The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories

Newsstand-1939

Version 1.0 Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories
by Piet Nel and James Wallace Harris

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

      https://csfquery.com

We will maintain this version for reference.

 

When most people from around the world think of science fiction they usually remember movies and television shows. Even among bookworms, most recall novels when the phrase science fiction is mentioned. Short stories are a fading art form, like poetry. Short stories still have their passionate fans, but not many. Few science fiction fans can tick off a list of their favorite short stories when they have no trouble making a list of novels.

If you search the internet for the best works of science fiction, you’ll get lists of movies and novels. If you search hard enough, with the right keywords, you can find a few lists of classic short stories. Our goal is to identify the most remembered short stories, novelettes, and novellas of science fiction. We entered the stories from anthologies, awards, polls, textbooks, and recommended reading lists into a database and generated our list with the most frequently recalled stories. We focused on the best-of-the-year and retrospective anthologies. We call each source a citation – see our Citations Bibliography.

We feel it’s impossible to claim these are the best science fiction stories ever written. We doubt there is an objective way to measure art. We feel our method identifies the most remembered stories.

Beginning in 2018 I started a personal project to read the entire 25 volumes of The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. (I later learned Robert Silverberg replaced Asimov for a 26th volume.) I started an online discussion group to find other folks wanting to share the project. That group began working on its own list of favorite science fiction short stories, but none of us were ready to complete our own list until we read more.

Piet Nel and I began a second project to make lists of great stories from the best anthologies. I told Piet if we could come up with a system that identified the most remembered stories we could publish it here.

Piet is an expert on science fiction anthologies and a data entry maniac. Before I could think much about the project he was sending me spreadsheets filled with stories from various anthologies. I called Mike Jorgensen, the programmer behind the Classics of Science Fiction lists and he volunteered to develop the database and program the reports for this project. In a short time, we had 10,000 entries in the database.

The Classics of Science Fiction lists for books is based on 65 different citation sources published from 1949-2016. To be included on the final list a title had to be on a minimum of 10 citation lists. We used the same statistical methods for The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list but required only a minimum of 5 citations. “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler had the most, with 16.

If you look at the table below you can see how the cutoff works. There were 3,679 stories that got only 1 citation out of a total of 5,383 stories “nominated” by all the citations. If we had made the cutoff 2, it would have made the final list 1,704 stories long. 885 stories got at least two citations. A Top 100 list would have been between using 7 and 8 as a cutoff.

Citations Total Titles Cutoff Total
1 3679 5383
2 885 1704
3 376 819
4 168 443
5 87 275
6 57 188
7 47 131
8 25 84
9 21 59
10 13 38
11 8 25
12 6 17
13 6 11
14 4 5
15 0 1
16 1 1

Most people reading lists on the internet get bored after scanning 11-50 items. Top 100 lists are becoming less common. At first, we felt our final list should stay below 100 stories to appeal to the impatient internet readers. We played with different cutoff points. Requiring 7 citations got the list down to 131 stories. That was still too long. However, many stories we dearly loved came in below the cutoff. We finally decided to make the cutoff 5 citations, which produces a very long list of 275 stories. We figured impatient list readers can use the rank list and stop scrolling wherever they get tired. My favorite way to view the list is by year because I love seeing how the genre evolved over time. But to peruse from the 19th to the 21st centuries takes a lot of scrolling. The author list will appeal to folks with favorite writers.

To make each list more useful we’ve linked to various sites on the web that offer additional information. Each report uses a different reference tool. The year list takes you to ISFDB to see all the possible reprint sources for the story. The rank list takes you to Wikipedia to read about the story. The author list takes you to Wikipedia to read about the author. We recommend you right-click on a link and select “Open in new window,” so you won’t lose your place in our list.

I have found great pleasure in reading science fiction short stories this year. So far, I’ve read an anthology 19th century short stories, annual anthologies for 1939-1944, 2016, 2017, one retrospective of the 1950s, and the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I’m developing a sense of how the genre has evolved over time.

One distinctive observation I’ve made is how stories were written before NASA generally assumed we’d find life, including intelligent life, on Venus, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. I’ve often wondered if that assumption only came from science fiction readers or did most people around the world in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s think that too.

With each decade, science fiction reinvented itself, processing new science, and speculating on new twists of old themes. If you read enough science fiction, you’ll see that most of the genre’s identifying concepts have been around a very long time. Every new generation comes up with their own hopes and fears for the future.

After producing this list of 275 stories, I’ve already started reading the most popular stories. The Classics of Science Fiction book list would take someone years to read, even decades, but I feel this list is readable in one year. It’s less than one short story a day, with 90 extra days for the novellas and novelettes that might take two days.

I’ve also been searching the web for folks who review short science fiction. Here are sites or columns that focus on short science fiction.

Here are other lists on the web that remember short science fiction.

The 1939 photo at the top of the page shows an era when the popularity of short stories was at its height. Most of those magazines contained some short stories, and many were all stories. This was before television. If you look carefully you can find several famous science fiction magazines on that newsstand.

JWH

Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other

Imagine a world where science fiction had never been invented. Could you have written the first science fiction story? Be honest now, and think hard about yourself and what I’m asking. Before Galileo, did anyone think the Moon was a world that could be visited? Once people heard Galileo saw mountains on the Moon with his telescope they began to imagine going there. Science fiction needed certain kinds of seed ideas to begin. When the seeds come from reality I’ll call that Stage 1 science fiction. We don’t see a lot of that kind of science fiction anymore. Maybe The Martian by Andy Weir when he tried to realistically portray growing potatoes on Mars or when a writer extrapolates on current events like John Brunner did in Stand on Zanzibar back in 1968 or what Kim Stanley Robinson did in The Ministry for the Future in 2020.

Once the genre got rolling, science fiction seeded itself. One story about a trip to the Moon inspired an infinity. I call that Stage 2 science fiction. In Stage 2 writers try to stick to reality but work off the collective knowledge of the genre. Eventually, science fiction was making copies of copies, where the inspiration had no connection with reality. I’ll call that Stage 3 science fiction.

Early stories about traveling to the Moon were Stage 1 because it’s not likely the authors had read each other’s work. But when Verne and Wells wrote their novels of lunar exploration a lot of their inspiration was Stage 2. When John Varley wrote his stories about a lunar colony, most of the science-fictional concepts within those stories had been germinating for generations in the genre – Stage 3.

I believe science fiction writers have an ongoing conversation that never ends. To take part in this conversation, publish a story. It can be Stage 1, 2, or 3. To be heard and answered requires writing something in Stage 1 or 2, or a very creative Stage 3.

This is why I’ve become fascinated by the forgotten writer Walter F. Moudy. The 1950s and 1960s were a fertile time for Stage 1 and Stage 2 stories. By the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s writers who made themselves noticed were writing a baroque Stage 3 science fiction to attract attention. For example, the works of Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Robert Silverberg were based on old SF ideas told with new writing styles. Unfortunately, Moudy wrote Stage 3 stories in the same prose style that the classics of Stage 2 were written. His 1964-65 stories feel like they were written in 1954. One reason the New Wave writers of the 1960s were so important is they recognized that retelling Stage 2 stories in the same way, would get them ignored. The reason why Heinlein blazed onto the scene in 1939 is that he wrote Stage 1 stories with a new writing style, making his stories stand out.

I enjoy reading Walter F. Moudy in 2022 because I doubt I could write any better than he did, and he was responding to the stories I admired back then. His writing ability and knowledge of the genre were just good enough to get five works published and then become forgotten. As a would-be science fiction writer, I greatly identify with that. He wanted to join the conversation and made the effort to have his say. He just wasn’t heard, but now after decades, I’m listening.

While reading Walter F. Moudy’s meager output of science fiction I kept feeling his stories were inspired by the science fiction he and I both read. They made me wonder what he was trying to say in the ongoing conversation.

Of the five science fiction stories, I’ve read by Walter F. Moudy, “The Search for Man” is my favorite, although if I reread “The Survivor” or No Man On Earth I might change my mind. All were good fun, old-fashion science fiction, the kind my nostalgia loves. As I read “The Search for Man,” I kept wondering what science fiction Moudy had read that inspired this story. I can’t say for sure but this story about robots speculating about long-dead or gone humans reminded me of City by Clifford Simak. That “The Search for Man” set hundreds of years into the future speculated about our times and turned us into a religion reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz. That both the protagonists of No Man On Earth and “The Search for Man” were about a super-human and a super-robot reminded me of The Hampdenshire Wonder, Slan, Odd John, Chocky, Stranger in a Strange Land, and all the other science fiction stories about next-stage beings. Reading those two Moudy stories made me think about how I would have written a story on that theme. How much could I base it on reality, and how much would be inspired by other science fiction?

“The Search for Man,” begins with a baby being born, but it’s a strange birth, a kind of decanting that made me think of Brave New World. Then we learn the baby will only have three senses, and it will be put into a robotic baby’s body, the first of four body types it will use.

Moudy sets up a good mystery for us. Humans died out hundreds of years earlier, with all other animal life. The humans had tried to travel to the stars, but it appears their three missions had failed. The robot brains have improved their brains with genetics found in 12 human brains that had been preserved. The robots have found long-dead humans in various kinds of chambers that tried to create suspended animation. Their hope is to find a chamber with a viable human to resurrect. There are classes of robots that are archeologists and others that are priests that teach a strange religion based on their theories about humans. All of that is a very appealing setup for a story, at least for me.

I’m not sure Walter F. Moudy would have written “The Search for Man” without reading a lot of science fiction. Part of the conversation science fiction writers have is about science fictional ideas, but the other part is about how to present those ideas in a story. I felt “The Search for Man” was Moudy’s reply to both but in the language of 1950s science fiction. I wonder if he had been more of a stylist would he have made a greater impact?

“The Search for Man” was published in an original anthology In The Wake of Man that’s never been reprinted. I’ve been trying to get a copy, but it’s expensive, starting at $75 used. I had found a $10 copy for sale, but my order was canceled a couple days after I ordered it. Right now the only source for this story is a copy of In The Wake of Man at Archive.org. If you are a member, which is free, you can check it out for an hour to read online. Thanks to Joachim Boaz for finding that link.

Joachim Boaz and Rich Horton have also been writing about Walter F. Moudy. Rich is planning to review all of Moudy’s work soon.

James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22

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

Old and New Science Fiction

The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction will begin discussing The Best Science Fiction of the Year v. 6 edited by Neil Clarke on April 24th for Group Read 38, and The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg for Group Reading 39 on April 29th. That means during May, June and some of July will be alternating between old and new science fiction short stories each day.

Silverberg and Greenberg compared their anthology to the two classic SF anthologies from 1946: The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin, and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. For decades, readers found those two anthologies in their libraries and were standards for introducing readers to short science fiction. They hoped The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction would cover 1946-1979 like those two classic anthologies did for science fiction before 1946.

The Neil Clarke volume is his pick of the best short science fiction of 2020. Group Read 38 schedule. Group Read 39 schedule.

Now that I’m regularly reading old and new science fiction short stories I’m learning how both science fiction and writing science fiction are evolving. Part of my daily routine is reading the next day’s story, and then thinking about it when I’m going to sleep at night so that in the morning I can type up a short review for the group when I start my day. Belonging to this Facebook group has been a real education, kind of a graduate course in science fiction literature. More than that, it’s been a meditation on my lifelong relationship with science fiction. I’ll try to write longer reviews for this blog for those stories that really inspire me.

I hope Silverberg and Greenberg won’t mind me reprinting their short introduction because it says so much about remembering science fiction short stories. 75 years later, the CSFSS list only recalls one story from the Conklin anthology and four from the Healy/McComas book. 42 years later, the list remembers 10 from the stories Silverberg and Greenberg picked out. But how many of those 10 will remain in another 33 years?

James Wallace Harris, 4/23/22 – updated 4/27/22

Is There Any New Territory for Science Fiction to Explore?

Ray Nayler had a successful year writing science fiction short stories in 2021. Three of his stories made the Asimov’s Readers’ Award Finalists poll: “A Rocket for Dimitrios” (novella), “Año Nuevo” (novelette), and “Muallim” (short story). That doesn’t include four other stories he had published in other magazines in 2021. The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction has been reading and discussing all the finalist stories and Nayler’s stories have been popular with our group. We tend to be an older crowd that’s been reading science fiction for a long time, and Nayler’s stories fulfill our need for new science fiction that feels like older science fiction.

Before I say what I want to say, just let me assure you I’m not picking on Ray Nayler, but questioning science fiction in general. I enjoy Nayler’s stories and consider them among the best science fiction coming out today. I’m looking forward to his first novel, The Mountain in the Sea coming out in October.

While reading all the finalists for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award, and especially Nayler’s stories, I couldn’t help but wonder if science fiction has any new territory left to explore? All the stories seem to be variations on old themes. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but reading these stories made me think just how hard it must be to write new science fiction, especially original science fiction. Our Facebook group has read hundreds of SF stories, and it’s obvious that few stories succeed with a majority of our readers. Writing a major science fiction short story is very rare.

Nayler’s stories stood out for me of the sixteen finalists. They were the most enjoyable to read, and I felt the most successfully told. However, they all seemed like old friends wearing snazzy new threads. I can’t help but wonder if new science fiction writers ever come up with new science-fictional ideas? Or has our genre explored all the territory to be explored?

Of course, this is my problem since I’m 70 years old and I’ve been reading science fiction for 60 of those years. Younger readers might not see any problem at all. If you live long enough, you begin to feel like Solomon writing Ecclesiastes 1:9 and saying “There is nothing new under the sun.” That feels like an oxymoronic adage when talking about science fiction. (Yet, I felt “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” by Roger Zelazny was something new under the sun in 1963.)

My favorite of Nayler’s stories was “A Rocket for Dimitrios.” (Story links are to pdf files to read.) However, its plot was inspired by A Mask for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, called A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S., which better connects to Nayler’s title. I haven’t read that novel, but I’ve seen the Sidney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre movie from 1944, so that’s how I pictured it when reading Nayler’s novella. Both stories about Dimitrios overlap in interesting ways with exotic flavors.

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is an alternate history story, so it’s a double retread, It’s rewriting history, and writing a classic mystery novel. That’s quite clever, and I think that points to Nayler solving the problem I’m discussing. If you can’t produce a new science fiction idea for a story, repackage old ones in clever ways. And is that what all the new science fiction writers must do today? Or, am I seeing something different? Are new writers reinventing science fiction with each new generation because they haven’t read the old science fiction? Is it a variation on the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” by George Santayana?

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is a sophisticated alternate political history that reflects a great deal of our current political reality. After America finds a crashed flying saucer in 1938 it becomes the sole superpower using advanced technology discovered in the UFO. The story creates an alternative geopolitical view from around 1960 I guess. (FDR is in his 7th term.) Because Nayler is in the foreign service and has been stationed in the Caucasus, he obviously knows the history of Turkey after the fall of the Ottomans. This local coloration gives the story its strongest appeal, but then that was true of the movie, and probably the novel.

Fictional characters Sylvia Aldstatt, Alvin Greenly, and Chief Inspector Rafik Bayar are mixed with alternate history characterizations of Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hedy Lamarr. Greenly is in the OSS and Aldstatt is a medium that uses alien technology to speak to the dead Dimitrios Makropoulos. This story is far more complex than the other nominated stories for the Asimov’s Reader Awards which suggests a growing writing maturity by Nayler. This was my second reading of this story and I rate it a strong four stars out of five.

Even though this is a fun story I can’t help but believe it’s Nayler’s philosophical statement about current world affairs. In that sense, it’s quite interesting to compare “A Rocket for Dimitrios” to David Brooks’ latest editorial in The New York Times. Both Nayler and Brooks want to be positive, but they see the growing trend toward nationalistic thinking since the 2016 election, and it’s not positive. The obvious connection to both story and essay is humans are an intelligent species, just not quite intelligent enough to survive. Both Nayler and Brooks are hopeful, I’m not.

Muallim” is a wonderful story about a teaching robot and a student-teacher in Khynalry, Azerbaijan. The plot is rather simple, about how the village tricks the student teacher who wants to change their old ways, but the story is far richer. I think we should ask why? “Muallim” is an exceptional science fiction story, but what makes it so?

The obvious answer is the setting. Naylor’s foreign service experience, knowledge of languages, along with being a keen observer of local details, infuses wonderful details into this story. Would this story have been as good if it was set in Los Angeles? Maybe, but I think not. An exotic setting can really make an old science fiction theme stand out.

Writers have reached the saturation point with writing about robots and AI. It’s extremely hard to do anything different. The foreign color of this story is what made it impressive. The story itself is just a retelling that sentient robots are just as good as humans.

I also think “Muallim” shines because it’s built on layers. The outsider, the student-teacher, rejects what Irada, the female blacksmith, and the other villagers want for their children. But then, there are other people outside of the village, who reject the robot. We know these people have been there for hundreds of years and they don’t like change, but some of them do accept the robot. Azerbaijan is in a part of the world where some of the oldest civilizations began. There’s quite a contrast between old and new. Finally, I think the story stands out for characterization. I rate it a strong four stars out of five.

Año Nuevo” caressed all my science fiction zones but didn’t give me a sense-of-wonder orgasm. That might be due to me being old. I liked Nayler’s story mostly because he’s writing good old-fashioned science fiction in an era when good old-fashioned science fiction is being left behind.

“Año Nuevo” uses twin storylines to effectively evoke two classic science fiction themes: the alien that’s unlike us, and the Jesus alien. Science fiction writers have always been challenged to describe a real alien first encounter. Of course, Nayler pulls a twist on this one and a good twist at that. Where my uncertainty comes from regarding this story is with the Jesus alien.

I’m calling aliens who bring us salvation, uplift, transcendence, or special powers, the Jesus alien. Religion has always worked in that psychological territory, so it’s interesting when science fiction offers alien saviors. I remember Arthur C. Clarke covering this topic several times. It always aroused suspicion in me, but then I’m an atheist.

We’re actually given two reasons for Bo’s transformation from a surly teenager to a loving son – he’s infected by the alien, and he has sex with Aliyah, neither of which should have brought about such a dramatic personality transformation. I also thought it too melodramatically cliche that Bo was brutally beaten by Aliyah’s brothers. That plot choice hurt the story for me. It would have passed if the story had been set in Azerbaijan but not in modern America.

Nayler is a skilled writer, but I can also see the machinations in his storytelling. This is the third finalist story in the Asimov’s Reader Awards by Nayler that our Facebook group has read. Such prolific output requires a certain amount of hackwork. “Muallim” and “A Rocket for Dimitrios” felt more original than “Año Nuevo,” but all three reveal Nayler’s approach to writing science fiction. Ray Nayler knows what readers love, hopes to give them more, and is succeeding. I give this story a strong three stars.

Nayler isn’t breaking any new ground but he’s entertaining and very readable. Is there any new territory to be found in our genre anymore? That’s the trouble with being an old science fiction reader, we’ve read it all before.

JWH

1971 WSFA-Analog Poll of Best SF Short Stories by Michael T. Shoemaker

With building our database, Classics of Science Fiction, we love to find data sources from the past so we can show how science fiction novels and short stories are remembered over time. We call each source a citation. It’s much harder to find data on the popularity of short stories, so I was very happy when Ken Papai posted to Facebook about P. Schuyler Miller’s discussion of a 1971 poll on the best SF short stories of all time. The poll was featured in Miller’s column, The Reference Library in the October and November 1971 issues of Analog Science Fiction. The poll was conducted for Miller by Michael Shoemaker for the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA). Ken found this mention while reading Wikipedia.

Ken’s post inspired a web hunt for me. Miller’s two essays summarized the poll, but I wanted to see Shoemaker’s results. I went to Google but it was no help. Then I went to Fanac.org, the archive of fanzines hoping to find a fanzine from that period that printed the results. I had no luck because it has so many fanzines from 1971. Then Dave Hook in our group thought of looking up Shoemaker in ISFDB.org and found that Shoemaker had published the results in the WSFA Journal #77 for June-July 1971. I then went back to Fanac.org and found that issue to read, and the article by Shoemaker. Then Piet Nel sent me a Word document with the results taken from an SFADB page he saw long ago. Finally, I think it was Dave who found the old SFADB listing on the Wayback Machine. The SFADB listing is the easiest to read. However, I have compiled Shoemaker’s WSFA article with Miller’s two articles into a pdf if you want to read the originals.

I write about all this to show the value of the internet, and especially tools like ISFDB, SFADB, and Fanac.org. But it also shows the value of making friends on Facebook and belonging to a group devoted to reading science fiction short stories. I love these internet treasure hunts for information.

I will add this citation source to the database. It will help reflect how readers in 1971 remembered the science fiction short stories they loved. That’s why I find fascinating about this work, how novels and stories are remembered and forgotten. I’ve been thinking about getting Mike to program our system so we can show what stories were popular for any given year. Right now our results are cumulative for all citation source years. You can use the List Builder feature to show what stories were popular up to 1971, but that reflects all the citation sources through now. What I think would be cool is to pick a year, or range of years, and show what people remembered for just that time period.

Mike Shoemaker’s article shows what short stories were remembered in 1971. You can pick any single citation source now to see what short stories were remembered for the year the citation was created. But it would be cool to compare what readers in 1972 remembered versus what readers in 2022 remembered.

By the way, even if you’re not interested in how I found this poll, you might find Shoemaker’s opinion of it interesting. He was distressed that certain stories were popular, stories I love. That’s the thing about polls and meta-lists. They don’t always reflect our opinions. Shoemaker also noted that the recent Science Fiction Hall of Fame probably had a lot of impact on the voting.

Finally, one last nod to Fanac.org. It has the fanzine Lan’s Lantern #30 that ran my article that was the origin of our Classics of Science Fiction database.

James Wallace Harris, 3/27/22

Finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction

After finishing “Craphound,” I decided to go ahead and read “The Slynx” by Tatyana Tolstaya and “Baby Doll” by Johanna Sinisalo and finish The Big Book of Science Fiction. That gave me a real sense of accomplishment because The Big Book of Science Fiction is probably the largest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read War and Peace. I’m guessing TBBofSF is even longer than The Bible.

I don’t have any final assessment on this anthology. It’s just too damn big to judge as a whole. I did complain about many of the stories, but on the other hand, it has a massive amount of great science fiction too. The other day it was on sale for $2.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon, and I thought what a wonderful bargain. I wished I hadn’t owned it already so I could get in on such a deal.

“The Slynx” was a good science fiction story, about Moscow in the far future after an atomic war where people only remember “The Blast.” The story is about civilization being thrown back into the Dark Ages. People live by myths and superstitions. Mutations are common. This kind of story was very popular in the 1950s, and Wikipedia refers to them as nuclear holocaust fiction. Among my favorites are A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. What struck me most was how Tolstaya portrayed people’s thinking in this future much like how I imagined people thinking in prehistory.

I’ve read “Baby Doll” before, but I’m not sure where. I might have read it years ago when I first bought The Big Book of Science Fiction and tried a few stories from it. At the time, I never imagined I would read it from cover to cover. “Baby Doll” is a disturbing story about the near future where the main character is an eight-year-old girl who tries to be as sexualized as possible from the clues she gets from society and her peers. It came out in 2002 and imagined a near future where grade school children would emulate the dress styles, language, and behaviors they got from watching porn and adult reality shows. I can’t help but wonder how much of that is true today? Imagine if the MTV Awards show could be sent back in time to the people in the 1950s. What would they think?

My sister recently told me she tried to get her very young granddaughter to wear something less provocative to school and the kid got upset claiming her granny was slut shaming her. I doubt “Baby Doll” could be taught in a 7th grade English class, but I sure would love to hear what the students would say about it.

On the same day finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction, I also finished Star Science Fiction Stories, the first in a series edited by Frederik Pohl from 1953. That means Group Read 27 and 35 are finishing for our Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction. It also means Group Read 36, Asimov’s SF Magazine Poll Finalists for 2021 starts 21st March, and Group Read 37, Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov’s Science Fiction edited by Sheila Williams will start a few days after that. It’s a coincidence that our 36th group read will be the 36th annual readers’ awards for Asimov’s Science Fiction.

So for the next several weeks, the Facebook group will be reading and discussing SF stories from the 1980s and 1990s, and 2021. If you’re interested and use Facebook drop by. I won’t be reviewing every one of these stories here, but I’ll probably write about the ones that impress me most.

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

Improving the Internet for Researching Science Fiction

I wrote an long review of We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick for my personal blog. Normally, I would put my science fiction reviews here, but my goal is to review every book I read in 2022 at Auxiliary Memory. Go read the review if you’re interested in PKD, but what I want to do now is talk about how I researched that review. I found quite a few impressive sites devoted to Philip K. Dick, but I didn’t think Google was very good at helping me find them. I also assumed there are way more great sites out there that I’m not finding through Google.

Google is unfortunately geared at helping people sell stuff. It’s a shame it doesn’t offer us radio buttons or a pulldown menu near the search box where we could tell Google what kind of results we want. If the box “[ ] I’m Buying” isn’t checked, then don’t show us any site trying to sell us stuff. There is scholar.google.com to search, but its results come mainly from academic sites (often with content behind paywalls), and I want results from all sites. I believe search engines aren’t the solution.

Once upon a time I wanted to become a librarian, so I’m thinking of librarian type solutions. Remember the good old card catalog? I believe one way to separate the informational wheat from the chaff is to use a curated card catalog. And I believe one already exists – Wikipedia.

Here is Wikipedia’s entry for We Can Build You and the entry for Philip K. Dick. The first link in the Reference section is to the novel’s entry in ISFDB. Between those three web pages, most readers would learn about all they wanted about We Can Build You before reading it. Searching Wikipedia first was far more efficient than starting with Google.

What Do We Want From An Internet Search Tool?

  • Immediate access to the exact information we seek
  • Links to the most authoritative information
  • We want enduring sources that can be sited
  • We want accurate information
  • We want human curated information
  • We want cumulative history of the information
  • We want information organized into useful subcategories

Using my research for We Can Build You as an example, here’s what would be the ideal results, both in general, and specifically how I see Wikipedia providing it.

  1. A comprehensive history of the writing and publication of the book.
  2. A complete but concise summary of the plot with a listing of characters.
  3. A summary of the most common interpretations of the book
  4. A summary of how the book has been reviewed and judged.
  5. Links to the best online reviews/essays/academic papers
  6. Links to databases that contain information about the book
  7. Links to where I can buy/download the book
  8. Links to books/essays/academic articles about the book
  9. Bibliography of significant books/journal citations that aren’t online.

Wikipedia has already been moving in this direction. The entry for We Can Build You is a decent start. Dr. Bloodmoney has some improvements. But the entry for The Man in the High Castle gets much closer to what I’m wanting.

Google claims there are 53,800 pages with information about [“We Can Build You” by Philip K. Dick]. Just how many extensive reviews or scholarly papers on We Can Build You exist? Some might be on the 12th page of a Google results or the 153rd, or hidden behind a firewall protecting academic publications so they aren’t easily found. How many excellent articles on the book have been written? 8, 15, 172? What if human editors decided on the best 5-10 to list on the Wikipedia, especially if their full text was available online? At what point do we have enough information about any subject?

A Wikipedia entry doesn’t need to be a dissertation on the subject but it should be the start of one. It should provide all the links to start writing a dissertation.

ISFDB lists eight reviews, but not links to the actual reviews. Some of those reviews are on the internet, some are not. One of those reviews is also listed on Wikipedia but without a link, even though the full text of the magazine is available online. Read the Theodore Sturgeon’s review in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy, and it is summarized on the Wikipedia page. However, none of these links proved that useful to me, and I have to assume much better content has been written about We Can Build You in the last fifty years.

Wikipedia could link to all the academic contend behind paywalls. That would be a tremendous step forward. Better yet link to a service that would allow users to easily buy those articles with Paypal (and give Wikipedia a cut). Or if the publication was something for sale on Amazon, link to it and allow Wikipedia an affiliate cut. Here is the opening page to a book I found that has a chapter on We Can Build You that I discovered though scholar.google.com. It was on Amazon for $9.99 for the Kindle edition. The book is The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels by Umberto Rossi.

I found this first page of the introduction so exciting that I bought the book – and it has a chapter on We Can Build You. Because of my knowledge of Sheckley and PDK I know Rossi will have incredible insight. This book should have a link on Wikipedia.

All the scholarly opinions about We Can Build You would be too much for Wikipedia to summarize, but it should point to the best. That would certain be a better solution than Google. Google is finding information by machine indexing. Right now, Wikipedia is presenting information by human intelligence. I believe we need more human help in internet searches than brute force AI. Of course, AI will eventually be better than humans. Someday, an AI will write the perfect nonfiction book on any subject we request of it.

Scholar.google.com returned 47,700 results for the search [We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick]. Wikipedia could link to that search results, and it could list some of those citations that have been human verified by editors to be among the best. Wikipedia is written and edited by volunteers. New volunteers looking for something to contribute could curate the most important links.

While researching We Can Build You I found all kinds of web pages that offer useful information. At the site The World Dick Made they had user sortable listing of PKD’s novels with star ratings, giving the data written and date first published. Here are the books that get 5 and 4 star ratings. We Can Build You gets 4 stars from this site. This certainly would be a nice link for Wikipedia. The link for the novel takes us to a page with more good information, including a long list of characters within the story.

Our own citation listing shows We Can Build You wasn’t very popular on recommended lists and fan polls, but that Josh Glenn put it on the list “75 Best New Wave Sci-Fi (1964-1983) Novels.” That would be another worthy link to include at Wikipedia.

Ultimately, what we want from an internet search is knowledge. Most of us use Google to gather data so we can assemble that data into our own version of knowledge. That’s what my review ended up being. However, my take was highly idiosyncratic. Most people searching on We Can Build You would want facts. Wikipedia does a decent job now, and it’s getting better all the time. However, some researchers would want to know about or even want to read the most common idiosyncratic takes on the novel. Right now, we have to use Google to track those down but it’s very inefficient. Scholar.google is better, but still returns to many results. The right links added to Wikipedia would make it a far superior search tool.

In the future, I can picture the volunteer editors at Wikipedia adding more and more information to each entry, and it will get into helping its users find those idiosyncratic views. This will be much more efficient than Google.

Right now I have several shelves of books about science fiction and its history. If I started with the main entry for Science Fiction in Wikipedia and pulled out all the content that is linked to it, I’d have the best book ever written on the subject, with the best illustrations. All the famous SF authors and their novels have entries in Wikipedia, as well as most of their famous short stories. Wikipedia also covers the editors, book publishers, and magazines. Eventually, Wikipedia could describe every SF stories ever written, and link to where they could be bought or read online, as well as links to everything we know about them. That’s why I believe Wikipedia should become the card catalog of the internet.

Of course, the next problem is making this knowledge permanent.

James Wallace Harris, 2/11/22

The Great SF Stories 25 (1963)

Isaac Asimov died on April 6, 1992. The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) was published in July 1992 and was the last volume in the series. On the last page Greenberg let us know:

I had assumed all along that Martin H. Greenberg (who died June 25, 2011) had been doing most of the editorial work for The Great SF Stories series, but felt that hunch confirmed when Isaac Asimov’s introductory comments went missing from volumes 24 and 25. I’ve now read volumes 1-18 and 25. I love this series. I read volume 25 out of order because my short story discussion group voted to group read it after Christmas.

This series has always been unique because Asimov and Greenberg were reevaluating the best stories of the year with many decades of hindsight. Here are the stories they picked as the best of 1963 from 1992:

Back in 1964, Judith Merril picked these stories as her favorites for 1963:

For some reason, Merril included “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” in her 10th Annual in 1965.

In 2022 the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list remembers 41 titles from 1963 in its database, but here are the stories that got at least two citations. 1963 wasn’t a remarkable year, especially since it takes eight citations to get on the final list. Meaning, only “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is really remembered today.

After all these years, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is the obvious best SF story for 1963, and the one most remembered. Most science fiction fans discover it today in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame v1. “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To” is another favorite, but it’s mostly forgotten in 2022, as is “New Folks’ Home.” “No Truce With Kings” won the Hugo for short fiction that year but I just don’t think it holds up or is remembered, even though the ideas within it are interesting. The more remembered Poul Anderson story should be “The Man Who Came Early.” The surprise story is “Turn Off the Sky” by Ray Nelson, however, it will probably only appeal to fans of the Beat writers.

I doubt many of these stories will get reprinted in the future. It’s a shame that The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) hasn’t stayed in print. They are becoming collector items and can be a bit expensive to collect. Scans were available on the internet, but they’ve been taken down from the obvious places.

Below are my stories notes for the group discussion:

Story 01 of 13 – “Fortress Ship” by Fred Saberhagen
If Magazine (January 1963)
Retitled for collections as “Without a Thought”
1st story in the Berserker series

In not a very auspicious beginning to the Berserker series, “Fortress Ship” introduces us to the idea of alien intelligent robotic spaceships programmed to destroy all life in the galaxy — a doomsday weapon. This story was interesting because it proposed programming a game of checkers with boxes of colored beads and a set of cards for specific moves. The first computer checker game was in 1952. I wonder if Saberhagen knew about computers? The Berserker series is about AI minds, but I don’t know if that concept was known in 1963.

In “Fortress Ship” a Berserker ship the size of New Jersey is destroyed by three small human spaceships. I haven’t read the series, but I bet Saberhagen made it more difficult in later stories. Berserker minds understand human minds and can use our languages. I’ve read on Wikipedia that other alien species also fight the Berserkers. I’d like to read more in this series.

Rating: ***


Story 02 of 13 – “Not in the Literature” by Christopher Anvil
Analog (March 1963)

Anvil imagines a world where people haven’t discovered electricity but are still trying to orbit a satellite. Not sure if the story takes place on an alternative history Earth or on another planet. But at the beginning of the story, the attack of a wasp-like creature called a drill on Alarik Kade suggested another world to me. On first reading, I thought the drill was some kind of assassin’s drone device. Rereading it makes me think it was only some kind of insect. That means it could be an alternate Earth story I suppose, where a wasp is called a drill.

I found the whole beginning of the story odd. It was a kind of slapstick physical comedy. It doesn’t match the tone in the second part of the story.

I assume Asimov and Greenberg liked this one because of the chemical-engineered world that couldn’t conceive of electricity. And that’s a neat idea. Especially trying to imagine how they could build a rocket with telemetry without electricity. On the other hand, the storytelling was disjointed at best.

Rating: ***+


Story 03 of 13 – “The Totally Rich” – John Brunner
Wor

The setup for “The Totally Rich” reminded me slightly of “Vintage Season” or “Sailing to Byzantium” with Brunner imagining a class of rich people who live undetected by us ordinary folks. It reminded me of those classic stories because of the elite vacationers in time, and the elite far future citizens who party at one recreated city after another, are like the elite rich in this story, who can have nearly anything they want.

Derek Cooper is tricked by Naomi, one of the elusive rich in Brunner’s story. She’s had a whole picturesque village built with actors playing all the citizens just to fool Derek into working for her. That’s the power of her wealth. But she wants something impossible, something her money can’t even buy. She hopes Derek, given enough time and money can invent what she needs.

This is a great setup for a science fiction story. I thought it was going to be at least a 4-star story. But then, Brunner doesn’t satisfy my expectations, leaving me with a 3-star story.

I tend to think it would have taken a full novel to play out the idea Brunner began, and he didn’t want to do that. The quick tragic ending just didn’t work for me.

Rating: ***+


Story 04 of 13 – “No Truce With Kings” – Poul Anderson
F&SF (June 1963) (Hugo Award – Best Short Fiction)

I was really looking forward to reading “No Truce With Kings” after enjoying Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” so much a couple weeks ago. Plus, Kings had won a Hugo, even though I find it impossible to believe it beat “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”

Unfortunately, my expectations were misplaced. “No Truce with Kings” is too long, too muddled, and just too damn political. Did Poul Anderson really believe humans were better off living under feudal societies? Did he really want to downsize the government that much?

I thought “No Truce With Kings” was murky because I never could picture the battles, or even know which side to sympathize with. I wanted to side with the aliens, the nation builders, and even the feudalists.

If anything, this story made me feel humans are too stupid to deserve to survive. It glorifies war in the worst ways.

On the other hand, there’s lots of good writing in this story.

Rating: ***


Story 05 of 13 – “New Folks’ Home” – Clifford D. Simak
Analog (July 1963)

“New Folks’ Home” is a lovely little tale that reminds me of WAY STATION, another Simak story about a human serving as a contact on Earth for an alien interstellar community. I identified with Frederick Gray because I’m seventy. It’s interesting that Simak was only 59 when he wrote this story. I guess it was his fantasy for old age.

Rating: ****+


Story 06 of 13 – “The Faces Outside” – Bruce McAllister
If (July 1963)

Odd story about humans kept in a giant aquarium. As I read it I thought it would be a story that would fit in the VanderMeer anthology. Then I noticed that Merril had included it in her 9th Annual, which reinforces that thought. Not my cuppa tea.

Rating: ***


Story 07 of 13 – “Hot Planet” – Hal Clement
Galaxy (August 1963)

“Hot Planet” by Hal Clement reminded me of “Brightside Crossing” by Alan E. Nourse, another hard SF story about surviving on Mercury. Both stories have been invalidated by time and newer science, but both still present good old fashion science fiction adventure.

What was significant about “Hot Planet” was Clement’s use of women scientists.

Rating: ***+


Story 08 of 13 – “The Pain Peddlers” – Robert Silverberg
Galaxy (August 1963) (2nd story from this issue)

Silverberg’s writing in “The Pain Peddlers” is what I consider great hack writing. He’s obviously mastered the technique of writing short stories for the pulp/digest markets. This isn’t a great story, but it’s very readable and competently entertaining, and a solid addition to the magazine, even a worthy entry for an anthology, but to be honest, not one that will be remembered.

Rating: ***+


Story 09 of 13 – “Turn Off the Sky” – Ray Nelson
F&SF (August 1963)

Wikipedia says Nelson was the guy who invented the propeller beany as a symbol for science fiction fans. It also says he gave LSD to Philip K. Dick. The F&SF intro said he was working on a book about beatniks in Chicago. I’d like to read that.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Nelson_(author)

“Turn Off the Sky” was quite an interesting read, especially if it was written four years before it was published. Mainly for the satire on radicals and beatniks. It appears to be pro-capitalist, but I’m not sure. I thought it funny with its quip about arguing over Marx and Robert Heinlein.

The story was readable and fun, but it was more impressive in its dealing with the 1950s subculture, especially, anticipating a lot of stuff that happened in the 1960s counter-culture. It even has a sitar being played years before George Harrison made it famous.

Rating: ****


Story 10 of 13 – “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” by Alfred Bester
F&SF (October 1963)

Linda Nielsen thinks she’s the last person on Earth. Like Ralph Burton, played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL, Linda is fixing up her apartment by taking whatever she wants from a deserted New York City. I mention this movie because it’s a favorite movie and I pictured it as I read “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To.” I love the last person on Earth stories. My all-time favorite novel is this type is EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart.

However, I’ve always thought it would be neat if the last person on Earth was actually the last person, but in these stories, someone else always shows up. In the movie, it was Sarah Crandall, played by Ingar Stevens. Since Bester describes Linda as Nordic, I wondered if he saw the movie with the Nordic Stevens and decided to just start with a blonde. Also, in the last people on Earth stories, the second person is generally of the opposite sex, so the plot develops sexual tension. In a number of these stories, a third person shows up. Usually, it’s two males fighting over one female. Another movie example of this is THE QUIET EARTH (1985).

Bester brings about an interesting twist in the end that finally convinces Jim Mayo and Linda Nielsen to get it on. This satisfies us readers who have been waiting for that action, but it wraps up the story too quickly, at least for me.

Rating: ****+

However, the ending reminds me of another last Adam and Eve story, “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne. It’s in THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN. Read it here:

http://baencd.freedoors.org/…/The…/0743498747__17.htm


Story 11 of 13 – “Bernie the Faust” – William Tenn
Playboy (November 1963)

“Bernie the Faust” captures a certain time and place in New York City that I’ve only learned about indirectly from plays, movies, and books. It reminds me of stories about Seventh Avenue such as I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, and makes me wonder if Willian Tenn was intentionally trying to create Jewish humor science fiction?

“Bernie the Faust” has a kind of funniness that needs to be acted out in a play or episode of the old TWILIGHT ZONE, or at least heard in an audiobook.

Rating: ***+

My favorite book by Tenn is OF MEN AND MONSTERS, which isn’t humorous. It’s a wonderful adventure tale that if you haven’t read, please don’t read about, not even the blurbs on the book cover. Everyone gives too much away.


Story 12 of 13 – “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny
F&SF (November 1963)

I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve read “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” over the past fifty years. I wish I could find the words to explain how much I admire this tale. This time as I read the story, I was noticing how effective Zelazny was using short and medium-length sentences to convey information but imply a great deal more. My own prose is too verbose. Zelazny isn’t Shakespeare, or even particularly literary, but he moves the story along without wasting words.

Rating: *****


Story 13 of 13 – “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” – Philip K. Dick
Galaxy (December 1963)

As I read this story, I marveled that Philip K. Dick even imagined this story. What a creative mind. Earth has been through an atomic war. Human colonists from Mars have returned to rebuild civilization, but their work is interrupted by another faction of human colonists from Proxima Centauri returning to Earth to rebuild civilization. There is political strife between the two groups. A neat invention in this story is a kind of AI that produces The New York Times. It seems to know everything going on in the world and influences the rebuilding of civilization.

Rating: ****+

James Wallace Harris, 1/20/22