Creating Something Useful in Retirement

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 17, 2019

For their retirement project, Greg Hullender and Eric Wong created Rocket Stack Rank that reviews and rates science fiction and fantasy short stories as they come out in eleven SF/F magazines and some anthologies. It’s a major undertaking they’ve been working on since 2015. Rocket Stack Rank is quite a resource and especially useful if you love shorter works of science fiction. I subscribe to four magazines they review, and their reviews show up very quickly after a new issue appears. Because I’m always so busy reading older stories, I use their ratings to take my head out of the past and put it in the present. But I also admire the web design and programming that also goes into their site.

Greg and Eric have been buddies for twenty years. My friend Mike and I have been reading and discussing science fiction for almost forty years. Mike inspired me to create the Classics of Science Fiction list back in the 1980s. Since 2016 Mike has been programming the database for the site and this year created the query system that lets users build their own lists. We think of the site as our retirement project. It gives us purpose and hopefully provides a useful tool for other people.

However, recently we started wondering if all the work was worth the effort because very few people use our site. Identifying the most remembered science fiction stories of the past is going to appeal to a very niche crowd. The new query system that Mike has spent a great deal of time perfecting only gets a few people using it a day. We were planning to expand its features but have been wondering if its worth the effort. Mike loves to program and this gives him a project to work on, but is it the best use of his time? I spend a lot of time researching, data inputting, and writing essays for the site.

Last night we were asking ourselves if success is determined by the number of users. If we enjoy the effort does it matter how many people use the site? In one sense no, but we do want to create tools people will use. We have to balance the fact that a new feature might require hundreds or even thousands of hours of work against its future utility. We’ve been disappointed the CSF Query (Classics of Science Fiction Query) hasn’t gotten more users. We think it’s partly due to people not knowing about it, and mostly due to people not needing it.

CSF Query is the kind of tool in your toolbox that you will only need rarely, but when the need arises it’s perfect for the job. For example, Paul Fraser at SF Magazines created a listing of stories that can be considered for the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards. So far he’s found 326 stories from about a dozen 1943 pulp magazines that qualify. That’s quite of bit of work. If you set CSF Query for 1943 and a minimum of 1 citation and hit Search you’ll get all the stories that are remembered in our Classics of Science Fiction database. Our work compliments his. The fun challenge to Retro Hugo voters is to see if any of the 326 stories in Paul’s list that aren’t remembered in our list are worth rediscovering. Our list shows the stories that have been remembered in major anthologies since 1943. So CSF Query reduces 326 down to 20. If you change the minimum citation to 2 and hit Search it reduces the number of stories to 7, showing the most popular SF stories remembered since 1943. In this case, our tool is useful for showing how often an SF story was remembered by fans and editors.

I also love to use CSF Query to look at years and decades, or which works by a particular author were their most remembered stories. By changing the citation level CSF Query can zero in on the most remembered SF stories.

Of course, just how many people will want to do this on any given day? Mike and I have been thinking about adding a new feature that would allow users to query the database by theme. That would allow readers who want to read all the most popular stories about colonizing Mars a way to find them. Trying to catalog all science fiction stories by their themes would be impossible, but I’ve thought it might be possible to do the 275 stories on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, and 139 books on the Classics of Science Fiction list. But researching 414 stories and deciding their themes would still be a huge task. It’s the kind of obsessive bibliographic undertaking that I would find pleasurable, but would it be all that useful to other people?

I believe having hobbies and projects in retirement are very important. Just existing every day consuming air, water, food, television shows, books, music, movies, etc. is pleasurable, but doesn’t make me look forward to the future. I like having a sense of building something, even if it’s tiny and only valued by me. But it’s even more rewarding when I create something useful to others, even if it’s only to a few people.

The other night I watched a documentary, Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams, an obscure writer I’ve not read. I saw this preview and couldn’t resist buying it. Near the end, the documentary maker is interviewing Harlan Ellison and laments that not enough people read Clark Ashton Smith. Ellison tells him that it doesn’t matter how many people read CAS, the number is what it is, but he is important to the readers who have found him. Our retirement project is important to us and the people who actually like using it, no matter what that number turns out to be.

JWH

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