Park
1815 Emma
1817 Persuasion, Northanger Abbey
1818 Frankenstein
1819 Ivanhoe
1826 The Last of the Mohicans
1830 The Red and the Black
1831 The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
1838 Oliver Twist, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
1839 Nicholas Nickleby, The Charterhouse of Parma
1840 Two Years Before the Mast
1842 Dead Souls
1843 A Christmas Carol
1844 The Three Musketeers
1845 The Count of Monte Cristo
1847 Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre
1848 Vanity Fair
1849 David Copperfield
1850 The Scarlet Letter
1851 Moby Dick, Cranford, The House of Seven Gables
1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin
1853 Bleak House, Bartleby, the Scrivener
1857 Madame Bovary, Little Dorritt, Barchester Towers
1859 A Tale of Two Cities, Adam Bede
1860 The Mill on the Floss, The Woman in White
1861 Silas Marner, Great Expectations
1862 Les Misérables, Fathers and Sons
1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth, Notes from Underground
1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Our Mutual Friend, From the Earth to the Moon
1866 Crime and Punishment
1868 Little Women, The Moonstone
1869 War and Peace,The Idiot, Sentimental Education
1870 Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
1871 Middlemarch, Through the Looking-Glass
1872 Erewhon
1873 Around the World in 80 Days
1874 Far from the Madding Crowd
1875 The Way We Live Now
1876 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
1877 Anna Karenina, Black Beauty
1880 The Brothers Karamazov
1881 A Portrait of a Lady
1883 Treasure Island
1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Flatland
1885 King Solomon’s Mines
1886 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Bostonians, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Kidnapped
1887 She, A Study in Scarlet
1888 Looking Backward
1889 Three Men in a Boat, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
1890 The Sign of Four
1891 Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Picture of Dorian Gray
1894 The Jungle Books, The Prisoner of Zenda
1895 The Time Machine, Jude the Obscure, The Red Badge of Courage
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau
1897 Captains Courageous, Dracula, The Invisible Man
1898 The War of the Worlds, The Turn of the Screw
1899 The Awakening, Heart of Darkness

Our culture has remembered these books for 116-216 years.  How has that happened? What keeps them alive in current pop culture?

  • Very few books, if any, from any given year become a classic.
  • Classics are taught in schools, colleges and universities.
  • Most novels above have been made into movies.
  • Many have been seen on PBS Masterpiece.
  • They are constantly reprinted: in print, ebook, and audio.
  • Many readers love them, even without being forced to read them.
  • Generations of readers have written about them.
  • They inspire writers.
  • They are often imitated, parodied, and ripped off.
  • Some people feel classics are superior to newer books.

The list looks long, but notice how many years have no book, or how many years only have one novel. As a culture, we remember very little, but for most people who visualize the 19th century, these novels are how they do it.

When you look at the Classics of Science Fiction, ordered by year, notice how the density of books per year is very similar to the density of books per year above. The  progression of time is hard on novels. Any author hoping their novel will become a classic needs to know the odds are long. Books made into movies gain millions of new readers. Many of the books above have had the movie treatment over and over again. For the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list to stand the test of time, will they need a movie version to survive a century?

Only twelve novels above can be considered science fiction. Nine are on the Classics of Science Fiction list. Probably fewer than a dozen novels from the current Classics of Science Fiction list will be remembered among the greatest novels of the 20th century by readers in the 22nd century. One of the goals of this project is to guess which ones they might be.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is the most remembered book on our list. Next century, will Le Guin be remembered like H. G. Wells is remembered today? Will any science fiction writer be remembered like Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens?

Literary novels have once distinctive quality over science fiction novels – they capture a place and time in history. Because science fiction is about make-believe events, or imagined futures, we don’t use them to visualize the past. However, every science fiction novel is a time-capsule of how we speculated about reality way back when. They represent our ancestors hopes and fears about the future. In this way, they are very historical. Given enough time, The Left Hand of Darkness and Dune will be used to remember mid-20th century America in they same way Great Expectations is used to remember mid-19th century London.

Near vs. Far Science Fiction

I’ve recently turned 71 and beginning to realize, once again, that my taste in science fiction is changing due to aging. I’m in a Facebook group where we read and discuss one science fiction short story a day. That exposes me to many different kinds of science fiction, both old and new, covering the endless possible themes that science fiction explores.

I push myself to read every story, even when I’m not enjoying them. I try to give each story the best possible chance but things are starting to change. That could be for several reasons. After reading a couple thousand SF short stories over the last five years, I might be burning out on certain kinds of science fiction. And I’ve been having health problems, and I only have half the vitality I did just a few years ago. Meaning, I might not have the psychic energy to consume as much science fiction. Ultimately, I believe it’s because getting older is making me more down to Earth, changing what I want from science fiction. Then again, I might be getting old and just losing my patience.

For some of my Facebook comments, I’m starting to use the excuse that I didn’t like the story because it’s science fiction is too far away for me. By that I mean, the setting is too far away in space or time. I’ve never been much of a fan of fantasy, and science fiction that’s far away in space or time feels like fantasy fiction. Some of these stories are beautifully written, with fantastic world-building, and wonderful character development. I should like them just for the storytelling, but I don’t. I feel like I’m wasting my time. I just don’t care about characters that live in unbelievable settings.

I’m not sure this attitude is entirely consistent. I’ve been meaning to reread Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, which is set in the far future and is very fantasy-like. I’ve read it twice in the last half-century, and it’s a beautiful tale. Would I still like a book I loved before if its setting is too far away? I don’t know, but I’ll report if I ever reread it again. Right now, I tend to be forgiving of old science fiction. I’m harder on new science fiction.

I keep trying to read the New Space Opera writers, and I just can’t get into them. I want to read the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks. Theoretically, they’re something I think I’d love, but I just can’t get into them. They are too far away.

This week I started listening to The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler’s first novel I believe. I’m loving it, but then its setting is very near, on Earth, in the foreseeable future. The basic plot is about discovering a species of octopus that are social, tool-making, and developing a language. Since I’ve recently read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery and watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, Nayler’s speculation is very realistic. And that makes his science fiction very near.

A second major theme of The Mountain in the Sea is artificial intelligence, and Nayler handles it in a very realistic way too, again making his science fiction very near. I’ve been admiring Nayler’s short stories for a while now, but sometimes they are about AI and downloading human minds into machines or people, and I find that science fiction too far away for me. In fact, I dislike the whole theme of brain downloading and uploading.

One thing Nayler does in his novel is quote two future nonfiction books: How Oceans Think by Dr. Ha Nguyen and Building Minds by Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan in chapter headings. These two authors are also characters in the book. This gives Nayler a clever way to infodump in his story and injects his story with philosophy and science.

There are several other themes in the novel that are valid to us today, slavery, over-fishing, exploiting the environment, loneliness, self-destruction on a personal and species level, and so on. This is a heavy book. I have a few hours left, so I can’t give away the ending, but I’m most anxious to find out what happens.

The Mountain in the Sea reminds me of other great near science fiction novels, such as Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, Timescape by Gregory Benford, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It also reminds me of the popular science books by Dr. John C. Lilly, who was a famous dolphin researcher back in the 1960s, and who went on to explore states of inner space. I’m especially reminded of The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence and Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments. Books I read when I was young that has made me think about some of the things which Ray Nayler is making me think about again now that I’m old. It’s interesting that in the 1960s we thought dolphins were the closest intelligent species to us, but now we’re thinking it might be octopuses.

James Wallace Harris, 11/27/22

What Motivated Heinlein to Write Science Fiction?

To get the most out of my rereading Heinlein project, I figure I need to hold up on reading the stories and get an idea of why Heinlein wanted to write. There are two schools of thought on studying literature. One holds that a work of fiction must stand on its own. I can buy that. But second, believes in knowing as much as possible about the context in which the work was created. And I can buy that too. For my rereading Heinlein project, I’ve decided to get to know as much about Heinlein as possible and to study what others have written about Heinlein.

This effort is going to be rather haphazard because I don’t plan to devote all my time to studying and reading Heinlein. Nor am I scholarly or disciplined enough to systematically collect and analyze data. I shall alternate between reading about Heinlein, reading a story by Heinlein, and writing about my reaction to the two. I will probably revise what I blog as I go along and learn more.

Over the years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with reading Heinlein. As a kid, I wanted to grow up and be like him, a science fiction writer. He was my hero. But, by the time I graduated high school and started college, I realized Heinlein was on the far side of the 1960s generation gap. He was now the enemy. Heinlein was pro-Vietnam war. I was against it. Heinlein was in the Old Wave of science fiction writers. I sided with the New Wave writers. When I was young, Heinlein felt like a liberator of thoughts, but by my late teens, he seemed like an oppressor. What really turned me off to Heinlein was I Will Fear No Evil which came out in 1970. He had changed. But then, so had I.

My father died in 1970 when I was 18. We often locked horns over the same social and political issues that turned me against Heinlein. When I got older, I often wondered what my dad was really like because I eventually realized I had never gotten to know him. I had rebelled against his older self, and one I judged too quickly because I was young and impatient. I had no clue about my dad’s younger self. The same was true for Heinlein. Now that I’m old myself, I believe I need to go back and figure out these men. What did they originally want? I don’t have much evidence for who my father was, but I do for Heinlein.

While reading Heinlein’s early stories I get the impression he wasn’t like the other science fiction writers. I assumed he had grown up reading science fiction and science fiction was the obvious choice when Heinlein decided to make money by writing. Samuel Johnson is famous for saying, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but that doesn’t explain what they choose to write about. I’m starting to doubt if Heinlein was a trufan of science fiction because he had so many other interests. I wondered if he considered writing in other genres or even writing nonfiction? I know Heinlein read science fiction, but he also read lots of other kinds of fiction and especially nonfiction. Heinlein had diverse interests, and even though he read and wrote science fiction, and occasionally interacted with fandom, I’m not sure if he really thought of himself as a science fiction fan and writer.

All the details I cite below about Heinlein’s life come from Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 by William H. Patterson.

From 1925 to 1934 Heinlein’s goal was to be a naval officer. In 1934 he was forced to retire because of TB. This military experience provided great knowledge for his later writing career, but I don’t think he would have become a writer while in the Navy. Although he did get experience writing for his ship’s newspaper. Heinlein trained as an engineer at Annapolis and became a ballistic officer with special training on a new computing machine. Heinlein like doing.

In the 1920s Heinlein started reading science fiction when The Skylark of Space was serialized in Amazing Stories. Over the years he read various SF magazines, but I don’t know how often. Heinlein was widely read in other areas. But most writers end up writing what they like to read, so I assume Heinlein had a science fiction addiction too.

In 1930 Heinlein became the 22nd member of The American Rocket Society. Right from the beginning, they were thinking about traveling to the Moon. Quite a few of Heinlein’s stories were set on the Moon.

In 1932 Heinlein met and married Leslyn MacDonald, who was 26, and he was 23. Leslyn had a master’s in philosophy, was very liberal politically, acted in local theatrical productions, directed workshops in experimental theater, was a published writer, had a job as Assistant Director of the Music Department at Columbia Pictures, and maybe even did some script doctoring for them. The Heinleins had an open marriage, and belong to nudist colonies in Colorado and California. Leslyn was an equal partner, even though she was probably better educated, smarter, and far more philosophical. And she probably had more worldly experience. Leslyn also had an interest in mystical and spiritual traditions, and her mother was a Theosophist. Heinlein read to her The Time Stream by John Taine which was being serialized in Science Wonder Stories (December 1931- March 1932). She got him to read Tertium Organum by P. D. Ouspensky, a student of George Gurdjieff. Leslyn had a tremendous impact on Heinlein becoming a science fiction writer, and even the subjects we wrote about. At the time both were left-leaning socialists who shared progressive political ideas and New Age and occult philosophies.

Heinlein’s ambition after leaving the Navy was to start on a master’s and work up to a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy at Caltech. Unfortunately, at the time he graduated from the Navy college at Annapolis, it didn’t confer bachelor’s degrees, so he couldn’t go directly into graduate school. If he could have followed this path he might have eventually become an SF writer on the side, but I tend to doubt it. Again, Heinlein’s drive was to do. However, the failure to become a scientist seems to be a common trait among science fiction writers.

Next, Heinlein and Leslyn threw themselves in the 1934 election for California’s governor. The Heinleins backed Upton Sinclair, the famous muck-raking writer and socialist turned democrat to run for governor of California. The Republicans launch an all-out smear campaign against Sinclair. This taught Heinlein a lot about dirty politics. After Sinclair lost, he pushed ahead with EPIC (End Poverty in California) and the Heinleins joined that crusade. They worked with Sinclair and got to know him, and Sinclair admired their dedication to the cause and put Heinlein in some higher-up positions. Heinlein got to work with Oakies and immigrants, as well as Hollywood star do-gooders. He saw the horrors of how the poor were treated. Heinlein even ran for a local position and lost, but learned a great deal about grassroots politics. All of this was grist for the meal of his first novel, For Us, The Living. Heinlein had gotten more writing experience working on EPIC publications. That experience was starting to add up.

The Heinleins had bought a small house in Laurel Canyon, but one they really couldn’t afford on just his military retirement paycheck. Heinlein’s health depended on a low-stress life, so he couldn’t handle regular work. This is when he decided to try writing for a living. He wrote For Us, The Living, but it failed to sell. That novel really wasn’t science fiction, even though it was about the future. It was Heinlein presenting ideas on how to create a better America. The novel promoted concepts like guaranteed incomes and psychiatric rehabilitation instead of prison for criminals. Heinlein could have become a nonfiction writer instead of a fiction writer. This explains why there is so much infodumping, lecturing, and even preaching in his books.

There was practically no science fiction being published in book form in the 1930s. Heinlein wanted to be a futurist, but they didn’t exist back then. Being an officer in the Navy, or a politician meant being a leader, a man of action, and a doer. I felt from the biographical material I’ve read, that Heinlein wanted to lead, influence, build, and especially, invent. However, he was out of options. Maybe he could at least be an influencer by writing.

All along, Heinlein had been reading science fiction, but I’m not sure how much. When he sold “Life-Line” to Astounding for $70, he discovered he had a platform for his progressive ideas and a way to pay his mortgage. John W. Campbell, Jr. had higher ambitions too. Both men wanted to do something real but found their niche in writing and publishing fantasies about the future.

As I reread Heinlein’s fiction I need to remember what Heinlein really wanted. I’m sure this bled out in his stories. Samuel Goldwyn is famous for a quote he probably didn’t say, “If you have a message, call Western Union.” Heinlein always had a message. Sometimes I’ve held that against him, but I realize now, all the best stories do have a message.

Some fiction is just a story. Something entertaining to occupy your time. But all the best writers have something to say. The true art of fiction is to communicate a great deal without the reader feeling they are being lectured.

In judging Heinlein’s stories as I read them, I need to decide how well he wove his message into his fiction. I need to come up with a method to evaluate stories on several levels at once. But that’s another essay.

James Wallace Harris, 10/8/22

Books About Robert A. Heinlein

There have been quite a few books about Robert A. Heinlein published since the 1960s, however, only two of them are devoted to biography. The rest are about his writing. The main biography to read is the two-volume Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century by William H. Patterson, Jr. It’s still in print. Alec Nevala-Lee’s book, Astounding, is a biography of John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, but it does have a significant amount of material on Heinlein. Farah Mendlesohn’s book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein does interweave biography with its focus on Heinlein’s writing, but she admits she got most of that biographical information from the Patterson book. Both the Nevala-Lee and Mendlesohn books are in print.

If you want to know about Heinlein the man, read the Patterson volumes and the Nevala-Lee. If you want a modern take on Heinlein’s work try the Mendlesohn. If you want an interesting take on science fiction in the 1940s, I recommend The World Beyond the Hill. It makes an interesting compaion to Astounding by Nevala-Lee.

I’m going to list the books about Heinlein in reverse chronological order. If they are in print, I’ll link the title to Amazon. The out-of-print books can be found on Abebooks.com and eBay, as well as other online book dealers. Some of these titles cover more than just Heinlein, but they do cover him in a significant way.

James Wallace Harris 10/6/22

Szymon Szott Reads All the Stories on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story List

I have a guest columnist for y’all, Szymon Szott. Szymon worked out a computer program to find the minimum number of anthologies to buy that had the most stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. The results were presented in these three columns:

Szymon was the first reader to tell me they’ve read all the novels on the novel list, and now he’s read all the short stories on the short story list. I still haven’t finished either list. Here’s his report on the short story reading experience.

Introduction

Hi, Szymon here again. Last time I wrote that “you won’t love every work of classic science fiction” and that was after reading all the books from the list of classic SF books. Now I’m back with some thoughts after reading all the works from the classics of SF short stories. Currently, the list consists of 110 novellas, novelettes, and short stories. I read these works over a period of about four years although 80% in the last twelve months.

It was great fun to read these outstanding works, I enjoyed most of them, and those that weren’t as good at least ended quickly. The brevity of these works makes them more accessible: a short story doesn’t require the same commitment as a novel. Also, if you’re an obsessive checklist completist like I am, then you’ll be making faster progress through short stories than through the list of classic SF novels.

Favorite Stories

I rated each story on a 1-5 scale (5 being ‘excellent’) and the average of all my ratings was 3.5 which confirms my overall positive experience. I gave 19 stories a score of 5, but if I were to recommend my top 10 favorite stories (at this moment) they would be the following.

TitleAuthorYearReview
NightfallIsaac Asimov1941Grand tale, memorable idea (but I don’t want to spoil it).
ArenaFredric Brown1944Like a Star Trek episode, a timeless classic!
Second VarietyPhilip K. Dick1953A movie (Screamers) was based on this tale. Similar themes to Blade Runner, vintage PKD.
The Last QuestionIsaac Asimov1956At least my third read. A great look into the possible future of any sentient life in the universe.
Flowers for AlgernonDaniel Keyes1959I knew the novel, which I prefer, but the story is still outstanding!
Inconstant MoonLarry Niven1971Last day on Earth. Apocalypse/catastrophe story. Great fun, I love this kind of tale!
Vaster Than Empires and More SlowUrsula K. Le Guin1971Colonists on a forest world find that it is conscious (as a whole planet/biosphere). Perfectly done!
Jeffty Is FiveHarlan Ellison1977Very nostalgic and a bit on the horror side (well, it is Ellison). Memorable!
The Mountains of MourningLois McMaster Bujold1989I first thought it was great, but then the denouement hitched it up a notch. Worthy of the Hugo and Nebula that it won!
Story of Your LifeTed Chiang1998Hard SF. The perfect marriage of story, plot, and physics (Fermat’s principle).

Surprisingly, only one story from the 90s made it to the above list even though the 90s were on average my highest-rated decade (with a score of 4.0). I was in my teens then, which is in line with the theory that “the golden age of science fiction is thirteen.” Meanwhile, the true Golden Age of SF (the 40s and 50s) are my next favorite decades, both with an average rating of about 3.8.

Favorite Authors

These are the authors that had the highest average scores (among authors with more than one story on the list):

  • Isaac Asimov
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Octavia E. Butler
  • Connie Willis
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Harlan Ellison
  • John Varley
  • Larry Niven
  • Arthur C. Clarke
  • Robert Silverberg
  • Ted Chiang
  • Robert A. Heinlein
  • Roger Zelazny
  • Philip K. Dick

The authors in bold are those I already knew I enjoyed. I’ll be reading more works by the other ones!

Sources Used

One of the coolest aspects of completing this list was finding sources (books, podcasts, etc.) from which to read the stories. For each story, I looked to see if it was available online for free, in any of the books I already own, in any of the book services I subscribe to, and, finally, in my local library. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database was an indispensable resource in this regard. Ultimately, I didn’t follow my own advice but rather worked with what I had available. I used a total of 48 unique sources to find the stories, but two of them stand out in terms of the number of stories: Sense of Wonder and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. They’re both great anthologies and I’ll be reading the other stories they include as well.

Looking at the per-source average rating, these were my favorite, which I’ve arranged by type:

  • Anthologies: Future On Fire (80s stories, edited by Orson Scott Card)
  • Podcasts: Drabblecast, Escape Pod
  • Collections: Exhalation (by Ted Chiang), Dreamsongs (by George R.R. Martin), The Best of Connie Willis
  • Magazines: Clarkesworld

Missing Stories

Finally, I’d like to share two stories that aren’t on the list. The first one is a classic: “The Colony” by Philip K. Dick. It doesn’t have enough citations to make the list. The second one is too new to have been included: “The Ocean Between the Leaves” by Ray Nayler (which Jim has blogged about). Both have what I love most about SF stories: a sense of wonder and high “readability”.

Conclusion

Overall, I think the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories v2 list is just as great a resource as the novel list. And it’s even better if you want to read all the stories from beginning to end: it’s not that long a project and you can find the best that SF has to offer in compact form. Highly recommended!

Why Did I Stop Reading New Science Fiction?

Early this morning, before it got light, I woke up and wondered when did I stop reading new science fiction? And why? I assume my unconscious mind had been mulling over the feeling that I’d lost touch with science fiction in the 21st century. (See yesterday’s essay.) Before I went to sleep last night, my conscious mind assumed it was natural to stop reading science fiction as one got older. Evidently, my unconscious mind objected to that assumption and I awoke with several other possibilities to consider.

I read many new science fiction books as they came out in the 1960s and 1970s because of the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC). I was also aware of new SF books as they were published because I subscribed to the science fiction magazines and fanzines and loved reading reviews. I bought new SF paperbacks and read them because of those reviews. I think I stop regularly reading reviews back in the 1990s. That might be the main reason I got out of touch with the genre and new writers.

I got married in 1978 and started working full-time at a job I’d stay in for the next 35 years. In 1979 I became obsessed with microcomputers and shifted most of my reading to studying computers. Sometime during the 1980s, I canceled my membership with the SFBC, and let my magazine and fanzine subscriptions lapse.

However, Susan and I loved going to the bookstore at least once a week, and I always went through the science fiction section. During the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s I’d get nostalgic for science fiction and resubscribe to the SFBC, F&SF, and Asimov’s. Sometimes I’d even subscribe to Locus Magazine, and for a short while, I wrote for Lan’s Lantern. During those periods I’d try and catch up with what was new.

When I did return to science fiction periodically, I realized science fiction had changed and changed quite a bit. Books were now bigger, often huge. And trilogies became common, or even longer series. And by the 1990s most of the writers I grew up reading had died. Long books and trilogies turned me off – I just didn’t want to make the commitment. I grew up reading SF books that were often less than 250 pages, with many with less than 200 pages. Now new novels were two and three times that size. And the thought of having to read three of them to complete a story seemed absurd.

And the SFBC kept changing too. I just didn’t know all the new authors, and the SFBC kept offering other kinds of books, fantasies, media tie-ins, gaming — books that just didn’t appeal to me, so I’d quit. For many decades the SFBC’s two monthly selections seem to zero in on the core SF books everyone was reading – and then it didn’t.

My guess is the boom in SF and fantasy gave us too many choices so it was no longer obvious what to read. At the bookstores, the SF/F section just grew and grew. It was like a tsunami of new titles and authors. Not only was it impossible to keep up with reading the popular titles it became impossible to even keep up with a sense of the genre. SF had gotten too big. There seemed to be hundreds of new writers and I just didn’t know who they were. Even reading Locus Magazine didn’t help.

When I retired in 2013 I came back to science fiction. But instead of trying to catch up on the new works, I jumped back in time to read the classics I missed the first time around. I focused mainly on books from 1950-1980. And then I got into short stories again and started my project of reading all the best-of-the-year SF anthologies from the 20th century. It was more rewarding to fill in my knowledge of a historical period than trying to keep current.

However, after years of gorging on classic science fiction, I’m back to craving new science fiction. The genre is even larger, and I’m still not interested in trilogies and book series. I read science fiction for its ideas. Following a character through endless obstacles book after book is just tedious to me. I hunger for standout standalone stories that convey a far-out concept. So far, I’ve had my best luck with Kim Stanley Robinson.

I believe one of the main reasons I don’t read new science fiction is because the genre is no longer based on new ideas. Quite often the first book in a trilogy or series will have a new idea and unique worldbuilding, but the sequels just grind that idea and setting into the ground. And sadly, I’m not sure there are that many new ideas anymore. Writers are having to rehash old themes. Sometimes they find fresh ways to present them, and that works, but all too often new stories just feel like slight variations on old tunes.

However, I haven’t given up. Breakthrough SF novels do come out. The problem is finding them. How I go about that will be a topic for my next essay.

James Wallace Harris, 8/10/22

Does Our Memory of Favorite Science Fiction Skew To Older Science Fiction?

James Patrick Kelly gives a plug for our Classics of Science Fiction database site (csfquery.com) in his column “On the Net” in the July-August 2022 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. He mentions us as a jumping-off point to talk about famous science fiction stories made into movies. In passing, Kelly says our v.5 list is skewed to older works. I’ve worried about that myself, and I’ve tried to come up with a system configuration that would promote newer works.

However, I’m starting to think that our memories naturally skew towards older books. Our lists are generated from a system. We’ve collected all the ways we can find where people remember books – awards, fan polls, recommended lists, anthologies, books used in schools, lists created by magazines and websites, etc. Each one we call a citation. There are two lists of citations, one for books and one for short stories. Older books have more citations than newer books because they’ve been around longer. Our citation lists go back to 1943, but most of them have been from the past 25 years. But even when we come up with systems to give newer books a little edge, older novels and stories still have more citations.

Pop culture has just found more ways to remember The Left Hand of Darkness since 1969 than Ancillary Justice since 2013. 49 ways to 13. Even when I limited citations from the 21st century it’s still 33 to 13. This makes me wonder if collectively we just remember older books better. Although, if we could get 1,000 college students to read The Left Hand of Darkness and Ancillary Justice would they still favor the book from 1969 over the 2013 novel?

At our site, we avoid saying books with more citations are better – because there’s no way to prove that. But what if some books are better than others at being remembered? The Left Hand of Darkness has never been one of my favorite SF novels, but it is one I admire for its ideas and writing, and maybe that’s why it’s remembered. Many English professors will tell you, that Ulysses by James Joyce is the #1 novel in the English language. I’ve tried to read it several times but never could finish it. But I’m willing to admit that it’s legendary.

A while back we came up with a solution to help people find newer novels and stories to read. We created the List Builder. If you want the most remembered SF novels published since 2000 just use that tool. Here’s a list of 51 21st Century SF Novels with at least 5 citations.

On the other hand, if you are in the mood for something from the fifties just put in 1950 to 1959. If you think our cutoffs are too stringent, lower them. I’m still thinking of adding a feature to the List Builder that would allow our users to delimit the citations by date. Would citation sources only from the 1990s pick different books from the 1940s than citation sources from the 1960s?

We’re trying to keep CSFquery as simple to use as possible yet offer the maximum flexibility for generating lists that users might want. Our v.5 and v.2 lists are just canned lists based on our cutoffs of 12 and 8 citations for novels and short stories. We chose those cuff-offs to produce lists of around 100 titles. The List Builder lets the user decide if they want more or less but pop culture has decided what to remember.

We’re open to suggestions. If you know of other citation sources that we don’t use, let us know.

James Wallace Harris, 6/12/22

The Problems with Classic Science Fiction

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

The Implications of Giving Comic Books Another Try

I’ve forgotten why, but I was Googling around and found the image above. I was quite taken with it. I did a Google image search and discovered it came from Weird Tales #14 (July-Aug 1952) and the artist was Wally Wood. I know as close to nothing about comics as is possible without knowing anything at all. I have run across some interior illustrations by Wood in Galaxy Science Fiction and admired them too. I’d love to have a big art book of his work.

I know a little bit about EC Comics, mainly from reading about the congressional hearings in the 1950s and the famous book by Fredric Wetherm, Seduction of the Innocent.

Back in 1963, when I was twelve, my grandmother subscribed to four comic books for me for my birthday. I believe they were to Superman, The Justice League of America, Wonder Woman, and The Flash. I read them as I got them, and carefully saved all the issues before my cousins Bobby and Timmy borrowed my complete library of comics. They never returned them. It didn’t bother me. I much preferred reading science fiction. And I forgot about comic books until the 1970s when I discovered underground comics in a headshop. I tried one by Vaughn Bode and another by Robert Crumb.

Over the years I’ve tried comics periodically but never could get into them. This month I’m giving them one more try because of that Wally Wood cover illustration. I went looking for a scan of #14 of Weird Science on the internet because I wanted to read the story that goes with the illustration. Evidently, the copyright holders of EC Comics keep a sharp watch on copyright violators because I couldn’t find a digital scan.

I then went to eBay, ABEbooks, and Amazon looking for a copy and discovered The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1 had just been released. The paperback was $18.18 and the Kindle edition was $13.99. It claimed to collect #12–#15 and #5–6. I was all ready to press the buy button when I saw a mention I should try a free 30-day trial version of Comixology. What the hell. I did. I’m going to give comics one more try.

I quickly loaded the Archives on my tablet only to discover #14 looked different.

It took a bit of research but I discovered there was a 1950 series and a 1951 series, and Archives Volume 1 had the 1950 #14. I was disappointed. Back to Google. I eventually found comics.org and this very informative page. From there I learned there was a 1994 Gemstone annual that reprinted the 1951 #14. I found the cheapest copy on eBay and ordered it. The internet is a wonderful tool! I’ve never used comics.org before but it’s as useful as isfdb.org.

While I wait for the Gemstone Weird Science Annual, I’ve been looking at The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1. I can’t say I’ve gotten hooked on comics. In fact, I’m somewhat shocked by what I discovered. The stories and art are very — I wanted to say crude but I don’t want to offend people. Is simplistic a better word? Unsophisticated?

I once took a graduate course in the English department on humor, and we were taught there are many levels of sophistication in humor, although I’m not sure the professor claimed any form was superior to another. Chaplin’s slapstick humor might be as brilliant as Shakespeare’s humorous wordplay.

The 1950s science fiction stories Weird Science are similar in ideas to what was being published in the pulps in the 1920s and 1930s. Now I’m not trying to be superior. My favorite kind of science fiction is novels and short stories from the 1950s. They might only be a step up from science fiction in comic books as comic books are a step up in believability over books like Dr. Seuss or Goodnight Moon. I’m not offended when brilliant literary writers complain that science fiction is adolescent, because I agree with them.

At 70, I’m fully aware that my favorite kind of fiction to read in 2022 is as sophisticated as my mind was in high school (1966-1969). I was an English major in college, and I still read the literary classics, but usually only one per year. When I say science fiction that appeared in the science fiction magazines of the 1950s was more sophisticated than the science fiction appearing in the comics or funny papers, or on the big or little screens of that decade, I’m not claiming it was superior. I’m only saying the stories were more complex and richer in detail.

For example, compare “I Created A Gargantua!” or “Lost in the Microcosm” in Weird Science to The Shrinking Man (1956) by Richard Matheson, the book version of the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, or The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). None of these stories are realistic, all of them are basically stupid, and all of them are on the level of comic book science fiction. I guess I should up the ante some and also throw in “The Drowned Giant” by J. G. Ballard, as a literary comparison. And even mention that Alice in Wonderland played around with the idea of changing size.

My point in mentioning all these stories is to support my argument that written science fiction in the 1950s was more sophisticated than comic books. Back in the 1950s comic books were aimed at kids who could read but probably didn’t read books. They were a step up from kids’ picture books. Galaxy Science Fiction was a step up from Amazing Stories, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction offered more adult reading than Astounding Science Fiction. And the 1957 science fiction novel, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, was aimed at an even more adult audience.

It’s all about being in the target audience. As I read those collected issues of Weird Science from EC Comics I felt I was regressing back to age twelve. Every time I tried comics again since I was twelve I rejected them as being too young for me and immediately quit reading them after a few pages. This time I kept reading. I even somewhat enjoyed myself. But that scared me. Getting old and being anxious over growing memory loss, made me fear that enjoying a comic book might be the first sign that I’m regressing.

I’ve always considered Charlie Gordon’s rise and fall of intelligence in Flowers for Algernon was modeled the arc of normal aging and decay. Reading Weird Science made me feel like Charlie Gordon when he realized he was on the downward slope of his IQ arc. I’ve noticed this before. I’m starting to struggle with nonfiction and more sophisticated novels.

I can picture myself getting older and reading the Oz books I loved in the 5th grade. The science fiction I love to read now is the same as I loved back in the 8th grade. However, I’m reading it with 70 years of wisdom I didn’t have then, and I’m admiring it more. I still enjoy Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoy, Lawrence, or even Joyce, but I’m slowly gravitating more and more to the fiction of my adolescence. That doesn’t upset me. I’m glad I have those stories to welcome me home.

I’m not ready yet to read comic books again, or even return to the Oz books, but I can imagine a time when I might be.

James Wallace Harris 3/8/22