Reading Science Fiction Year-By-Year

by James Wallace Harris

Back in February, I started reading The Great SF Stories series of 25 books edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They collect the best short stories of the year, starting with 1939 and running through 1963. I’m now reading on volume 8 covering 1946. I even started a discussion group hoping other people might join me. 27 people joined, but so far only a couple people have made comments, and only George Kelley has begun to read the books in order too.

George started first with reading Best SF Stories series edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty that ran 1949-1959, which he’s since finished. He felt science fiction stories in the 1950s were better than those stories from the 1940s. Many older fans consider 1939 the beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and the 1950s was science fiction’s Silver Age, but I have to agree with George, science fiction gets progressively better each year. I’m looking forward to reaching the 1950s.

Reading science fiction year by year is very revealing. For example, in 1946 many of the stories were about how to live with the atomic bomb. During the war years, there were a handful of stories that predicted atomic bombs, atomic energy, dirty bombs, nuclear terrorism, and how atomic age technology would impact society.

Science fiction had to change after August 1945 because of the reality of atomic weapons. What’s interesting is we remember the predicting stories like “Blowups Happen” (1940) and “Solution Unsatisfactory” (1941) by Robert Heinlein, “Nerves” (1942) by Lester del Rey,  and “Deadline” (1944) by Cleve Cartmill, but we don’t remember “Loophole” by Arthur C. Clarke and “The Nightmare” by Chan Davis, both from 1946. “The Nightmare” is of particular interest to us today because it’s about monitoring the trade in radioactive elements and the construction of atomic energy plants.

Probably the most prescience story I’ve read so far is “A Logic Named Joe” (1946) by Murray Leinster. Computers were still human calculators in 1946, so Leinster calls a computer a logic. He imagines a future where there’s a logic in every home, all connected to huge databases. And he foresees people would consult their logic for all kinds of information from the weather to how to murder your wife. He even imagines routines to keep kids from looking up stuff they shouldn’t. Leinster imagines banking, investing, encyclopedic knowledge, and all the other stuff we do with the internet.

The story itself is about an emergent AI named Joe begins to process the data himself and answers questions on his own that science and society have yet to know. Imagine if Google could tell you a great way to counterfeit money? Or how to invent something that would make you a billionaire. In other words, Leinster imagines disruptive technology. He even imagines kids searching for weird kinds of porn when the nanny-ware breaks.

If you’d like to see which science fictions stories were the most popular for each year, use this new tool we’ve set up that uses the Classic of Science Fiction data. Books come from over 65 lists recommended SF, and short stories come from over 100 anthologies that reprinted the best science fiction from the past.

To see the most remembered short SF from any year, just set the min and max year to the same year. Check the story radio button. And change the citations from 1 for all stories to 16 for the absolute best. Hit search. You can sort the columns by clicking on the column headings. For example, there are a total of 22 short stories remembered by our citation sources for 1946. For the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories, we used a cutoff of 5 citations. That meant only three stories were remembered well enough from 1946 to meet our standards. However, you can set your own criteria. The most remembered story from 1946 is “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, which had 10 citations. Here’s the CSFquery set to a minimum of 3 citations. You can see the citation sources by clicking on a title line.

1946 with a minimum of 3 citations

Notice “A Logic Named Joe” isn’t on the list. How can this be after I praised it so highly? Here’s a list of all the places it’s been anthologized. For some reason, it’s never made it in any of the great retrospective SF anthologies. That’s a shame.

Here’s the same query but with citations set to 1, which gives all the cited SF stories for 1946. I now have to worry that other stories with only 1-4 citations might deserve to be remembered.

1946 with a minimum of 1 citations

JWH

 

6 thoughts on “Reading Science Fiction Year-By-Year”

  1. James,

    I don’t mean to pursue or argue the concept inherent in what I read here. I do mean to suggest that what you are pointing to is that we are so fucked by our current ignorant leadership that nothing we can do, no argument that we can make is sufficient to change things in order to make things useful/ effective and really different in our shit-space.

    If we are to deal with turds, then we must agree that turds are important.

    I for one, do not agree with that turdocracy. Fuck those bastards!

  2. Thank you again for inspiring me to reread THE GREAT SF STORIES series in order! I’m very impressed by your data base and rating system. “A Logic Named Joe” is a ground-breaking story that deserves more attention. Robert Heinlein and other SF writers predicted plenty of the technological marvels (and dangers!) in their stories in the 1940s. That trend continues in SF today. As science changes, the fiction changes. Sadly, I don’t think any major publisher would undertake a project like THE GREAT SF STORIES series today.

  3. I am reading THE GREAT SF STORIES in order, too. The only difference is that I’m reading it in rotation with four or five other series, plus once-off anthologies, and much else.

    As a result, I’m reading it so slowly that it’s difficult to work up any meaningful conversation—we’re never going to be on the same page. I’ve reached Asimov’s “Foundation” in Volume 4.

    I simply can’t read this very old stuff without long breaks in between, knowing that I’m missing far better fiction published in later years. I’m well into my sixties, so if I read according to strict chronology, I’d miss most of the good stuff. There’s only so much time.

    1. I’m doing the same thing, Piet. I binge on the older stories for a while, maybe a few days, then read other stuff. To be honest, a lot of these older stories aren’t very good. My reading pleasure comes from seeing science fiction evolve, and trying to understand the context in which it was written. I spend most of my reading time reading news and essays, nonfiction books, and newer novels. Every few days I crave an old science fiction story or two, and I indulge.

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