The Great SF Stories 1 (1939)

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.

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:

  1. “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp (not in GreatSF#1)
  2. “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey
  3. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam
  4. “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt
  5. “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp
  6. “I, Robot” by Eando Binder
  7. “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. “The Four-Side Triangle” by William F. Temple
  9. “Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore
  10. “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein
  11. “Pilgrimage” by Nelson S. Bond
  12. “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.

  1. One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson (serial novel)
  2. Lifeline by Robert Heinlein (in GreatSF#1)
  3. Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith (serial novel)
  4. Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (serial novel)
  5. The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey (in GreatSF#1)
  6. Rope Trick by Eando Binder
  7. Nothing Happens on the Moon by Paul Ernst
  8. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt
  9. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam (in GreatSF#1)
  10. 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.

Dangerous Aliens

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.

Mankind’s Extinction

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.

Living Fossil by L. Sprague de Camp - Astounding 1939 Feb

Matriarchial Societies

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.”

Psychic Powers

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.

Hard Science

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).


Could A Robot Read Jules Verne?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 12, 2018

I’m listening to the AmazonClassics audiobook edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, a novel originally published in France in 1864, and first translated into English in 1871. The translation I read was by F. A. Malleson, from 1877, and is considered a pretty good translation. Verne suffered from many bad translations, often ruining his reputation in the English speaking world.  The story is impressively narrated by Derek Perkins. His voice perfectly matches this 19th adventure tale. This audiobook sounds more thrilling and real than most of the silly movie and television productions I’ve seen.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 26Journey to the Center of the Earth 36

However, I have one problem with Verne’s story. It’s not very believable. Of course, it’s well over a century-and-a-half since Verne imagined it, and science has progressed a great deal, but was it even believable in his day? I wish I had an AI robot that could read and understand fiction and nonfiction. I want to talk to it like Alexa but it would be much smarter. I want my AI mind to crawl across the web and answer questions for me. Google is so goddamn stupid that it drives me crazy. I searched for [19th-century reviews of “journey to the center of the earth”] but it only brought up modern reviews of recent book editions and movie versions. I thought my query was quite explicit. If Google is such a leader in AI, why can’t it understand my query? Don’t you get tired of all the crap Google searches return?

I want to build an AI mind that I could input texts of all the science fiction stories and novels from the 19th and 20th centuries and have it analyze those works by correlating that content with information found on the internet. Journey to the Center of the Earth was originally published in a magazine for boys. I’ve love to find diaries, journals, essays, and books by 19th-century readers who read Journey to the Center of the Earth when it came out and to know their reactions. Verne adds a good deal of science from his day into his story to make it sound plausible, but was it?

Hollow Earth theories and stories go back much further than Verne. Were its proponents and speculating on real possibilities and taken seriously? Or, were they the UFO nutters of their day? I get the feeling that the concept of dinosaurs had inflamed 19th-century imaginations and Verne used his story to speculate how dinosaurs could still exist. He was doing the same thing that Doyle’s The Lost World and Crichton’s Jurassic Park did, creating a theory to present live dinosaurs. I have many theories about the evolution of science fiction, and having an AI collaborator could really help.

I’d love to build an AI robot that I could chat with me about science fiction. I picture talking my digital companion like Mannie did with Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) by Robert A. Heinlein. I imagine creating my AI friend like the AI machines in When HARLIE Was One (1972) by David Gerrold or Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers, where Harlie and Helen came into consciousness by interacting with a human mentor. I fantasize talking with this AI and collaborating on articles about the history of science fiction. And what if it woke up and became conscious?

Computer scientists are building AI machines using machine learning to do all kinds of things today. If they can master games like Chess, Jeopardy, Go, and old Atari 2600 games, or analyze MRIs and X-rays for cancer, why couldn’t they learn everything to know about science fiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about learning ML (machine language) using Python. I’ve been daydreaming about building a machine after reading (“Deep Confusion: Misadventures in Building a Deep Learning Machine,” “The $1700 great Deep Learning box: Assembly, setup and benchmarks,” and “Build a super fast deep learning machine for under $1,000“) or just paying for a hosting service like Paperspace. There’s a new edition of Python Machine Learning: Machine Learning and Deep Learning with Python, scikit-learn, and TensorFlow by Raschka and Mirjalili that could get me started, or Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and TensorFlow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurélien Géron.

Of course, I doubt if I could ever program such a fantastic AI machine or even learn the basics of ML at my age. I’ve been watching a series of videos from Google Developers on Machine Learning Recipes. I’ve also been reading about Natural Language Processing with Python, a book I bought years ago when this idea first came to me. The concepts aren’t hard, but it would be just the first steps on a journey of ten thousand miles. I’m not sure I have the concentration power or memory space anymore. I’m probably too old and too feeble minded to do it, but that doesn’t mean some youngster couldn’t.

I’m quite envious and jealous that young people today can choose this kind of work for their career. I programmed databases during my work years, and that was fun enough, but imagine getting to develop robots, AI minds, and machine learning? What an exciting time to be a programmer.


Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Christmas came early this year for me. I’ve been wishing since 2002 for an audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One and my wish was finally granted sometime after midnight this morning. (For members there’s a CD version but it’s $45.)

Science Fiction Hall of Fame v. 1The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One is probably the most loved science fiction anthology of all time and comes in #1 at Goodreads list of Best Science Fiction Anthologies. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) voted for its contents when they formed in 1965 to recognize the best science fiction stories published before the Nebula Awards were created. The anthology was edited by Robert Silverberg and first published in 1970.

Just after five in the morning, I began the download. Sitting in the dark with my headphones I sampled the stories. There are 26, narrated by an array of professional readers that bring these tales vividly alive to my ears. I’ve long recognized that my reading skills are poor compared to the hired guns of the audiobook world. Since I joined in 2002 I’ve been searching out all the science fiction I loved in my youth to reread by listening. When I hear these old favorite stories it’s like when Dorothy opened that door in The Wizard of Oz and the black and white movie switched to Technicolor. I get so much more from hearing than when I read with my eyes.

The pulp fiction punch came through right from the first with “The Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum. Science fiction is often attacked as poorly written, yet while I jumped from story to story sampling how each sounded, I felt the writing was lovely and vivid. Each story began with distinctive details that envisioned a uniquely imagined concept. Sure, this is pulp fiction, but it’s pulp fiction at its classic best. These old stories showcase how science fiction writers back then felt compelled to invent a novel idea to fictionalize. I often read stories today that improvise off these original themes.

These stories all get their own entries in Wikipedia, which attests to their longevity. I’m borrowing this table from Wikipedia in case you want to read about them and their authors.

Author Story Title Year of first publication
Stanley G. Weinbaum A Martian Odyssey 1934
John W. Campbell Twilight 1934
Lester del Rey Helen O’Loy 1938
Robert A. Heinlein The Roads Must Roll 1940
Theodore Sturgeon Microcosmic God 1941
Isaac Asimov Nightfall 1941
A. E. van Vogt The Weapon Shop 1942
Lewis Padgett Mimsy Were the Borogoves 1943
Clifford D. Simak Huddling Place 1944
Fredric Brown Arena 1944
Murray Leinster First Contact 1945
Judith Merril That Only a Mother 1948
Cordwainer Smith Scanners Live in Vain 1948
Ray Bradbury Mars is Heaven! 1948
Cyril M. Kornbluth The Little Black Bag 1950
Richard Matheson Born of Man and Woman 1950
Fritz Leiber Coming Attraction 1950
Anthony Boucher The Quest for Saint Aquin 1951
James Blish Surface Tension 1952
Arthur C. Clarke The Nine Billion Names of God 1953
Jerome Bixby It’s a Good Life 1953
Tom Godwin The Cold Equations 1954
Alfred Bester Fondly Fahrenheit 1954
Damon Knight The Country of the Kind 1955
Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon 1959
Roger Zelazny A Rose for Ecclesiastes 1963

I consider”A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny the epitome of pulp science fiction style, and the story I was most anxious to hear. It came out in 1963 just before the Mariner IV mission to Mars forever ruined the planet for pulp fiction adventure. After NASA science fiction had to grow up and accept a new reality. Mars and Venus could no longer be home to ancient races, and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a wistful elegy of an era.

It’s quite elegant that The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One begins with “A Martian Odyssey” and ends with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” using the two best short stories about Mars as bookends for the anthology. These stories are the sense of wonder of my childhood. I can’t recommend this anthology highly enough. It captures the essence of the science fiction that baby boomer SF fans discovered in the 1960s and defined the genre for us.

I thought I’d close out this essay with cover images that first featured these stories. What’s funny is many of them didn’t make the cover art — which is a pity. Makes me wonder if the editors didn’t recognize their greatness at that time, or if they thought other stories were superior. I’m also going to include the link to the story’s Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDb) entry so you can see how often it’s been anthologized over the years.

My many thanks to the gods of the audiobook world. You have given me many hours of happiness.

A Martian Odyssey – by Stanley G. Weinbaum

1 - A Martian Odyssey

Twilight – by John W. Campbell

2 - Twilight

Helen O’Loy by Lester del Rey

3 - Helen O'Loy

The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein

4 - The Roads Must Roll

Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon

5 - Microscopic God

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

6 - Nightfall

The Weapon Shop by A. E. van Vogt

7 - The Weapons Shop

Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore)

8 - Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Huddling Place by Clifford D. Simak

9 - Huddling Place

Arena by Fredric Brown

10 - Arena

First Contact by Murray Leinster

11 - First Contact

That Only a Mother by Judith Merril

12 - That Only a Mother

Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith

13 - Scanners Live in Vain

Mars Is Heaven! by Ray Bradbury

14 - Mars is Heaven

The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth

15 - Little Black Bag

Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson

16 - Born of Man and Woman

Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber

17 - Coming Attraction

The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher

18 - The Quest for Saint Aquin

Surface Tension by James Blish

19 - Surface Tension

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

20 - The Nine Billion Names of God

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby

21 - It's a Good Life

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin

22 - The Cold Equations

Fondly Fahrenheit  by Alfred Bester

23 - Fondly Fahrenheit

The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight

24 - The Country of the Kind

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

25 - Flowers for Algernon

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny

26 - A Rose for Ecclesiastes


Cozy Science Fiction: Chocky by John Wyndham

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 27, 2017

What makes for good storytelling? How is a science fiction story different from other kinds of stories? Chocky, John Wyndham’s last novel published in 1968 is a story about a David and Mary Gore and their two children Matthew and Polly, living in England in what appears to be the quainter side of the 1960s. I imagine its time and setting looking somewhat like the Father Brown mysteries on PBS. The story is told by David. It’s rather prosaic, with a light literary touch. David relates how he met Mary. How she came from a big family and the pressure they felt to have a big family too. When they apparently can’t they adopted Matthew. Then, Polly, a girl is born. The story jumps ahead a few years to give the history Polly’s imaginary friend when she was four, and how that problem was resolved. Then the story jumps again to the present when Matthew is twelve, much too old for imaginary friends, and how he acquires one anyway. Most of the novel is about the family difficulties caused by Chocky, Matthew’s mysterious invisible companion.

Chocky by John Wyndham

Wyndham’s novel Chocky could be considered a mainstream literary novel, a nice quiet little story about family life in mid-century England. What makes it science fiction is who we think Chocky might be. The mystery genre has a sub-genre called cozy mysteries. Chocky could be a cozy science fiction novel. But what does that mean? There’s already a sub-genre in science fiction called cozy catastrophes. Many of them are by English writers by the way, and I believe many cozy mysteries are set in England too, but an Anglophile appeal is not a defining attribute of a cozy novel.

I’m sure there is no international standard for cozy novels but for me, the size of the setting, number of characters, and scope of the plot are important factors. So a story about a single alien invader impacting one family makes it a cozy tale. I guess that also makes E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial a cozy, but Chocky is much smaller and quieter than that story. The story loudness knob for science fiction movies is usually cranked to 11. Gattaca and Her being level 3 exceptions. Chocky is about a 1 or 2, and I found that exceedingly pleasant.

I’m not sure if science fiction fans even crave cozy science fiction novels. Science fiction plots are inherently big, thundering, and exciting. Mostly mystery fans who love cozy mysteries love them because they are quiet, with simple murders usually solved by ordinary folks, with tame storytelling for sex, violence, and crude language. Chocky fits that bill nicely. Chocky is currently in print from NYRB Classics, the prestigious paperback line from New York Review of Books. As of today, NYRB Classics only publishes 13 science fiction novels, most of which are on the quiet side, and many from England. Maybe the NYRB editors admire cozy science fiction too.

I doubt Wyndham intended Chocky to have an ambiguous ending, but if you were skeptical and tried hard, the science fiction could be removed the story. I imagine if there were a sub-genre cozy science fiction, that would be one of the defining characteristics, the science fictional element would be painted lightly onto a story of ordinary life. Examples might be The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker or Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, both gentle post-apocalyptic tales that are a far cry from Mad Max rip-roaring tales of civilization’s collapse where it’s kosher to blast away anyone you want with your modified AK-15.

When I was younger I loved loud science fiction. Now I’m drawn to the cozier side of its storytelling. I think loud storytelling, both in books and movies became popular in the 1960s. I love westerns and constantly seek out old ones, and I’ve discovered the kind I like best were made in the late forties into the middle fifties. Westerns are a genre that depends on violence, but starting in the late 1950s they began cranking up the violence too until they became a kind of gun-porn by the 1960s. Special effects, relentless action, and comic book violence have ruined movie science fiction for me. I guess that’s why I enjoyed discovering Chocky so much.

Be sure and read Margaret Atwood’s introduction to the new edition of Chocky, “Chocky, the Kindly Body Snatcher.”





Is Facebook Replacing Older Ways?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2017

A few years ago an older version of our web site devoted to the Classics of Science Fiction would get hundreds of hits a day, some days going over a thousand. Now it’s lucky to get two dozen. Searching Google for “classics of science fiction” usually places the site on the first page of returns, which would suggest it’s still valid.

Why the decline in hits? It’s doubtful that science fiction has fallen out of favor. I’ve been wondering if how people use the internet has changed. I know our site is boring and statistical but it did have some fans. Now it doesn’t. I’m wondering if folks have stopped using the web in the same way they used it before. Are most people going to big sites and ignoring the small sites?

Or is everyone hanging out on Facebook instead?


Pages and groups devoted to science fiction on Facebook often have thousands of followers. Are people spending more time socializing on Facebook than surfing the web? Facebook has over 2 billion members. Many of my friends and family use Facebook daily. Has Facebook reached a critical mass of users meaning it can’t be ignored?

I know many people who loathe Facebook. As online forums and Yahoo! Groups die from inactivity will those holdouts be forced to become a Facebook pod person?

The internet existed for years before the World Wide Web. It wasn’t until the invention of the web browser that people began surfing the internet purely for entertainment. Users jumped from link to link, going wherever inspiration led them to click.

Then came search engines. Instead of surfing, you keyword searched. Of course, search results could take you to unknown and surprising places.

The way we use the internet has changed again with smartphone apps. Whereas before I’d start with Google, I now tap Wikipedia, IMDB or other icons instead. There are times when I have to fall back to Google, but it’s usually when I’m doing writing research.

For years my online socializing happened on blogs, Yahoo! Groups, or forums at web sites. All those virtual meeting places are becoming depopulated. After the internet became universal I assumed it would always be the same. Now I’m thinking the underlying technology will always be there, but how we use it will constantly mutate.

Has Facebook become an alternative to web surfing, blogging, home pages, personal web sites, etc? Even more, is Facebook replacing family get-togethers, scrapbooks, printed photos, letters, postcards, greeting cards, telephone calls, and email? Many people now prefer texting to a phone call because it is less time-consuming. Has Facebook become the quick replacement for visiting online friends, or even some real life friends?




Science Fiction Books That Start Snowballing Themes

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 3, 2016

2017 Sci-Fi ExperienceOver at Stainless Steel Droppings, Carl Anderson has started his 2017 Sci-Fi Experience early. It’s based on Andrea’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. Usually, Carl reads old science fiction in January and February, but decided this year to switch to December and January. Since I’m already reading old science fiction I decided to join in. But I want to put a focus on my efforts. I recently read “17 Science Fiction Books That Forever Changed The Genre” and although I agree with some of their selections, I disagreed with others. However I really liked their idea of identifying the books that either changed the rules/direction of science fiction, or inspired other writers to explore their ideas. I like to think of certain science fiction books as snowballs rolling down a slope getting bigger and bigger – or even causing an avalanche.

James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History does just that for The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Wells’ little book has started a huge snowball rolling down the decades. It might be the best example of what I’m talking about. And Gleick describes many classic time travel novels that came afterwards, but he doesn’t come close to covering all the major time travel stories, just look at this list of books, television shows and films at Wikipedia. Hasn’t every possible speculative variation on time travel been imagined by now?

I want to make my reading of vintage science fiction about studying science fiction themes. I keep wondering if there’s a limited number of science fictional concepts. But then I read something like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson or Quarantine by Greg Egan, and think speculative fiction is unlimited. I do believe we can identify snowballing books, and that will help us count up the themes.

Another good example would be Starship Troopers, a book that inspired such novels as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, plus seems to have launched the Military SF sub-genre. When I watch movies like Aliens, I think Starship Troopers. When I watch Star Wars I think of Asimov’s Foundation books.

Under-the-Ocean-to-the-South-Pole-2What other books, or series of books inspired a sub-genre in science fiction? Did Heinlein start the YA science fiction market with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947? But then, does anyone remember The Great Marvel Series by Roy Rockwood (1906-1935)? Carl’s reading challenge generally focuses on books from 1950-1979, but what about books from 1850-1950? Have we already forgotten the books that inspired the Golden Age writers to write those 1950-1979 classics? Older fans today can remember juvenile series by Heinlein, Norton, Asimov and Wollheim, but science fiction for young people goes way back.

Did The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart start the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction last man on Earth stories? Remember Wells hinted at that in The Time Machine. And didn’t The Time Machine set things up for Olaf Stapledon? All that stuff about future species of humans.

The Stars Are Ours - NortonI’ve been been wondering two things. One, is there a limited number of science fictional ideas, themes, subgenres? And two, how far back do they go? For my science fiction book club, we’re reading The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton from 1954. It presents two interesting themes. One, conservative/religious groups repress/destroy science and scientists, and two, people need to escape Earth to start over again on another planet. Both themes are relevant today.  Can we find books from the 19th century or even 18th century that first got those snowballs rolling? Do those themes ever stop being relevant? Will science fiction written in the  22nd century add to the existing snowballs? Will science fiction fans in the 2050s read many SF books from the 1950s? Or even known about them? Or will they think the science fiction they discover in adolescence as having original ideas?

At what point does vintage science fiction become forgotten science fiction, and newer, but older science fiction, become vintage? SF of the 2010s will be vintage by the 2050s. The appeal of vintage science fiction might be due to fans getting older and realizing what they once thought of as original ideas might be as old as the hills. As I’ve said before, Noah’s Ark might have been the first generation ship story. I find parts of The Book of Genesis to be very science fictional. If you squint at it in the right way, doesn’t the whole tree of knowledge of good and evil story seem like speculation about the evolution of human awareness? I can easily imagine a writer, male or female, living under Babylonian occupation, trying to imagine how everything got started, and wrote about a powerful alien being creating us. What’s really science fictional, is people think that story is the literal truth 2700 years later.

Generally, we read for story. We want to be entertained. But I think as we read and reread these vintage science fiction tales, we should examine the ideas they present. Then speculate about what inspired those ideas, and finally, evaluate how well they were implemented. As a liberal, I was rather shocked by the 2016 election results. The lesson I learned is don’t trust my assumptions. I’m applying that lesson to reading vintage science fiction. For example, should we assume that humans can leave Earth and start over on another planet if we totally screw things up here? I hated that Interstellar depended on that idea.

Some snowballs rolling down a hill just fall apart. Can we also count them as we read?

I believe science fiction represents a collection of speculative ideas that have been around a very long time. Eventually, they become real – like heavier than air flight, traveling to the Moon, cloning, constructing robots to do our work – or, we can eventually give up on the idea. I think time travel stories are now considered fantasy by most people. I hear they are remaking filmed versions of Starship Troopers and A Handmaid’s Tale. That’s a recognition that those themes are still valid to a mass audience. But are they considered fantasies or science fiction? Do we believe space marines and horrible theocracies are possible? I think we do.

I’m currently listening to The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, a short novel that was first published in 1962. Ballard wrote several eco-apocalyptic novels back in the 1960s. They are part of a speculative snowball that now includes The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson. In biblical times God caused such catastrophes. After Darwin, it was nature that could destroy us. Now we imagine species suicide. But the theme is the same. Either all, or nearly everyone, gets wiped out. That theme isn’t new – it might have existed in pre-history.

I want to contemplate vintage themes while reading my vintage science fiction.



The Classics of Science Fiction v. 2–(Archived)

By James Wallace Harris

[Note: This is an essay I wrote about twenty years ago, and was last updated in 2003. I’m saving it here at Auxiliary Memory for long term storage. This blog really is my external memory bank.]

What are the classic books of science fiction? Who decides which book is a classic? Do the critics and scholars know best or in the end, are the readers the real judges? What qualities define a classic book?

All these questions began haunting me in 1985 when my friend Mike asked me what were the classics of science fiction. He knew I had read hundreds, if not thousands of SF books, and figured I would gladly state my opinion. However, I decided that I wanted something more concrete, more quantitative, more authoritative to give him. So I went searching for the classics of science fiction. This project started life as an essay in the now defunct Hugo Award winning fanzine Lan’s Lantern #30. The essay was revised and became an ongoing project for the web. So I’m still trying to find the answers to these questions.

I got the idea to look up a number of “recommended” or “best of” lists to see what other people had to say, and then compile a database that would represent a consensus of opinion. For the original essay I had found nine such lists. For the first web version the lists increased to thirteen, and for this new 2001 version, Anthony Bernardo has jumped in and brought the total to 28 lists. [This is the fifth edition of the Classics of Science Fiction. It’s very difficult to modify this site because it refers to constantly changing numbers. I’m trying to rewrite this essay so it reflects all the changes and adapts well to future revisions.]

Using the lists I “assembled” the Classics of Science Fiction list by selecting books that were on a minimum number of refering lists. The original Classics of Science Fiction list produced 69 titles (3 or more out of 9 references), the newer 1996 list produced 162 books (3 or more out of 13 references). If I had made a list of books with two citations each, it would have produced a list with hundreds of titles–too many. At the time, 69 was a decent size list to consider. The 162 titles on the 1996 list, are really too many, but it was the only way to get books like Frankenstein and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea onto the Classics of Science Fiction list. It also help add a few newer books like Hyperion and Neuromancer.

With Anthony Bernardo’s additional references growing the total to 28, and using the cutoff of 7 or more references out of 28, the list has grown to 184 titles. This is a very long list, but I’ve decided to keep it. Otherwise I’d lose books like The Dying Earth and The Skylark of Space, both with 7 references. They are books which I think are important and I think deserve to be on the list.

That’s where my influence comes in. Deciding the cutoff point. However, to be fair, it’s easy for readers to ignore my influence and choose their own cutoff points. Just look at Classics by Rank and make your own decision. Around 12 or more references it gets to be very hard to disagree with the list.

By combining the critical opinions and popular fan polls I expected the resulting Classics of Science Fiction list to contain books that stand the test of time. However, there are many flaws in my experiment. Many books on this list are no longer read by fans. They aren’t reprinted. They are being forgotten. So why are they classics? That’s what this essay is all about.

The resulting Classics of Science Fiction list contains mostly novels, a few collections and anthologies. Can these books be called the real classics of SF? The Classics of Science Fiction list represents SF books loved by both critics and fans, but does that mean they are classics? And what exactly is a “classic?” In collecting, comparing and analyzing these lists, I have come to ask: why do certain books become great? My focus here is on SF, but the same general questions and answers could apply to all types of literature. This search brought up many questions, and made me think about why and how I select books. Why read any old book, when you can read a great one?

Can one person know enough about an area of literature to be able to select its best books? Is a survey of readers, no matter how large, an appropriate way to assemble a list of the best books? Are there any objective ways to determine if a book is a classic? For example, if a book is still read and kept in print one hundred years after it was first published, does that make it a classic? SF is a rather young genre. Many have said it started in the twenties with the publication of Amazing Stories. It can be argued that SF isn’t old enough to have “classics” in the way an English Professor would use the word. One hundred years from now, SF may turn out to be just a footnote in literary history.

Popularity and Classics

On the Internet there are lots of message boards dealing with SF. When people, especially young people, list their favorite SF books, most of the time, they list books I haven’t heard of, and are not on the Classics of Science Fiction list or even the lists from which it was assembled. Their favorites are recently published books–the ninth book in a forgettable series. And to them, their list of books may be the absolute best books they have ever read. Of course, it might be the only ones too.

Which brings up the question: should new SF readers be encouraged to read the classics of SF? Many people who first discover SF, especially while young, find it to be a neural rush. SF fans refer to SF as having “a sense of wonder.” A case could be made that it doesn’t matter what specific book a neophyte chooses to read, because it’s the genre itself that has the impact, and individual classics are irrelevant. However, I think that certain SF books have more “sense of wonder” than others. Regarding the Classics of Science Fiction list, I would say these books are not necessarily the absolute best books in the genre, but they are a group of books most remembered by fans, critics and writers.

There are many books not on this list that I personally rate higher and feel deserving of being called a classic. And before someone writes or says, “but what about this book, you idiot, it’s better than all the ones on your list combined!” – please remember I didn’t select these titles, but assembled them. If I was making my own list, it would have been different. Sure, I can say a certain hundred novels are great, because of their impact on me, but I can’t pretend to judge their value for other people by my own narrow standards.

From the 1996 162 Classics of Science Fiction, it can be seen that a good degree of consistency exists between critics, fans and prizes. The list can be broken down into the following information:

Statistics By Individual Lists
List Total Cited On SF Classics Total Missed Hit Rate Miss Rate
Astounding 1952






Astounding 1956






Analog 66






Locus 75






Locus 87






Internet 100












del Rey








































  • Total Titles = Total number of books the critic recommended or total books on fan poll
  • On SF Classic List = The number of books that made it to the final Classics of Science Fiction list
  • Hit Rate = Percent of books on list from those on Total Titles
  • Percent of List= Percent of books on Classics of Science Fiction list

The critics made more recommendations and had a greater number of books on the Classics of SF list. Fans polls have better hit rates, but they were usually from smaller lists. Many people call the 1940’s the golden age of science fiction, but I’m not so sure 1965-1975 wasn’t the golden age, or a second golden age.

Looking closely at all the information in these lists show fans and critics seem to agree the most on books published between 1965-1975, and many of the most memorable books were written just before or during this period. Science Fiction was a smaller subculture back then. The SF market today is gigantic compared to that time, so it will be much harder for a book to stand out and become widely popular in a lasting way.

All six critics agreed on these 10 books:

The Long Afternoon Of Earth
Brian Aldiss
The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester
The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
Stand On Zanzibar
John Brunner
Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke
Frank Herbert
The Left Hand Of Darkness
Ursula K. LeGuin
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter Miller
The Space Merchants
Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon

Eliminated the two fan polls from the fifties because so many books were published after those years, the four fan polls from 1966-1996 agreed on the following 12 books:

The Foundation Trilogy
Isaac Asimov
The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester
Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke
The City And The Stars
Arther C. Clark
Mission Of Gravity
Hal Clement
Starship Troopers
Robert A. Heinlein
Frank Herbert
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter Miller
More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon
The Time Machine
H. G. Wells
The War Of The Worlds
H. G. Wells

Critics and fans both agreed on five books:

The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester
Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke
Frank Herbert
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter Miller
More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon

In essence, must these books be the best of the best? Surprisingly, The Long Afternoon Of Earth was never on any of the reader polls. It was harder to judge the agreement among reader polls, because many books were published after the different polls were taken. However, 33 books out of 69 books on the original Classics of Science Fiction list written in 1988, were on the Locus 1987 poll. That same poll represents 42 titles of the 162 on the 1996 list. Adding more sources of citations, and more titles makes it harder to agree on what’s popular.

To show how quickly fans forget, The Time Machine, The War Of The Worlds, Childhood’s End, Mission Of Gravity and Starship Troopers have fallen off the current 1998 Internet Top 100 Sf & Fantasy list. Which show that fans, and opinion polls are very changing, probably due to what books are in print, and factors like the age of people agreeable to taking polls. Starship Troopers may have been on the earlier poll because of the recent movie.

Recent scholarly interest aside, I believe that SF is a branch of literature which has mass appeal, but for the most part, the general SF reader is someone who consumes SF books rather than studies them. This is why publishers market so many of them, and depend on “brand names” and good cover art. Over time, most hardcore SF readers will develop an overview of the field and come to recognize some SF books as “classics.”

The critics and scholars who write books about SF, probably have decades of reading experience to draw on. Most fans buy current books and depend on word of mouth to make their reading choices. Some SF books get frequently reprinted so that older titles are always available to younger readers. A SF reading generation may only be a 7-8 years — from adolescence to college. Any book not reprinted that frequently will never catch on with a SF generation, and thus will not become popular.

If a book misses out on continuing popularity, it will probably become forgotten, never to become a classic, no matter how many critics continue to write about it.

Can Books Be Judged?

There are a lot of ways to select a good book, and even more ways to judge a book. Judging books is open to a lot of disagreement.For example, many books first read by fans in their adolescent years, like the kids on the Internet, have an impact, but if reread ten years later, might not make the same impression. This suggests that there should be two types of great books: youth classics and adult classics. (This idea is worth a separate essay itself.) When we are older, it may turn out, we will like a different type of book all together, a type we can’t foresee in youth. Then again, we might regress as we get older, and start rereading our youth classics. So one factor in judging a book is the age of the reader, thus making judgment relative.

Another factor in judging books, is how well read is the reader. Someone who has read thousands of books will draw up a different list of classics than a person who has read ten SF books. I feel that because of the nature of the genre, most people’s first ten SF books will all be mind blowers, and fondly remembered. This problem is solved by having large number of people vote in a fan poll.

Because there are no absolutes in judging a book, I feel my approach has produced a reasonably good list of titles. Sure, people will argue over these titles because of varying tastes, but on the whole, I think most people will find some merit in each of these books.

A more important question to ask: why judge books at all? Our society usually measures success by sales, where weekly charts are published about the gross sales of books, records, movies, etc. We also have yearly awards for everything under the sun. And magazines and newspapers are quite fond of running end of the year summaries. But once a year is up, a work of art is pretty much forgotten. Oh, occasionally someone will do an All Time Top 100 album/movie/book list, but many times it is still based on sales, or on the recent memories of editors and writers.

There’s no systematic method of judging artwork, other than does it stay around. This is all is discussed later on in this essay, but it doesn’t answer the question, can a book be judged? Critics and literary essayists try, but what real impact do they have?

There is no one who has the power to issue an ultimatum, “this book must be remembered and read!” Think about how many books you have had to read because of a teacher in school. Now, how many did you really enjoy? Just because an authoritative figure made you read a book, doesn’t mean you will like it. The closest thing to a power that keeps books alive is the school system. They can make children read books because they justify it by believing reading certain books are part of a good education. But does such beliefs make a book a classic?

The concept of a “classic” book is an arbitrary one. Best sellers are books that are popular in the present. Classics are books that stay popular over time. A variety of factors work to keep a book around in the mind of culture, but not because someone can judge their value.

The Age of the Book

Most books “die” with the passing of time. How many books published before the 20th century have survived until the present compared to total published? I have no idea. Barron reviews 108 SF books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but try and find them. Some people say classics are those books that survive the test of time. Many books that were on the Astounding polls from the fifties never made it to the Classics of Science Fiction list. It takes awhile for a book to get famous. Then it takes awhile for it to be forgotten. The number of books written or published by decades from the 162 Classics of Science Fiction list shows this trend:

Book Totals By Decades
from 162 Classics SF List
Decade Total































I had to use the criteria of being on three lists out of thirteen just to get books like Frankenstein and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Looking Backwards on the list. Books some people would say are obvious classics. Most of the lower ranked books are there mainly because critics agreed that they were worth remembering.

Just because a book is old, doesn’t make it a classic. If no one but critics like to read it, then, just how classic could the book be? Some classic books are really read for historical reasons, and it’s the English department at the university keeping the book in print. How many of these 162 books will be read in 2098? Actually, I’m not sure if any of them will be.

The age of a book isn’t a real factor in making a book a classic. A Christmas Carol isn’t a classic because it’s old, but because it is great read, because you won’t forget the story and it will make you think about your life and cry. Just because a book is influential doesn’t mean it will be remembered. It might affect literary evolution, and yet become extinct itself. Look at the lists of Nobel winning authors or the Pulitzer winning fiction awards. Most books on those lists are long forgotten and out of print.

Are Classics Written Only by Prolific Authors?

Another factor in understanding how a book becomes a classic, is how prolific is the author. Heinlein has the most books in the 28 reference list database, but because he has so many good books, none of them stand out using my system. Are his most popular books his best? Most of my favorite Heinlein books didn’t make it to the Science Fiction Classic list. It may be like the Australian ballot, the ones selected are the ones with the most second and third vote positions added in. In the 1987 Locus poll, Heinlein had votes for 30 books, out of a possible 50+ published titles. (An interesting article could be written about what are Heinlein’s least popular books.)

Many of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list are by writers who have written a great number of books, and have had long careers as writers. When we think of classics of mainstream literature, we often think of Dickens, Twain, Poe, Hugo, Tolstoy and other prolific writers. Does being a prolific author imply a factor in whether some of their books will be remembered? In other words: do writers with dynamic personal reputations, and who write a flood of books, have statistically a better chance of being remembered?

Or do authors with a lifetime of practice, develop the skills to tell a story so well, it just burns into your mind? Maybe people like Charles Dickens and Robert Heinlein are very special individuals who come along occasionally and have a knack for telling stories. It’s hard to understand the success of Dickens now, but he was so popular in his day, that for years people anxiously awaited each installment of his novels as they were published in weekly papers. He was like a hit TV show, captivating a huge audience week after week for years.

Another advantage of prolific authors is the “name brand” effect. Stephen King sells books by his name. And without a huge catalog of books, it’s hard to develop a name that sticks in the mind of readers. Look at the covers of books. If the title is printed larger than the author’s name, then he or she doesn’t have that name recognition. Edgar Rice Burroughs is a name that stands out on the book jacket. Burroughs wrote two great novels and dozens of self imitations. But without all those extra books, would Tarzan The Ape Man or A Princess Of Mars be remembered? If you go to a SF book section and look for Burroughs, you are more than likely to find several titles. Something is always in print. The momentum of books in his many series allows publishers to keep his work constantly in print. With only two titles, it would be easy to let his memory slip by.

If you look at the top ranked books, Alfred Bester and Walter M. Miller, Jr. stand out as not being prolific authors. Bester was a two hit wonder with The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, and Miller had one hit, A Canticle For Leibowitz. These authors prove there are exceptions to any rule.

Classics are those Books We Remember

Ultimately, I think a classic is a book that is remembered. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has a plot that is memorable, often imitated, and might even become a future myth. Mark Twain stories have become part of the American mind. Not only are Dickens’s and Twain’s plots remembered, but their characters are remembered by name. Sometimes I think it’s the memory of the characters that make a book a real classic. Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and Mr. Spock are very widely known characters, known even to people who don’t know their origins. It also helps to name a book after the lead character, for example, David Copperfield or Huckleberry Finn. Try and make a list of names of characters from all those famous SF novels you remember. It’s hard. SF is a literature of ideas. SF readers remember plots better than characters. How often have you heard a fan say, “I read this far out story…,” and then went on to tell you the plot?

So many of these SF classics are books with great ideas. Looking down the list, I personally find it difficult to remember the character’s names, but I can always remember the stories.

Fan polls are essentially memory polls. Quick, make a list of your favorite books. The ones that you list are the ones you remember. A year from now you might remember a whole different group of books. Why do you remember any book? Because the book was great, or just memorable? Classic books are those books that stay in our collective memory. Critics and book reviewers help reinforce and focus that collective memory.

Just think, there are numerous classic books out there that we can’t remember. For one reason or another, they are just plain forgotten. It is not like the old sound in the forest question. I do believe there is a quality to books even if they aren’t successful or memorable. Think about how many books we miss reading in our lifetime just because we don’t have to time to read everything. Beyond the books you hear about, are unknown books. Some books are completely unknown, just sitting on shelves gathering dust, with no reader to keep their memory alive. Some of those books are still classics.

Keeping those books alive and remembered is the job of critics and reviewers. Look at the lower ranked books on the list. Most of them were never on a fan poll. These are great books, they are becoming forgotten, except for those men and women who have the experience and knowledge to value them and write their histories.

There are many ways to define the word classic. There are many kinds of memory. Publishers can keep popular books in our memories by keeping books in print. Critics and essayists can keep books in our memory by remembering and writing about them. Fans keep books in our memories by voting on fan polls and keeping books remembered by word of mouth.

Classics Represent Shared Culture

Classics are those books a person should be familiar with, and be capable of discussing and relating to in a general conversation. For example, anyone in the SF field should be familiar with The Foundation Trilogy, The Demolished Man, The Martian Chronicles, Childhood’s End and More Than Human–not just because all of these books were on nearly every list and poll, but because they are part of the foundation of the SF world. These are the giants of the field, and if you are into SF you should be familiar with them. Because without that knowledge you don’t have any sense of the history and heritage of SF. Culture represents shared heritage. And even in a small subculture like SF, a member of the community needs to know its history and have some awareness of the subculture’s common knowledge.

The Classics of Science Fiction list is pretty much an American list, with maybe a few British writers, as was pointed out to me by one of my online readers. It would be fantastic if I could include books from all over the world. I’ve read that Soviet/Russian science fiction has a tradition, history and scope as large as our American science fictional world.

Reading literary histories of science fiction, you realize that science fiction, or the types of literature that it grew out of, have been around for a very long time. Modern, English speaking critics, generally make the case that SF started with Mary Shelley, or Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, and is an Anglo-American product. Other scholars can trace the history of SF back much earlier, and know from their research that SF has existed in many countries and has an almost universal background.

Language and the distance of time keep us for knowing about those books. Because I can not read German, French, Russian, Spanish, Japanese or any other languages, it keeps me from being aware of a larger heritage that the literature of science fiction belongs. The books on the Classics of Science Fiction list represent a shared culture focused in the late 20th century by English speaking readers.

Right now, we don’t have a War And Peace, or Crime And Punishment that stands out on our list like those two novels do in the general English literary world. What is missing from our provincial science fictional world? Language is definitely a barrier, but maybe the Internet can be used to help with this problem. Locus Magazine routinely carries articles about science fiction in other countries. Eventually, I hope to have the time to study my back issues and maybe glean some kind of list.

Even without the knowledge of SF published elsewhere in the world, or the genealogy of those books, the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list represent a shared culture. A culture that’s growing smaller every day. Written science fiction is being supplanted by multimedia science fiction, which belongs to a newer, and different subculture. Ask someone under 25 to describe science fiction, and they will talk of Star Wars or Star Trek. And the youngest will think of science fiction in terms of the latest TV shows, or video games, or comics.

One of the reasons I keep this list going is to promote memory of written science fiction. Star Wars, Star Trek and Babylon 5 are not original creations. They are the active teenagers of a long lineage. I can not even speculate about the newborns.

Classics Stay in Print

Most of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list are easy to acquire. Most of them will be regularly reprinted and offered for sale on the new bookracks. With a little effort all could be bought rather quickly in used bookstores or at ABE Books. A few on this list are reprinted only every few years or decades, which could be an indication they will be eventually forgotten. How many people have read Bring The Jubilee or Pavane? These two deserve a better life, but the mass market appeal may not support their future existence.

The Science Fiction Book Club is good about reprinting older science fiction books. Their efforts might be the reason why some books stay on the fan polls. Universe, the SFBC’s quarterly list, dated Winter 1996 had the following books from the Classics of Science Fiction list:

The Foundation Trilogy
Isaac Asimov
The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke
Rendezvous With Rama
Arthur C. Clarke
The Man In The High Castle
Philip K. Dick
Stranger In A Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein
Frank Herbert
The Left Hand Of Darkness
Ursula K. LeGuin
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Clifford D. Simak

All but City by Simak were on the Winter 1998 list.
The following classics were added:

The Demolished Man
Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester
Lest Darkness Fall
L. Sprague De Camp
William Gibson
The Forever War
Joe Halderman
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein

I would think many of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list have appeared in the Science Fiction Book Club at one time or another.

If you look at the titles available from, you can see that a good fraction of the Classics of Science Fiction list are in print.

Classics Are Taught In School

Most people think of classics as the books they must read in school. In recent years, some SF books have snuck into the schools, especially in colleges and universities. I discovered Heinlein back in the sixties because my eighth grade teacher made us read five books during each six-week grading term.She had an approved list, and Heinlein was on it. If in the future, a SF book is regularly studied in the schools, then many people will consider that a “real” endorsement that the book has become a classic.

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who could email booklists from courses they’ve taken in science fiction. I’d also be interested in hearing from anyone who teaches a course in science fiction, and especially if they have a web page.

Here are some sites I found from 10,700+ sites listed at Altavista when using the search terms +”science fiction” +syllabus:

Notice how many books that are required by professors are on the Science Fiction Classics list. This is another method to validate the list. Or it could be used as a whole new method for identifying the classics of science fiction. I could build a database of all the books professors require, and then make a cutoff, such as being on four or five syllabuses. Well, I don’t have the time.

Time Will Eventually Tell

In a hundred years will any of these books still be read? Time can only answer that question. There were no one hundred year old books on the original Classics of Science Fiction1986 list of 69 titles. It’s not until I broaden the criteria in 1996 to 162 titles, that older books showed up on the list.

The 1996 Classics of Science Fiction list, with it’s greater coverage, and its more liberal guidelines, expanded the coverage back to 1818 for Frankenstein. Jules Verne is now on the list, as well as The Time Machine. This, in itself, makes the newer 1996 list appear more valid–but is it? How many people are really still reading Jules Verne or Mary Shelley? If it wasn’t for movies, would these two authors even be remembered?

SF is primarily a literature of ideas, but are the ideas in these books ones which will still be fresh and interesting to the people of the future? How many science fictional ideas have died in the light of scientific reality, or even made dull and common by movies and TV? Some books have premises that are obviously outdated, but still people read and enjoy them. Why? I believe a good story is the answer. Edgar Rice Burroughs can still keep people reading, but he will never be considered literary. His ideas and plots were not new when they came out in 1912.

For those people who are not yet born, to pick up one of these books next century, will require that he or she be able to identify and feel for the characters. Because ultimately, classics are those books that send messages across time, they are the real time machines.

The more I read about the history of SF, the more forgotten titles I discover. Some of these forgotten books were best sellers in their day, and went through many printings. These forgotten books would be quaint now, dealing with ideas of their period, dealing with customs and politics that are totally alien to us today. At the end of next century, will people want to read about the cyberpunks that so fascinated people at the end of this century? Not only can’t we imagine what they will want to be reading, we aren’t even sure they will be reading. Will books and book reading for pleasure even be common in one hundred years? Books have remained a popular form of entertainment as long as they had no real competition. Today, with television, movies, role-playing games, video games, and the promise of virtual reality and who knows what else, competing for young people’s free time, how successful can reading be? One of my online readers, a librarian, wrote to ask if I knew any way to promote the reading of science fiction, because the science fiction section was one of the least used sections at her library.

I quit attending science fiction conventions years ago when it was obvious that most of the fans were there because of TV stars or role playing games. Science fiction meant something truly different to them. I’d ask about books, and most weren’t readers, but watchers. Among the young, I could find a few that still liked to read, but they mainly gushed about the latest Star Wars novel.

The same thing can be asked about general literature. How many people have read James Joyce, or even Charles Dickens? Even with a movie with trendy stars and book with a sexy cover, how many kids are going to read Great Expectations?

Dime novels readers are about as common as buggy whip users. Written science fiction may become something historians study like faro gambling in the old west. It was something popular once, and worth a mention here and there, but not really worth spending too much time on.

I love to read, and I find it hard to imagine a future where people don’t still love to withdraw into the mental world of a good book. So instead of asking what is a classic book, I should be asking, what is the value of reading. But that’s a whole other area of research.


I hope the Classics of Science Fiction list will be helpful in finding those classic SF novels that deserve your attention.I plan to read the couple books I haven’t yet read, and reread most of the others on this list and evaluate them carefully.

And finally, let me say, that although I have used a systematic method in selecting the titles for the Classics of Science Fiction list, it is still arbitrary. I could have chosen other polls and critics. I could have manipulated the lists differently. In fact, anyone going over my methods will discover I had to make little decisions along the way to make things fit. So when I give this list to my friend, I won’t tell him these are the absolute best books in SF, but I will tell him a lot of people agree that these are the best of the best.

James Wallace Harris

Revised: 7/6/3

Bibliography: The Reference Lists

  1. ANATOMY OF WONDER, edited by Neil Barron, a very comprehensive reference book. I used the second, third and fourth editions. The original list I combined the “recommended to purchase” titles for the modern period. In the 1996 I used his recommended titles from any period.
  2. THE ROAD TO SCIENCE FICTION edited by James Gunn. An anthology, with commentary, of great short SF stories. Originally, four volumes, it’s now been expanded to six.
  3. AGE OF WONDER by David G. Hartwell, an overview of science fiction and fandom. Again, there’s been an updated version since I wrote the original essay. Hartwell also had two lists which I combined, one long general “best of” list, and another similar list for “… literary talents, highly developed personal styles, character, thematic complexity … in every work.”
  4. SCIENCE FICTION: THE 100 BEST NOVELS by David Pringle, essays about one man’s favorite one hundred SF books.
  5. SF IN DIMENSION by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Although this came out in 1976, I didn’t discover it until after I’d written the original essay. I haven’t read this book yet, just used the list, but the Panshins also wrote THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL, a history of SF through the golden age of SF in the forties. It’s excellent for understanding what science fiction is and how it evolved.
  6. THE WORLD OF SCIENCE FICTION 1926-1976 by Lester del Rey. del Rey was a writer, editor and publisher of SF.
  7. SCIENCE FICTION IN THE 20TH CENTURY by Edward James. This came out in 1994 and is the newest list I use. I still see it in stores, so it might still be in print.
  8. ASTOUNDING 1952 Reader Poll
  9. ASTOUNDING 1956 Reader Poll
  10. ANALOG 1966 Reader Poll
  11. LOCUS MAGAZINE 1975 Reader Poll
  12. LOCUS MAGAZINE 1987 Reader Poll
  13. INTERNET 100 1996 Online Reader Poll