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

“No Woman Born” by C. L. Moore


No Woman Born” (pdf) first appeared in the December 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, a time when few women were writing science fiction. Catherine Lucille Moore did not use her initials to hide her gender, but to hide her writing career from her employer. I’m not sure when I first read “No Woman Born” but when I reread it this week in The Great SF Stories 6 (1944) it felt familiar. I could swear I’ve heard it on audio, but I can find no audiobooks that contain it. I ached to hear a talented reader perform this story.

There’s a chance I first read it as a kid in the sixties when reading old rebound copies of Groff Conklin’s anthologies from the Miami public library. It’s been reprinted in many anthologies I’ve own, so it’s no telling. It just bothers me I can’t remember because I feel very sure I’ve read it recently. I guess it’s just the kind of story that sticks in your head.

I’m not sure I appreciated “No Woman Born” the first time I read it. When young I loved stories with lots of action revealed in the dialog. I tended to speed read over the narrative. “No Woman Born” is a dramatic story, but it’s beauty today comes from Moore’s 1944 speculation about what it’s like to be a cyborg, and that’s in the narrative. There were earlier science fiction tales of brains being put into mechanical bodies, like the Professor Jameson series, but their authors didn’t spend as much time exploring what it means. I give C. L. Moore a lot of credit for examining ideas that are still valid today.

There are three characters in this story, Deirdre, a singer, dancer, actress, Harris her manager who loves her, and Maltzer, her Frankenstein/Pygmalion savior/creator.

Deirdre nearly dies in a theater fire, but Maltzer transfers her brain into a mechanical body and spends a year bringing her back to life from total sensory deprivation. Maltzer created a new body for Deirdre and teaches her how to use it with thought control. Much of Moore’s tale is about what this means.

It’s not fair to call Deirdre’s new body robotic since Moore imagines far more than the average mechanical man. Deirdre’s head is a modern art sculpture of femininity, while her body is golden concentric rings held together by magnetism moving with fluidity and grace. Deirdre only has two senses, vision and hearing, which Moore philosophizes are the intellectual ones while smell, taste, and touch are our animalistic emotional senses. Again, this is still valid speculation today.

The plot is rather simple. Deirdre wants to perform again on television. She believes she’ll be accepted as a person. Maltzer thinks she’s wildly optimistic about her acceptance and reunites her with Harris hoping he’ll convince her otherwise. Deirdre is headstrong and insists she knows how she’ll be received.

The Best of C. L. Moore

Not to give away spoilers, “No Woman Born” features a beautiful description of Deirdre dancing and singing on a majestic Ziegfeld-like stage. Moore also takes us further than the average tale of robots and cyborgs, into the psychological impact of being reborn. Moore touches on spiritual evolution and transhumanism, a concept I don’t think existed in 1944, although Olaf Stapledon was covering some of the same territories in the 1930s.

“No Woman Born” is one of the best stories in The Great SF Stories 6 (1944), which means it’s one of the best science fiction stories of that year if Asimov and Greenberg found all the best SF stories for 1944. Moore’s competition is Clifford Simak’s “Desertion” because it covers the same territory of what it means to be human when we stop looking human. Emotionally, I love “Desertion” more than “No Woman Born,” but Moore brought up more philosophical issues. In science fiction, there’s always a fine balance between storytelling and science fiction speculation. Simak was able to draw out far more emotion, even though there are three good dramatic scenes in “No Woman Born.”

Moore collaborated constantly with her husband Henry Kuttner. We know very little about Moore, most of which is summed up in “The Many Names of Catherine Lucille Moore” by Andrew Liptak. I’ve often read that readers can’t tell who wrote what, and even the stories with their solo bylines are still collaborations. I feel Moore did write most, if not all, of “No Woman Born” because it feels like her work before marrying Kuttner.* Her stories always had a philosophical bent to them, while Henry’s stories have more action, often comic, drunken, zany, or pulp fiction. I believe Catherine was the philosopher of the family, and Henry was the hack pulp writer who could churn out all kinds of stories but with a lot less contemplation.

I enjoyed “Desertion” more as a story than “No Woman Born” because Simak is superior at evoking emotions in readers. I greatly admired “No Woman Born” for its science fictional ideas. Moore is too wordy in places, which slows down the drama. “No Woman Born” isn’t as haunting as “Desertion.” Yet, I still love it. I wished Moore could have been more atmospheric like her “Vintage Season.”

But does this 1944 story still hold up? I wish Goodreads was designed to handle short stories because I’d love to read reader reviews of classic SF stories. I don’t think we’ll ever put a brain in a robot body. Nor do I believe we could build a robotic body like Maltzer created. Today we talk about brain downloading, meaning we’d record all the information in a human brain digitally, and transfer it to a computer, or a cloned body. There are millions of people hoping this will actually be possible, so “No Woman Born” might have an audience today as a precedent story.

Maltzer doesn’t believe Dierdre will ever survive psychologically, and Moore makes a dramatic case for this in the story. The ending, which I don’t want to give away, is satisfying but unbelievable, or at least for me. It offers too much hope that humans can become something I don’t think we can.

* In 1975 Moore wrote an extremely short, but very revealing afterward to The Best of C. L. Moore stating that “Vintage Season” and “No Woman Born” were written before she married Kuttner and were not collaborations.

James Wallace Harris (9/6/18)