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

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

New Feature At CSFquery

In Praise of Reviews

You might not notice our new feature since it’s rather subtle, but we’ve added a column with links to reviews. If you look at the Classics of Science Fiction list (or related lists), you’ll see a new column: Reviews. Click on the number beside a title you’re interested in and we’ll show you the reviews we’ve found just for that title. Or if you want to see the reviews for all the titles, click on Show Reviews at the top. Click again and they will disappear. Clicking on a review will take you to the review. (I like to right-click links and choose “Show in new window” so I won’t lose my place in the list.)

It’s going to take Mike and me a long time to add reviews to all the titles in the database. We’re working on the titles in the main lists first. Mike is currently working on novels, and I’m working on short stories.

We’ve both discovered that searching for reviews to link is quite illuminating in many ways. The first revelation is one we already knew because it inspired the new feature in the first place. Google is terrible at finding good reviews. Actually searching for reviews to add to the database only reinforces this impression. Google is geared to selling stuff, and not necessarily to help you to find what you want to know. Google does offer the wonderful service scholar.google.com that indexes academic journals. A search using it will find exactly the kind of reviews I want to read, but sadly most of that content is behind paywalls.

Reviews of books and short stories on Google are limited mostly to professional publications that offer their content for free or content from bloggers. We try to find substantial and quality reviews, but that’s not always possible. We do include reviews from sites with paywalls if they offer a certain number of free reads. By the way, you can extend that number of free reads by switching computers or browsers. If you have a computer, tablet, and smartphone, each with two browsers, you can extend 4 free reads to 24.

What has been personally rewarding to us while gathering links is discovering the kind of reviews available. We don’t have time to read all of them closely, but we do read over them enough to judge them. That makes us both want to go back and just read reviews. It’s quite fascinating how one novel can inspire so many reactions, often opposing. Reading the reviews makes us want to read the stories. And reading the reviews of stories we’ve already read makes us want to reread some stories to look for the new perspectives we’ve found in the reviews.

Searching for these links is also revealing the junkiness of the internet. Most pages are horrors of graphical layouts. For a good portion of them, you’d think they were designed to discourage reading, especially those pages with tiny typefaces. Even more painfully revealing, is it’s all too obvious that in most cases sites are throwing up a little content just to get you to them. They want your clicks. They want you to click on their ads.

We’re also learning about the quality of reviewing. It makes me ask: What makes a great review? It also makes me ask: Are my reviews worth reading? And: What could I add to my reviews to make them more useful?

We hope we’re providing a service by helping readers find reviews of the stories we list by wading through all that internet crap for you. But more importantly, we want to help you decide on things to read. Offering lists of recommended books and short stories has its uses, but looking at lists can be dull. We thought of providing graphics and illustrations to spice up our site, but such eye candy is only a distraction. Mike came up with the idea of adding links to reviews, and I believe that will be truly helpful – a great addition.

James Wallace Harris, 3/1/22

“Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #65 of 107: “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin

This is the third time I’ve read “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin. It has 11 citations on The Classics of Science Fiction Short Fiction list. And it was made into an episode of The Outer Limits.

These are the stories “Sandkings” are tied with on our list for 7th place, all having 11 citations, all heavy-hitters.

This kind of success makes me wonder how such stories are written to make them so memorable. I’m familiar with all the above stories, and some (“Coming Attraction,” “The Country of the Kind,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “The Ugly Chickens”) are among my all-time favorites. To be honest, I put “Sandkings” in the second half of that list. But still, it’s a catchy tale.

In “Sandkings,” Simon Kress is a rich collector of violent pets. But not on Earth, on a planet named Baldur, so his pets can be quite exotic. He is offered sandkings, insect-like creatures, with hive intelligence. Kress buys them because he’s told they worship their owners and fight wars. He is also warned that there are certain conditions to be met to maintain safety, but then this story wouldn’t be the story it is if Kress minded those warnings. (I did wonder if Gremlins was an influence, but I checked and it came out five years later in 1984.)

“Sandkings” is another horror story in a science-fictional setting. The VanderMeers seem to have a penchant for those. Evidently, they have a macabre streak. Maybe they grew up reading Poe. “Sandkings” is a story old Edgar Allan would have admired. But I also catch whiffs of other literary influences.

First off, I wondered if Martin read Theodore Sturgeon’s 1941 classic, “Microcosmic God,” and thought, hey, this god of small things is a neat idea, I wonder if I could do something with it and make it more realistic? The protagonist for “Microcosmic God” was named Kidder, another K-name like Kress. Mercurio Rivera’s “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” (Asimov’s Jan-Feb 2020) also used the god of small things theme. I only know of these three stories that use the god of small things theme, so it appears writers can recycle it about every forty years. Does anybody know of other examples?

Like I said, I felt Poe was an influence. But I also wondered about Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Sandkings” has a gothic feel to it, and it’s about sensuality, decadence, and evil. The sandkings worship Kress. They build images of him in stone. Those images change over time, reflecting the corruption of Kress’s soul.

Reading “Sandkings” makes me wonder if more writers shouldn’t search out old forgotten SF themes and refashion them into new stories. It’s done all the time but usually at a superficial level to the most commonly used themes. The best example is the murder mystery. Why haven’t we gotten tired of that theme/plot?

James Wallace Harris, 12/28/21

“When It Changed” by Joanna Russ

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #58 of 107: “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ

“When It Changed” by Joanna Russ is a classic. It’s tied for 3rd place on our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. It was on all four lists for Dave Hook’s Recommended Reading list for SF short stories. It won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story and was nominated for a Hugo award in 1973.

The setup for this story is quite simple. On the planet Whileaway, a plague killed off all the males. For many generations, the women survived and prospered by merging their ova to produce female offspring with DNA from both parents. The story takes place on the day when four men show up from Earth. Russ gives us endless fuel for contemplation in a very short story.

It’s very hard to write about this story. Whenever I read it I want a different ending. I want an ending a man would have written. I wanted the women to kill the men. And Russ lets us know that was a consideration, but she gave us a wiser conclusion, not just philosophically within the story, but as a writer. However, Russ wasn’t above using the ending I wanted in her other stories. She once said, “I am not for human liberation; I am for liberating women.”

The best thing to read after reading “When It Changed” is Joanna Russ’s afterward in Again, Dangerous Visions, where the story first appeared. And I’m tempted to just reprint it here, but I’m afraid of the litigious ghost of Harlan Ellison. But let’s see how much I can sneak in without being haunted by him.

I find it hard to say anything about this story. The first few paragraphs were dictated to me in a thoughtful, reasonable, whispering tone I had never heard before; and once the Daemon had vanished—they always do—I had to finish the thing by myself and in a voice not my own. 

The premise of the story needs either a book or silence. I’ll try to compromise. It seems to me (in the words of the narrator) that sexual equality has not yet been established on Earth and that (in the words of GBS) the only argument that can be made against it is that it has never been tried. I have read SF stories about manless worlds before; they are either full of busty girls in wisps of chiffon who slink about writhing with lust (Keith Laumer wrote a charming, funny one called “The War with the Yukks”), or the women have set up a static, beelike society in imitation of some presumed primitive matriarchy. These stories are written by men. Why women who have been alone for generations should “instinctively” turn their sexual desires toward persons of whom they have only intellectual knowledge, or why female people are presumed to have an innate preference for Byzantine rigidity I don’t know. “Progress” is one of the sacred cows of SF so perhaps the latter just goes to show that although women can run a society by themselves, it isn’t a good one. This is flattering to men, I suppose. Of SF attempts to depict real matriarchies (“He will be my concubine for tonight,” said the Empress of Zar coldly) it is better not to speak. I remember one very good post-bomb story by an English writer (another static society, with the Magna Mater literally and supernaturally in existence) but on the whole we had better just tiptoe past the subject.

Again, Dangerous Visions: Stories (p. 242). Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. Kindle Edition. 

Like Russ says, this story needs a book or silence. I have to say something, but I’m not going to write a book, but I’m sure everyone who loves this story could write a book. And I love this story. It’s definitely a 5-star story. That was the first two paragraphs of her afterward. Get the anthology to read the essay, but here are the last two paragraphs.

Meanwhile, my story. It did not come from this lecture, of course, but vice versa. I had read a very fine SF novel, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in which all the characters are humanoid hermaphrodites, and was wondering at the obduracy of the English language, in which everybody is “he” or “she” and “it” is reserved for typewriters. But how can one call a hermaphrodite “he,” as Miss Le Guin does? I tried (in my head) changing all the masculine pronouns to feminine ones, and marveled at the difference. And then I wondered why Miss Le Guin’s native “hero” is male in every important sexual encounter of his life except that with the human man in the book. Weeks later the Daemon suddenly whispered, “Katy drives like a maniac,” and I found myself on Whileaway, on a country road at night. I might add (for the benefit of both the bearded and unbearded sides of the reader’s cerebrum) that I never write to shock. I consider that as immoral as writing to please. Katharina and Janet are respectable, decent, even conventional people, and if they shock you, just think what a copy of Playboy or Cosmopolitan would do to them. Resentment of the opposite sex (Cosmo is worse) is something they have yet to learn, thank God.

Which is why I visit Whileaway—although I do not live there because there are no men there. And if you wonder about my sincerity in saying that, George-Georgina, I must just give you up as hopeless.

Again, Dangerous Visions: Stories (p. 243). Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. Kindle Edition. 

Now, this bit hints at something else, which is nicely continued in this essay from the January 30, 2020 issue of The New Yorker entitled, “Joanna Russ, The Science-Fiction Writer Who Said No.” (Includes a nice audio version.) Hardcore SF fans interested in the genre’s history should read/listen to this essay. A half-century later, we’re still dealing with this story in intense conversations.

Joanna Russ caused controversy within the genre and as a feminist outside of the genre. I’m not sure we can begin to understand “When It Changed” without many readings and a study of Russ herself. Do not dismiss it quickly. Listen to the New Yorker essay.

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James Wallace Harris, 12/12/21

Dave Hook’s Recommended Reading List – Short Fiction 2.0

Click Here to See the List

Dave Hook thought it would be revealing to combine four lists that identify the most remembered science fiction short stories to see which stories are on the most lists. Be sure and review the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet for different versions of the data, links to the original lists, and a sheet where you can track your reading. Just save a copy of the spreadsheet to your own Google Drive, or download a copy in your preferred format if you want to track your reading history.

125 stories were on all four lists (Classics, Locus, SFADB, SciFi). Dave is a moderator for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook and he also provides links to where the group has already discussed the story. Those stories have been read because the group has read over two dozen anthologies together. That’s just another validation of the popularity of these science fiction short stories.

Of course, we’re the creator of one of the lists, The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories found at CSFquery. We know it’s dangerous to claim such lists reveal the best stories because tastes are so subjective. Most people look at lists on the internet to see what they’ve read and what stories they love that aren’t on the list. Quite often they accuse the list maker of making poor choices. None of these lists were chosen by their creators. Two were created through statistical analysis and two were created by fan polls. That’s why I like to say these lists track the most remembered stories. Claiming any kind of quality leads to trouble.

However, I will say that statistically, you have a better chance of liking these stories more than from any other method of identifying short fiction. I have read a large percentage of these stories and most of my favorite science fiction short stories are on this list. However, there are many stories I love that are missed by these lists. For example, my favorite Robert A. Heinlein short work is “The Menace From Earth.” It’s not here. Lists, no matter what the methodology used to create them, are never perfect. But I like Dave’s list. It’s a solid piece of work.

What’s even more interesting, is the number of stories that are on all four lists outnumber the stories that are only on three lists. That suggests the popularity of these 125 stories is quite significant.

If you look at the four lists Dave used to create his list you’ll see the stories are ranked, but the rankings differ from one list to the next. Dave used a statistical method to compare the rankings and produce a Top 20 list. I wish he had gone beyond 20, maybe 50. But even his rankings don’t match the rankings of the four original lists. There’s just no agreement for what are the best science fiction short stories to read.

One flaw in these methods is newer stories have had less opportunity to get recognized and remembered. That’s just how things work, but it does mean when a story from the last twenty years does show up it means it really stood out from the rest. Ted Chiang is a wonder.

James Wallace Harris, 11/10/21

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #34 of 107: “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

Why do we read science fiction? Maybe that’s too big of a question to answer. Why do we love the stories that we do? What’s qualities does a story have that pushes our buttons? That might be getting closer to where I want to go. The last lines of “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon misted my eyes as I read them. But it wasn’t because our unnamed narrator was dying. I wasn’t moved either in our last story, “The Monster” when Marion and Bernard were about to die.

No, I’m moved because our astronaut protagonist says: “‘God,’ he cries, dying on Mars, ‘God, we made it!'”

That’s one reason I love this story. I believe many of us who read science fiction have an affinity for Mars, and a desire to go there. And subset of those readers would even be happy to die there. Sturgeon knew that and hooked us.

But Sturgeon couldn’t have written just that last line to win us over. There is a long build up that makes that last line work. The dying astronaut is visited by hallucinations of his younger selves. One is a boy playing with a model, a boy like many of us who used to play with models. Those of us who love this story can remember being young and pestering older folks with our enthusiasm for newly acquired knowledge.

The dying astronaut has a vivid memory of skin diving and nearly drowning. I admire the story even more because I can remember skin diving a couple of times when I thought I was drowning. I was always a terrible swimmer and shouldn’t have even been trying the things I did. I remember the first time I used a snorkel, mask, and fins, and how I also swallowed water and thrashed in the water. I can remember trying to swim further than I was capable. I remember what it felt like to make it back to the beach, the relief. Those experiences resonated with Sturgeon’s character, and I imagined they were based on his own experiences. Such embedded connections make a story succeed.

However, we don’t have to have shared experiences with Sturgeon and his fictional character. We all wonder what it’s like to die. Maybe we’ve even been sick enough to think we’re dying. There is something special about that last moment, a moment we wait our whole life to experience. How will we handle it?

The first work of fiction I remember from childhood is about a man’s last thoughts when dying. I didn’t know that then. I was seeing the movie version of High Barbaree when I was about six. Later on, I learned it was based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. In the movie, Alec doesn’t die. In the book he does. But I’ve been intrigued by the idea of last thoughts my whole life. That also makes me love “The Man Who Lost the Sea.”

This is the second time this year that I’ve written about “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” I had already forgotten that. I had to use the search feature on my blog to check. The story was even better this second time. I’m not about to die, but I’m old enough that I think about it often. Because I’ve spent so much of my life reading science fiction my last thoughts might be haunted by science-fictional themes. My last thoughts could recall all those far-out ideas I loved by reading science fiction. I might even judge my time on Earth by how many became real?

I do know as I age, what I value in a science fiction story changes. Reading through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction is revealing what I still care about and what I don’t. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” still resonates, but so many of the stories don’t. If I was sitting across the table from the stories I’m breaking up with I should tell them, “It’s me, not you.”

I had a friend who died in middle age. His name was Williamson, and before he died he kept rejecting things he once loved. Towards the end, he only cared about two things in life, the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. This dwindling of interests before death I call the Williamson Effect. As I progress through my seventies, and maybe beyond, I imagine I’ll reject most of the science fiction stories I once loved. They will just stop working. I tend to think “The Man Who Lost the Sea” will continue to work for a long time, maybe not to the bitter end, but close.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/25/21

You Won’t Love Every Work of Classic Science Fiction

Over the years a number of people have emailed me about how they use the Classics of Science Fiction list as a reading goal. Well, I’ve never had anyone tell me they’ve read through the entire list — until now.

There’s always been a misconception about books called classics. I think some people feel they are guaranteed great reads. Classics are only books that get remembered over time. Our list was assembled from many sources, including fan polls, awards, lists by critics, writers, and editors, and so on. Just because these books have been statistically remembered by our various sources doesn’t mean they will be loved by readers. I’ve always wondered how science fiction fans who do read from this list react to the books. Well, I’ve gotten one answer. His reaction is completely different from mine, but then I expected that. I expect everyone to love some books and hate others. And that’s okay to hate books called classics.

Lists are very popular on the web, but just how useful are they? Szymon Szott is the first person to tell me they’ve finished our list. This is his answer. Now Szymon admits he quit on some books, but he did try, and I think that’s good enough. I asked Szymon to write up his reaction and here it is:

Jim has asked me to share my thoughts after completing the Classics of Science Fiction v5.

The list is quite long (115 books) and I didn’t read them back-to-back. Some of them I read a long time ago and their plot remains a bit vague (Ubik) while others are among my all-time favorite novels and I’ve read them multiple times (Dune). In recent years, however, I’ve been trying to steadily chip away at the list. In mid-October I finished China Mountain Zhang and thus completed my quest, having read 36 books from the list this year. Overall, my average rating was 3.65 out of 5 stars and since I rarely give 5 stars to a book, it goes to show that I really enjoyed the experience.

My all-time favorite novels from the list are:

Ender's Game
Dune
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Red Mars
Snow Crash

No surprises there, my top three are the same as WWE’s Most Read Books of All-Time and the other two are acknowledged modern classics. However, I read the list to find books which would surprise me, so here are my top five unexpected hits with brief summaries to whet your appetite:

Mission of Gravity - a hard SF exploration of a cool idea: a planet where the gravity varies from 700 g at the poles to 3 g at the equator.

Flowers for Algernon - another exploration of an SF idea (increasing intelligence through surgery), but very human-focused, a moving tale.

Dreamsnake - a grand story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it must have inspired the Fallout game series.

Ammonite - interesting planet exploration, where a virus alters the colonists.

The Windup Girl - near-future biopunk novel, which the author wrote during a SARS outbreak in Asia (making it unexpectedly relevant to current times).

I didn’t, however, find absolutely all the books amazing. In fact, I didn’t finish two of them: The Female Man and Synners. The former was just plain confusing while the latter had a combination of plot, characters, and prose style that didn't work for me. Out of the books that I did finish, here’s my bottom five:

Last and First Men
Star Maker
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Dhalgren
Startide Rising

I read that the two Stapledon books were influential to many SF authors, but were just plain boring to read (having almost no plot or characters). The others aren’t terrible but have some element that put me off (sentient dolphins, a resurrected Göring, or all-combination sex).

Are there any books I think are missing from the list? Well, the arbitrary cutoff is at at 12 citations and here are some great books which I enjoyed that didn’t make it:

R.U.R.
On the Beach
Accelerando
The Stand
Perdido Street Station

They’re all quite different but at the heart of each is the exploration of SF concepts and all of them filled me with a sense of wonder.

Overall, I think the Classics of Science Fiction v5 list is a great resource. Should you read it from beginning to end like I did? Only if you’re either studying the history of SF or are an obsessive completist. Otherwise, treat the list as a recommendation of outstanding SF books and don’t fear to stop reading a book if it doesn’t meet your expectations. Life’s too short for books you don’t enjoy!

I believe Szymon’s finally recommendation is a good one. By the way, Szymon has written for us before:

James Wallace Harris, 10/22/21

“The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #21 of 107: “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean

The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean first appeared in the September 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. It’s not a great story, but it’s not bad either. I believe other people must like it far more than I do because it’s been reprinted quite often.

This story has a problem that’s quite common in science fiction stories. Writers get a neat idea first, and then they invent a story to present their idea. Quite often the story is never as good as the idea. Superior science fiction stories have a great story with neat ideas that only decorate the story.

In this case MacLean wonders, what if we had a mathematically formula that could explain how an organization could grow at an exponential rate. What she imagines is a Ponzi scheme designed by a sociologist, and has two professors test it on a women’s sewing club. You can probably guess the ending. But can you guess how MacLean will dramatize this story with plot and characters?

If you’ve read much science fiction you might know where I’m going. Science fiction is full of stories that begin with two people talking about an idea, then we see the idea implemented in a cursory way, and finally, we have some kind of surprise ending. When done poorly, the story usually begins with two characters infodumping on the reader, and that’s the case here. Often such stories involves a contrived setup. In this case, an administrator is putting the screws to a sociology professor to justify his department’s existence. That’s still a relevant real-world problem in universities today, and not just for sociology departments. It’s actually a genuinely interesting problem that we should care about as readers – how do academic programs pay their way? Does society need their graduates? Is the program worth the cost to the university, state, and students? What does the discipline do for the community? I was hooked by this idea as a story problem, and I was anxious to read on.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t pleased with MacLean’s answer. She came up with a good setup, but she doesn’t have anything to say. I don’t mean a Western Union message. Good short stories elevate us with insights. At this point I’m expecting a dramatic story that shows me the value of sociology – something I can understand. We don’t get that. We neither get a true short story, or an understanding of sociology. What we get is a mildly pleasant joke.

Science fiction has produced countless stories like this. A pleasant setup to present a nifty idea. When I was younger being amused by an idea was enough, but I’m older and I don’t have much time left to live. I only want to read 5-star stories, or at least top-notch 4-star stories. “The Snowball Effect” is only a 3-star story. I believe it was perfectly fine for the September 1952 issue of Galaxy, but I’m surprised it was ever reprinted.

Maybe I can explain my harsh attitude with an analogy. I think of anthologies like a generation spaceship designed to save people from a dying Earth. Best-of-the-year annuals are constructed to rescue the best stories of the year. Retrospective anthologies are designed to save stories from specific periods. I believe the VanderMeers have a somewhat different approach. To them anthologies are like the starship Enterprise exploring the galaxy, looking for neat planets and interesting phenomena happening around the Milky Way. They want to make a wide survey that reveals the diversity of what’s going on. From my perspective only a few stories can be saved, so why not the best? For them, lets check out some interesting possibilities.

There’s a great SF story I can use here, “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh. It first appeared in the February 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The setup has the world coming to an end and there’s only enough rockets to save one in three hundred people. Each rocket is assigned a person to pick those that will be saved. Bill Easson must decide who in his small town will go. He knows there are many personality factors to consider and he will make mistakes by picking people who won’t survive the mission, but he still has to pick.

For me, it’s important to pick science fiction stories that can survive the harsh climate of future readers. Like Bill picking people he feels has what it takes to survive on the new planet, anthologists pick stories that have qualities that make them survivalists. All the stories we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction are still readable, I’m just that asshole we see in war movies that tell a squad member they don’t think they’ll make it.

I doubt many 20th-century science fiction stories will be loved by readers in the 22nd-century. I don’t believe “The Snowball Effect” will make it. It’s only marginal in 2021. What bothers me are the stories I believe have a better chance to survive the long haul that wasn’t pick by this anthology. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe I know any better than the VanderMeers. Nobody can predict the future – but we all keep trying.

It’s just there are stories I want to see saved, and to do that they need to be anthologized several more times before the year 2100. Every ship they miss reduces their chance to make it. To make matters more emotional for me, is the 1950s is my favorite decade for science fiction. The VanderMeers have chosen 20 stories from the 1950s, so they like that period too, unfortunately we only agree on two stories at the most. But I have to say I haven’t read all their selections so that number might go up. Four of those twenty stories were from 1952. Here are the 1950s SF stories from The Big Book of Science Fiction:

  • September 2005: The Martian • (1951) • short story by Ray Bradbury
  • Baby HP • short story by Juan José Arreola (trans. of Baby H. P. 1952)
  • Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
  • Beyond Lies the Wub • (1952) • short story by Philip K. Dick
  • The Snowball Effect • (1952) • short story by Katherine MacLean
  • Prott • (1953) • short story by Margaret St. Clair
  • The Liberation of Earth • (1953) • short story by William Tenn
  • Let Me Live in a House • (1954) • novelette by Chad Oliver
  • The Star • (1955) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Grandpa • (1955) • novelette by James H. Schmitz
  • The Game of Rat and Dragon • (1955) • short story by Cordwainer Smith
  • The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov
  • Stranger Station • (1956) • novelette by Damon Knight
  • Sector General • (1957) • novelette by James White
  • The Visitors • novelette as by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
  • Pelt • (1958) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
  • The Monster • (1965) • short story by Gérard Klein? (trans. of Le monstre 1958)
  • The Man Who Lost the Sea • (1959) • short story by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Waves • short story by Silvina Ocampo (trans. of Las ondas 1959)
  • Plenitude • (1959) • short story by Will Mohler

Here are 18 SF stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list from the 1950s. These stories were selected because they were most cited by a meta-list system. The number at the end is the total citations the story received. The bolded stories are those that overlap with The Big Book of Science Fiction. By the way, the BBofSF was one of the citation sources.

  • Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber (1950) 11
  • The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth (1950) 8
  • Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith (1950) 9
  • There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury (1950) 8
  • The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (1951) 9
  • Surface Tension by James Blish (1952) 9
  • The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) 12
  • Second Variety by Philip K. Dick (1953) 8
  • The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin (1954) 12
  • Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester (1954) 13
  • The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1955) 14
  • The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) 16
  • The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) 11
  • The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956) 8

This list is closer to my tastes, but probably far from my final list. Below are the 1950s stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One that the SFWA membership remembered. Notice only one story, “Surface Tension” is remembered on all three lists. It would probably be on mine too.

  • Scanners Live in Vain • (1950) • novelette by Cordwainer Smith
  • The Little Black Bag • (1950) • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth
  • Born of Man and Woman • (1950) • short story by Richard Matheson
  • Coming Attraction • (1950) • short story by Fritz Leiber
  • The Quest for Saint Aquin • (1951) • novelette by Anthony Boucher
  • Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • (1953) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • It’s a Good Life • (1953) • short story by Jerome Bixby
  • The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin
  • Fondly Fahrenheit • (1954) • novelette by Alfred Bester
  • The Country of the Kind • (1956) • short story by Damon Knight
  • Flowers for Algernon • (1959) • novelette by Daniel Keyes

These Hall of Fame stories are much closer in agreement with the CSFquery list.

I’m not ready to compose my list of favorite 1950s science fiction stories. I’m still reading. But there is one problem with my focus on the 1950s. I’m discovering stories that I love that currently aren’t well remembered. That’s a bad sign for the survivability. There’s a good chance I could pick 20 stories that few people would even enjoy reading today, much less in 79 years.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/28/21

“Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #20 of 107: “Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

“Beyond Lies the Wub” is Philip K. Dick’s first publish story and we can already see hints of what’s to come in his future writing. It’s a fun little story with a cheeky horror twist. The wub is a gentle creature who loves to enjoy itself, indulging in food, conversation, and philosophy. I wonder if PKD saw himself as the wub? In the end Captain Franco kills the wub and eats it — and we’re shocked to learn that the wub takes over his mind. I wonder if PKD saw himself in this too, because we read his stories, putting them inside us, and we write and talk about them becoming a little bit like PKD.

Yesterday I wrote about my lifelong addiction to science fiction at my personal blog. I was lamenting that I wasn’t challenging myself much by reading science fiction short stories which I felt were only a couple steps up from comic books. Comments were left defending comic books, but I wasn’t attacking them. What I was implying is art represents different levels of complexity to create and takes different levels of effort to consume. Art is anti-entropic. I was saying science fiction short stories on average require more complexity to create and consume than comic book stories. (I wasn’t considering the comic art in the comparison.) The average science fiction novel takes more work to create and read than the average science fiction short story. But I also believe the best literary novels and short stories are more complex on average than most of the best science fiction novels and short stories.

Take for example the Jorge Luis Borges story we read. Borges was far more ambitious in that story than any of the other stories we read so far. It took more cognitive effort to write, and it takes us far more cognitive effort to read. I was criticizing myself for indulging in mostly consuming science fiction in my lifetime rather than pursuing more active activities, or even consuming more complex art.

But the thing is I enjoyed “Beyond Lies the Wub” more than I did “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” even though the PKD is much closer to comic book writing, and the Borges is far more complex than average science fiction short story writing. I shouldn’t though. “Beyond Lies the Wub” is junk food, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is haute cuisine, relatively speaking. But who’s to say which is superior?

In past years, I believe the average level of complexity of the short stories of The Best American Short Stories annuals were greater than the complexity of science fiction short stories in their annual best of the year volumes for the same years. I would say that if we compared the 2021 annuals from this year, science fiction is approaching the complexity of literary writing, but hasn’t quite caught up.

I also feel that the complexity of the science fiction stories we’re reading in The Big Book of Science Fiction from each period doesn’t always match the highest level of complexity from other stories that could have been chosen. “Surface Tension” is definitely far more complex than “Beyond Lies the Wub” for a 1952 science fiction story, but it is far less sophisticated than “Baby Is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon.

“Beyond Lies the Wub” is a fun story, but it’s far from PKD’s best. Why is it here when there is much better SF from that era? Why did the VanderMeers skip over “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber and “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith both from 1950? These were dazzling stories that began the decade for science fiction and showed a quantum leap over the what was being written in the 1940s. If we had to have a PKD story from the 1950s, why not “Second Variety?” And is the 1950s the right decade for using our one PKD story?

I can think of a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s that are far more complex and challenging than the ones we’re getting in this anthology. But was that the goal of the book? “Beyond Lies the Wub” is fun, and quite often I prefer reading just for fun, so I can’t blame the VanderMeers for their choice if that’s the case.

In my essay yesterday I was basically lamenting I could have done more with my life than read all that science fiction. But it is the art form I chose to admire and become part of my life. And in my retirement years I’ve been focusing on science fiction short stories. And I’m learning that some science fiction stories are way better than others – in my subjective view. However, if we use complexity to measure them, isn’t that less subjective and more objective?

“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester and “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance are far more complex than the stories we’re getting in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Why weren’t they chosen? Bester and Vance were dazzling in their writing. If we’re given a collection of stories that claim to be the ultimate science fiction short stories of the 20th century, shouldn’t they be the most ambitious, challenging, and complex examples? I don’t know. I’m just wondering?

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James Wallace Harris, 9/27/21