Newsstand-1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH