A History of the Annual Science Fiction Best-of-the-Year Anthology

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Best_science_fiction_stories_1949Back in 1949 editors Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty came out with The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949 from Fredrick Fell publishers that collected the best science fiction stories that appeared in magazines during 1948. They were following the tradition of The Best American Short Stories anthology that first appeared in 1915. Science fiction has had one or more annual best-of-the-year anthologies ever since. I’ve counted 9 scheduled for 2018, with two already released (The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 edited by Neil Clarke and The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Twelve edited by Jonathan Strahan). By the way, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven is currently available for the Kindle for 99 cents. It has two of my favorite recent reads:  “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (try the audio) and “Mika Model” by Paolo Bacigalupi (author of The Windup Girl.)

Few people read short stories. The audience for them is greater than poetry readers, but probably not by much. The three top print magazines, Analog, Asimov’s SF, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction all have roughly 10,000-20,000 buyers each. There’s no telling how many readers there are for the many online magazines. 1% of the U.S. population would be 3.257 million people, so even if there were 50,000 science fiction short story fans, that would only be less than 1/65th of 1% of the population. If you’re a fan of SF short stories, the odds of knowing someone else who is also a fan is very small indeed.

However, I would claim the science fiction short story has always been the heart and soul of the genre. Even before Amazing Stories in April 1926, the first pulp magazine devoted to science fiction, short science fiction appeared regularly in periodicals decades before that. Most science fiction writers, especially the Golden Age writers, got their start writing short stories. And if you love to read science fiction for the far-out ideas, the magazines are the place to go.

In an age where most novels are part of trilogies or never-ending series, a short work of fiction that jumps in, gets the job done and wraps up satisfyingly is to be highly prized. I get more science fictional bangs for my galactic credit by reading one annual anthology than I do reading a dozen SF novels. That’s why I’ve switched to mostly reading SF short stories.

Bleiler and Dikty might have begun the tradition of best-short-stories-of-the-year anthologies, but Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg created a series in the late 1970s that jumped back to 1939 and continued for 25 volumes until 1963. Robert Silverberg added one more volume for 1964 after they stopped.

I’ve started a reading project to read all these anthologies from 1939 to the present, assuming the present will be the year I die. That’s about 200 books as of 2018. I’m currently reading stories from 1942, the 1950s, and 2017.

Here are the annual anthologies I know about that ran for at least three years minimum. There have been other editors and publishers starting annual series that didn’t succeed that I’m ignoring in my collecting and reading. Follow the links to ISFDB to read more about each series, their volumes, and their content. I’m using the series title decided on my ISFDB, but individual volume titles will vary.

If you count series with the bolded “present” above, you should tally eleven. Maybe my assumption that few people read short stories is wrong because this seems like a boom time for best-of-the-year anthologies.

Bleiler & Dikty began their series two years before I was born. Evidently, their publisher Frederick Fell didn’t have a wide distribution because I don’t remember seeing any of these volumes at the library when I was growing up. I began reading the annual anthologies in the mid-sixties with Judith Merril and then the Wollheim books from Ace Books. After that, I started reading the Terry Carr collections. I bought every annual from Dozois when he started with Bluejay Books, but I didn’t keep them. Damn!  Today I follow Dozois, Strahan, Horton, Kaster, and Clarke.

My current reading project is The Great SF Stories edited by Asimov/Greenberg. I’m reading them straight through. I’m now in 1942. I seldom read the annual anthologies from cover-to-cover. My goal is to do that this time as I progress through the years. It’s becoming quite an education in the history and evolution of science fiction. I sometimes write about the stories that intrigue me over at Worlds Without End.

If you’re interested in discussing SF short stories I have an online email group, The Great SF Stories at Groups.io. You’re welcome to join.

Update:

A few weeks ago I wrote “9 ‘Best SFF of the Year’ Anthologies” for Book Riot that just got published (4/13/18). At the time I only knew about 9 current best-of-the-year anthologies. Now it’s up to 11. There might be more.

JWH

 

 

17 thoughts on “A History of the Annual Science Fiction Best-of-the-Year Anthology”

  1. I should have reminded you of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series, but I’d forgotten about it myself. The series editor is John Joseph Adams; guest editors so far have been Joe Hill and Karen Joy Fowler, with an upcoming one from Charles Yu. Interestingly, Adams clearly labels each story in the book as either science fiction or fantasy (on his website, when the TOC is announced).

    I’d love to read at least one volume covering each year (Jim’s ambition makes my head spin), but as a first priority I want to read all the Terry Carr volumes, and all the Gardner Dozois ones (the current series, not the Dozois half of the Dutton series—they’re too hard to get). That’s already a LOT of reading. Gardner Dozois’s series has presented 998 stories so far, including this year’s number 35. Some of the stories, like Joe Haldeman’s “The Hemingway Hoax” and James Patrick Kelly’s “Burn”, are quite long enough for slim books on their own.

    1. I can’t believe I left off the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series either. I own them, plus I’ve written about them before. I have an essay from Book Riot coming out that list it and eight other best-of-the-year SF anthologies for 2018. I’ll fix my list. Thanks Piet.

  2. Gardner Dozois’s first series was started and ran for several volumes as edited by Lester Del Rey. David Afsharirad has had an anthology running for three yearrs, and the gay and lesbian BOTYs I think might’ve gotten up to three volumes each (I should double-check). BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES was joined rather quickly, and still is, by THE O. HENRY AWARDS annual. The Nebula Awards volumes are often also cited as being comparable, but they can be set aside through any sort of attempting to shave this down. (There are very few shorter series, such as the Frederik Pohl/FJ Ackerman Ace 2-volume series back when Ace was collapsing.) I’ve been doing this kind of thing half-heartedly for years, so all sympathies.

  3. Also, if no one was reading short stories, we wouldn’t have all these annuals, and not solely in sf and eclectic/contemporary-mimetic fields, but also in fantasy and horror, crime fiction, erotica and a bit more (but mostly those). The combined sales of all these annuals (and the tendency of these to sell to many of the same readers and libraries) would probably give a better sense of how large the short fiction audience is, more so than simply toting up the sales of the newsstand fiction magazines, even adding in all the non-SF fiction magazines. (Or adding the smaller numbers devoted to magazines such as SPACE AND TIME, INTERZONE, the TECHNOLOGY REVIEW sf annual special issues–which might outsell the regular sf/fantasy magazines, and occasionally others I’ve bought off newsstands, mostly at B&N stores, over the years since Borders and Books-A-Million were also handy for this purpose.)

    1. I’d love to know the sales figures for all the magazines and all the annual anthologies. There was a time when Analog and Asimov’s had over 100,000 subscribers. Probably due to being included in the Publisher’s Clearing House mailings. So it’s kind of sad to see their circulations dwindle over my lifetime. And I wonder what ebooks and the internet are doing to get new readers of SF short stories.

      I wish the anthologies would catch on with audiobook listeners. Horton, Strahan, and Clarke have each had one of their annuals produced in audio, but not a second one. I keep hoping Dozois’ collection will get a turn at audio.

  4. Congratulations on John O’Neill’s shout-out to you and Classic SF on BLACK GATE! I’m reading THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION STORIES: 1951 right now. You inspired me to go back and reread these classic SF anthologies! I’m also rereading the Asimov/Greenberg GREAT SF series when I get a chance. So many books, so little time!

    1. George, I’m looking forward to catching up to 1949 so I can begin reading the Bleiler/Dikty collection. I’m going through 1942 of Asimov/Greenberg now. I’m buying reading copies of the Bleiler/Dikty books in anticipation, and have snuck in a few future reads. I love listening to The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes 1, 2A, and 2B because that gives me more variety from 1926-1964. I’m also reading from the new 2018 Strahan and will get the 2018 Clarke soon. I don’t stay in 1942, but that’s where I’m reading in order.

  5. That sounds like both a worthy and daunting reading project though you would be saved a little work by duplicate stories. At a book a week, if that’s all you read, it’s a four year project.

    Blogging about an anthology or collection, for me, is worse than a novel in terms of effort and time. However, if you just read them with no expectation of writing every story up, I think it sounds like a great project.

    I first discovered sf as a genre through the Harrison and Aldiss Best SF series. My teenaged self didn’t always appreciate or understand each story, but I read some good ones I still remember and found some authors to follow.

    To this day, I still favor the short form in sf to the novel.

    However, I can’t say I’ve even read a complete run of any of these anthology series, but I’ve dipped into several.

    1. Marzaat, I tried to review 1939, 1940, and 1941, but it was overwhelming. So I’m just going to write about specific stories now and then. I’ve already had some overlap between The Great SF Stories and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame which has saved me some reading.

      I’ve never read a whole series before either, and except for a few Wollheim volumes back in the 1960s and 1970s, never read a whole annual anthology before. I did listen to the entire Clarke anthology that came out a couple years ago. I’ve always wanted to read a Dozois collection from cover-to-cover — that would be a major reading achievement.

      The best I can do is read one or two short stories a day. And my restless mind wants to jump around in time. I’m impressed I’ve finished three volumes of The Great SF Stories. I don’t know if this is an age-related issue, or just being jaded from reading so much science fiction, but I can seldom stick with a novel anymore. I think I’ll finish about six SF novels this year.

  6. I’ve finished three volumes of The Great SF Stories as well, but in my case it’s #1, #2, and #21. 1959 was a great year!

  7. Does anyone know where I can find a complete index to Allan Kaster’s audio series? ISFDB has only some of the books, not all. The choices appear to be pretty solid. I’ve usually heard of all or most of the stories.

    1. You can piece together their contents from this search on Amazon. You can also search for “Year’s Top Ten” on Audible.com.

      This series is kind of a mess. Audible has them all, but sometimes they are offered on Amazon as paperbacks, CDs, or Kindle books. Because I value them for audio, I haven’t worried about the other formats.

  8. Jim, I’ve listed the contents for the Top Ten series from the information given on the Infinivox site.

    The annual gay series is billed as Wilde Stories, and the equivalent lesbian one is called Sisters of Russ. Unfortunately these two series are also not fully listed on ISFDB.

  9. Of course—Heiresses of Russ, not Sisters.
    I know Alyx Dellamonica edited one for 2016. Have you looked on the Lethe Press website?
    I’ll ask Alyx if she knows anything about the series continuing or not.
    There is of course also a Best of British SF, which probably covers as large a slice of the SF pie graph as others you are including.

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