What Happened to the Western Novel?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 24, 2018

thrilling_western_1951-11

Jess Nevins has some interesting data in his essay, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” about the number of titles published yearly for each pulp genre. I’m not sure of his source, or how the numbers were compiled, but I’m going to copy his tables here for convenience. I’m assuming these numbers are the total titles publishing in a given year.

Pulp stats1

Pulp stats2

Pulp stats3

Notice, that of the six genres, western pulp titles were the most numerous every year between 1936-1949. The pulp magazine essentially died out by 1950, although a handful of science fictional and mystery titles continued as digest-size magazines. Some people claim television killed the pulps, others suggest various financial concerns and magazine distribution policies.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s westerns were extremely common on television, maybe even the most popular kind of show. The list on Wikipedia is quite long. Back then my mother read mysteries and my dad read westerns. I’ve read a few westerns over the years, but I’ve always been a science fiction reader. However, my favorite movie genre has always been westerns.

Now when I’m at bookstores, new or used, their section for westerns novels are usually one shelf. What happened? Did the allure of the frontier die, or just move into outer space? Everything comes to an end, but why such a dramatic fall-off? It makes me wonder about the current glut of science fiction stories and shows. Will the SF genre eventually shrink, loved only by a few old fans like the western today?

What will replace science fiction? Could anyone in the 1940s imagine the western becoming an unpopular story type? Science fiction has shattered into various subgenres, with the dystopian tale becoming most fashionable with the young. Can you blame them? Their future isn’t our future.

If you study the chart above, science fiction titles were in 5th place most years, just above spicy titles (code word for sex). There were even spicy western pulps. Pulps mainly appealed to boys, with covers to prove it for many titles.

In the 1950s there was a boom in science fiction magazines, brought about I assume by the atomic bombs, jets, rockets, satellites, computers, etc. In the 1950s we looked both backward to the 19th-century and forward to the 21st. Maybe few people read westerns today because the future won and the 19th-century is now too far away.

So much has changed in my lifetime. Not just technology. The changes are also psychological in a way that’s hard to describe. I remember being part of the youth culture in the 1960s, but now feel completely alienated from the young in my sixties.

It’s hard to imagine a time when westerns were the most popular kind of pulp story to read. Maybe space exploration killed the western. As a boy in the 1950s, I wanted to wear a six-gun, but after Alan Sheppard’s 15-minute suborbital flight in 1961, I wanted to wear a spacesuit.

JWH

Finding A Neighborly Middle Ground in Unbiased News

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A couple who lives next door told me they watched OAN (One America News Network) because it was not biased. They knew I disliked Fox News because I’m a liberal. I took their recommendation of OAN as a gesture of compromise. Our country is crippled by political polarization so I’m willing to try to meet people half-way in some kind of political middle ground. The idea of a news service that promotes a unified America is a good idea. But sadly, One America News is definitely not it.

What is bias? One dictionary definition defines bias as, “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” That would mean any news service that favors a liberal or conservative view, but it could also mean any news service that favors Christian over Muslim, or Hindu over Buddhism, or Atheist over Theist. Or it could mean a news service that favors capital over labor, or environmentalism over capitalism, pseudoscience over science, etc.

How can the news not be biased if it doesn’t give equal time to all issues? How can bias be measured? There are agencies that work to measure bias. Media Bias/Fact Check rates One America News Network as highly biased to the right. AllSides also rates it leaning to the right. RationalWiki describes OAN as far-right, ultra-conservative, and Pro-Trump.

And there are opinions from other news sources. Adweek says OAN is the ultimate pro-Trump network. The Washington Post says OAN takes pro-Trump to new heights. Salon even suggests that OAN is an alternative for those who think Fox News is too liberal.

I like the idea of finding a middle ground news source with my neighbor, but I’m afraid OAN is not it. I doubt they will support The New York Times, the only news I pay to read. I don’t subscribe to cable, and I’m watching less and less broadcast news. My main news sources are from Flipboard, which pulls stories from hundreds of different sites, including Fox News. I believe Flipboard provides a method for balancing bias, but it’s easily side-stepped if you are biased in the stories you select to read.

I disagree with my conservative friends who say that The New York Times is extremely biased to the left. Media Bias/Fact Check claims it’s left-center. They rate CNN and MSNBC as left. Their scale looks like this for CNN:

Media Bias Fact Check scales

Here is their list of least biased news sources. It’s an extremely long list, with mostly smaller sources, local papers, foreign news, but includes a few notable titles like The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today. I have to admit that most of my favorite news sources come from the Left-Center list. Although there are a few sources from Right-Center that I like, like Forbes Magazine. Fox News and One American News Network are in the Right-biased list. And I have to admit I do read several sources from the Left-biased list.

Media Bias/Fact Check is a great site to read to contemplate news bias. It also tracks Pro-Science and Pseudoscience lists.

I wonder if we can become less politically polarized and more neighborly if we change where we get our news? I doubt if all Americans will choose to read only from the Least Biased list, but maybe we could aim to stay within the Left-Center through Right-Center range.

JWH

 

Yard Guilt and Lazy Landscaping

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 14, 2018

I’m an inside person. I enjoy an occasional walk in the Botanic Gardens or a bike ride through my neighborhood, but for the most part, I dwell indoors. I’m a bookworm who’s addicted to music and TV. I interact with the larger reality mostly through computer monitors and flat-screen televisions.

The trouble is I have a yard. Up till now, I like to think my yard as an independent creature that can get by without my help. We pay the lawn guys to give it a trim, and in the fall, pay the lawn guys to rake the leaves, but other than that, I leave my yard to its own resources. Wouldn’t Mother Nature know best? Oh, and every few years we have to spend the price of an OLED TV to have the trees trimmed and thinned. I don’t know what message she’s sending, but Mother Nature likes to drop large limbs on my house and yard. I wonder if she’s aiming at me? Sometimes it feels personal.

In the past, Ernie, my neighbor complained when my weeds got too tall and were pollinated his nicely kept lawn. Since then, I’ve had the lawn guys come very regularly. I figure I’ve done my neighborly duty. Other than Ernie, no one has told me I should do anything, but it worries me my neighbors spend so much time outside in their yards. What do their actions say?  In the past few years, many of my neighbors have had their lawns resodded. It makes me want to take up golfing. My yard is mostly weeds, clover, dandelions, and a smattering of grass-looking plants that may or may not be actual grass. When mowed, it’s green and flat, so I think it’s good enough.

My neighbors spend a great deal of time working on bushes and flower beds, and I’ve started feeling guilty. I don’t want to be considered a yard slacker.

Then the other day I attended a lecture given by a friend Kim on garden walks. She goes all over the country visiting different cities and towns that have garden walk tours. The point of her lecture was to convince people that garden walks improve neighborhoods dramatic ways beyond appearance. I was convinced, and her lecture made me feel even worse about my yard.

Here’s the jungle of my front yard. I have some azaleas, mostly dead or dying, some sapling trees that need to be cut down, weeds, vines, and other assorted unknown plant beings.

Front-YarsAnd here’s the jungle of half my backyard. The other half is paved for parking. Raccoons, squirrels, rats, cats, chipmunks, and other creatures live back there. Years ago we had a fox, but it got ran over. By the way, I live in the city. There are even more neighbors behind all that green.

Back-yard

After seeing Kim’s lecture I felt very guilty. I guess I’m letting my neighbors and neighborhood down. I’d like to think yards should belong to nature, and whatever nature wants to grow in my yard should be good enough. Evidently, city-dwellers feel a need to create their own visions of nature. I suppose my front yard should look like these yards:

Front Yard 1

Front Yard 2

Front Yard 3

But even if I take the simplest approach to landscaping, I’m going to have to learn a lot of new stuff, spend more money, work outside, and use up a bunch of my bookworm time. And the ironic thing is I won’t spend any more time dwelling outdoors. I have many nature-loving friends who plead for me to sit out on my patio. I don’t know why.

I think we need to rethink landscaping. Why does the grass need to be green and uniform? What’s wrong with weeds? It seems like we should have lawns and shrubs for the creatures that enjoy them the most – birds, squirrels, bees, moles, snakes, butterflies, wasps, slugs, rolly-pollies, etc.  We need yards that have low carbon footprints that consume CO2 and supply O2. Seems like these two yards would be more natural.

Front Yard 4

Front Yard 5

Why burn fossil fuels to maintain what nature can do on her own? Maybe I could fool my neighbors by planting some shrubs with flowers. Could it be the dobs of colors that impress people? Just plant a whole bunch of them willy-nilly and see what happens. Maybe the results will look landscaped.

I need to research plants, flowers, and shrubs that need little or no attention, but look fancy. I have no idea what to buy though. That will take some research. I just found a Pinterest site called Zero Effort Plants. That sounds good. But anyone reading this that knows about lazy-landscaping let me know.

And I hate the sound of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and weed eaters. We need to start a landscaping movement that does away with anything that requires making noise to maintain it.

JWH

Am I Ill, Or Just Getting Old?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 6, 2018

When I was young I thought growing old meant going bald and getting wrinkles. That didn’t seem too bad. I assumed I would stay the same mentally. When I was young I felt great most of the time, hardly ever got sick, and I wasn’t bothered by heat or cold. We didn’t have air conditioning until I was a senior in high school. At sixty-six I go years without getting a cold or the flu, but I do have chronic heart, stomach and back problems, and cold and heat annoys the crap out of me. I keep my chronic conditions in check with diet and exercise.

The trouble is, I don’t feel like I used to. Is that illness, or oldness.

Getting old

In recent years I’ve felt my vitality run down. I can’t decide if something is wrong with me, or this is what it feels like to get old. And I’m only young old. What will it feel like to be really old?

At my last physical my doctor said all my blood work looked good. My testosterone was at a proper level, various vitamins were on the mark, my protein level was fine, and a bunch of other numbers I didn’t understand were where they were supposed to be. She said I was doing pretty good. I needed to lose weight and lower my cholesterol, but she’s been saying that for decades. For years I’ve been eating healthier, lost some weight, and lowered my cholesterol. The only time she praised me for my cholesterol and weight were the periods I went vegan. However, I can’t keep that up.

The thing is I feel best when I’m eating sweets. Ice cream makes me feel younger. Junk food gives me mental energy, but it eventually makes me feel sick too. I constantly struggle with my diet to find the right mixture of healthy eating that gives me the most vitality, yet doesn’t lead to feeling bad.

Recently I started wondering if my problem wasn’t disease or diet, but I’m just aging. At my last physical, I asked my doctor, “How do you tell the difference between feeling old and feeling sick?” She laughed at me and gave me some sympathetic words I’ve forgotten. Besides feeling rundown, I can’t remember shit. And I was told that is normal too.

My wife thinks I’m a hypochondriac. I used to feel normal all the time, now normal is a rare few hours in the week. Is this the real reason why people hate getting old so much? Not for the decline in appearance, but the decline in feeling good?

I constantly read books about diet, health, and exercise. Many authors promise renewed vitality if I’d only do what they say. The problem is I don’t have the discipline or the vitality to consistently follow their advice. I was able to stick with a plant-based diet for several months. I lost thirty pounds, and my LDL went to 90. However, my energy levels dwindled away. I’ve since added yogurt, kefir, and eggs back into my diet and mental energy has returned, but not like it was. I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, but always ate a lot of junk food. I’ve never been a high-energy person, but I was fine for a bookworm.

In my sixties, I’m feeling the creep of decay. I’ve fought it believing it could be cured. Now I’m wondering if it’s actually normal. Now I know why Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth. Now I know why old people in my youth swilled Geritol. Now I understand my mother’s addiction to pain pills in her later life. Now I know why people hope B12 shots will give them a boost. It’s a shame that snorting cocaine is self-destructive because it sounds like a perfect drug for the Social Security years.

JWH

What I Loved and Hated About Lost in Space (2018)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 20, 2018

I remember watching the first episode of the original Lost in Space when it premiered back in September of 1965. I was thirteen and hooked on reading Heinlein juveniles. Science fiction was my religion. Even as a kid, I thought Lost in Space rather cheesy, but I watched it every week for a few months. I have fond memories of the 1965-66 television season. My favorite show of that season was I, Spy, but I also loved Twelve O’Clock High. I was embarrassed to admit I watched Lost in Space to my friends because I didn’t have any that were into science fiction, and they made fun of it as a kid’s show — but hell, we were kids. I loved the robot and thought Penny (Angela Cartwright) awful cute (hey, I was her age at the time).

Lost in Space - Robot and Will

I was a little apprehensive about giving Lost in Space (2018) a try. I was afraid they’d make it into a campy joke like before. I was wrong. It was ten episodes of action-oriented science fiction, visually pleasing, with engaging characters who were complex. This time around I still liked the robot best, but found Maureen (Molly Parker), the mom, the most attractive female, even though I’m way too old for her. It’s a weird headspace to remember a show that I watched as a kid being remade when I was older than any of the characters.

The Robinsons of Lost in Space is inspired by Swiss Family Robinson which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.  The Robinsonade is a very old literary type and has always been one of my favorites. I highly recommend In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin (currently $3.99 for the Kindle) if you want to read a fascinating history of lost on deserted island stories. In the original series the Robinsons were alone in space, but in the reboot, they have some company.

Lost in Space - Mauren

This time around the female characters get a lot more screen time, and Dr. Smith is played by a woman, Parker Posey. In fact, I would call Maureen Robinson the main protagonist, with Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell) getting as much or more story time as Will (Maxwell Jenkins), John (Toby Stephens), and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio). Even though the characters have the same names as before, their backstory and present stories are much different. Sure, everyone is super-smart, but each has a flawed history, which the show presents in flashbacks.

Lost in Space (2018) is mostly about family dynamics, and that’s what makes the series compelling this time. Each episode has lots of science fiction action, usually with one or more Robinsons escaping death in the last few seconds. Now that’s copied from the original. Interestingly, the cliffhangers in the new series don’t fall between episodes. The original series ended each episode with a new cliffhanger, which added to its cheesiness, demanding viewers to tune in next week. 2018 episodes have a nice closure to each.

21st-century television shows, especially those with limited seasons and high production values like Westworld, The Man in the High Castle, and The Handmaids Tale, are light years ahead of 1960s television productions. Back then TV was considered crap, and movies were art. Now movies are comic books and TV is art. Lost in Space isn’t at the level of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, but I think it’s as good as Stranger Things.

However, I do have some disappointments to register. But they aren’t unique to Lost in Space, but to current science fiction in general. Lost in Space (2018) looks very realistic. The sets, props and special effects are excellent. However, the science behind the story is rather lame. They practically don’t try. The Jupiter class spaceships are fueled by liquid methane. That’s just silly. Even sillier is when they find a substitute in high-grade alien-bat guano. Plus the apparent amount of fuel that each Jupiter holds is only a couple hundred gallons. I won’t give away the story secrets of the interstellar travel methods, but it’s closer to comic book terminology.

What disappoints me about modern science fiction is the total lack of realism regarding space travel. We’ve just given up and turned outer space into fantasyland. Spaceships are now equal to flying dragons or magical portals. Writers, if they make any effort at all to explain how we can travel in space, throw out a few gobbledygook words. The word wormhole is the new abracadabra. Man is that depressing.

I grew up reading science fiction believing that some stories were serious speculation about how humans might one day travel into space. I doubt 1-in-100 SF stories today even try to imagine something real.

Lost in Space (2018) has become a 1965 kids story for 2018 adults. Science fiction now lives on nostalgia. Hell, most visual science fiction today are remakes of films, shows, and comics from the 1960s and 1970s.  I read “What’s Going Wrong With Sci-Fi?” this morning from Esquire, which the essay opens with:

“One of the problems with science fiction,” said Ridley Scott back in 2012 ahead of the release of Prometheus, “is the fact that everything is used up. Every type of spacesuit, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar. The corridors are similar, the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and the characters.”

And Scott is only complaining from a filmmaker’s perspective. I’m complaining that science fiction has practically given up on any kind of basis in science. Readers and watchers only want escapism. Lost in Space (2018) is good escapism but bad science fiction.

Half a century ago, NASA gave us Project Gemini and Project Apollo. Being a science fiction fan in the 1960s meant believing that humans would make it to Mars and beyond in our lifetimes. Well, our lifetimes are almost over and we’re still orbiting the Earth dreaming of beyond.

The new Lost in Space imagines life on Earth getting bad enough that people would want move to Alpha Centauri to start over. Suggesting that idea is wrong on so many different philosophical and scientific levels. It’s a fantasy on the level of Superman comics. A few hundred humans might one day colonize the Moon and Mars, but they won’t be places for pioneers seeking escape dismal lives on Earth. And travel to the stars is completely impossible by the science we know today. And I hate when true believers answer that with, “But we don’t know what science will discover in the future.” Study the problem. Wormholes and warp drives are only slightly more realistic for space travel than magical wardrobes in the Narnia books. Star Wars is no more science fictional than Lord of the Rings.

Lost in Space (2018) is fun television, but its science is no more advanced than Lost in Space (1965). Writers use scientific terms like magical spells in Harry Potter movies. Of course, this is the norm. I shouldn’t complain. Movies like Gattaca and Her which are at least philosophically realistic about the impact of science aren’t blockbusters. The reality is we live in a small world, orbiting an average star, in a nothing special galaxy, and the likelihood of going anywhere else is almost zero. So, is fantasizing about space travel really that bad? It is if we think we can escape Earth once we’ve trashed it.

I found a lot of pleasure watching the new Lost in Space, but I’m also depressed that after 57 years of traveling in space, spacefaring humans only live the distance from Memphis and Nashville above the Earth. I thought humans would be dwelling much further away by now. Instead, we’re still just watching unrealistic science fiction dreaming we had.

JWH

 

“Painted Ocean” by Lynette Aspey

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 13, 2018

Have you ever wanted to write science fiction? I have. It was always a kind of dream ambition — like other kids wanting to be rock stars, actresses, or football players. I took a creative writing course in high school, and another in college. I never really work hard at writing though. That’s what it takes, hard work. Like I said, the ambition was more of a daydream fantasy. Then in my fifties, I got serious and started an MFA degree, eventually producing about thirty short stories, and two novel drafts. I even got into Clarion West, an intensive six-weeks writing workshop for would-be science fiction writers. I had to save my vacation for years to take off that much from work.

After Clarion I went back to work and eventually stopped writing fiction. Without a class requiring me to write stories, I just didn’t. I discovered I loved writing essays. Yet, I still yearn to write fiction. It’s damn easy to write crappy fiction, and damn hard to write good fiction. Also, there is something psychological to fiction writing that I haven’t worked out yet.

Clarion West was a significant experience. Going to Seattle for Clarion West was especially interesting because I got to meet sixteen other people with that same daydream. Most of my classmates were young, in their twenties, a few in their thirties, and three of us old guys who were just into our fifties. I guess some dreams never die, no matter how old you get.

Writing fiction is hard because good fiction blends real-life experiences into made-up stories. And with science fiction, you have to speculate about possibilities that could exist, but don’t. The best fiction mixes in philosophical insight with artistic creativity. And like they taught us at Clarion West, good writing is the accumulation of significant details.

Lynette AspeyLynette Aspey was one of my classmates at Clarion West in 2002. I just read her new story “Painted Ocean” and started thinking about Clarion again, my time in Seattle, and what it means to write fiction. Her story is an excellent example of all the elements of why I wanted to write fiction.

Sixteen years ago, seventeen of us hope-to-be SF writers moved into a twelveth floor dorm for those six-weeks, attending writing lectures and critiques Monday through Friday. Our teachers changed every week. They were Kathleen Alcalá, Pat Cadigan, John Crowley, Gardner Dozois, Joe and Gay Halderman, and Paul Park. We also had special guest authors visit us on the weekends (Octavia Butler, China Miéville, Lucius Shepard) and we attended local science fiction parties getting to meet even more writers. It was an immersive experience.

We asked Gardner Dozois how many Clarion West students went on to publish science fiction. Gardner told us he expected a few of us to get published in a couple years and a few more five to ten years after that. That scared some of us. Lyn got a story, “Sleeping Dragons” accepted by Asimov’s Science Fiction and published in September 2004. I thought for sure I’d be reading a lot of her work soon. That didn’t happen. Several of my classmates went on to publish stories and novels. I didn’t. Gardner was right.

Lyn, her husband, and the daughter she was pregnant with at Clarion West became world travelers, lived in the Carribean for years, did a lot of sailing on a 43-foot ketch, including crossing the Atlantic. Lyn lived the adventures most people just read about. I was always envious of her because I love to read about people sailing around the world. I hoped she’d eventually write a nonfiction memoir about her life on the ocean. “Painted Ocean” is fiction, but does contain a lot sailing images and details.

Aurealis-109-cover-Space-landscape-683x1024

Recently, I’ve been hearing from Lyn on Facebook, where some of our 2002 alumni occasional post. She’s back living on land, in Australia, and writing stories again. Her new story “Painted Ocean” was published in Aurealis #109, a science fiction magazine from down under. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a link to read it online. I bought a copy of Aurealis #109 for $2.99 through Smashwords. I wished it had been on sale at Amazon for the Kindle because that’s the ebook platform I’m locked into. However, this situation has taught me how to deal with non-Kindle ebooks. Smashwords offers its downloads in several ebook formats, and I put a pdf copy on my Dropbox to read with my iPad. In the last couple of months, I’ve bought three books from non-Amazon sources. I think it’s important we support these alternative publishing platforms.

As I read “Painted Ocean” I was amazed by how good a writer Lyn has become, even after laying off for all those years. On her blog, she wrote, “A long time in the making …” about the writing of “Painted Ocean.” Go read it, especially if you want to become a writer. She says this story was started the Joe Haldeman week at Clarion West, but I did not remember it. To be honest, I don’t even remember my six stories. Each week we read and critiqued 17 stories. Lyn says Haldeman told us to write something hard.

“Painted Ocean” is an ambitious story. It blends AI, simulated reality, sailing, climate change, betrayal, and the love story of two older people. There is also a lot of allusions to the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, evidently a favorite poet of Lyn’s.

As I read about Annie Janssen, a woman with her gray hair in a bun and a brilliant hacker, I wondered if Lyn had created Annie by projecting her own self into the future. Reading her blog after finishing the story, it let me know she had read there weren’t many older female protagonists, so that challenge inspired her. Theodore Janssen is based on Lyn’s father, who had died seven years before Lyn attended Clarion West. Theo is trapped in an artificial reality on a sailboat name SaltTrader:

As Storm lashed out in fury, Theo’s yacht coalesced; broken pieces fitting together like a movie played backwards. The cockpit rebuilt itself around him, the decks with their fittings, the mast, boom and shrouds. Theo heard the rapid ching-ching of halyards hitting steel and, finally, her tattered sails came together like a soul re-knit.

SaltTreader heeled violently as the wind snagged her sails: a call to action.
Jumping forward, Theo released the mainsheet, spilling the wind in the mainsail. The sudden release of pressure brought SaltTreader upright. Her unrestrained boom swung dangerously but Theo was already at the mast, releasing the mainsail’s uphaul and letting the heavy layers of canvas drop to the deck where the wind clawed at but couldn’t fill them.

The foresail backed, bringing SaltTreader’s bow about. Just as she pointed into the wind, Theo released the foresail’s uphaul so that the sail could drop down the forestay, and raced to the bow.

He wrestled the heavy, flapping canvas as if it were a beast until it finally fell, defeated, to the deck. The well-worn ties that Theo always left in position on the guardrail for just this purpose re-materialised. He quickly secured the big foresail before scrambling back to the mast to begin tying down the mainsail.

SaltTreader wallowed dangerously.

Without the time to go below and find the tiny scrap of sail he used as a stormsail, Theo thought it on.

Storm howled. A powerful gust pinned him to the deck.

Using that power, Theo realised, was the equivalent of leaving an error message in the code.

But that little scrap of sail made all the difference. SaltTreader heeled and the wind drew her up the waves.

With the canvas secure, the banging and flogging abruptly disappeared. Now he could hear the hiss of breaking seas and the whine as wind whipped through his rigging, but she crested another mountainous wave. Theo became the master of his vessel once again.

The action of the story switches from the real world to the artificial world. “Storm” is the rogue AI which has gained control of a vast system of weather monitoring and controlling computers. Annie is on the outside, and what’s left of Theo’s personality is on the inside. Annie communicates with Theo with Coleridge like imagery.

Throughout the story, I wonder what is personal to Lyn’s life, what is science fiction, what is remembered from her sailing experiences, and what comes from her fears of the future. All of this wondering, and thinking about story construction makes me think about trying to write fiction again. So, Lyn, thanks for reminding me of old desires.

I really enjoyed reading Lyn’s story and her essay about writing it. Essay writing is all about describing real events, thoughts, concepts, and capturing them honestly as possible. Fiction goes into another realm. I’ve been thinking more about that realm again. I wonder how many of the Clarion West classmates still think about it too.

JWH

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