by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 5, 2018
I’m having BIG fun reading old science fiction short stories. However, are there valid justifications for spending so much time reading old science fiction when I could be reading shiny new stories instead? Or even spend that time reading high-quality literary works or vastly more informative nonfiction? I have to confess a sense of guilt. I worry I’m wasting my time slumming in a pulp fiction past.
For some reason, I’m being drawn into a self-imposed project of sequentially reading annual anthologies of the best science fiction short stories starting with 1939. I picked that year because The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) is the earliest annual anthology series I could find. I’ve been soul-searching trying to understand why I want to do this, but so far my psyche hasn’t provided any conclusive insight. I have made these rationalizations:
- I’ve been reading science fiction for over a half-century and want to make sense of that obsession.
- I’m fascinated by the evolution of science fiction and its themes.
- I think I actually get more science fictional bang for my buck out of short stories.
- I’m trying to decide what’s unique about science fiction literature.
- I’m trying to decide if science fiction has any value other than entertainment.
- I’m wondering which stories are truly worth preserving.
- As I progress through the years I want to see how cultural change is reflected in science fiction.
- I wonder if old science fiction is worth preserving.
- Finally, I wonder if this is a form of exorcism, where I’m trying to wrap up my relationship with science fiction. I assume if I study it thoroughly enough I’ll learn how all the magic tricks are accomplished.
Because the web now provides access to old pulp magazines I wish I had the time and patience to just read everything from each year — but I can’t. Most of those old stories are just crap. And even the best stories aren’t really that good by modern literary standards. I figure I have the time and patience to read one or two annual anthologies per month, covering 12-24 years a year. This means that I might have a pretty good knowledge of short science fiction by the time I’m 70.
The Great SF Stories series were edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They began in 1979 with #1 (1939) and ended in 1992 with #25 (1963). I assumed Greenberg did all the work and Asimov added a bit of pithy memory under Greenberg’s short introduction to each story. These old DAW paperbacks generally run $10-60 on eBay. I got volumes 1-12 in a reprint hardback edition that collected two years for each volume. Those 6 volumes were renamed the Golden Years of SF. I think I was able to get all six for less than $40 including shipping. I’m working on buying #13-25. There is a certain symmetry of using this series because they cover science fiction 12 years before the year I was born and continue for 12 years after. They end just about the time I started reading the then current annuals edited by Judith Merril.
Here is the table of contents of #1 from ISFDB. The story link will take you back to ISFDB where you can see where the story has been anthologized over the years. That’s a good indication of its lasting value. Many were well anthologized in the 1950s and 1960s, and have since disappeared from cultural memory.
- I, Robot • [Adam Link] • short story by Otto Binder [as by Eando Binder]
- The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton • short story by Robert Bloch
- Trouble with Water • short story by H. L. Gold
- Cloak of Aesir • novella by John W. Campbell, Jr.
- The Day Is Done • short story by Lester del Rey
- The Ultimate Catalyst • short story by John Taine
- The Gnarly Man • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp
- Black Destroyer • novelette by A. E. van Vogt
- Greater Than Gods • novelette by C. L. Moore
- Trends • short story by Isaac Asimov
- The Blue Giraffe • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp
- The Misguided Halo • short story by Henry Kuttner
- Heavy Planet • short story by Milton A. Rothman
- Life-Line • short story by Robert A. Heinlein
- Ether Breather • short story by Theodore Sturgeon
- Pilgrimage • novelette by Nelson S. Bond
- Rust • short story by Joseph E. Kelleam
- The Four-Sided Triangle • novelette by William F. Temple
- Star Bright • novelette by Jack Williamson
- Misfit • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein
Were these the best science fiction short stories of 1939? Did Asimov and Greenberg leave out any better SF because they couldn’t obtain the reprint rights or weren’t to their tastes? I’m mostly going to talk about the stories I liked most, and if I can find some other stories from 1939 that I liked that Asimov/Greenberg didn’t collect.
My current favorite science fiction short stories for 1939 are:
- “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp (not in GreatSF#1)
- “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey
- “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam
- “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt
- “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp
- “I, Robot” by Eando Binder
- “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein
- “The Four-Side Triangle” by William F. Temple
- “Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore
- “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein
- “Pilgrimage” by Nelson S. Bond
- “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman
Jamie Todd Rubin discovered a letter in an April 1940 issue of Astounding by Isaac Asimov where 20-year-old Asimov listed his Top 10 stories of 1939. (Be sure to read Rubin’s “Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction” if you love old SF short stories. I guess I’m not vacationing in the golden age of SF.)
Notice the overlap and difference between what was decided by Asimov/Greenberg in 1979 and the 1940 letter to the editor.
- One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson (serial novel)
- Lifeline by Robert Heinlein (in GreatSF#1)
- Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith (serial novel)
- Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (serial novel)
- The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey (in GreatSF#1)
- Rope Trick by Eando Binder
- Nothing Happens on the Moon by Paul Ernst
- General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt
- Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam (in GreatSF#1)
- Smallest God by Lester del Rey
Back to The Great Short SF Stories 1, I wished Greenberg had not included the obvious fantasy stories. They could have included three more SF stories for 1939. “The Trouble with Water,” “The Misguided Halo,” and “Star Bright” just don’t belong in a collection called Great SF Stories.
Greenberg also included a second story by L. Sprague de Camp, “The Blue Giraffe” that had a nice science-fictional idea, but it paled in comparison to his standout story, “The Gnarly Man.” I would have used de Camp’s “Living Fossil” instead of “The Blue Giraffe” because it’s another standout story. “Living Fossil” had a much bigger SF idea — essentially prefiguring Planet of the Apes (1963). The idea was expanded by de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller in the novel Genus Homo that came out in 1941 in magazine form and 1950 in book form.
What if The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) could have included all the better SF stories from 1939 worth preserving? How many would that be? Asimov and Greenberg mainly focused on Astounding.
How is preserving worthiness decided? That’s hard to say. There are stories like “The Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell that just didn’t turn me on at all. Should the personal tastes of the anthologist be the deciding factor? If we go by literary quality I’m not sure any of these stories are worth remembering.
Even though these stories entertained me I’m not sure I would recommend them to my friends my age, or younger readers. Science fiction from 1939 represents such a unique perspective on reality that I’m not sure they will be meaningful to many readers. I expect only old hardcore SF fans like myself who grew up reading these stories in the 1950s and 1960s will actually enjoy reading The Great SF Stories #1.
The only reason I can find for reading these stories is for understanding their influence on science fiction’s evolution. In terms of entertainment value, they can’t compete with modern science fiction found on Netflix or Amazon Prime. To a young person watching TV science fiction, 2018 science fiction is like shooting fentanyl and 1939 stories are like a watery Coors.
Ultimately, I decided the value of reading old science fiction comes from the pleasure of being an archeologist of science fictional ideas and themes. Think about it this way. There was a time in your life before you knew the concept of time travel. Can you remember when you first encountered it? The first time you conceive of traveling in time is mind-blowing. Of course, science fiction is so pervasive in our society that most children encounter all the classic ideas of science fiction before they go to school. They probably can’t remember the first time.
When I read these old stories I pay attention to the idea put across, and the historical context in which it was first created. I’m hoping by reading all these years of science fiction short stories will help me compile a list of themes and cite the progression of ideas through the years in the stories.
Here are briefly some of the themes I noticed from 1939. Over time I wish to expand them into full essays. I’ll try to avoid story specifics in case there are people who actually want to still read these stories. Even if you can’t find a copy of The Great SF Stories #1, most of the original magazines are available online for free. I read them with my iPad Mini by loading them in Dropbox.
There are two robot stories in this collection. The subject of “I, Robot” by Eando Binder is the first intelligent machine. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam is about the last three robots on Earth. Both stories use robots for their POV, with Adam Link in “I, Robot” even using the first-person. I previously wrote, “I, Robot” by Eando Binder” to explain why I thought it a standout story in the history of fictional robots. In 1939 few people knew about computers. In fact, the term computer was a job classification for humans. I also like that Adam Link tells us his limitations.
“Rust” combines several SF themes, including the extinction of humanity, the extinction of robots, the creation of artificial intelligence, and programmed behavior. The robots in the story wonder why humans couldn’t overcome their instincts and they regret that their programming makes them kill. This is an early story of fearing the consequences of military robots.
“Rust” is a wistful story about the last three intelligent robots after man has become extinct, reminding me of Clifford Simak’s stories about robots telling each other tales of mythical mankind. I assume Simak read Astounding Science Fiction since his serial novel Cosmic Engineers ran in the magazine during 1939, so he probably read “Rust.”
“I, Robot” and “Rust” make bookend robot stories to include in this anthology of 1939. “I, Robot” is about the first intelligent robot, and “Rust” is about the last. Men want to kill Adam Link, but X-120 regrets exterminating humanity but blames humans for designing him to be a weapon. At one point X-120 obliterates a poor rabbit only to feel terrible remorse. Unlike Asimov’s robots, the robot X-120 was programmed to kill.
There are two stories in The Great SF Stories #1 about Neanderthals: “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp and “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey. Both are about the last Neanderthal, however “The Gnarly Man” develops another science fiction theme, immortality. So in one story, the last Neanderthal was in the distant past, and the second he’s still living with us today. This idea has been bouncing around ever SF ever since, including “The Alley Man” by Philip Jose Farmer in a 1959 issue of F&SF, and recently in the 2007 film, The Man from Earth.
“The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey really grabbed me emotionally and is about the passing of a Neanderthal man who was living on Cro-Magnon charity. “The Day is Done” suggests Neanderthals interbred with modern man, which wasn’t a common belief back in 1939, but is considered fact today. It’s a lovely story that’s been often reprinted. You’d think stories Neanderthal life would be filed under historical fiction, but for some reason, science fiction has claimed them. See “5 SF/F Novels About Neanderthals That Aren’t The Clan of the Cave Bear” that barely mentions a few of them. I think the first story I remember reading on this theme was Mists of Dawn by Chad Oliver from the old Winston Science Fiction series. Asimov and Greenberg even did a whole anthology of such stories called Neanderthals.
This is one of the wonderful benefits of reading old science fiction is discovering the origin of popular modern SF stories. Ideas in new stories we read today are often old ideas being recycled. Anyone who knows “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt assumes the film Alien (1979) is its descendant — and Van Vogt shows us Coeurl’s POV, which is missing from H. R. Giger’s horrifying being.
“Black Destroyer” is a wonderful story on many levels. It feels like an episode of Star Trek, and this 1939 novelette includes many ideas that the 1960s TV show would explore in multiple episodes. The crew doesn’t include women, but it did have an important Japanese member.
“Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell is another kind of alien invasion story, where superior beings take over the Earth and enslave humans. It also involves the SF themes of Far Futures, Super Science, Psychic Powers, and Matriarchial Societies.
Prejudice Against Science
Both “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein and “Trends” by Isaac Asimov are about anti-science prejudice. Of course, Heinlein’s idea was nutty, but he gave a decent enough explanation. I wondered if Heinlein and Asimov were reflecting anti-SF bias they felt from 1939 society. Science fiction and pulp magazines were considered trashy. Good parents didn’t let their kids reach such crap. SF fans often had to hide what they read, even though they thought of themselves as Slans (superior beings).
Both of these stories were about something else, predicting death and rocket travel, but I felt ultimately they were about prejudice to new ideas. When I was young I didn’t like “Life-Line” even though Heinlein was my favorite writer. But over the years, each time I reread “Life-Line” it gets better. For a first story, Heinlein was fairly savvy about storytelling, especially for writing for the pulps.
Both “Rust” and “Living Fossil” a favorite story from 1939 not in this collection were about a time after humans went extinct. H. G. Wells started that idea I think in The Time Machine when he imagined the Eloi and Morlocks replacing us. Science fiction has often contemplated the end of humans, and well as our replacements.
“Living Fossil” did quite a lot for such a short story. De Camp nicely imagines monkeys from South America evolving our level of development millions of years after humans have disappeared. Even the interior illustration makes me wonder if Pierre Boulle ripped this story off for his novel Planet of the Apes. Evidently, L. Sprague de Camp isn’t as litigious as Harlan Ellison.
In “Pilgrimage” by Nelson Bond, we visit a far distant future after our society has long disappeared from the scene. Women rule. All the myths are about women gods. In “Cloak of Aesir” the alien invaders are ruled by the female of the species. I first encountered this idea in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from 1915. Goodreads lists 115 such books. Wikipedia has an article on “Single Gender Worlds.”
I thought psychic powers was an obsession of 1950s Astounding Science Fiction, but evidently, John W. Campbell had been thinking about it at least as early as “Cloak of Aesir” in 1939. “Star Bright” by Jack Williamson is a fantasy story about a man getting magical abilities from a meteorite piercing his skull and lodging in his brain.
“Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore is a powerful story about people in the far future projecting their thoughts to a man in our near future. Moore’s story is really about two roads the people of Earth could take in 1939. She just used psychic powers to show us two possible far-future outcomes–one a world united by power driven men (think Hitler), and the other a decadent world of peace and pleasure. Moore doesn’t want either, but she shows how both entice us.
There were two hard science stories in The Great SF Stories #1. The first was “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman that anticipates Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. The second is Heinlein’s “Misfit” about a spaced based future CCC unit moving a small asteroid out of the asteroid belt into an orbit closer to Mars, making it into a long-term space station. Heinlein promotes the use of mathematics, discipline, and hard work. This could be his first juvenile SF story.
I really enjoyed these old stories, but I’m not sure younger people will. The storytelling is often crude. Modern science fiction on Netflix is far more sophisticated, colorful, exciting, and dynamic. I am constantly pleased while reading these old stories to unearth ideas we still use today. I feel like a science fiction archeologist piecing together the evolution of science fictional ideas. That’s very rewarding to me. Throughout this collection of 1939 stories, I found ideas that first amazed me in the 1960s when reading 1950s and 1960s science fiction. I thought those ideas were original back then. Evidently not. But were they original in 1939?
I assume if you live long enough you start thinking like the person who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. I also assume if I could time travel back to 450 BCE I’d find people telling stories that contained the seeds of all the stories in The Great SF Stories #1 (1939).
26 thoughts on “The Great SF Stories 1 (1939)”
You’re retired. You shouldn’t feel guilty about anything you are doing. I think we should all be following our passions in retirement. I am making mine music with piano lessons, chime choir, regular choir, and Choraleers. I’m trying to do things that are pro-active, but also trying not to feel guilty about just reading or watching figure skating. You almost make me want to go and read these stories. I had some of them at one time, but don’t think they made the cut when I moved.
Carol, I envy you your music ability. I’ve always passionately listened to music, but whenever I try to learn to play or sing I just can’t get anywhere. I’ve decided to accept that my specialty is reading science fiction.
My sense of guilt over what I’m reading deals more with time management. I can only read so much before I die, and to read my TBR pile would require 100x times that time.
What a wonderful discussion of the first volume!
To your reasons for reading old science fiction stories, I would add this: To find at least some stories that impress and excite me as much as the classic stories I read when I was quite a few decades younger. In any list of the “best” stories, there will be some that don’t work for me, and—here’s the tantalizing thought—others that were overlooked, but that I would have loved, if only I’d known about them.
From the second volume onward, you’ll find that there are introductions to several Heinlein stories that don’t actually appear in the books because of rights issues. When you get to them, I think you should seek out the Heinlein stories and regard them as part of the book. If memory serves, I think this problem affects the second and third volumes.
I wasn’t aware of Asimov’s letter to Astounding, but I see that he omitted Lester del Rey’s “The Smallest God”. It’s a January 1940 story, though. However, Terry Carr included it in CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION: THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE, which is a sort of de facto best for 1940 – 1942.
For what it’s worth, my two favorites in #1 were the two Neanderthal stories. I’m not as averse to fantasy as you are. If it was by a science fiction author, and it appeared in a classic genre magazine and was loved by readers of SF, I’m prepared to look the other way. So, for me, the best thing from 1939 was L. Sprague de Camp’s LEST DARKNESS FALL. Technically a novel, of course, and also fantasy rather than SF. Still, it appeared in a single issue of Unknown.
You can call out almost any year at random and, as a militant short fiction fan, my favorite work from that year will nearly always be below novel length. But 1939 appears to be an exception! Mr. De Camp mustn’t come anywhere near me with that blue giraffe, though. Some of us actually live in southern Africa, and the local details in that story are either plain wrong or vastly improbable.
Piet, when I started #2 (1940) the very first story is “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein. I went and found a copy and read it. It’s definitely a favorite. I would have used it instead of “The Roads Must Roll” in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
The Blue Giraffe is a clunky story. Even for me, who has never been anywhere near Africa, the story is too fantastically unbelievable. I almost called it a fantasy story and lumped it with the three I wanted to jettison from the collection. However, the idea of leaving a radioactive scanner on and causing weird mutations is a standard science fiction idea. Remember all those giant bug movies of the 1950s? I thought “Living Fossil” was a much more elegant story.
I need to poke around in Amazing Stories or Wonder Stories to see if they had any good SF in 1939. I think Asimov was overly partial to John W. Campbell.
I can handle fantasy stories if they are more than just a gimmick, such as the Harry Potter novels or The Golden Compass.
Oh I am of two minds – as usual. Yes, I think it’s valuable to reread old favorites – First for enjoyment if they are – that’s totally worthy. Second to see if the stories have stood the test of time – are they still appealing? In the same way? –
How much different is this from folks getting a kick out of watching old TV shows? Or me reading an Agatha Christie I’d missed for some reason. (If I went back further I could suggest rereading the Little House on the Prairie books but those were really children’s books – not even Young Adult fare at all.
I figure I’m wasting time when I read some of the crime books I read – my guilty pleasure. I’m also reading Kristin Lavransdatter at the moment – I haven’t lost my taste for the literary or the educational. I just also read a few books for pure-d enjoyment for instance, The #1 Ladies Detective Agency books and authors John Lescroart or Monica Ferris and I could go on …
Life is good. 🙂
Life is good, I just wish I had more of it. If I lived to be a 1,000 I wouldn’t have time to do everything I want. I’d love the time to watch tons of old TV shows too.
Great post, Jim. Pity you won’t be able to cover 1942 before the Retro-Hugo nominations end (although you may get to volume 4 before the final ballot).
FWIW, I think the editor’s selections were influenced by more than just the editor’s personal taste. In one of the later volumes there’s a (appropriately, in my opinion) grudging introduction to Kornbluth’s ‘The Marching Morons’ along the lines of “I suppose we must include this one.”
Perhaps he can suspend his reading to make time for the Retro Hugo ballot stories. or maybe he’ll have read them already.
I’ve got through March. I’ll hurry. But I want to keep reading in order. But I might study 1942 out-of-order. Are you voting for the Hugos?
Piet, I created an email discussion group for The Great SF Stories v. 1-25 (1939-1963). Maybe we, and others can discuss 1942 stories there. https://groups.io/g/The-Great-SF-Stories-1939-1963
I didn’t include #26 edited by Silverberg because I thought it might confuse people, but we can also discuss it and later annual anthologies there too.
So far 7 people have joined. Evidently, these stories are of interest to more people than I thought.
But wouldn’t I have had to join the convention before now? I need to start studying those Retro Hugo awards. I could get to 1942 by March.
They may have meant that comment as a wink-wink because the story is so famous. However, I wished I knew more about how they selected stories for these annuals. I’ve started 1940 and they have a Fritz Leiber story from Weird Tales that has nothing at all to do with science fiction. It’s about an evil possessed .45 – did they include it just to acknowledge their friend, or did they think the name “Fritz Leiber” would sell more copies?
Asimov and Greenberg cranked out anthologies like crazy. How much real time did they put into each volume? Did either one of them actually go through all the magazines available for that year?
Will we ever see all the nominations for the 1942 Retro Hugos? I wonder what other methods or criteria would let us know what are the best stories for each year? I wished ISFDB would produce a list of stories by how often they have been anthologized.
Mark Kelly has provided some statistics for the anthologies that he has added to the Locus Science Fiction Awards Database: http://www.sfadb.com/TableA1
And, of course, there are stats for anthologies and collections published up to 1983 on this page: http://www.philsp.com/homeville/ISFAC/0start.htm
Thanks, Piet. You are a goldmine of information about short stories. I wish both lists were longer. I’m very surprised at this summary. Heinlein wasn’t even in the top 20. Even those the cite says Science Fiction Anthologies and doesn’t mention Fantasy or Horror, I think it must lump them all together.
(799) Clark Ashton Smith
(449) Ray Bradbury
(412) Robert E. Howard
(337) Isaac Asimov
(292) de Camp, L. Sprague
(258) Harlan Ellison™
(257) H.P. Lovecraft
(245) Poul Anderson
(221) Robert Bloch
(219) Brian W. Aldiss
(200) August Derleth
(192) Robert Silverberg
(187) Fritz Leiber
(180) Lafcadio Hearn
(170) Barry N. Malzberg
(157) R. A. Lafferty
(156) Fredric Brown
(155) Edgar Allan Poe
(153) Theodore Sturgeon
(146) Robert Sheckley
The cut-off date for joining to nominateand vote for the 1942 Retro-Hugos was 31/12/2017. I got supporting membership for the first time ever. The reason I suggested that you look at 1942 is the more people suggesting prospective nominees the better: last year’s winners looked like the voters had just ticked the boxes beside the names they recognised.
Hoo boy! If you wanted to start something here, I think you’ve done a fine job JW. I’d like to portray my knowledge and expertise on the subject herein as useful and educational. But I cannot.
I read some of those stories(1930’s-1950-‘s) as an adolescent (or pre-) and have only occasionally gone back to re-read them. Generally, the first time I read them were as Ace Doubles or in anthologies that were in the local LA Library stacks. That means the stories that weren’t in Galaxy, F&SF, or Astounding/Analog probably passed me by. Or I passed them by…
You sir, are now the official Pot-Stirrer on this issue. I’d like to contribute, but I’d better do some research first.
Jim, most of the old pulps are available online. You might find it fun to get an issue and just read it. The July 1939 Astounding is the most famous.
You are tempting me to reread the Asimov/Greenberg GREAT SF series. I suspect Asimov and Greenberg had page limits, money limits, and DAW editorial limits to contend with. These anthologies are just barometers of the “best” stories published during a particular year. As you point out, other choices (based on taste or unavailability of stories at the time) could be made today.
I wish there was some way to know what old short stories are actually being read today. I didn’t think about the Retro Hugos until these comments showed up, but that might be a good way for readers to look at these old stories again. However, my guess is people will just work from memory.
Last night I read “The Dwindling Sphere” by Willard Hawkins from 1940 — a totally unknown story to me. Yet, it’s very relevant to today’s problems. Some of these writers were worried about the future, and now that we’re the future, we might want to reread them to study long-term thinking. This story kind of relates to the economic impact of 3D printing.
Maybe another kind of choice for reevaluating old science fiction should be whether or not it has anything to say about today?
The old short stories still being read today are probably those that appear in anthologies and collections published or reprinted today. The trouble is that there are very few anthologists who feature old stories in new compilations. When the call goes out for submissions for a new anthology, you often see a stipulation that the stories mustn’t be older than thirty years.
In recent years (i.e. this century), I’ve enjoyed the anthologies of Mike Ashley and of Hank Davis. They are two of the very few anthologists who have mined the old pulps and digests in recent years, and even they seldom go back all the way to the 1940s.
What’s important about SF,is it’s historical legacy and value.Because it’s derived from more than one source though,it’s difficult to trace linearly.Modern SF is European in origin.It was being written there,long before anybody thought of making it into a genre.Hugo Gernsback was an immigrant who published popular science magazines,that developed into the original pulp SF magazine[s].It didn’t start with the pulps then,but they were the true source that became a paperback genre.With it’s inception though,there was a greater influence of the literary tradition in SF,and the barriers between it and the old pulp magazines,became less clear and tended to merge.The same was happening at the same time,in the still existing magazines.It had evolved into a greater,less restricted and more vibrant artform.
You realise the cultural and traditional importance of SF.It was written for the magazines by authors who were paid very little money,but did it for the sake of doing what they wanted to do.You were one of the devoted few who appreciated what they did,but you have read every sort of literature.Many people have read the high quality literature,but probably few of them have read SF,yet you have read both.The people who are limited to watching SF on tv/Netflick, probably have no knowledge of it’s history,and will never read anything in the genre.You have access to a greater trove of SF treasures than them.
You are fascinated by it’s historical roots and developement,and you want to discover more.Very few do this.You should continue what you’re interested in doing.
The audience for SF from 1939 isn’t large. Stories that weren’t appreciated back then might be more relevant and interesting today. The lens of 2018 has a different focus than the lens of 1939. The number of SF stories published today overwhelm me. Too often, I wait for the BEST SF OF THE YEAR anthologies instead of reading digital SF magazines and print SF magazines. I have one foot in the past with these Asimov/Greenberg anthologies and another foot in the present trying to read a fraction of the new SF stories that appear. It’s an embarrassment of riches!
The reason that Heinlein isn’t in the top twenty is probably the same as that which accounts for three of his stories missing from the 1940 volume (money I suspect).
Thanks for your illuminating take on the Great SF Stories. As it happens I’ve been working my way through this series, though fairly slowly over the last few year. Too many other things seem to intervene. I tried reading through volume 1 a few years back but got stuck on one of the stories – Campbell’s Cloak of Aesir is I recall correctly. I found it utterly tedious and badly written. So I put the book aside. Still, not long after I found myself picking up volume 11 (1949), and ploughed through it. The stories had improved considerably in the intervening 10 years! I began buying up copies of the series, and continued reading. I began to formulate an idea for reviewing some of the stories and assembling a list of my favourites, with a few additions from the various years to beef up the list. The shorts from the 50s were a blast. I now can well understand Barry Malzberg’s contention that the 1950s was when Anglo-American SF reached a peak. However, as I preceded I felt that I need to be completist and read the entire series from the start. By which time I had reached volume 22 and thought that maybe I should go back to the start and read the first ten volumes before turning to the last three volumes of the series. Well, I have to say that I have enjoyed the first three volumes more than I suspected. Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” in volume 3 was a particular standout. I’m presently half-way through volume 4 (1942). My plan is to finish off the series and then blog on the series entire, mostly concentrated on what I consider the stand outs of the series. We’ll see if this happens (the best laid plans…).
I take your point about the relatively “primitive” nature of these early works , in comparison to what is available televisually these days. However, I less impressed by the apparent “sophistiation” of contemporary SF. Indeed, one of the joys of reading this old stuff is the need to critically engage with it, rather than let it passively wash over you. There is undoubtedly some awful stuff here, but its good to come to grips with the way SF evolved, particularly out of the mire of the pulps. Not to mention that by the 1950s each volume is jampacked with excellent writers and stories.
You maybe interested to know that Greenberg teamed up with Robert Silverberg a few years back to release a 26th volume, available here: http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/GreatSF64.html
Best wishes to you,
I’m really looking forward to getting to 1950. I’ve had other readers tell me things don’t get great until then. I’m now on 1941. I’m still surprised by some of the older stories though. By the way, I’ve started a discussion group for people reading The Great SF Stories over at https://groups.io/g/The-Great-SF-Stories-1939-1963/topics – come over and join us if you want.