Which Was the Best Method to Discover the Best Science Fiction Short Stories? – Classics of Science Fiction

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Which Was the Best Method to Discover the Best Science Fiction Short Stories? – Classics of Science Fiction


When I began this blog years ago, I theorized that there were three ways to identify all the best science fiction short stories. The first was to read all the science fiction magazines and decide for yourself. The second was to read all the annual best-of-the-year volumes and see if you agreed with those editors. And finally, I suggested just reading a handful of retrospective anthologies that collect the best science fiction of all time. It was all about how much you wanted to read. There are thousands of magazines, between a hundred and two hundred annual volumes, or you could get by with maybe just a handful of retrospective volumes.

After collecting over a thousand issues of old science fiction magazines, most of the annuals and most of the major retrospective anthologies, and reading thousands of stories, I think I can answer the title question.

Just read the retrospective anthologies. But there’s a problem. They still haven’t done the best job of identifying the best stories, and they are mostly out of print.

I’ve loved science fiction magazines my whole life, but the sad truth is they seldom contain classic level stories, and you’re damn lucky if you find one story you love. Usually, you’ll find a couple stories you like, and the rest will be so-so or DNFs. For me, I generally find four or five standout stories in an annual anthology, and the rest are okay. If I’m lucky, there will be one or two great SF stories in a year. Even with the best retrospective anthologies, it’s hard to like every story, but if you find the right editor, maybe half the stories they pick will be your favorites too.

The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories v. 2 list at CSFquery has been the most effective overall at identifying the most remembered science fiction short stories, 110 stories in all. I’ve had the best luck with this list compared to any other method.

However, v. 2 leaves off a lot of my favorite stories. Using the List Builder function and setting the minimum citations to six creates a list of 220 stories. Many of those extra 110 stories do identify stories I love, but also identify more stories I don’t like. But if we use List Builder to set the cutoff to ten citations, it produces a list of 50 stories. Anyone who reads those fifty stories should have a solid feel for the history of the SF short story. If you click on “Show Citations” you’ll see which anthologies collected those stories.

Szymon Szott wrote a computer program to analyze all the retrospective anthologies we used to create CSFquery to find the minimum number of books to buy to read the most stories from v. 2 of the list. See “The Science Fiction Anthology Problem – Solved” which identifies twenty-two anthologies needed to read all the stories on the original list. The list has been updated with additional stories, so it’s no longer perfect.

The trouble is most of these retrospective anthologies are now out of print. Mark R. Kelly has a wonderful history of science fiction anthologies that’s worth studying. I’ve collected most of them. They aren’t hard to find used, nor are they particularly expensive. The problem is finding just three to five that have most of the stories from v. 2 of the list.

And there’s another problem. Science fiction stories don’t always age well, even the classics. So many of these anthologies will have stories that modern readers will find clunky. For example, Sense of Wonder edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman has thirty-six of the stories on the v. 2 list, the most of any anthology, but it has over a hundred more stories that may not have aged well. (Definitely don’t get the physical book, it’s too heavy to hold and has extremely tiny unreadable print.) The Kindle edition is $29, and that might be too expensive for most people.

You can look at the list of citations we used to create the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories v. 2 list, and it gives the number of stories that make the final list for each citation. As you will see, anthologists don’t have a great hit rate. We correlate the best with fan polls like SF Lists (98 stories) or Locus 2012 All Century (88 stories). The Hugo award process identified 80 stories on our list, and the Nebula process identified 59.

All this suggests that retrospective anthologies aren’t the best way to survey the classic short stories of the science fiction genre. I wish we could publish an anthology of the top 50 stories from our list, but I have no idea how to go about doing that.

Luckily, many of the stories on the v. 2 list are also available for free online. It takes work to find them, and the online versions aren’t always easy to read. If you really want to find these stories, use our list, and click on the titles. That will take you to the story’s ISFDB listing, which will show all the places the story has been reprinted. With some effort you should be able to track down all the stories.

James Wallace Harris, 6/11/24

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