“The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald


“The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald is the 3rd story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. This 2005 novella is part of McDonald’s India 2047 series, which features his award-winning novel, River of Gods from 2004. “The Little Goddess” is included in McDonald’s collection Cyberabad Days (2009).

When I started reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best one at a time, I only had a vague idea of why. I thought it would teach me about reviewing short stories, but I also thought it would teach me about the current state of writing science fiction. I’ve wanted to write science fiction ever since I started reading it in the 1960s. I took a creative writing class in high school, and then later took more classes in college. In 2002, when I was 51, I got up the money and used six weeks of saved vacation time to attend Clarion West. I wrote a lot of bad stories and read stacks of stories by other would-be writers. I could sense the difference between a professional story and an amateur effort, but I couldn’t define those differences or recreate them.

Last year I started binging on classic science fiction short stories. At the beginning of this year, I started binging science fiction stories from current science fiction magazines. I’m still struggling to discern what makes a good story. I’ve finished reading four stories so far in The Very Best of the Best and it’s obvious they’re magnitudes better than the average story I’m reading in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld. And those stories are magnitudes better than the stories I read in fiction writing workshops.

Back in Clarion West, we were told, I think by John Crowley, “That great writing is the accumulation of significant details.” And that’s what I see when I compare workshop stories, average published stories, classic SF, and the stories in this anthology. The four stories I’ve read so far are dense with significant details. By the way, Gardner Dozois was one of our weekly instructors as Clarion West in 2002. I wish I could remember everything he said. Now his last anthology is going to be my new writing workshop. I figure it will take me six weeks to finish this project, about the length of my stay at Clarion West.

Like the previous story I discussed, “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross, Ian McDonald’s story is also set in the near future where nanotechnology and AI have transformed our societies. “The Little Goddess” blends a disruptive post-cyberpunk future with ancient and modern cultures of India. In our current era of cultural appropriation brouhahas, I have to wonder why McDonald chose India for his science fictional setting. The story is a wonderful clash of modern dazzle-tech and ancient exotica, as its characters struggle to preserve modern myths in times of rampant future shock.

In 2019 I’m reading a British man’s 2005 view of future India. I could be reading writers from India imagining their own future. Of course, any anyone writing historical fiction would have to do the same kind of research to tell a story set in another culture. As an old guy (67) who grew up loving 1950s and 1960s science fiction, I’ve seen the genre go through many transformations. I can’t help but feel that recent decades are a baroque period where stories get longer and more ornamented with extra details. Back in the 1960s, Roger Zelazny started writing science fiction stories set in other cultures. Over the decades, science fiction has slowly become less Amerian-British. Anglo-American writers began setting their stories around the world, while concurrently and rather slowly science fiction writers from around the world have begun sending us their SF stories. What we’re learning is every country has writers thinking about the future, as well as writers who want to use their cultural heritage to flavor science fiction stories.

What it comes down to is science fiction is diversifying culturally yet still tells the same kind of stories. In every country, writers see their society being transformed by technology. We’re all rushing into a future that looks optimistic and depressing at the same time. Nearly all science fiction writers working the near future territory see AI, nanotechnology, networks, Big Data, robots, genetic engineering, computers, 3D printing, GPS, smartphones, etc. chewing up the social landscape.

By Nirmal Dulal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14711984The question I keep asking is: Are these science fiction stories prophetic? For example, in “The Little Goddess” our first-person narrator, who begins the story by becoming a Kumari, at another point becomes a mule for AI smugglers. They embed tiny AI in her head, so while she’s smuggling the AI she experiences being a part of multiple minds. Is this just a razzle-dazzle futuristic fantasy thriller, or should we expect that kind of technology sometime soon? 2047 is only 28 years away, which is only as far as 1991 in our past. What science fiction writers like Ian McDonald and Charles Stross are trying to do is gauge the amount of future change by the amount of change we’ve already experienced. I’m old enough to remember 28 years times 2, which would be 1963, and I can readily confirm I’ve experienced a great deal of future shock in my life.

Science fiction does not have to be scientifically accurate, or possible, but that is something I do admire in science fiction. What always comes first is storytelling. And in these stories in The Very Best of the Best, the storytelling is excellent. Gardner Dozois should know, he’s read many thousands of stories. In the 35 years, he anthologized over a thousand stories just for his annual best-of anthology series. And the best of those best were distilled down into three anthologies, which The Very Best of the Best is the last.

“The Little Goddess” is one of 38 stories that Gardner Dozois thought were the best short science fiction to be published from 2002 to 2017. Anyone who wants to write science fiction should read The Very Best of the Best. What I’m doing in these reviews, is trying to figure out how I could write such science fiction too.

You have no name. You are Taleju, you are Kumari. You are the goddess. 

These instructions my two Kumarimas whispered to me as we walked between kneeling priests to the King in his plumed crown of diamonds and emeralds and pearls. The King namasted and we sat side by side on lion thrones and long hall throbbed to the bells and drums of Durbar Square. I remember thinking that a King must bow to me but there are rules even for goddesses.

Why does Ian McDonald begin his science fiction story by choosing a prepubescent girl who has been chosen to be a goddess in an obscure sect in India? That sounds like the beginning of a fantasy tale. Why does Eleanor Arnason create a fur-covered alien living in a primitive homosexual society on a distant world for her main character in “The Potter of Bones” or Charles Stross create an antagonist in “Rogue Farm” that’s a roving farm made from eight post-humans? Is the key to a classic SF story a highly unique character? “The Little Goddess” is a long story, a novella, and it doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s all detailed texture. This was also true for “The Potter of Bones.”

I am both reading and listening to these stories. I believe great writing shines when heard aloud read by a great narrator. I wish you could hear:

Smiling Kumarima and Tall Kumarima. I draw Tall Kumarima in my memory first, for it is right to give pre-eminence to age. She was almost as tall as a Westerner and thin as a stick in a drought. At first I was scared of her. Then I heard her voice and could never be scared of her again; her voice was kind as a singing bird. When she spoke you felt you now knew everything. Tall Kumarima lived in a small apartment above a tourist shop on the edge of Durbar Square. From her window she could see my Kumari Ghar, among the stepped towers of the dhokas. Her husband had died of lung cancer from pollution and cheap Indian cigarettes. Her two tall sons were grown and married with children of their own, older than me. In that time she had mothered five Kumari Devis before me. 

Now I remember Smiling Kumarima. She was short and round and had breathing problems for which she used inhalers, blue and brown. I would hear the snake hiss of them on days when Durbar Square was golden with smog. She lived out in the new suburbs up on the western hills, a long journey even by the royal car at her service. Her children were twelve, ten, nine and seven. She was jolly and treated me like her fifth baby, the young favourite, but I felt even then that, like the demon-dancing-men, she was scared of me. Oh, it was the highest honour any woman could hope for, to be the mother of the goddess—so to speak—though you wouldn’t think it to hear her neighbours in the unit, shutting yourself away in that dreadful wooden box, and all the blood, medieval, medieval, but they couldn’t understand. Somebody had to keep the King safe against those who would turn us into another India, or worse, China; someone had to preserve the old ways of the divine kingdom. I understood early that difference between them. Smiling Kumarima was my mother out of duty. Tall Kumarima from love.

I’m not sure if I could ever imagine all those details. Vivienne Leheny who reads the audio for this story conveys these words in a way my mind could never read on its own. By hearing these words read while looking at them on my iPad screen I realize both the personal details I’d have to invent and the voice of the character I’d have to create. This is a daunting challenge. McDonald keeps this up for over two hours, the length of a movie.

Reviewing the first two stories showed me the value of world-building in writing a science fiction story. “The Little Goddess” illustrates the value of voice and character. This project is evolving as I write. It’s becoming rewarding in ways I didn’t foresee. I hope I can finish it because it should offer me countless lessons that I can’t imagine at this early stage.

James Wallace Harris, March 2, 2019



“Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross

Rogue Farm by Charles Stross

Stories by Charles Stross often have a gonzo-tech view of the future. The illustration above shows a farmer with a semi-automatic shotgun and his wife in a battle-suit defending the farm they are squatting on against a roving “farm” that is a collective of post-humans hoping to leave Earth for Jupiter. “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross is the second story in Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best, an anthology of short science fiction published from 2002-2017.

Yesterday I began my contemplation of writing science fiction by reviewing the first story, “The Potter of Bones.” My conclusion was great science fiction requires a richness of world-building. In “Rogue Farm” Charles Stross looks into the near future, after the technological singularity, to see our lives transformed. The fictional world Stross builds is our current society in savage decline as it metamorphizes into a new society infected by intelligent machines. There’s a civil war between humans and post-humans, and readers aren’t sure which side to take.

Stross accepts the inevitability of technological singularity, feeling sorry for the vanquished, but not condemning the usurpers. The rogue farm of the story is a 21st-century Frankenstein we feel sympathy for while rooting for the farmer who wants to destroy it. “Rogue Farm” is a much more successful story than “The Potter of Bones” being reprinted at least 7 times, performed for Escape Pod and made into a short film.

By all the yardsticks but one, I believe “Rogue Farm” should be measured as excellent short science fiction. It’s well written, it’s cutting edge science fiction, it’s entertaining, it has a high density of science fictional ideas, it’s very damn creative, and it’s delightfully weird, a modern-day Alice in Wonderland. My only criticism is I disagree with Stross on how the technological singularity will unfold in the future. I don’t doubt we’ll have sentient machines, but I do doubt we’ll ever have a brain-machine interface that will allow us to integrate with machines like Stross imagines.

My personal speculation is humans will be left behind. We will not be uplifted by becoming cyborgs or transformed by nanobots, or re-engineered by gene manipulation into post-human greatly different from what we are now, or have our minds downloaded into clones, robots or virtual realities. Maybe this is Luddite thinking on my part, but I don’t think there is any science to support digitizing our soul.

Some readers will believe that Stross is extrapolating a possible future, but I don’t. That means I have to accept “Rogue Farm” as a clever fantasy, and not science fiction. I know I have a rather extreme and strict definition of science fiction that doesn’t jive with commonly accepted definitions. And if I’m wrong and science can create a mind-machine interface between cell and circuit, this story will fit my definition.

Since “Rogue Farm” is in an anthology of science fiction short stories labeled the very best of the best, I have to assume its state-of-the-art science fiction. And I believe that’s perfectly true by the common definition of science fiction. But by my definition, I assume writers and readers of science fiction are playing a very precise game. The goal of this game is to speculate about the future using extrapolation based on all the science we currently know.

Science fiction makes assumptions that are often disproven. H. G. Wells theorized that we could time travel by suggesting time was just the fourth dimension. We have learned a lot more about the nature of time since then, and time travel is probably impossible. Science fiction writers have been imagining faster-than-light travel for about a century, even though Einstein disproved it before they started.

I think the future intelligence of computers is almost unlimited. And I believe Homo sapiens can be intentionally improved and redesigned. I just don’t think our minds can be transferred to machines, or even interfaced with them. I believe our bodies can be supplemented with machines, but I just can’t see how my thoughts can be augmented by digital minds. Like I said, I could be wrong, so science fiction is the perfect place to speculate about the possibilities. We can make muscle-machine interfaces, and we can make the pattern recognition abilities of our current physical senses interface with electronic devices, and we’re even working on brain scanning technology that can carefully discern the activity of our brains, but I just can’t see how we’re going to bridge that last mile between chemical thoughts and digital thoughts.

Of course, isn’t this the exact territory of the science fiction event horizon? The science fiction stories I fantasize writing deal with this exact issue. And maybe that’s why I’m skeptical of the world-building of Charles Stross – I would just build it somewhat differently.

James Wallace Harris, March 1, 2019

“The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason


The first story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois is “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. It originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction from 2002. This story is part of Arnason’s Hwarhath series of tales about a planet of intelligent fur-covered beings where homosexuality is the norm for relationships and heterosexuality is used for procreation. Eleanor Arnason stories explore the themes of art, anthropology, sociology, sexuality, and feminism by creating science fiction stories that feel like folk tales and allegories. The narrator of “The Potter of Bones” is from the planet’s present time, and she is telling stories that come down from early history, that could be closer to myths.

The heroine of this story is Tulwar Haik. Tulwar is a clan name, so her personal name is Haik. She has become a legendary figure on this alien planet. Haik was a potter who loved finding fossils and is known on her world for developing the theory of evolution. Haik’s story recapitulates Darwin’s discoveries on Earth. “The Potter of Bones” uses a richly drawn fantasy about aliens that sound human but look like furry animals to comment on human society, especially about gender and race.

Is this story science fiction? Eleanor Arnason’s stories often remind me of stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. They’re set on other worlds, which makes them science fiction, but they often feel like folk tales, which makes me think they’re fantasy. Their stories are intensely sociological and often come across as fables for grown-ups.

I am listening to The Very Best of the Best while thinking about the nature of science fiction and how it is written. Being the lead story in a collection of science fiction that claims to be the very best of the best, suggests that Gardner Dozois must have loved “The Potter of Bones” very much. He bought it for Asimov’s when he was the editor there, included it in his annual best-of collections for America and Great Britain and reprints it again here. I had read “The Potter of Bones” when it came out because I like Arnason’s stories about Hwarhath. I found it a compelling read, especially now that I got to listen to it, and thoroughly enjoyed the story, but to be honest, it’s not my kind of science fiction.

How can “The Potter of Bones” be science fiction that entertained me a great deal and not be my kind of science fiction? And how many kinds of science fiction are there? See, that’s why I want to review the stories in The Very Best of the Best. I’ve listened to the first three stories since yesterday (and two are novellas) and even though each is dazzling in their own way, none of them were my kind of science fiction.

I’ve always wanted to write science fiction. And I’ve tried. I’ve even attended Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, but my stories were never any good. I’m reading and listening to this anthology very closely to study what makes science fiction tick. “The Potter of Bones” stands out for its worldbuilding. Arnason has been writing Hwarhath stories since 1993. They were collected into Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens in 2016. I generally disliked science fiction series because my favorite aspect of science fiction is its ideas, so stories that constantly recycle its world-building ideas seem less impressive with each successive story.

However, I’m discovering why writers love writing stories in a series. It takes a tremendous mental effort to create new worlds for science fiction. The reason why the Harry Potter stories are the most successful on the planet today is that J. K. Rowling imagined such an incredibly detailed fictional world. Starting from scratch every time you sit down to write a story would give each story a costly overhead. If the writer can assume their readers already understand how the fictional world works they can get down to the storytelling quicker.

Reading the stories in The Very Best of the Best perfectly illustrates the importance of world-building to writing science fiction and fantasy. It often explains why stories get rated 5-stars at Rocket Stack Rank. It also tells me that if I want to write science fiction I’ve got to up the information density of my fiction to include an abundance of imagined details. Here’s the opening for “The Potter of Bones”:

The northeast coast of the Great Southern Continent is hilly and full of inlets. These make good harbors, their waters deep and protected from the wind by steep slopes and grey stone cliffs. Dark forests top the hills. Pebble beaches edge the harbors. There are many little towns. 

The climate would be tropical, except for a polar current which runs along the coast, bringing fish and rain. The local families prosper through fishing and the rich, semi-tropical forests that grow inland. Blackwood grows there, and iridescent greywood, as well as lovely ornamentals: night-blooming starflower, day-blooming skyflower and the matriarch of trees, crown-of-fire. The first two species are cut for lumber. The last three are gathered as saplings, potted and shipped to distant ports, where affluent families buy them for their courtyards. 

Nowadays, of course, it’s possible to raise the saplings in glass houses anywhere on the planet. But most folk still prefer trees gathered in their native forests. A plant grows better, if it’s been pollinated naturally by the fabulous flying bugs of the south, watered by the misty coastal rains and dug up by a forester who’s the heir to generations of diggers and potters. The most successful brands have names like “Coastal Rain” and emblems suggesting their authenticity: a forester holding a trowel, a night bug with broad furry wings floating over blossoms.

Can you even count every detail that Arnason thought up as she typed those sentences? And don’t confuse the technical term “world-building” used in science fiction to mean just describing how a fictionalized world works. In the next story in this anthology, Charles Stross describes Earth just a few decades into the future and it is overflowing with strangely different details, each of which had to be imagined by Stross. World-building can include any detail that paints the science fiction or fantasy of a story. Here’s how we learn that Haik got into fossils:

The young Tulwar, her playmates, found the topic boring. Who could possibly care about shells made of stone? “They don’t shimmer like living shells, and there’s nothing edible in them. Think about living shellfish, Haik! Or fish! Or trees like the ones that support our family!” 

If her kin could not answer her questions, she’d find answers herself. Haik continued her study. She was helped by the fact that the strata along the northeast coast had not buckled or been folded over. Top was new. Bottom was old. She could trace the history of the region’s life by climbing up. 

At first, she didn’t realize this. Instead, she got a hammer and began to break out fossils, taking them to one of the town’s many empty houses. There, through trial and error, she learned to clean the fossils and to open them. “Unfolding with a hammer,” she called the process. 

Nowadays we discourage this kind of ignorant experimentation, especially at important sites. Remember this story takes place in the distant past. There was no one on the planet able to teach Haik; and the fossils she destroyed would have been destroyed by erosion long before the science of paleontology came into existence. 

She began by collecting shells, laying them out on the tables left behind when the house was abandoned. Imagine her in a shadowy room, light slanting through the shutters. The floor is thick with dust. The paintings on the walls, fish and flowering trees, are peeling. Haik—a thin red adolescent in a tunic—bends over her shells, arranging them. She has discovered one of the great pleasures of intelligent life: organization or (as we call it now) taxonomy. 

This was not her invention. All people organize information. But most people organize information for which they can see an obvious use: varieties of fish and their habits, for example. Haik had discovered the pleasure of knowledge that has no evident use. Maybe, in the shadows, you should imagine an old woman with white fur, dressed in a roughly woven tunic. Her feet are bare and caked with dirt. She watches Haik with amusement. 

In time, Haik noticed there was a pattern to where she found her shells. The ones on the cliff tops were familiar. She could find similar or identical shells washed up on the Tulwar beaches. But as she descended, the creatures in the stone became increasingly strange. Also, and this puzzled her, certain strata were full of bones that obviously belonged to land animals. Had the ocean advanced, then retreated, then advanced again? How old were these objects? How much time had passed since they were alive, if they had ever been alive? Some of her senior kin believed they were mineral formations that bore an odd resemblance to the remains of animals. “The world is full of repetition and similarity,” they told Haik, “evidence the Goddess has little interest in originality.”

Now part of this world-building is character development. Notice how Arnason brings in human history to weave her story. Arnason needs to know geology and archeology to sculpt her theme. And taxonomy played a very important part in Darwin’s discovery of evolution.

“The Potter of Bones,” tells several stories about Haik. I won’t quote them all, but Haik has to become a potter. Eventually, she becomes a lover of a traveling actress, Dapple. Haik has children, which Arnason uses to explain mating customs. And Haik grows old. “The Potter of Bones” gathers the legends about Haik and Dapple that the narrator uses to understand their planet’s history, which lets Arnason comment on how we know what we know about our past. “The Potter of Bones” is also about the different forms of communicating history and story.

Eleanor Arnason uses her stories about furry aliens to analyze human society. Does that mean a good science fiction writer must also be a philosopher and cultural observer? If I just consider the three stories I’ve read so far in this anthology, then the answer is a definite yes.

I’ve always judged science fiction by the validity of its speculation about future technology or if extrapolated trends will actually unfold. With Arnason and writers like Le Guin, should I wonder if their imagined aliens and alien societies could possibly exist? Ultimately, isn’t the world-building in “The Potter of Bones” more akin to Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement or Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward than to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy?

Or, is Arnason’s world-building more like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, not meant to be speculation at all, but a deeply adult fairy tale? Gardner Dozois calls “The Potter of Bones” science fiction. The story is about geology, fossils, evolution, classification, taxonomy, so there is a lot of science in it. Of course, it could be a fantasy that uses science rather than magic as its unifying theme.

My kind of science fiction are stories that speculate and extrapolate about the future. There are all kinds of science fiction, and I read all kinds. But the kind I love most is the science fiction that teaches me about the future in the same way history helps me model the past. “The Potter of Bones” is not that kind of science fiction. Of course, it might be science fiction that teaches us about who we are now.

Recommended Reading

James Wallace Harris, 2/28/19




The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois


Yesterday Santa Claus came to visit me in February. Since 2002 when I joined Audible.com, I’ve wished for an audiobook edition of one of Gardner Dozois giant Year’s Best Science Fiction annuals. Sadly, Dozois died last May and none of the 35 volumes were ever produced on audio. But before he died, he created The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and it’s out in hardcover, ebook and audiobook editions.

Unfortunately, the subtitle to this volume is flat out wrong. It only collects the best stories from 2002-2017, but that’s because Dozois had already published The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction back in 2005 and The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels in 2007. I had hoped this new volume would have been Dozois legacy collection reflecting the full 35 years. But be that as it may, it’s still a giant collection of great science fiction and over 39 hours of science fiction short stories on audio, which is something I love. Vivienne Leheny and Will Damron do a fantastic job of narrating these stories, and my new wish is for someone to hire them to create audiobook editions of the earlier volumes.

Last year the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame came out on audio. That means I can listen to some of the most remembered science fiction short stories from 1926-1964. This is why I had hoped this new audiobook would have given me the best short science fiction from 1984-2017 to listen to, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not complaining. This new book is great in both quality and quantity, and I’m quite appreciative of all the wonderful stories I’m getting to hear for the first time. I’m just greedy and want more. I want audiobook publishers to produce more anthologies of great short science fiction, and I’m now particularly anxious to hear the best short fiction from 1965-2001.

And, there’s even another problem for me, other readers, editors, and publishers. No one reader, no matter how experienced, can identify all the best stories for all readers. Tastes just vary too much. If you look at our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories by Year list, which has the citations listed for each story, you can see which stories Gardner picked as his favorite, and which ones he didn’t. Or if you use our CSF Query program to look at stories for 2002-2017 you’ll see only one story Gardner picked for The Very Best of the Best on our list.

The 38 stories from The Very Best of the Best covering 2002-2017 with links to my reviews are:

  • The Potter of Bones by Eleanor Arnason
  • Rogue Farm by Charles Stross
  • The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald
  • Dead Men Walking by Paul McAuley
  • Tin Marsh by Michael Swanwick
  • Good Mountain by Robert Reed
  • Where the Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker
  • The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter by Alastair Reynolds
  • Glory by Greg Egan
  • Finisterra by David Moles
  • The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm by Daryl Gregory
  • Utrinsque Cosmi by Robert Charles Wilson
  • Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance by John Kessel
  • Useless Things by Maureen McHugh
  • Mongoose by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
  • Hair by Adam Roberts
  • The Things by Peter Watts
  • The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele
  • Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain by Yoon Ha Lee
  • Martian Heart by John Barnes
  • The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter
  • Weep For Day by Indrapramit Das
  • The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi by Pat Cadigan
  • The Memcordist by Lavie Tidhar
  • The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn
  • The Discovered Country by Ian R. MacLeod
  • Pathways by Nancy Kress
  • The Hand Is Quicker… by Elizabeth Bear
  • Someday by James Patrick Kelly
  • The Long Haul, From the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009 by Ken Liu
  • Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight by Aliette De Bodard
  • Calved by Sam J. Miller
  • Emergence by Gwyneth Jones
  • Rates of Change by James S.A. Corey
  • Jonas and the Fox by Rich Larson
  • KIT: Some Assembly Required by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz
  • Winter Timeshare by Ray Nayler
  • My English Name by R.S. Benedict

Our meta-list system recognized 37 stories from the same period:

  • Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge
  • The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford
  • The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker
  • Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
  • The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe
  • Little Faces by Vonda N. McIntyre
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
  • The Calorie Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald
  • The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum
  • Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang
  • 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson
  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  • The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner
  • Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky
  • Spar by Kij Johnson
  • The Island by Peter Watts
  • The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky
  • The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • The Things by Peter Watts
  • Under the Moons of Venus by Damien Broderick
  • The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson
  • The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
  • Close Encounters by Andy Duncan
  • Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald
  • The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link
  • Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar
  • The Visitor from Taured by Ian R. MacLeod
  • Things with Beards by Sam J. Miller
  • Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata
  • The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer

Practically no overlap. Why? If The Very Best of the Best is actually what it says it is, why don’t we see more overlap with the stories our system identified by means of tracking popularity? An easy answer is there’s a lot of great SF short stories, more than enough for every editor to pick different favorites. But what if there are other motives besides claimed quality that go into selecting a story for a best-of anthology?

For example, the first story in The Very Best of the Best is “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. It’s a beautiful tale that was nominated for a Nebula but has only been reprinted in anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois or Arnason’s own collection. I don’t know if Gardner intentionally selected stories that hadn’t been reprinted often, or if Gardner has a very unique taste in science fiction. My guess, it’s a little of both. An honest title for this collection might be Gardner Dozois’ Favorite Science Fiction from 2002-2017 That He Believes Deserves More Attention.

On the other hand, the second story “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross, has been included in at least seven anthologies. That seems to disqualify my theory, but I’m not sure.

A troublesome paradigm shift is going on in publishing short science fiction right now. The short stories that get the most attention, especially for awards, are those that are published online where people can read them for free. And it’s becoming more common for online publishers to include both a text and an audio edition. Free online stories compete for readers with stories that are published in magazines or original anthologies behind another kind of paywall. The old print magazines, Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF have dwindling readerships. The prestige of getting published used to be seeing your work in print. But I wonder if short story writers now prefer online publications because they get more readers.

I could speculate endlessly about what are the best SF short stories or how they are identified by editors and discovered by readers, but the bottom line is I’m very happy with The Very Best of the Best. I hope thousands of SF fans buy and listen to it because that should encourage audiobook publishers to produce more SF anthologies on audio. But if you don’t like audiobooks, there are print and ebook editions.

Finally, there are two tributes to Gardner by Robert Silverberg and James Patrick Kelly that I want to recommend. They just appeared in the new issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction but are available to read online. I got to study with Gardner when he spent a week as our resident instructor for the Clarion West workshop I took in 2002. He was a man I will remember and I’ll always be grateful for his encouragement and writing lessons.

James Wallace Harris, February 27, 2019

What Are The Magic Ingredients That Make Me Love a Short Story?


On Monday, my friend Mike told me to read “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” by Bud Sparhawk in the Jan-Feb 2019 issue of Analog. Three days later I’m still thinking about it. Mike warned me that Rocket Stack Rank (RSR) had not liked it. I read the story and found it moving. I assumed RSR had only given it 3-stars, but when I checked, “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” had just 1-star.

What were the magic ingredients in “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” that made Mike and I resonate with the story but were missed by Rocket Stack Rank? My routine way of selecting the latest short science fiction to read is to check RSR and go after the 5-star stories. This means I wouldn’t have read “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” on my own. I’m grateful to Mike recommended the story because the story worked on me and pushed my emotional buttons.

Several reviewers have dismissed this story as sentimental. Are Mike and I emotional saps who are suckers for stories that make our eyes water? I don’t know about Mike, but I am. Does that make “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” a 5-star story in my heart? Well, not quite.

I don’t want to rate stories, but I do want to promote them. Let’s face it, the short story is a dying art form, but one I admire. To be upfront and honest, I want you to buy science fiction magazines and read more short stories because I want the market to thrive and not go extinct. But what’s the best way to do this? Rocket Stack Rank has its system which I use and recommend, but it’s not perfect. If you learn their system I believe it’s reliable for rating stories by its standards.

However, if you don’t normally read science fiction short stories, you won’t become a fan if you try a couple and don’t like them. It helps to have a pusher to get you hooked. There are all kinds of stories for all kinds of readers. That makes it hard for us story pushers to get people to read a particular story.

If I review a story I have to carefully point out what works for me in a way that is understandable to you. If we can’t find a common wavelength to communicate on, there’s no reason for you to try the stories I push, or even read what I write.

So why exactly did I like “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” by Bud Sparhawk?

  1. The story is about an old man, David, losing his memory. I’m an old guy worried about losing my memory.
  2. The old guy is a science fiction writer who reads his own stories having forgotten he wrote them. I can already rewatch a Perry Mason I saw two months ago and not remember the plot.
  3. Sparhawk proposed a gadget he calls a memory-aid (think hearing aid) that helps with short-term and long-term memory. Great idea for SF short story.
  4. The story conflict deals with the old man’s children, Bill and Gwen, trying to decide if they should spend their own savings for a memory-aid for their aging father. Tough call.
  5. The story makes me wonder what would I do in the same situation, either for an older person or for myself.
  6. The story makes me fantasize how I would have told the same story differently.

Sparhawk’s story moved me, but I thought it had problems. Storytelling problems often make me stop reading. But sometimes they make me obsess over the story – like now. Often I like the idea but not the execution. I actually love stories I want to rewrite using my own personal insights because I believe the writer came up with a wonderful situation.

The main flaw of “The Fading Pages of a Short Story,” which could have been an editor’s tweaking, is making David 98. Who would consider spending the price of a house to get a memory-aid for a 98-year-old man? If he had been 68, then the decision would have been realistic and heartwrenching. It would have also fixed some secondary problems. If David is 98, Bill and Gwen should be in their 60s or 70s. They should be old enough to have their own memory problems. But in the story, Gwen still has kids at home. Clues suggest the story takes place in the 2030s, and David began writing at the beginning of the century, which would make him around 70. That doesn’t work. I can’t but wonder if 98 was a printing mistake.

But there were other little problems that made me pause my reading and think. David says he relies on speed-dialing. That’s an archaic phrase now and will be even more so in the 2030s. You just “call” people with smartphones, but we do rely on them to remember phone numbers. But this problem is an interesting writing problem to contemplate. I still call the refrigerator an “icebox” because that’s what my dad called it, and that was an old fashioned term when he learned it in the 1920s and 1930s. So an old man in the 2030s might still use the phrase “speed dial.” In other words, sometimes what I think of as flaws in the stories might be features.

There were a number of other aspects to the story that made me pause too, but they aren’t really important to why the story moved me. Being moved is the key ingredient. If I had not read the Rocket Stack Rank review I would never have thought about the flaws in this story. I would have finished it with a wonderful sense of existential suffering. A rewarding kind of pain that comes from good stories. Faulker said great fiction is about the heart in conflict with itself.

“The Fading Pages of a Short Story” is a slight story that made me feel something deeply in myself. That’s the magic ingredient to any short story. As someone who wants to write short stories, Sparhawk’s story gave me a lot to think about. But mostly, it made me fear for the future, tear up, and ache. My memories are slipping away and I know what that means, so I identified with David and I felt for him. When I was younger, this story would have meant nothing to me.

On The Astounding Analog Companion, Bud Sparhawk writes “The Bane and Pleasure of Writing” where he mentions having PSS (premature-submission-syndrome). I believe “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” would have gotten more stars with Rocket Stack Rank if he had baked it in the oven longer. Below that linked essay is a Q&A with Sparhawk where he talks about writing “The Fading Pages of a Short Story.” And below that is a bit of biography with his photo. Bud Sparhawk is 81, so he knows something about getting old. He’s also been a regular contributor to Analog for decades.

James Wallace Harris, February 20, 2019


The Winston Science Fiction Series



There are pleasures of the past you can buy — if you’re willing to pay the price. For some bookworms who got hooked on science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, the Winston Science Fiction series aimed at children trigger an intense sense of nostalgia. However, I don’t believe it was the words in those 37 volumes that are burned into our memories, but the cover and endpaper art. Finding one of these stories reprinted without the art doesn’t set off those same intense emotions about the past, at least for me. I often wonder if nostalgia isn’t predominantly a visual thing. I’m in a number of Facebook groups where people are crazy about posting images of the past.

I never owned any of the Winston books as a kid, but got them from my school library, the Miami-Dade County Public Library, or from the Homestead Air Force Base library in the mid-1960s. There were three kinds of science fiction novels aimed at children that I remember from back then. The twelve Heinlein juveniles from Scribners, books by Andre Norton, and the Winston Science Fiction series. When I got my first job I ordered all the Heinlein books in hardback from the publisher. I wish I had ordered the Winston books at the time too. Those Winston books today in VG to Fine condition run hundreds of dollars each if they have the original dust jackets.

Mists of Dawn by Chad Oliver Another important visual bond with these books was the endpaper art that was part of most of the first editions by Alex Schomburg. In fact, this artwork can set off a flurry of comments on the Facebook groups Space Opera Pulp and Science Fiction Book Club. It seems to capture the essence of 1950s science fiction. And it’s a shame that all hardback books don’t all have endpaper art. The Heinlein juveniles did have beautiful endpapers, but just a star pattern, not like the sense-of-wonder artwork below.

Winston_Endpaper For many years I’d keep an eye out for the Winston Science Fiction books when I shopped at used bookstores. I never saw any. I eventually assume they were all owned by collectors. A few years ago my friend Mike found The Ant Men by Eric North at a library book sale in good condition but without a dust jacket. I was envious of him for his luck. We then found WinstonSciFi that sells reproductions of the dust jackets at very reasonable prices. Now his copy of The Ant Men looks like this one:

The Ant Men by Eric North

The other day Mike and I were shopping at a used bookstore and found a Dover reprint of The Ant Men by Eric North. It had a stylised version of the cover that was okay, but what really shouted at me to buy the book was the original Schomburg endpaper art. I didn’t buy it because the book’s cover looked wrong. I’m still tempted to go back to get it because of the endpaper art.

Last year I discovered that many titles in the Winston Science Fiction series were being sold on Amazon as ebook and trade paperback reprints and they used the original cover art (but not the endpaper art). I ordered one just to check it out, Rockets to Nowhere by Lester del Rey. The publisher of these reprints is Dan Thompson of Thunderchild Publishing from Huntsville, Alabama. He also offers a reprint of The Ant Men with the original cover. You can read about how Dan got into reprinting vintage science fiction here. Like me, Dan also read the Heinlein and Andre Norton books growing up. He discovered that most of the Winston books were out-of-print and thought that was a shame, so he got into the publishing business. A few were in the public domain, but for most, he had to track down the copyright holders to arrange contracts for reprinting. He’s been able to reprint many but not all of the series in both ebook and trade paper editions.

Even though I’d love to own a mint condition original copy of Rockets to Nowhere, having Dan’s trade paperback reprint visually fulfills my nostalgic needs.


Of course, I would prefer to own the 1st-edition, but I don’t want to spend $200. $7.99 is a great compromise between my eyes and my bank account.

If you’d like to see what the other covers look like for the entire series, check out Worlds Without End. Publication history and other details can be found at ISFDB.org.

The-Year-When-Stardust-FellSome of these books have never been reprinted, and for some, Thunderchild is the first publisher since Winston to publish them. Which makes me wonder just how good are these stories? I decided to give one a read, but the one I picked wasn’t from Thunderchild. I’ve been wanting to read some Raymond F. Jones, but I now prefer to listen to books. The Year When Stardust Fell was the first one I could find on audio. I got it for $2.99 at Audible.com because I bought the 99 cent ebook edition at Amazon. Thunderchild also sells an ebook and trade paper of this title, and I might get it too because of the cover.

These stories were aimed at children, sometimes even targeted to elementary school kids, but mostly to junior and senior high. I found this story far more adult than I remembered. I don’t think I read The Year When Stardust Fell as a kid, but I had a couple of Deja vu experiences while listening to it. The story is about when Earth passes through a comet’s tail and its dust affects metals, so eventually, all machinery breaks down. Civilization slowly collapses. The story is told from the point of view of Ken Maddox who lives in Mayfield in an unspecified state. Ken’s father is a chemistry professor at a local university. Because of Mayfield being isolated, it’s citizens are able to survive with rationing while in larger cities millions die. As the story progresses the people of Mayfield must learn to live with less and less, and even deal with the moral problem of lifeboat ethics.

Ken and his science club buddies run a ham radio rig that stays in touch with other research sites who are trying to solve the problem of the dust affecting metals. Ken and his buddies also help his father in the lab. This allows the story to emphasize the workings of science. I found the tale thoroughly engaging. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either. To me, it holds up well with other 1950s science fiction stories. In fact, I was always anxious to get back to the story. But then, after-the-collapse stories are among my favorite kind of science fiction story.


To be honest, I can’t remember any of the details from the books I think I read. Of course, I read these stories 55 years ago. I’ll have to read several more to see if I think the series deserves to be remembered for its fiction. What I’m discovering is I want these books because of their physical artistic appeal that trigger my nostalgia. I saw a group of 8 of them on sale at eBay today for $300. The idea of holding those old books again is very tempting, even though $300 could probably get me “reading copies” of the entire series if I shopped carefully. A reading copy in used book terminology meaning its beat to hell but you can still read it. I could get most of them as ebooks for less than $100, and all of Thunderchild trade paper editions for under $300.

Dan says these books aren’t big sellers. It’s probably hard to market books for kids in the 1950s to kids or nostalgic adults in the 2010s. I wonder what will happen to these stories when the baby boomers all die off. I doubt any of them will ever be considered classics of the genre. It’s a shame that Thunderchild doesn’t have the right to publish the entire series again as one uniform set so they might have collector appeal.

Here the complete list of titles with cover artists. My favorites tend to be the ones with Alex Schomburg cover paintings. Links are to Thunderbird trade editions at Amazon.

  1. EarthboundMilton Lesser, cover by Peter Poulton (1952)
  2. Find the Feathered Serpent, Evan Hunter, cover Henry Sharp (1952)
  3. Five Against Venus, Philip Latham (Robert S. Richardson), cover Virgil Finlay (1952)
  4. Islands in the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  5. Marooned on Mars, Lester del Rey, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  6. Mists of Dawn, Chad Oliver, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  7. Rocket Jockey, Philip St. John (Lester del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  8. Son of the Stars, Raymond F. Jones, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  9. Sons of the Ocean Deeps, Bryce Walton, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  10. Vault of the Ages, Poul Anderson, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  11. Attack from Atlantis, Lester del Rey, cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  12. Battle on Mercury, Erik Van Lhin (Lester del Rey), cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  13. Danger: Dinosaurs!, Richard Marsten (Evan Hunter), cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  14. Missing Men of Saturn, Philip Latham, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  15. The Mysterious Planet, Kenneth Wright (Lester del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  16. Mystery of the Third Mine, Robert W. Lowndes, cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  17. Planet of Light, Raymond F. Jones, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  18. Rocket to Luna, Richard Marsten (Evan Hunter), cover by Alex Schomburg (1953)
  19. The Star Seekers, Milton Lesser, cover Paul Calle (1953)
  20. Vandals of the Void, Jack Vance, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  21. Rockets to Nowhere, Philip St. John (Lester Del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  22. The Secret of Saturn’s Rings, Donald A. Wollheim, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  23. Step to the Stars, Lester del Rey, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  24. Trouble on Titan, Alan E. Nourse, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  25. The World at Bay, Paul Capon, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  26. The Year After Tomorrow, eds. Lester del Rey, Cecile Matschat, and Carl Carmer cover and interior illus. Mel Hunter (1954) – an anthology of nine short stories
  27. The Ant Men, Eric North, cover Paul Blaisdell (1955)
  28. The Secret of the Martian Moons, Donald A. Wollheim, cover Alex Schomburg (1955)
  29. The Lost Planet, Paul Dallas, cover Alex Schomburg (1956)
  30. Mission to the Moon, Lester del Rey, cover Alex Schomburg (1956)
  31. Rockets Through Space, Lester del Rey, cover and interior illus. James Heugh (1957) – Special Companion Book (nonfiction)
  32. The Year When Stardust Fell, Raymond F. Jones, cover James Heugh (1958)
  33. The Secret of the Ninth Planet, Donald A. Wollheim, cover James Heugh (1959)
  34. The Star Conquerors, Ben Bova, cover Mel Hunter (1959)
  35. Stadium Beyond the Stars, Milton Lesser, cover Mel Hunter (1960)
  36. Moon of Mutiny, Lester del Rey, cover Ed Emshwiller (1961)
  37. Spacemen, Go Home, Milton Lesser, cover Ed Emshwiller (1961)


Fantastic Universe (1953-1960)


I think it’s time we recognize some other science fiction magazines besides Astounding Science Fiction. So I’ve picked Fantastic Universe on a whim. Below, I’m going to list all the issues of Fantastic Universe available to read online at the Internet Archive, but before that, I thought I might explain why. If this column works out, I might do additional magazines.

I’ve recently read four books about Astounding Science Fiction and its editor John W. Campbell, Jr. (Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers, The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin, Astounding Days by Arthur C. Clarke, and Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee). Quite often when I read the history of science fiction magazines Hugo Gernsback gets credit for starting Amazing Stories, and John W. Campbell seemingly gets credit for almost everything else. Of course, that’s not true. Time and time again, writers want to write about Campbell and Astounding. I’d like to know about the other editors and their magazines.

fantastic_universe_195310-11Most historians of the science fiction magazines do admit that Campbell’s influence waned in the 1950s as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction came on the scene. David L. Roshelm did write Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years (1986), but as far as I know, no one has written a history of F&SF. There have been dozens of other science fiction magazines published in the 20th-century, and I have to wonder if their editors didn’t discover new writers, give new artists a gallery on their covers, provide letter columns for fans fighting their tempests in a teacup, and book reviewers a place to begin publishing.

I collect anthologies of science fiction short stories. Most of the stories anthologized from the 1930s and 1940s have come from Astounding Science Fiction. And Astounding, F&SF, and Galaxy seem to dominate when looking at stories collected from the 1950s. Of course, these markets paid more, so their editors got the first look at work from the top writers. Yet, I’ve got to wonder about all those forgotten science fiction magazines, editors, and writers. Did their editors discover new writers? Have anthologists missed story gems from those forgotten magazines?

FANTUNIVNOV1955The four books about Astounding break into two kinds. Rogers and Clarke were fans from the start and go back and review old issues story-by-story they fondly remember. The Panshins and Nevala-Lee were too young to have read Astounding growing up. The Panshins focused on analyzing the impact of stories, while Nevala-Lee focused on the biographies Campbell and his famous writers: Heinlein, Asimov, and Hubbard.

Thus, historians of magazines can choose to write about the stories, writers, or editors, an sometimes about the cover artists, interior illustrators, and book reviewers. Alva Rogers had a collection of Astounding to work with, and Clarke was given a microfilm set of Astounding. Nevala-Lee had digital scans. Having access to old magazines makes writing about them easier.

Because of sites like the Internet Archive, researchers can now read many more old science fiction magazines. It’s a great time for genre scholars to pour through long forgotten issues looking for undiscovered discoveries regarding SF in the 1950s. Fantastic Universe got the reputation for supporting the UFO craze. Whether it’s editor and writers believed in flying saucers, or were trying to make a buck of the craze, is another issue.  Ray Palmer at Amazing Stories and John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding both have piles of embarrassing editorials to defend too. And if you lived through the 1950s you’ll know people believed a lot of crazy ideas back then. Just read Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick, which I think is PKD’s best novel.

FANTUNIVAUG1957I thought it would be fun to research a lesser known science fiction magazine and picked Fantastic Universe, which ran from 1953-1960. I did find Leo Margulies: Giant of the Pulps (2017) by Philip Sherman. Supposedly, in the 1930s Leo Margulies edited 46 different pulp titles, but he’s most famous among SF fans for editing Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Sam Merwin, Jr. also worked on those two pulps and others, but I could not find a biography devoted to him. Hans Stefan Santesson seems to have gotten his start with Fantastic Universe and then went on to edit The Saint Mystery Magazine from 1959-1967.

Issue Lists (69)

Volume/Number links to ISFDB to see table of contents.

[IA] links to Internet Archive to read a scanned copy

1953Sam Merwin, Jr.

1954 – editor Beatrice Jones

1954 – editor Leo Margulies

1955 – editor Leo Margulies

1956 – editor Leo Margulies

1956 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

1957 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

1958 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

1959 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

1960 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

The Internet Archive is becoming the Library of Congress for the web. It’s only missing 12 of the 69 issues of Fantastic Universe, and I’m pretty sure those issues will show up soon. I used to work in a periodicals department at a university and one of my jobs was tracking down and ordering missing issues. This was back in the 1980s and I had to snail-mail publishers all over the world. As our library ran out of space, we sometimes discarded whole runs of magazines, including a complete bound run of F&SF. That really killed my soul. I wanted them, but state law forbade the library from giving them to people, so they were shipped off to state surplus.

Now that libraries routinely discard items that seldom get used, it’s great that the Internet Archive is collecting everything it can as digital scans. Old pulp and digest magazines are aging badly, disintegrating and disappearing. So, scanning saves them for the future. And by being on the internet, people from all over the world can use them to write about the history of science fiction.

In the future, I’m hoping to see more books like Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee about other areas of science fiction history. I was surprised by how many prominent general interest magazines reviewed it. I assume there are many more old fans like me who want to read about the evolution of science in magazines.

Additional Reading:

James Wallace Harris, 2/1/19





Taxonomy of Science Fiction Themes

leaving the opera in the year 2000 by albert robida 800

When it comes to reading science fiction, I’ve reached an age where nothing new is under the sun. I feel like I’m approaching the weary wisdom of the author of Ecclesiastes when looking over our genre. And today I’m feeling more like Linnaeus and want to classify all the themes of science fiction. This will be a big undertaking that I won’t be finished soon. I’ve attempted this before with “Classifying Science Fictional Ideas.” What I want to do now is decide which approach should I start building the foundation of my tree?

During the past couple of years, I’ve suggested to other science fiction fans that science fiction might have a limited number of themes. Most have not liked the idea — they want our genre to be without limits. But I’m not so sure. It seems to me that science fiction covers specific territories it has claimed over the years. Reading more 19th-century science fiction has shown me we’ve been exploring the same lands for a very long time.

If we borrow from Linnaeus scheme of Life > Domain > Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species and replace “Life” with “Science Fiction” what would be the Domains of our genre? I’m currently toying with:

  • Humans
  • Aliens
  • Artificial beings
  • Machines
  • Society
  • Earth
  • Space
  • Time
  • Dimensions

I’m thinking about the smallest to largest objects science fiction explores in speculation and extrapolation. I could also use point of view (POV) as my basic domains and have:

  • Humans
  • Aliens
  • Artificial beings

All stories depend on the human perspective even when imagining how aliens and robots think. Should the root domains of science fiction be:

  • Extrapolation (if this goes on)
  • Speculation (what if?)

Currently, we divide life into three domains, Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryota. Just a few decades ago we only had two domains. So starting science fiction with just two domains might be fine. We need to think about this. How do aliens and robots fit in, for example?

Wouldn’t robots come under extrapolation and aliens speculation? We’re building robots now that are getting smarter and smarter, so it’s no big deal to extrapolate they could eventually become smarter than us. Other than statistics, we have no reason to believe aliens are out there. We can only say, “What if intelligent beings exist on other worlds?”

But what if we ask, “What if robots were ten times smarter than people?” We now have robots under both extrapolation and speculations. Is that problematic? If Machines were a domain we could organize them this way:

  • Machines
    • Nonsentient
      • Computers
      • Matter transporters
      • Holodecks
      • Rockets
    • Sentient
      • Robots
      • AI Minds

But I don’t like that either. What if machines were only inventions and didn’t deal with sentient minds? What if we had a domain for Artificial Beings that included AI machines, as well as artificially created life like in the classic short story “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon?

If we think about it, speculation and extrapolation are like mechanisms within nature, such as inheritance and evolution. Linnaeus was actually classifying objects. Science fiction is inspired by objects in the real world such as people, machines, aliens, robots, cities, Earth, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, and objects we assume could exist such as aliens, intelligent machines, artificial life, digital universes, as well as things that probably can’t exist like time machines and time travel.

We could divide science fiction into the domains:

  • What exists
  • What will exist soon
  • What theoretically could exist according to science we know
  • What theoretically can’t exist according to the science we know

But we’re back into splitting robots into different domains, maybe into all four. Once again, I’m thrown back to my object-oriented classification. For example, take Earth:

  • Earth
    • Environmental catastrophes
    • Geological catastrophes
    • Cosmological catastrophes
    • Geoengineering
    • Death of the Earth

I think this works nicely. Each of these could be speculation or extrapolation, or it could be stories based on things happening now or will happen soon, maybe could happen, or even wild speculation like Hothouse by Brian Aldiss that will never happen.

This is my current mindmap:

science fiction taxonomy mindmap

My plan is to read or review old science fiction to see how those stories would fit into the scheme, and grow this tree out with many more leaves.

If you have any ideas about classifying science fiction, please leave a comment below.

James Wallace Harris 1/15/19

What Were Heinlein’s Best Short Stories?

The Menace From Earth by Robert A. Heinlein

[You can use our Classics of Science Fiction Query Database to recreate this work, or test it with another author.]

We identify the best short stories by looking at which stories were most anthologized. Robert A. Heinlein was a prolific, well-loved writer, but one who might have hurt himself under our system because he charged so much to reprint his short stories that many anthologists couldn’t afford to include his work. Under our “citation” system, we include fan polls, awards, and even writer recommendation lists, as well as anthologies as our citation sources. Many Heinlein stories have multiple citations because of fan polls. Here’s our raw data – stories with at least 1 citation.

Heinlein Short Stories Citations 1

Heinlein had 59 short stories published in his lifetime, reprinted in 16 of his own collections. Which is probably one reason why he didn’t feel the need to have his stories anthologized by others. But the list above seems to include most of his famous stories. I’m surprised that “Jerry Was A Man” was never anthologized by a major retrospective anthology of the genre. (But it was made for a television anthology show.)

To get an idea which was his better stories, I’m going to show the stories that had at least 2 citations.

Heinlein Short Stories Citations 2

This list drops from 26 to 20 stories. That’s still a very long list of short stories. As we worked with our system, we saw we had to up the minimum citation cutoff to get a better idea which stories significantly stood out. By looking at the changes in the lists, we had to ask why about each story that fell out. For example, “Misfit” disappears here. It’s a fun story and might be considered Heinlein’s first juvenile, but ultimately, it is a weaker story. Look what happens when we up the cutoff to 3 citations.

Heinlein Short Stories Citations 3

This is a much better list. We lose five stories, such as the outrageous “The Year of the Jackpot,” which is one of my favorites. But is it really a standout story, or just one with a very neat idea? I personally rate it higher than “Gulf” and “It’s Great to Be Back.” If Heinlein had let it been anthologized more often I think it would be better remembered. Heinlein should have at least let Bleiler & Dikty include it in their annual best of the year collection. Or maybe those editors didn’t like it as much as I do. Terry Carr did include “The Year of the Jackpot” in Science Fiction for People Who Hate Science Fiction in 1966, and it did make it to Sci-Fi Lists Top 200 in 2018.

But let’s jump up the cutoff to 5, the one we used for our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list.

Heinlein Short Stories Citations 5

This list drops out my all-time favorite Heinlein short story, “The Menace From Earth.” I suppose I like that story so much because it came out in 1957 at the height of Heinlein’s career, was a young adult story, and I think Heinlein’s best novels were young adult novels, and it had a marvelous gimmick, human-powered flight on the Moon. Sadly, it doesn’t make the cut. Nor was it up for a Hugo. However, “The Menace from Earth” was eligible for Ted Dikty’s last annual collection, and Judith Merril’s third annual collection of best science fiction. Did Heinlein charge too much for it back in 1957, or did Dikty and Merril just not like the story? I can’t believe they wouldn’t have considered it one of the best short stories of the year. If they had anthologized “The Menace From Earth” it would have made our 5 citation cutoff.

But let’s look at just one more cutoff, 7.  These are Heinlein’s most popular stories using our system. This time I’ve opened the citation source list for each story.

Heinlein Short Stories Citations 7

It’s the fan polls that put Heinlein over the top. Fans remember Heinlein, for example, “Requiem” was up for a Retro Hugo. Heinlein just wasn’t anthologized that much, at least by the major anthologies we included in our system. And the two citations from The Great SF Stories edited by Asimov and Greenberg are a kind of cheat. They leave a page for each story but say they couldn’t get the rights to include the actual stories. Probably meaning, Heinlein was charging too much. James Gunn did buy two Heinlein stories. And “All You Zombies–” got into three textbook anthologies. I guess they can afford to pay more.

“Requiem” is a beautiful story, and I consider a lovely tribute to our genre. “By His Bootstraps” is a razzle-dazzle plot story, but I’m not sure how much heart it contains. And “All You Zombies–” is another razzle-dazzle plotter, which is impressive, but on the other hand, is rather cynical. It’s very popular in the fan polls, and it’s one of few Heinlein stories that got made into a movie.

Ultimately, our system fails me. I love “The Menace from Earth.” It’s a positive story. It’s full of science fiction speculation. At its heart, it speaks to people who love science fiction. Maybe our system for identifying the best short stories works for telling me what the average reader thinks about Heinlein. No system is perfect. If you don’t agree with our statistical process, just assume your tastes run uniquely different from the average.

By the way, you can use our Classics of Science Fiction Query Database to analyze the popular stories for your favorite SF author.

James Wallace Harris, December 26, 2018

Not All Great Stories Are Remembered

A Logic Named Joe by Murray Leinster March 1946 Astounding.PNG

Our goal here at the Classics of Science Fiction is to discover analytical ways to remember science fiction. We describe our methods in “Remembering Science Fiction.” The trouble is, our methods don’t always work. For short stories, we collect annual anthologies, retrospective anthologies, textbook anthologies about science fiction, fan polls, awards, and a few recommendation lists from authors. We call each source of recognition a “citation” and we have over a 100 citation sources for short science fiction. To get on our final list of Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories a story had to have a minimum of 5 citations.

“A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster from the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction is a definite classic in my mind, yet it only got 1 citation. It was collected in The Great SF Stories 8 (1946) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martina H. Greenberg. But if you look at the entry for “A Logic Named Joe” at ISFDB.org, you’ll see it’s never been collected in a major retrospective anthology of the science fiction genre. Yet, if you go read “A Logic Named Joe” online at Baen Book you’ll discover this 1946 story is very prescience about today’s computers, networking, and social media problems. For example, the illustration above shows kids looking at a film unsuitable for kids. In the story itself, kids are watching a film cannibals and their fertility dances. Leinster even imagined Nanny apps to keep kids from seeing what they shouldn’t, but in this case, Joe overrode that code.

The reason why people should read “A Logic Named Joe” today is for the same reason they should read “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster from 1909. Both are stories where the author has predicted our world and time to a fascinating degree. Science fiction was never meant to be a crystal ball, but sometimes it’s speculations about the future are eerily right. Both of these stories would just seem like nice stories if read before the internet era, but after that, we go, “Wait a minute! How could E. M. Forster in 1909 or Murray Leinster in 1946 imagine what’s happening now?”

“A Logic Named Joe” was written when the term “computer” meant a human that worked all day at a desk doing mathematics. Leinster used the word “logic” to mean what we call computers. I bet future retrospective anthologies will reprint “A Logic Named Joe.”

They will if the editors read it. How do keep short stories alive so readers will remember them? I’d say a majority of modern science fiction readers will never read even one of the anthologies we used to create our system for identifying the best short science fiction from the past. Sure, a few folks might take a science fiction course as an elective and have to read one of the textbook anthologies for their class. Or a small percentage might consume a current anthology like The Big Book Of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, but these readers are few and far between.

We’re hoping people will read our lists and track down the stories. We’ve even put all our research into a database that you can generate your own custom lists. But using our system you probably won’t notice “A Logic Named Joe.” Our system fails to recognize it. There have been no 1947 Retro Hugo Award for 1946 publications so far. This could happen in 2022. In 2018 the Retro Hugo Award voted for the 1943 Hugo awards that covered 1942 stories. In 2019 they’ll vote the 1944 awards. But even if “A Logic Named Joe” gets a Retro Hugo Award, will that be enough to make it into a classic story young readers will remember?

Murray Leinster is not very well remembered today, but he was once called the Dean of Science Fiction. Readers mostly remember him today for “First Contact” which was anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

If you use our database and set the min and max year to 1946, check the Story radio button, and put citations to 1, you’ll get all the stories our system found for 1946:

1946 Science Fiction Short Stories

The ones checked with a red mark are those collected by Asimov and Greenberg for The Great SF Stories 8 (1946). All the others came from other anthologies. 13 of the 22 stories are only remembered by one anthology. Using our cutoff of 5 citation minimum, these are the stories our system deems are the classics of 1946:

The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories 1946

Few modern science fiction readers will even read these three stories, but because they’ve been anthologized so many times, their chances are better for being remembered as classics of the genre.

I believe “A Logic Named Joe” should be on that list, but how do we come up with a system that recognizes its worth? We could add Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction (1965) edited by Sam Moskowitz. It’s a major retrospective anthology we missed. That would give “A Logic Named Joe” 2 citations. It would also reinforce the standing of the other stories in the anthology give giving them an additional citation.

We could also add the best theme anthologies. We aimed to pick major anthologies, either recognized as such or because they were large and definitive. Machines That Think (1984) edited by Asimov, Greenberg, and Warrick would be one such anthology. It collected 621 pages of great stories about thinking machines. That would bring “A Logic Named Joe” up to 3 citations. Of course, it’s given Asimov and Greenberg two votes.

I could assemble a committee of well-read specialists in short science fiction and give them each a vote. I’d give it my vote. That brings it up to 4 citations, still under the cutoff.

Are there any other sources of citations that recognize short science fiction? Being made into a television show or movie is a great form of recognition that helps keep a work of fiction in our pop culture memory. Unfortunately, “A Logic Named Joe” will never be filmed.

The gold standard for remembering short stories is being published in a major anthology. But how often do major anthologies get published? And when a large retrospective anthology is assembled, editors tend to look over the field and find exceptional stories that haven’t been well-anthologized before to now compete with the recognized classics. Would they now see “A Logic Named Joe” as one? The large genre remembering anthologies come out every few years, but they have page limits, and always more new stories to remember, and thus older stories that were once classics get left out.

Even among short stories, there’s a survival of the fittest. The question I always ask people, “How many short stories do you remember from the 19th-century?” The competition to become a classic is brutal.

“A Logic Named Joe” is a standout story because of how it anticipated the internet. But is that enough to make it a classic story worth remembering? It lacks the emotional depth to make it a literary classic. And it doesn’t have the beauty of “Vintage Season.” Maybe our system is working. Maybe “A Logic Named Joe” is a story I especially like, but not necessarily loved by others?

“A Logic Named Joe” by Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster’s real name because he had another story in the same issue) came in first place in The Analytical Laboratory. Readers liked it best, but it only got a 2.80 average rating, meaning it wasn’t that popular. A rating of 1.00 meant every reader picked it as their #1 story. A few rare stories back in the day managed that feat. So in 1946, “A Logic Named Joe” was only a slightly better than average story.

If you look at the list above of the 22 stories for 1946, only “Vintage Season” is a real classic. It had 10 citations. If we used a cutoff of 10, there are only 38 classic science fiction short stories that make the list. And even many of these are being forgotten. It’s hard to come up with a system that remembers everything that the average reader will encounter, or should read.

Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories 10 Citations

James Wallace Harris, December 25, 2018