The Difference Between 5-star and 4-star Stories

At our SF short story reading group on Facebook we’ve been discussing story rating systems. Everyone has a slightly different way to review and rate stories but a 5-star system is common. However, several people expand that basic 5 levels into 10 levels with half-stars or pluses, or to 100 levels with tenths of a point refinements. Personally, I can’t distinguish that finely between stories to organize them into ten levels, much less one hundred. However, I can say subjectively I like one story better than another, and compare them relative to each other.

After reading 1,000-2,000 stories over the last four years I’m starting to get an intuition about their quality. Some stories just stand out above all the others, and the group essentially agrees that 5-stars should be reserved for those very best stories, the stories that have become recognized classics or feel will become classic in the future. And I say essentially because we never agree on anything precisely in our group. And this relative system of rating doesn’t mean one reader’s 5-star classic can’t be some other member’s 3-star it’s okay story.

We discuss one story a day, and maybe a handful of members out of a near 500 membership will read and comment on the story. Those comments are enlightening about how we each read stories, and what reading pleasures and displeasures trigger their responses. A few of us have started leaving star ratings and that’s beginning to become illuminating too.

I’m slowly getting a feel for the short story form, at least regarding science fiction stories. If you haven’t read that many SF short stories, even an average story can trigger a “far out” or “great” response. But once you’ve logged your ten thousand hours of reading time, you realize truly great stories are few and far between. My guess is less than six 5-star level stories are published each year, and probably less than two dozen 4-star level stories. Most stories are good solid stories but they must be classed as 3-stars if you consider them relative to the 5-star and 4-star stories.

In other words, a 4-star story is a story that breaks out from the crowd by a significant measure. It’s like the Magnitude scale for earthquakes, logarithmic. It just feels like a big jump from 3-stars to 4-stars, and that’s why so many in the group want to rate stories ***+ or 3.5-stars, or even 3.2 or 3.7, because they feel the story is better than average but not quite up to that 4-star level. When you’ve read a lot of stories it intuitively feels like a 4-star stories is a quantum leap above a 3-star story but few people can explain why in details. And there’s another another tremendous leap from 4-stars to 5-stars. When you think of stories like “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” you know very few stories come close to their magnitude in power.

I think many people want to rate fiction (or movies, or albums) like people rate their purchases on Amazon where 5-stars means you have no complaints. Which is why for some products on Amazon you see 80% 5-star ratings. When it comes to the artistic, 5-stars has to be for artwork that is 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 in quality.

But how can we understand this at a gut-reaction level? An idea came to me today that I think might help, so I’m trying it out here. Take any author you’ve read many of their short stories. How many stand out as your very favorites? How many are almost as good? And if you count the rest, how large is that number in relation to the first two groups?

Take for example Ray Bradbury. I consider these his obvious 5-star stories:

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains”
  • “Mars is Heaven!”

I consider his 4-star stories to be:

  • “The Million-Year Picnic”
  • “The Veldt”
  • “A Sound of Thunder”
  • “The Pedestrian”

And the first two I’d probably rate ****+ or 4.5-stars.

There might be other stories that I haven’t read by Bradbury that I would rate with a 5-star or 4-star, but for the most part I’ve read dozens of his hundreds of stories and they go into a vague 3-star pile. If I studied his work thoroughly, I’d probably find several more stories I love, but for now, this is how I remember Ray Bradbury.

For all my favorite authors I can remember stories that stand out as classic, and some that I don’t feel are quite as good. For example, with Clifford Simak, as much as I love “The Big Front Yard,” it’s not on the the save level as “Huddling Place” or “Desertion.” As much as I love “The Year of the Jackpot” by Heinlein, it’s not on the same level as “The Menace From Earth,” or “Requiem,” or “Universe.”

Another difference between 4-star and 5-star stories is how many times I will reread them. I can enjoy a 3-star story quite a lot, but I know I’ll never want to reread them. Whereas, when I read a story for the first time and know I want to reread again someday, that tells me the story is a 4-star story. Stories that I have read many times are the ones I think of as 5-star stories. In fact, I might not know a story is a 5-star story until I’ve read it two or three times.

There is no way to objectively and quantitatively rate a work of art, but using a system based on relative impact is somewhat helpful, don’t you think?

Using this relative system to read new stories, especially by authors I don’t know, can be troublesome. I have to rate the story against all the other stories I know by other writers. So if I’m reading a new story from the latest issue of Lightspeed Magazine it has to complete with all the 5-star and 4-star stories I’ve discovered over my lifetime.

Is that fair? Would it be fair to do otherwise?

SF Short Story Rating Systems I Admire

James Wallace Harris 6/10/21

All Is Ineffable, But Some Writers Try Anyway

I divide fiction into two types: stories about reality, and stories that are make believe. Words are not cameras, but some writers use words to paint what they see. Most writers use words to trigger artificial realities in our mind’s eye. Their stories might feel reality based, but they are not. Some writers use such fantasies as analogies to comment on real world, which can be confusing. We never can distinguish the unreal from any slight implications about reality.

What do you do when you encounter an absurd story that feels like it has something to say about life but is impossible to decipher? Do you stick with it, hoping understanding will come? Do you study critical works hoping for insight? Do you take notes and ponder the possibilities? Or do you get disgusted and throw the book against the wall? One Goodreads reviewer claimed that’s what he did with Past Master by R. A. Lafferty. I thought about it.

The title, Past Master, can be interpreted in a number of ways. One approach is to accept how it’s used in the story. Thomas More is retrieved from the past to become the president of a colony planet in the future, a decaying utopia. The characters in the story call More the past master and hope he will save their society. Throughout the novel, we get many allusions to literary past masters because their words encrust Lafferty’s prose like barnacles. Third, and maybe finally, or maybe not, we sense that Lafferty himself is the past master. His soul is swollen with past experiences he recasts onto clean typewritten pages like Jackson Pollard throwing paint at a canvas.

As a reader I ache to make sense of Lafferty’s first novel. I hope it has a point, because swimming across a lake of his Baroque prose I can’t tell if Past Master is a shallow tall-tale, or The Divine Comedy. I find Lafferty’s voice not much fun to read, but I do perceive his work as creative and unique. I keep reading because I’ve been pushing myself to read more science fiction by admired writers I ignored because I didn’t like them.

Past Master was selected by the Library of America as one of the significant science fiction novels of the 1960s. It was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards. And over the years Lafferty has had many champions promoting his work, including: Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Michael Dirda, Nancy Kress, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, etc.

It would be helpful if I knew more about R. A. Lafferty. He’s sometimes referred to as an engineer, but he never finished college. After serving in the South Pacific in WWII, he worked as a salesperson in an engineering supply house until 1980 when his writing could support him instead. He never married, supposedly lived with his sister, and was a Catholic who went to daily communion. Lafferty was very prolific, publishing many novels, hundreds of short stories, and leaving a tall stack of unpublished novels and stories at his death. He probably leaned towards the conservative politically, but not completely.

Because of Lafferty’s prose, especially his word choices, I assume he was widely read, probably from old books. The narrative voice in many of his stories often feels like some translations of Homer or even writers from Elizabethan England. His characters lack an inner landscape like those in classical literature, and are often presented as archetypes. Yet, Lafferty writes science fiction, even though it sometimes feels as it was written by Virgil, Apuleius, or Petronius.

Past Master is a story about a utopia, but one set five hundred years from now on the planet Astrobe. Lafferty claims civilization is recreated every five hundred years, and Astrobe is the third great attempt at creating a utopia after the failures in the Old World in Europe, and the New World in the Americas. Near the beginning of Past Master we learn:

The three men gathered in the building were large physically, they were important and powerful, they were intelligent and interesting. There was a peculiar linkage between them: each believed that he controlled the other two, that he was the puppeteer and they were the puppets. And each was partly right in this belief. It made them an interlocking nexus, taut and resilient, the most intricate on Astrobe. 

Cosmos Kingmaker, who was too rich. The Heraldic Lion. 

Peter Proctor, who was too lucky. The Sleek Fox. 

Fabian Foreman, who was too smart. The Worried Hawk. 

“This is Mankind’s third chance,” said Kingmaker. “Ah, they’re breaking the doors down again. How can we talk with it all going on?” 

He took the speaking tube. “Colonel,” he called out. “You have sufficient human guards. It is imperative that you disperse the riot. It is absolutely forbidden that they murder this man at this time and place. He is with us and is one of us as he has always been.” 

“The colonel is dead,” a voice came back. “I am Captain John Chezem the Third, next in command.” 

“You be Colonel Chezem now,” Kingmaker said. “Call out what reinforcements you need and prevent this thing.” 

“Foreman,” said Peter Proctor softly within the room. “Whatever you are thinking this day, do not think it so strongly. I’ve never seen the things so avid for your life.” 

“It is Mankind’s third chance we have been throwing away here,” Kingmaker intoned to the other two in the room, speaking with great serenity considering the siege they were under. Even when he spoke quietly, Kingmaker was imposing. He had the head that should be on gold coins or on Great Seals. They called him the lion, but there were no lions on Astrobe except as statuary. He was a carven lion, cut out of the Golden Travertine, the fine yellow marble of Astrobe. He had a voice of such depth that it set up echoes even when he whispered. It was part of the aura of power that he set up about himself.

Lafferty, R. A.. Past Master (pp. 14-15). Library of America. Kindle Edition. 

These three decide to send someone back in time to fetch Thomas More. They want to run him for president of Astrobe as the only solution to save themselves and their utopian society. To get a bit more of the flavor of this story, let me quote the beginning of chapter two.

THE PILOT chosen by Fabian Foreman to bring Thomas More from Earth to Astrobe was named Paul. Paul was two meters of walking irony, a long, strong, swift man, and short of speech. His voice was much softer than would be expected from his appearance, and had only a slight rough edge to it. What seemed to be a perpetual crooked grin was partly the scar of an old fight. He was a compassionate man with a cruel and crooked face. From his height, his rough red hair and ruddy face, and his glittering eyes he was sometimes called The Beacon. 

For a record of irregular doings, classified as criminal, Paul had had his surname and his citizenship taken away from him. Such a person loses all protection and sanction. He is at the mercy of the Programmed Persons and their Killers, and mercy was never programmed into them. 

The Programmed Killers are inhibited from killing a human citizen of Astrobe, though often they do so by contrived accident. But an offender who has had his citizenship withdrawn is prey to them. He has to be very smart to survive, and Paul had survived for a year. For that long he had evaded the remorseless stiff-gaited Killers who follow their game relentlessly with their peculiar stride. Paul had lived as a poor man in the Barrio, and in the ten thousand kilometers of alleys in Cathead. He had been running and hiding for a year, and quite a bit of money had been bet on him. There is always interest in seeing how long these condemned can find a way to live under their peculiar sentence, and Paul had lived with it longer than any of them could remember. And he was ahead of those stiff killers. He had killed a dozen of them in their brushes, and not one of them had ever killed him. 

An ansel named Rimrock, an acquaintance of both of them, had got in touch with Paul for Fabian Foreman. And Paul arrived now, remarkably uncowed by his term as fugitive. He arrived quite early in the morning, and he already had an idea from the ansel of what the mission was. 

“You sent for me, Hawk-Face?” he asked Foreman. “I’m an irregular man. Why should you send me on a mission? Send a qualified citizen pilot, and keep yourself clean.” 

“We want a man capable of irregular doings, Paul,” Foreman said. “You’ve been hunted, and you’ve become smart. There will be danger. There shouldn’t be, since this was decided on by the Inner Circle of the Masters, but there will be.” 

“What’s in it for me?” 

“Nothing. Nothing at all. You’ve been living in the meanest circumstances on the planet. You are intelligent. You must have seen what is wrong with Astrobe.” 

“No, I don’t know what is wrong with our world, Inner Circle Foreman, nor how to set it right. I know that things are very wrong; and that those who use words to mean their opposites are delighted about the whole thing. You yourself are a great deal in the company of the subverters. I don’t trust you a lot. But you are hunted by the killers. You slipped them yesterday by a fox trick that nobody understands, so you enter the legendary of the high hunted. There must be something right about a man they hate so much.” 

“We are trying to find a new sort of leader who can slow, even reverse, the break-up, Paul. We’ve selected a man from the Earth Past, Thomas More. We will present him to the people only as the Thomas, or perhaps, to be more fanciful, as the Past Master. You know of him?” 

“Yes, I know him as to time and place and reputation.”

Lafferty, R. A.. Past Master (pp. 23-24). Library of America. Kindle Edition. 

The program killers are robots, maybe androids. In Lafferty everything is mythical, so people can be a product of human and machine, or animal and human, etc. You get the feeling that Lafferty dreads the coming technological changes, and the social transformations he’s experiencing in the mid-1960s. Lafferty’s science fiction might even be anti-SF.

Astrobe is only partly utopian, where its citizens can have anything. Yet, many people are leaving the utopian cities, choosing to live instead in outlaw territories, even when forced to work as slaves or worst. In the chapters where Thomas More is studying Astrobe, we encounter many strange places and people. These picaresque parts of the novel feels like something out of Lewis Carroll or L. Frank Baum. In the later chapters, where More is running for president and then ruling, the story becomes more metaphysical and surreal. It’s about fate and who really rules reality. In the last chapters, Lafferty becomes philosophical, but in a religious/spiritual way.

What is Lafferty saying about reality? We know Lafferty was devoutly Catholic, and the story strongly mirrors Christ and the crucifixion. At one point Thomas More asks to attend Mass on Astrobe, but he’s shown a horrible mechanical freak show. Another time he gets to meet the Pope, who is barely alive. Lafferty began Past Master around 1964 or earlier, during the changes of the Vatican II Council. Lafferty hated the new direction the church was taking. I’m guessing that Lafferty didn’t like the way the world at large was going either, and Past Master is his commentary on those upheavals. The novel essentially predicts a reboot of society, something some crazy people desire today.

On one level, Past Master feels like the humor of Robert Sheckley or Avram Davidson. Lafferty is just writing weird shit to amuse science fiction readers who are mostly adolescents. On the other hand, Lafferty is a mature man writing what will become his first novel published when he’s in his early fifties. I’m not sure, but he may be an old white guy with something to say.

Just how sophisticated is Lafferty’s novel? Is he no better than a Qanon reposter or something closer to Gore Vidal? If we’re to believe the Library of America, Neil Gaiman, or Andrew Ferguson, Lafferty is a literary wonder. Go to Amazon and read Gaiman’s introduction to The Best of R. A. Lafferty or Ferguson’s introduction to Past Master in the “Look inside” feature. On the other hand, just reexamine the quotes above.

I can’t decide. Since the 1960s I’ve read three of Lafferty’s novels, and maybe a couple dozen short stories. Sometimes I’m amused, sometimes I’m annoyed. If Past Master is commentary on the mid-20th century by a grumpy old Catholic guy from Tulsa, then I’m kind of impressed. But if it’s just an absurd play for the theater of our minds, I’m mostly unimpressed.

There’s another way to judge this story. We learn next to nothing about Thomas More or his Utopia, or utopias in general. Nor do we learn anything significant about Catholicism or Christianity. Past Master is satire, but not very sophisticated, closer to SNL. Sometimes it’s amusing like “More Cowbell” but other times it’s moronic like the Bassomatic. All too often science fiction takes a half-ass approach to its philosophizing. The level of humor in Past Master is closer to Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, two comic SF novels I enjoyed. However, Lafferty uses an archaic voice for his humor which I didn’t enjoy. Because Lafferty is riffing on many serious subjects, we get the whiff of serious literature. But is it? To tell the truth, I don’t know. I think not, but Lafferty’s out of print books are now rare, expensive, and hard to find because of his faithful fans.

I do believe R. A. Lafferty was protesting reality by writing Past Master back in the 1960s, but his fiction is ineffable, giving us only hints at what he really thought. And you know what’s funny? Reading Past Master makes me want to read a memoir by Lafferty, or a good biography. Lafferty fiction can be entertaining, but I actually wish I knew what he actually thought and experienced, and that’s easier to come by in nonfiction. Satire sometimes feels like its from a superior intellect, but just as often, I get the feeling it hides a lack of knowledge, or is just anger and snideness.

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/21

“The Star” by H. G. Wells

When I was young, reading science fiction thrilled me by giving me new ideas to ponder, ones I wasn’t getting from school. For example, when I was twelve, I read the When Worlds Collide/After Worlds Collide double decker by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. It provided three new wonders to inflame my mind. First, planets from outside the solar system could fly through our interplanetary space and even collide with the Earth. Imagining the end of the world provides no end of chilling speculation. People have been entertaining that vision since the Great Flood. Second, I was introduced to the idea that people could escape the end of the world. Wow, what a concept! And third, what if we found a dead city that was once occupied by aliens? What would it be like to walk among their ruins and imagine their lives from the clues they left?

What’s remarkable about “The Star” by H. G. Wells, published in 1897, is its science fictional setup would work just as well today in 2021. The story describes people’s reactions from from around the world at that time, but the astronomical events and effects upon the Earth would be the same today. And I’m not sure people now would react much differently than they did then. What has changed is how the news is spread.

Nowadays I am fascinated by how science fiction short stories gain popularity and then fade from pop culture memory. They are usually remembered by anthologies. An editor of a good retrospective anthology knows the genre and tries to keep older stories alive. Every few years a new large retrospective anthology of short science fiction appears. Over time, the weakest older stories are left out of the latest anthology, and the best newer stories are added, revealing a kind of evolution.

Readers who buy genre retrospective anthologies are shown a kind of photograph of the history of short science fiction, with each new anthology trying capture the genre in a pose by how the editors want their readers to see its history. I’ve been dipping into The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer since it came out in 2016. Its oldest story is “The Star.” The Big Book of Science Fiction has nearly a hundred stories and I’ve read maybe a quarter of them. The VanderMeers worked to diversify the history of the genre by including more stories by women writers and translated stories by non-English speaking writers.

Their family portrait of science fiction looks somewhat different than Leigh Ronald Grossman’s group photo, Sense of Wonder, taken in 2011. Grossman’s oldest pick was “Mellonta Tauta” by Edgar Allan Poe from 1849. Grossman’s anthology is even larger than the VanderMeers’, but it includes a novel, novel extracts, and introductory essays. It’s meant to be a textbook for teaching the history of science fiction, but Grossman’s photo of the genre revealed a more traditional pose for the genre.

Right now, I’m less concerned the overall image of the genre’s legacy than I am with understanding the evolution of science fictional ideas. I’d love to create a taxonomy of science fictional ideas and themes. When Groff Conklin assembled his first retrospective anthology back in 1946, The Best of Science Fiction, he divided the stories into six theme sections. Over the decades many anthologists have created theme anthologies. But it’s impossible to grasp all the far-out ideas of science fiction in just one anthology, or even a shelf of them. So, I’m going to work my way through several large retrospective anthologies, take notes, and plot my findings. Maybe I can come up with some way of showing an evolutionary tree of science fictional ideas.

I’ve decided “The Star” was inspired by astronomy, so the first theme I’m going to work on is Astronomical Science Fiction. However, did H. G. Wells think up his idea? Had Wells read Omega: The Last Days of the World by French astronomer Camille Flammarion which came out in 1894? When did the English edition first appear? Wells could also have read Olga Romanoff or, The Syren of the Skies by George Griffith serialized in Pearson’s Weekly (12/30/1893 – 8/4/1894). Both these stories are impact event stories. And then we must ask where did Flammarion get his idea? Jules Verne wrote Off on a Comet in 1877 about a comet that gives the Earth a glancing blow. Wells was savvy enough to know his planet didn’t need to impact the Earth, but it’s gravitation influence coming near us could wreak havoc on our planet.

I want to develop a classification scheme, a taxonomy, or even a mind map of how science fiction ideas evolve. Earlier writers imagined a comet hitting the Earth. Wells imagined a planet from outside the solar system, which is a much newer idea if you think about it. People were aware of comets, but how many Earthlings imagined a planet visiting the solar system? Then in the 1930s Balmer and Wylie imagined two visiting planets. By the way, Wells interstellar visitor is called a star in the title, but referred to as a planet in the story. People see it as a star in the sky.

Once you start considering the theme, thinking about astronomy can inspire all kinds of science fictional ideas. Wells used astronomy again at the end of The Time Machine when he used the Sun expanding into a red giant, and the Earth slowing its rotation.

I wish I had a better memory than I do so I could recall all the science fiction stories that used astronomy as the inspiration of its science fiction. Fred Hoyle used it for The Black Cloud a story about a dust cloud blocking the sun. But sometimes its fanciful astronomy. Poul Anderson imagined the solar system orbiting the Milky Way in Brain Wave and wondered what if the solar system passes through different kinds of radiation fields. Now this is unbelievable but fun, but what if the solar system had been in a radiation field that retarded intelligence and it moved out of that field? In Brain Wave humans and all living things become a bit smarter. Even more fanciful is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, where he imagines the Earth encased in a spin membrane that slows time down. Of course, this moves outside the realm of Astronomical Science Fiction because the membrane was artificially created.

Getting back to real astronomy, consider the short story “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven from 1971. People notice the Moon is glowing strangely one night. Our narrator theorizes the Sun has gone nova and the world is about to be destroyed, but then figures a massive solar flare has occurred, which might be survivable. Notice how these Astronomical Science Fiction stories usually involve the destruction of the Earth.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle returned to the comet impact in 1977 with Lucifer’s Hammer. Comet and asteroid strikes seem to be the most common inspiration on Astronomical Science Fiction. But here is a list created by Andrew Fraknoi in 2019 that lists more recent science fiction based on astronomy and physics. Wells or “The Star” wasn’t mentioned. That’s the problem with creating a SF theme taxonomy, it’s like the biological world there are millions of examples to be classified.

One interesting aspect of “The Star” (and When Worlds Collide) is it depends on astronomers to let the people of Earth know that something is about to happen. How often are astronomers the heroes of science fiction stories?

It was on the first day of the New Year that the announcement was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an unprecedented kind.

Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until early in the twentieth century this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could attain it.

At the end of the 19th century the common person did not have access to television or the internet. This news would have been spread by telegraph and newspapers. Also, I doubt many citizens of the world understood much about astronomy back then. Since we know so much about astronomy now, and science fictional concepts, so I would think a science fiction writer would have a hard time coming up with a good new concept to set off people’s sense of wonder.

H. G. Wells worked imagine in his story the discovery of the event on different minds around the world. I think that’s why new writers get to retell old stories. Many science fictional concepts are quite old, so it’s the current culture that changes in new stories, not the science fiction.

And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. "It is larger," they cried. "It is brighter!" And, indeed the moon a quarter full and sinking in the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little circle of the strange new star.

"It is brighter!" cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one another it is nearer," they said. "Nearer!"

And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the type. "It is nearer." Men writing in offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along wakening streets, it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages; men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to the passersby. "It is nearer." Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned an intelligent interest they did not feel. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious! How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!"

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to comfort themselves--looking skyward. "It has need to be nearer, for the night's as cold as charity. Don't seem much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same."

"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman kneeling beside her dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for himself--with the great white star shining broad and bright through the frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal, centripetal," he said, with his chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this--!

"Do we come in the way? I wonder--"

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African City a great man had married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride. "Even the skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn, two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered. "That is our star," they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half way up the sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys and steeples of the city, hung the star.

I would think in my taxonomy of science fiction for this theme I’d have to also classify the state of the world that received the story. Yet, isn’t the possibility of a roving body visiting out system still possible? Isn’t that why new SF writers in every generation can retell the story? Just research all the speculation the first known real interstellar visitor named Oumuamua caused? It reminded me of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/21

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

My job is to get you to read stories if you haven't. I'll try to make it easy for you by linking to a copy on the web if the story is available. I'll also tell you about anthologies where you can find the story. Then I'll start talking about the story. At first I'll be vague so as not to spoil the story, but hopefully intriguing enough to get to you to go read the story before continuing. As I progress I'll give more and more away.

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is a magnificent work of second person prose that is as confusing as a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces without the box. As you read the story the picture is revealed with the placement of the last piece. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was first published in October 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1960, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (Ninth Series, 1960), and Judith Merril’s annual anthology,The Fifth Annual of the Year’s Best SF (1960) where I just read it. It was up for a Hugo in 1960 but lost to “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, but wouldn’t any story lose to that story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” is currently available to read online at Strange Horizons. Or jump over to Escape Pod to listen to the story.

I’ll illustrate how admired this story is by showing you some of the retrospective anthologies it’s been reprinted in over the years:

  • 1968 – Towards Infinity edited by Damon Knight
  • 1969 – First Step Outward edited by Robert Hoskins
  • 1977 – Alpha 8 edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1983 – The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1989 – The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell
  • 1990 – The Great SF Stories 21 (1959) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1997 – A Century of Science Fiction (1950-1959) edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 2005 – My Favorite Science Fiction Story edited by Martin H. Greenberg
  • 2016 – The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m feeling guilty about not having read “The Men Who Lost the Sea” before now. How could I have missed it? To be honest, I’m not sure my younger self could have appreciated the story. The second person prose involving nonlinear events would have been difficult for my speed-reading younger self to comprehend. Just read the first paragraph:

Say you're a kid, and one dark night you're running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you're too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn't a toy, it's a model. You tell him look here, here's something most people don't know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won't listen. He doesn't want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away.

What the hell is going on? Where are we? Who is the narrator? Sturgeon gives us the first clues in the second paragraph:

The sick man is buried in the cold sand with only his head and his left arm showing. He is dressed in a pressure suit and looks like a man from Mars. Built into his left sleeve is a combination time-piece and pressure gauge, the gauge with a luminous blue indicator which makes no sense, the clock hands luminous red. He can hear the pounding of surf and the soft swift pulse of his pumps. One time long ago when he was swimming he went too deep and stayed down too long and came up too fast, and when he came to it was like this: they said, "Don't move, boy. You've got the bends. Don't even try to move." He had tried anyway. It hurt. So now, this time, he lies in the sand without moving, without trying.

What can you say about this story so far? Later on when Sturgeon tries to give us more concrete clues can we really put them together yet?

Out and out the sick man forces his view, etching all he sees with a meticulous intensity, as if it might be his charge, one day, to duplicate all this. To his left is only starlit sea, windless. In front of him across the valley, rounded hills with dim white epaulettes of light. To his right, the jutting corner of the black wall against which his helmet rests. (He thinks the distant moundings of nausea becalmed, but he will not look yet.) So he scans the sky, black and bright, calling Sirius, calling Pleiades, Polaris, Ursa Minor, calling that . . . that . . . Why, it moves. Watch it: yes, it moves! It is a fleck of light, seeming to be wrinkled, fissured, rather like a chip of boiled cauliflower in the sky. (Of course, he knows better than to trust his own eyes just now.) But that movement . . .

Maybe it helps when Sturgeon lets us know the man is thinking about the past:

As a child he had stood on cold sand in a frosty Cape Cod evening, watching Sputnik's steady spark rise out of the haze (madly, dawning a little north of west); and after that he had sleeplessly wound special coils for his receiver, risked his life restringing high antennas, all for the brief capture of an unreadable tweetle-eep-tweetle in his earphones from Vanguard, Explorer, Lunik, Discoverer, Mercury. He knew them all (well, some people collect match-covers, stamps) and he knew especially that unmistakable steady sliding in the sky.

By now you should realize this story takes place in the guy’s head, but you still aren’t sure where the guy is or the identity of the annoying boy.

Have I gotten you interested? Have you gone back to the top of the page and followed the link to read the story? If not, let me give you a few more tantalizing clue. Have you read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce – another often reprinted short story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” belongs to very special tiny subgenre of fiction, one that has deeply personal significance to me, see my essay “Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?” about the novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. You probably don’t know these guys but they wrote The Mutiny on the Bounty. Or, have you ever seen the ending to the 1966 movie Seconds with Rock Hudson?

Jeez, if I haven’t hooked you by now I give up. I’ve always been fascinated about the nature of memory and consciousness. I love this Theodore Sturgeon because he explores those concepts in one impactful story.

James Wallace Harris, 3/16/21

Tracking Down Pre-Fandom Science Fiction Readers

Ever since I’ve been reading 19th-century science fiction I’ve wondered what were the reactions to those stories by readers of the day. The term science fiction applied as a unique category of fiction didn’t exist before Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories in 1926, and even then it took a number of years to get the label we have today. At first, Gernsback called the type of stories he wanted for his magazine scientifiction, but within a few years it was changed to science-fiction, and then to science fiction. (See “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)

Before that according to Brian Stableford in his 4-volume New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance, the French called stories like those written by Jules Verne roman scientifique, and the British called stories like those written by H. G. Wells scientific romances. I’ve yet to find what Americans called such stories. It’s doubtful in any country if the reading public thought those kind of stories represented a distinctive branch of literature.

During the 1930s American admirers of the science fiction story in pulp magazines began to communicate via letters, then meeting in person, eventually creating clubs and holding conventions. The first Worldcon was in 1939. Those organized science fiction readers called themselves fans, and collectively called their activities fandom. During the period 1930s-1950s is when the genre of science fiction slowly emerged — finally to be recognized by book publishers who marketed science fiction by that label, and libraries and bookstores began shelving it separately under that term too.

However, the kind of stories we now call science fiction existed well before the label, and I’m sure those stories resonated with a tiny segment of the reading public. How soon did those readers begin to seek out stories we call science fiction? We know this began for sure when Gernsback started publishing them together in a magazine, but when did publishers, editors, and readers recognize there was a type of fiction that wasn’t about what was but what could be? Stableford cites reviewers using the term scientific romances and roman scientifiques but how universal were those labels? Did readers intentionally track down those stories because of those descriptive phrases?

We’ve always had fantasy, but fantasy is fiction about events and places that could never be. When did readers start saying to themselves, “I like those stories about what could happen in the future?” Can I find published accounts of reader reactions to science fiction stories published before 1926. Starting in the 1930s fans of science fiction began publishing amateur magazines they called zines. There are several histories of these, and they do document how readers felt. What I’m looking for is pre-fandom documentation.

My first hunch was to wonder about book clubs. I found, “The evolution of American book clubs: A timeline” by Audra Otto that suggests Americans liked getting together to discuss books and have been for at least four hundred years. The kind of stories we call science fiction didn’t really begin to appear regularly until the 19th-century with tales like Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) by Washington Irving. Did any reader in those days claim they were a different kind of fiction? When did readers who liked those kind of stories start noticing they were different?

And when did readers start saying to one another “I want to read more stories about traveling in time” or “I want to read more stories about amazing inventions” or “I love stories about traveling to other worlds?” Wouldn’t that be the first seeds science fiction fandom? For example, we know hundreds of Nationalist clubs were formed over Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward. That represents a kind of fandom, and they also had a national magazine. Could other book clubs have formed for fans of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Fitz-James O’Brien, Edward Page Mitchell, or H. G. Wells?

What I would like is to find documentation of early interest in science fiction. I have no idea of how to go about it. Fanzines from the 1930s are the documented proof of fandom as we know it, but were there amateur publications before then that dealt with science fiction stories even though they didn’t have a universal label yet for those kinds of stories? There was amateur press associations in the 19th century, but can I find copies their publications online?

Conversations weren’t recorded in the 19th century, so letters and diaries should be the first kinds of lasting evidence. Did Jules Verne get fan letters? Are there any published diaries whose authors secretly wrote about their fondness for stories we’d now call science fiction? When did the letters to the editor columns begin? Did fans of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories ever write to the periodicals where his stories were published? I can’t believe readers of in 1895 couldn’t have been silent after having their minds blown with “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells.

Here’s my problem. There are vast reservoirs of 19th-century publications out there, even on the net, but I’m not ready to devote the rest of my life to systematically sifting through them to answer this one idle question that keeps intriguing me. First, I’m going to look for books, probably scholarly books, that document science fiction back then. By blogging this essay, I hope readers that might know of books or articles that cover this topic will post a comment.

I’ll use the New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford to outline the main works that should have generated reviews and then begin to search for those reviews. Maybe reviews inspired letters to the editor or even counter-reviews or essays. I’ll also see if any of those authors had collected letters, memoirs, autobiographies, or biographies. A lot of this depends on finding periodicals and books online from 1830-1930.

After that I have an anthology The Rivals of H. G. Wells that collected short stories similar to H. G. Wells published in magazines from late 1800s to early 1900s. If I can find scans of those magazines online, I’m going to see if I can find any reader responses in later issues. I’ll also use the list of stories I generated for my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” as starting points for similar research.

This will be a long term project. It’s doubtful I’ll find much evidence, but I’ll keep a subprogram running in the back of my head to interrupt me for when I do. And if anyone reading this finds any, please post a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 8/24/20

Update: 8/24/20SFFAudio pointed me to Vril, a concept in a science fiction like novel The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that led to legions of fans, mostly occult, and its implications in novels and works of occult beliefs. This inspired some science fiction writers, even Heinlein had his occult moments. I’m thinking both the Bellamy and Bulwer-Lytton followers and their organized activities might have been precursors to 20th-century fandom.

The SF Anthology Problem – Audiobooks

There are so few retrospective science fiction anthologies on audio that it’s not really practical to run Szymon’s program to solve for the SF Anthology Problem. I’ve decided to do the search manually.  Basically, I printed out the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list (ordered by author) and went looking for audiobook editions — mainly at Audible.com. For stories I couldn’t find there I tried online sources such as Escape Pod, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, StarShipSofa, YouTube, LibriVox, etc.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One is the one major anthology for SF short stories on audio, with 17 of the 101 Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories. Volumes 2A and 2B are also on audio, but they only get an additional three stories between them. I hope audiobook publishers will start producing more retrospective anthologies.

Stories by the same author grouped together are in the same collection/anthology.

“The Queen of Air and Darkness” Poul Anderson 1971
YouTube

“Nightfall” – Isaac Asimov (1941)
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov (1956)
Robot Dreams

“The Bicentennial Man” – Isaac Asimov (1976)
Robot Visions

“The Voices of Time” – J. G. Ballard (1960)
The Complete Short Stories

“Blood Music” – Greg Bear (1983)
Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy

“Fondly Fahrenheit” – Alfred Bester (1954)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Bears Discover Fire” – Terry Bisson (1990)
Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories

“Surface Tension” – James Blish (1952)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“There Will Come Soft Rains” – Ray Bradbury (1950)
The Martian Chronicles

“Arena” – Fredric Brown (1944)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Mountains of Mourning” – Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Borders of Infinity

“Speech Sounds” – Octavia E. Butler (1983)
“Bloodchild” – Octavia E. Butler (1984)
Bloodchild and Other Stories

“Who Goes There?” – John W. Campbell, Jr. (1938)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A

“Story of Your Life” – Ted Chiang (1998)
“Hell Is the Absence of God” – Ted Chiang (2001)
Stories of Your Life and Others

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Ted Chiang (2007)
Exhalation

“The Sentinel” – Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
“The Nine Billion Names of God” – Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
“The Star” = Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
“A Meeting with Medusa” – Arthur C. Clarke (1971)
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

“Snow” – John Crowley (1985)
StarShipSofa
Lightspeed

“Great Work of Time” – John Crowley (1989)

“Or All the Seas with Oysters” – Avram Davidson (1958)
Or All the Seas with Oysters

“The Star Pit” – Samuel R. Delany (1967)
1967 radio show

“Aye, and Gomorrah …” – Samuel R. Delany (1967)

“Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” – Samuel R. Delany (1968)

“Second Variety” – Philip K. Dick (1953)
“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” – Philip K. Dick (1966)
Minority Report and Other Stories

“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman” – Harlan Ellison (1965)
YouTube

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” – Harlan Ellison (1967)
YouTube

“Jeffty Is Five” – Harlan Ellison (1977)
The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century

“A Boy and His Dog” – Harlan Ellison (1969)
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World and Other Works

“Burning Chrome” – William Gibson (1982)
Burning Chrome

“The Cold Equations” – Tom Godwin (1954)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“All You Zombies—” – Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
All You Zombies (5 stories)
Escape Pod

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” – Kij Johnson (2011)

“Think Like a Dinosaur” – James Patrick Kelly (1995)
“Think Like a Dinosaur”

“Flowers for Algernon” – Daniel Keyes (1959)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
Escape Pod

“The Country of the Kind” – Damon Knight (1956)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Little Black Bag” – C. M. Kornbluth (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Beggars in Spain” – Nancy Kress (1991)

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore (1943)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Vintage Season” – C. L. Moore (1946)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A

“The Day Before the Revolution” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)

“Nine Lives” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
The Unreal and the Real: Volume One
The Unreal and the Real: Volume Two

“Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
“Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1987)
The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin

“Coming Attraction” – Fritz Leiber (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“First Contact” – Murray Leinster (1945)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“A Song for Lya” – George R. R. Martin (1974)

“Sandkings” – George R. R. Martin (1979)
YouTube

“The Way of Cross and Dragon” – George R. R. Martin (1979)
Lightspeed

“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” – Vonda N. McIntyre (1973)

“That Only a Mother” – Judith Merril (1948)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Rachel in Love” – Pat Murphy (1987)
Escape Pod

“Inconstant Moon” – Larry Niven (1971)

“Day Million” – Frederik Pohl (1966)
Drabblecast

“The Lucky Strike” – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)
The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson

“When It Changed” – Joanna Russ (1972)

“Souls” – Joanna Russ (1982)

“Light of Other Days” – Bob Shaw (1966)
YouTube

“R & R” – Lucius Shepard (1986)

“Passengers” – Robert Silverberg (1968)
Escape Pod

“Born with the Dead” – Robert Silverberg (1974)

“Sailing to Byzantium” – Robert Silverberg (1985)
“Sailing to Byzantium”

“Desertion” – Clifford D. Simak (1944)
City

“Scanners Live in Vain” Cordwainer Smith (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
“The Game of Rat and Dragon” – Cordwainer Smith (1955)
The Best of Cordwainer Smith

“Swarm” – Bruce Sterling (1982)

“Lobsters” – Charles Stross 2001

“Microcosmic God” – Theodore Sturgeon (1941)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Thunder and Roses” – Theodore Sturgeon (1947)

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” – Theodore Sturgeon (1959)
Escape Pod

“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1972)
“The Women Men Don’t See” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1976)
“The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1977)
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

“The Only Neat Thing to Do” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1985)

“The Moon Moth” – Jack Vance (1961)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B

“Black Destroyer” – A. E. van Vogt (1939)

“Air Raid” John Varley (1977)

“Press ENTER ■” – John Varley 1984
“Press ENTER ■”

“The Persistence of Vision” John Varley (1978)
“The Persistence of Vision”

“Harrison Bergeron” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1961)
Favorite Stories of Science Fiction v. 1

“The Ugly Chickens” – Howard Waldrop (1980)
Drabblecast

“The Island” – Peter Watts (2009)
StarShipSofa

“The Things” – Peter Watts (2010)
The Very Best of the Very Best edited by Gardner Dozois
Escape Pod
Clarkesworld

“A Martian Odyssey” – Stanley G. Weinbaum (1934)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Star” – H. G. Wells (1897)
Short Stories – Volume One

“Fire Watch” – Connie Willis (1982)
“The Last of the Winnebagos” – Connie Willis (1988)
“At the Rialto” – Connie Willis (1989)
Escape Pod
“Even the Queen” – Connie Willis (1992)
Escape Pod
The Best of Connie Willis (all 4)

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” – Gene Wolfe (1972)

“The Death of Doctor Island” – Gene Wolfe (1973)

“Seven American Nights” – Gene Wolfe (1978)

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny (1963)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“For a Breath I Tarry” – Roger Zelazny (1966)

I hope audiobook producers see this list and get inspired to record science fiction short stories. They especially need to pay attention to Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, and Gene Wolfe, but quite a few classic science fiction writers need short story collections on audio.

James Wallace Harris, 8/13/20

The SF Anthology Problem – Kindle Solution

The original Science Fiction Anthology Problem required finding anthologies that contained all the 101 stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. Szymon Szott solved that problem, but then he wrote and told me since he lived in Poland that it was too expensive to buy physical books from overseas. He wanted to rerun the program but this time pick only anthologies that were available in ebook format.

His first effort could only find 80 of the 101 stories. There just weren’t that many science fiction anthologies available on the Kindle. I told him to break the original rule and include single-author collections.  That allowed him to bring the total stories to 94. It was especially surprising that he couldn’t find an ebook collection of James Tiptree, Jr. stories, however, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever that’s available on audio contains those stories. That suggests we should also do a Science Fiction Anthology Problem with an audiobook solution.

By the way, the two giant anthologies, Sense of Wonder and The Big Book of Science Fiction are so huge in print that I don’t like holding them to read, and Sense of Wonder has a typeface that demands perfect vision. They are better read as an ebook. In fact, I’m starting to want the Kindle edition as my primary format. My eyes still prefer reading off of paper pages but only if the font is large enough, otherwise my eyes like the Kindle e-ink page. My eyes do enjoy reading off my phone or tablet, but they tire more easily.

There is another reason to prefer the Kindle edition. All these books fit on one small device. And they can be read on my phone. It’s great to pull out my iPhone and read a science fiction short story whenever I have an idle moment.

Here are Szymon’s program results looking for Kindle editions:

Sense of Wonder

- "Arena" by Fredric Brown
- "Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson
- "Black Destroyer" by A. E. van Vogt
- "Blood Music" by Greg Bear
- "Bloodchild" by Octavia E. Butler
- "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin
- "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight
- "Day Million" by Frederik Pohl
- "First Contact" by Murray Leinster
- "Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester
- "The Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith
- "Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang
- "Jeffty Is Five" by Harlan Ellison
- "The Little Black Bag" by C. M. Kornbluth
- "Lobsters" by Charles Stross
- "The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson
- "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
- "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "The Mountains of Mourning" by Lois McMaster Bujold
- "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov
- "The Only Neat Thing to Do" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson
- "Passengers" by Robert Silverberg
- "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley
- "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy
- "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" by Roger Zelazny
- "The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "Seven American Nights" by Gene Wolfe
- "Souls" by Joanna Russ
- "Surface Tension" by James Blish
- "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merril
- "Think Like a Dinosaur" by James Patrick Kelly
- "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop
- "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Running story total: 34

The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection

- ""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison
- "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Aye, and Gomorrah …" by Samuel R. Delany
- "Desertion" by Clifford D. Simak
- "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin
- "Snow" by John Crowley
- "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
- "Swarm" by Bruce Sterling
- "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov
- "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "The Star" by H. G. Wells
- "The Voices of Time" by J. G. Ballard
- "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ

Running story total: 49

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I

- "Coming Attraction" by Fritz Leiber
- "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
- "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore
- "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith
- "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke

Running story total: 54

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

- "At the Rialto" by Connie Willis
- "Even the Queen" by Connie Willis
- "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis
- "The Last of the Winnebagos" by Connie Willis

Running story total: 58

The Reel Stuff

- "Air Raid" by John Varley
- "Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick
- "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick

Running story total: 61

Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction

- "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
- "The Death of Doctor Island" by Gene Wolfe
- "The Star Pit" by Samuel R. Delany

Running story total: 64

Dreamsongs: GRRM: A RRetrospective

- "A Song for Lya" by George R. R. Martin
- "The Way of Cross and Dragon" by George R. R. Martin

Running story total: 66

Beyond the Rift

- "The Island" by Peter Watts
- "The Things" by Peter Watts

Running story total: 68

Future on Ice

- "Press ENTER ■" by John Varley
- "Speech Sounds" by Octavia E. Butler

Running story total: 70

The Wind's Twelve Quarters

- "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "The Day Before the Revolution" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Running story total: 72

The Top of the Volcano: The Award-Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison

- "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison
- "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison

Running story total: 74

Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century

- "All You Zombies—" by Robert A. Heinlein
- "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven

Running story total: 76

Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

- "The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Running story total: 77

The Best of C. L. Moore

- "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore

Running story total: 78

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2012

- "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson

Running story total: 79

The Best of Lucius Shepard

- "R & R" by Lucius Shepard

Running story total: 80

Born with the Dead

- "Born with the Dead" by Robert Silverberg

Running story total: 81

The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels

- "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress

Running story total: 82

The Martian Chronicles

- "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury

Running story total: 83

Exhalation

- "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang

Running story total: 84

Hackers

- "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson

Running story total: 85

The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Science Fiction: Volume One

- "Great Work of Time" by John Crowley

Running story total: 86

The Last Defender of Camelot

- "For a Breath I Tarry" by Roger Zelazny

Running story total: 87

The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction

- "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" by Gene Wolfe

Running story total: 88

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

- "A Meeting with Medusa" by Arthur C. Clarke

Running story total: 89

Modern Classics of Fantasy

- "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Running story total: 90

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B

- "The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance

Running story total: 91

Nebula Awards Showcase 2015

- "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany

Running story total: 92

The World Turned Upside Down

- "Thunder and Roses" by Theodore Sturgeon

Running story total: 93

Welcome to the Monkey House: The Special Edition

- "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Running story total: 94

Missing stories:

['"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr.', '"Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" by Vonda N. McIntyre', '"The Women Men Don\'t See" by James Tiptree, Jr.', '"The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov', '"The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree, Jr.', '"The Queen of Air and Darkness" by Poul Anderson', '"Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw']

Selected books:

Sense of Wonder
The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I
The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
The Reel Stuff
Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction
Dreamsongs: GRRM: A RRetrospective
Beyond the Rift
Future on Ice
The Wind's Twelve Quarters
The Top of the Volcano: The Award-Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison
Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century
Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology
The Best of C. L. Moore
The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2012
The Best of Lucius Shepard
Born with the Dead
The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels
The Martian Chronicles
Exhalation
Hackers
The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Science Fiction: Volume One
The Last Defender of Camelot
The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke
Modern Classics of Fantasy
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B
Nebula Awards Showcase 2015
The World Turned Upside Down
Welcome to the Monkey House: The Special Edition

Number of selected books:  30

Szymon is still tweaking this program and the latest results can be found here. For example, he found “The Bicentennial Man” in Robot Visions.

This solution can be reconfigured easily with other options. For example, instead of buying The Best of C. L. Moore to get “Vintage Season,” you could purchase The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A. You’d need to decide if you wanted more Moore or more other SF writers.

This effort shows the weak ebook support SF anthologies have. Retrospective and theme anthologies don’t seem to be as popular as they used to be, but then I’m not sure that reading short science fiction is as popular as it used to be.

Maybe anthologists will read this and be inspired to assemble an ebook anthology. I hope.

James Wallace Harris, 8/12/20

The SF Anthology Problem – Solved

Two years ago when we completed version 1 of The Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list I proposed a math challenge. Version 1 came up with 275 stories. I asked if there was any mathematically way to decide what were the fewest anthologies that contained all 275 stories using ISFDB.org as a reference database. Version 1 was generated using .csv files. Since then we updated the process to a database for version 2 of the list, which produced 101 stories — we believe that was a more practical reading list.

A science fiction fan could read the entire list over the summer by reading one story a day, or in a year by reading one story every three days, but where would they get the 101 science fiction short stories? It might be possible to track down many stories on the internet, but what if people wanted to read them in a printed book? What would be the minimum number of anthologies to buy to get all the stories? That seem like an fascinating mathematical problem to me.

Well, Szymon Szott just came up with a solution using version 2 of the list. The second link goes to GitHub for Szymon’s Python code and documentation. The first link goes to his bio. Even if you can’t read the programming code you should visit this page that explains his solution. Szymon was able to come up with 22 anthologies that collected the 101 stories on the v. 2 of The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list.

The photo above pictures eight anthologies that get 81 stories of the version 2 list. Of course, those eight anthologies gets you a lot more than 81 stories. I tried to figure out the solution myself by using a spreadsheet and the best I could do was find fifteen anthologies to cover 81 stories, and then gave up. I figured my eyeballing method might have gotten me to 30-35 anthologies.

Here’s what Szymon says about the project:

As a fan of science fiction and a compulsive completionist, Worlds Without End is one of my favorite sites on the Internet. It was there that I learned about Jim and Mike's work on the list of classic science fiction novels which I've been eagerly following. When the list of classic science fiction short stories was announced and Jim blogged about The Mathematics of Buying Science Fiction Anthologies, I knew this was an interesting problem to solve. But it wasn't until I started dabbling in Python that I realized that, along with the 2020 travel-restricted summer holidays, I now had the tools to start chipping away at this. Creating a story-to-anthology mapping using data from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database didn't take too long, but the underlying mathematical problem was harder than I initially thought: it turned out that a brute-force approach of checking all possible combinations is unfeasible. Still, the heuristic used has given us a solution which I'm satisfied with and I don't think there exists a much better global solution. I was most surprised that the Science Fiction Hall of Fame series did not make the list (as I've already read volume one). Thank you Jim for this challenge! Now, all this coding was fun, but it's time to get back to reading: Sense of Wonder is next!

This isn’t an easy problem. Szymon had to screenscrape the table of contents from 290 anthologies from ISFDB.org, which contained one or more of the 101 stories. Just look at this listing to see how often each of these stories was reprinted. Towards the end of his programming loops, he had to use eight anthologies to cover eight stories. If all those singletons had been in one anthology, Szymon’s finally anthology list would have been 15. Most of those singletons were newer stories and there haven’t been enough time for them to be collected into a retrospective anthology. One new anthology could shorten Szymon’s final list.

I know many people won’t follow links, so here is Szymon’s program results:

Sense of Wonder

- "Arena" by Fredric Brown
- "Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson
- "Black Destroyer" by A. E. van Vogt
- "Blood Music" by Greg Bear
- "Bloodchild" by Octavia E. Butler
- "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin
- "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight
- "Day Million" by Frederik Pohl
- "First Contact" by Murray Leinster
- "Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester
- "The Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith
- "Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang
- "Jeffty Is Five" by Harlan Ellison
- "The Little Black Bag" by C. M. Kornbluth
- "Lobsters" by Charles Stross
- "The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson
- "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
- "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "The Mountains of Mourning" by Lois McMaster Bujold
- "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov
- "The Only Neat Thing to Do" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson
- "Passengers" by Robert Silverberg
- "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley
- "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy
- "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" by Roger Zelazny
- "The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "Seven American Nights" by Gene Wolfe
- "Souls" by Joanna Russ
- "Surface Tension" by James Blish
- "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merril
- "Think Like a Dinosaur" by James Patrick Kelly
- "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop
- "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Running story total: 34

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction

- ""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison
- "Air Raid" by John Varley
- "All You Zombies—" by Robert A. Heinlein
- "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Aye, and Gomorrah …" by Samuel R. Delany
- "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson
- "Coming Attraction" by Fritz Leiber
- "Desertion" by Clifford D. Simak
- "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "Speech Sounds" by Octavia E. Butler
- "The Star" by H. G. Wells
- "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury
- "Thunder and Roses" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick
- "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ

Running story total: 49

Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts

- "At the Rialto" by Connie Willis
- "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
- "For a Breath I Tarry" by Roger Zelazny
- "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore
- "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick
- "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
- "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore

Running story total: 59

The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection

- "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin
- "Snow" by John Crowley
- "Swarm" by Bruce Sterling
- "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov
- "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "The Voices of Time" by J. G. Ballard

Running story total: 66

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IV

- "A Meeting with Medusa" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "Born with the Dead" by Robert Silverberg
- "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" by Vonda N. McIntyre
- "The Day Before the Revolution" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "The Death of Doctor Island" by Gene Wolfe
- "The Queen of Air and Darkness" by Poul Anderson

Running story total: 72

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology

- "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang
- "The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Running story total: 75

The Science Fiction Century

- "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress
- "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis
- "Great Work of Time" by John Crowley

Running story total: 78

The Best of the Nebulas

- "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison
- "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany

Running story total: 81

Armageddons

- "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven
- "The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Running story total: 83

Survival Printout

- "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison
- "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith

Running story total: 85

Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction

- "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
- "The Star Pit" by Samuel R. Delany

Running story total: 87

The Legend Book of Science Fiction

- "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" by Gene Wolfe
- "The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance

Running story total: 89

The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction

- "Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw
- "The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov

Running story total: 91

The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy

- "Even the Queen" by Connie Willis
- "The Way of Cross and Dragon" by George R. R. Martin

Running story total: 93

Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov's Science Fiction

- "Press ENTER ■" by John Varley

Running story total: 94

The Hugo Winners, Volume Three

- "A Song for Lya" by George R. R. Martin

Running story total: 95

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Six

- "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson

Running story total: 96

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Five

- "The Things" by Peter Watts

Running story total: 97

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection

- "R & R" by Lucius Shepard

Running story total: 98

The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

- "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Running story total: 99

The New Space Opera 2

- "The Island" by Peter Watts

Running story total: 100

The New Hugo Winners, Volume III

- "The Last of the Winnebagos" by Connie Willis

Running story total: 101

Selected books:

- Sense of Wonder
- The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
- Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts
- The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection
- The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IV
- The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology
- The Science Fiction Century
- The Best of the Nebulas
- Armageddons
- Survival Printout
- Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction
- The Legend Book of Science Fiction
- The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction
- The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov's Science Fiction
- The Hugo Winners, Volume Three
- The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Six
- The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Five
- The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection
- The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
- The New Space Opera 2
- The New Hugo Winners, Volume III

Number of selected books: 22

Most of those 22 anthologies are out-of-print and you’ll need to shop ABEbooks.com or eBay.com to find them. I’ve added links to the final 22 anthologies so you can find the various editions of these books that have been published over the years. Clicking on links to individual editions will show you the table of contents and usually a photo of the book’s cover. Some anthologies have been published under multiple titles, and some of those are easier to find used. For Sense of Wonder, I highly recommend getting it in the Kindle edition, the paper edition is much too big to comfortably hold. Ditto for The Big Book of Science Fiction.

If you click on the story title in the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list it will take you to its entry on ISFDB.org where you can see all the anthologies and collections where it’s been reprinted. This will let you find an alternative source for the story, or even let you try to beat Szymon’s results by coming up with another combination of anthologies.

Update: See The Science Fiction Anthology Problem – Kindle Edition for the solution using ebooks.

James Wallace Harris, 8/9/20

 

Remembering Helen O’Loy

Most short stories never get published. Of those that do, most are never reprinted. So, it is quite fascinating to study a story that does. My Facebook group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey that first appeared in print in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Using its record at the ISFDB.org we can track when it’s been reprinted over the years. It has also been translated into at least six languages. Here’s the timeline of major reprints:

  • 1948 – … And Some Were Human by Lester del Rey (collection)
  • 1952 – Beyond Human Ken edited by Judith Merril
  • 1954 – Assignment in Tomorrow edited by Frederik Pohl
  • 1960 – S-Fマガジン – v. 1 n. 1 (Japan)
  • 1963 – The Coming of the Robots edited by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1965 – Science-Fiction-Cocktail: Band I (German anthology)
  • 1966 – Master’s Choice edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1970 – The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1971 – 18 Greatest Science Fiction Stories edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1972 – 3000 Years of Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp
  • 1974 – Modern Science Fiction edited by Norman Spinrad
  • 1974 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1975 – In Dreams Awake edited by Leslie A. Fiedler
  • 1977 – Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Fred Obrecht
  • 1977 – Souls in Metal edited by Mike Ashley
  • 1978 – Robots, Robots, Robots edited by Geduid and Gottesman
  • 1978 – The Best of Lester del Rey
  • 1981 – Science Fiction: Masters of Today edited by Arthur Liebman
  • 1982 – Analog: Reader’s Choice
  • 1983 – The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 5
  • 1985 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1990 – Friends, Robots, Countrymen edited by Asimov and Greenberg
  • 2010 – Robots and Magic by Lester del Rey
  • 2017 – The Robot Megapack ebook anthology

This leaves off the many reprint editions of the above volumes, plus some obscure anthologies, and other collections of Lester del Rey. For example, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One seems to stay in print and is currently available in paper, ebook, and audiobook editions. It’s the volume my Facebook group is reading.

However, why wasn’t it collected in Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy and McComas or The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin? Those two giant anthologies from 1946 set the standard for science fiction anthologies for a generation. Nor has “Helen O’Loy” been anthologized in any of the recent super-giant retrospective anthologies like The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer  or one of the teaching anthologies like Sense of Wonder edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman

In truth, “Helen O’Loy” is a minor story, and problematic if you analyze it psychologically, especially with how it treats women. It hasn’t appeared in a significant SF anthology in over forty years. NESFA Press remembers Lester del Rey with Robots and Magic, but they are a fan press that remembers the old greats of the genre. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame stays in print because it does exactly what it was designed to do, remember the legendary shorter works of science fiction published before the creation of the Nebula Awards. “Helen O’Loy” was up for a Retro Hugo award but came in second, losing to “How We Went to Mars” by Arthur C. Clarke.

Anthologists who attempt to present a historical overview of the genre constantly shift through the past looking for older SF stories that are relevant to present-day readers. Each new anthology tends to forget more of the older stories. The Big Book of Science Fiction has 29 stories from 1934-1963 where The Science Fiction Hall of Fame has 26 in volume one, and another 22 in volumes 2A and 2B.  Sense of Wonder has 46 stories from 1934-1963, twelve of which were in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. There are only two stories – “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Surface Tension” by James Blish appearing in all three anthologies.

Of course, Sense of Wonder has an unfair advantage, it has over 200+ short stories, and is so big that it’s only practical to own as an ebook. However, among my friends, we’ve often wondered if members of the SFWA voted today for the best short stories from 1926-1963 what would they be? So I just paused writing this essay to write about that.

Would modern science fiction writers still pick “Helen O’Loy” as a classic science fiction short story from that era before 1964? I don’t think so. Surely, the current younger generations would see the story much differently than those writers who grew up reading science fiction in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

On a very simple level, “Helen O’Loy” tries to ask a very simple question: “Could a robot ever be considered human?” Science fiction stories, novels, television shows, and movies are still exploring this very simple question. And there is a growing industry seeking to actually build realistic sexbots. Why wouldn’t “Helen O’Loy” remain a classic? For any man lusting after a woman made to order, they’d probably not see anything wrong with the story.

Lester del Rey wrote “Helen O’Loy” before the world knew about digital computers and programming. The technology for imagining how a robot could work in 1938 would be clockwork mechanics, radio electronics, and wire recorders. They had little reason to assume we could build a machine that could see, hear, think, and talk. Del Rey had the myths of Pygmalion and the Golem, and stories about mechanical men for inspiration, but that’s about all. In 1938, on a technical level this story is a pure fantasy.

Then, how does the story hold up for psychological realism? Why would Phil and Dave in the story give up two real life girls, the unnamed twins, for a mechanical girl? One twin wanted to see a movie the boys didn’t so they dumped both girls? Are we really going to believe that biological humans will ever accept pseudo-humans as soulmates?

The main problem with “Helen O’Loy” today is how little respect it gives women. Basically, it says if a machine could be built that looks like a beautiful woman, and if that machine serves the man in all his needs and wishes, then that’s all men need from women. (Why didn’t femfans of the day howl back then?) “Helen O’Loy” assumes women have no wishes, desires, wants, ambitions of their own, that a woman’s only purpose is to fulfill a man’s needs. Are there men and women who would be satisfied with a visually appealing machine that serves their fantasies?

I say the heart of this story doesn’t beat — then or now. Sure, “Helen O’Loy” is an amusing little tale if you don’t think about it. So why has it been remembered and reprinted more than most other science fiction stories? I have to assume it resonates with adolescent male fantasies, or with people who feel challenged to build AI robots.

All along, science fiction has loved robots. And building a robot equal to a human has been the gold medal goal. But it’s here when I personally feel science fiction has always failed miserably with a total lack of logic and vision. Humans are emotional creatures, and emotions come from biology and chemistry. AI minds will be digital. The only emotion I can imagine a robot having might be curiosity. Why has science fiction failed to understand that no matter how much a robot might look like us it will never think or feel like us? And why has science fiction for so long wanted to see robots that are so like us that a Turing test would include physically passing for human?

To many science fiction fans, Isaac Asimov owns the robot story. He didn’t expect them to pass for human, or to think like us. But I don’t think Asimov ever extrapolated very far with the possibilities of intelligent machines. His stories certainly invalidated stories like “Helen O’Loy” but why haven’t other science fiction writers gone further?

I think we will forget “Helen O’Loy” partly because of its affront to feminism, but also it’s ideas about robotics are too primative and silly today. Of course, any anthology that tries to show the evolution of fictional thinking about robots will include it. And to be honest, I still enjoyed the story, and admired the way del Rey told it. I had to wince many places at the sexism, and groan at the idea of vacuum tube robots with memory coils, but ultimately I liked the story.

James Wallace Harris 5/10/20

 

What if SFWA Revoted on the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2020?

The original volume one of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg came out in 1970 — 50 years ago. It contained 26 stories that the SFWA members voted on as the best short stories before the Nebula Awards were created in 1964. In 1973 The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volumes 2A and 2B edited by Ben Bova added 22 additional novelettes and novellas.

Times have changed. New generations have replaced older generations. What would the current SFWA members pick as their favorite science fiction stories before 1964? Well, we won’t know unless they conduct a new poll and published the results, but that doesn’t keep me from trying to guess. I can’t help but think that the younger generations of writers discovered different old science fiction stories growing up in the last fifty years. How many old Hall of Fame classics are still considered classics? How many Hall of Fame classics are now problematic for some reason? Are there stories that past generations overlooked that younger generations have rediscovered?

I’ve created a spreadsheet (see images below) that contains the original Science Fiction Hall of Fame stories highlighted in gray. I’ve added stories published before 1964 from our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories that had eight or more citations (column labeled “CSF”). Our database system collects stories from best-of-year anthologies, retrospective anthologies, teaching anthologies, fan polls, award winners, and expert opinions. We call each source a citation. You can query our database here.

I’ve also added the stories in Sense of Wonder edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman that came out before 1964. This huge 2011 book was designed to be a textbook to teach science fiction (column labeled “Sense”). I also added the stories published before 1964 that were in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer which came out in 2016 (column labeled “Big”). I felt these two were the latest retrospective anthologies of the genre that might reveal what younger generations are admiring from older times.

Finally, I bolded any story that was listed in at least three of the four columns. Only two stories were in all four columns, “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Surface Tension” by James Blish. This shows an agreement between the past and the present.

If you study the stories from the Grossman and VanderMeer books you can see how they have tried to find stories that haven’t been recognized as a classic before. It also feels like the VanderMeers made an extra effort to identify women and foreign writers that have gone unrecognized. Would modern members of SFWA vote for them in 2020? I don’t know, but I do believe there’s an effort to identify forgotten stories and writers who deserve new attention, or find writers whose creativity wasn’t recognized in their day but we can see with hindsight that should have been.

If you study the spreadsheet reproduced below in images, I think there are stories that were thought classics in 1970 that probably wouldn’t be in 2020. Two examples, “Twilight” by John W. Campbell and “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey. I have to wonder if any story that only has a 1970 or 1973 in the SFWA column and nothing in the CSF, Sense, or Big columns might not be voted into 2020 Hall of Fame volumes.

Are the new stories introduced by the VanderMeers or Grossman worthy of being considered a classic now? Classic literature has always shifted with the times. Usually, it’s much easier to fall out of favor than to be rediscovered, but it happens. To a minor degree the Retro Hugo awards are reconsidering forgotten stories. And I’m surprised that Grossman and the VanderMeers ignored some then classic stories, especially “The Machine Stops” which has become so revelent and brilliant in our internet age.

Finally, Grossman and the VanderMeers were not setting out to pick classics. I believe Grossman was picking stories to show the evolution of the genre, and the VanderMeers were picking stories to show that the genre was wider and more diverse than we thought. The stories the newly formed SFWA members voted on were stories they loved reading growing up during the years 1926-1963. Current generations don’t have that connection with the past, so classics take on a whole new meaning. And there’s a good chance that younger generations of science fiction readers and writers have no reading experience with most of the stories listed here. To them, classic science fiction short stories came out in the 1980s or 1990s. That could mean the three-volume Science Fiction Hall of Fame could be reduced to two or even one volume today.

I got the idea to write this essay because this Facebook group is reading and discussing the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes.

1849-1938

1939-1951

1951-1955

1955-1963

JWH