Six 2016 Best Science Fiction Anthologies Covering 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ever since The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, there have been annual collections of the best short science fiction. For many decades now, there have been two or three. For some reason, in 2016 we have at least six big anthologies looking back at the short work of the previous year. There will be at least one more, because the Nebula Showcase that covers 2015 stories hasn’t come out yet.

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Links below are to Amazon, where you can buy, preview the table of contents, and maybe read the introductions in the Look Inside feature. I’ve already bought one ebook and one audio edition to read or listen on my iPhone. I might buy another in print. I’d buy them all if they were available on audio.

I’m the most excited about the Neil Clarke collection, because it’s also available on audio at Audible.com. I’ve been wishing for years that the Dozois, Strahan or Horton volumes would show up at Audible. Allan Kaster has been my only source of annual best short science fiction on audio, via his series The Year’s Top-Ten Tales of Science fiction (v1-7) and The Year’s Top Short SF Novels (v1-5), Kaster’s collections were never as giant as the Dozois or Strahen volumes. I wonder if Kaster has stopped his series, because his collections only cover through 2014 stories. I hope not.

Does this wealth of anthologized short science fiction represent increased interest in reading short science fiction? For decades the print magazines have struggled to survive with dwindling subscribers. Decades ago some SF magazines had over 100,000 subscribers. Now the major print magazines have only 7,500-20,000 paying readers and that’s declining. Has the internet changed the way we read?

Is the internet increasing readership of short SF? I love being able to read on my phone whenever I have a free moment, or listen to a short story while I walk or do dishes, or even have Alexa on my Amazon Echo play a story for me in the middle of night when I can’t sleep.

These stories are being collected from a much more diverse collection of sources. We’re moving away from print to digital. Here are some of the periodicals that publish science fiction short stories. Some magazines still print their issues, but my guess is buying and reading short stories on paper is going the way of the land line.

Many of these year’s best stories came from original anthologies.

I wish I had the time and patience to put all these short stories into a database and see which ones were most reprinted. For example, I noticed that “Capitalism in the 22nd Century or A.I.r.” by Geoff Ryman, is in the Clarke, Dozois and Strahan volumes.

It would also be wonderful if I could read all these stories and grok the nature of current science fiction. That probably won’t happen. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, I never have enough time for all the projects I want to pursue. But it sure would be fun to gorge myself on 2015 science fiction, then gorge myself on 1950s science fiction short stories, and after all that mass-consumption of short stories, write a comparison of how science fiction has evolved and changed.

I can’t imagine how these editors read so much. I wish Dozois would write a book about editing science fiction. And he could write a wonderful history of the evolution of the science fiction short story.

JWH

A Concise History of Science Fiction Short Stories

Let’s face it, the short story is a fading art form that most modern readers ignore.  The short story will never fade away completely because of would-be novelists, MFA Creative Writing students, and legions of fan fiction writers.  The short story existed before mid-19th century in proto-forms, had it’s heyday of mass popularity from the 1850s to the 1950s, and continues to exist now in various subcultures centered around mystery and science fiction writers, academic literary writers, and fanfic writers.  Before television in the 1950s, there were hundreds of magazines devoted to the short story, filling the newsstands each week, that were read by the masses as a popular entertainment.  Television killed that publishing industry.  Today if you search hard at good bookstores, you can find a handful of story magazines to buy.  Most literary magazines have print runs in the hundreds, or low thousands, and a handful of genre magazines have paid circulations in 20,000-30,000 range.

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My motive for writing this essay is to give modern science fiction fans a sense of history of how science fictional ideas emerged out of magazines in the 19th century, grew in popularity with the general fiction pulp magazines of the early part of the 20th century, coalesced into a specific genre pulps starting in 1926 with Amazing Stories, grew even more in popularity in the 1930s and 1940s in many more pulp titles in the U.S. and Great Britain, and peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, when the SF novel became the dominant form of expressing science fictional ideas, and afterwards when television and movies became the main purveyor of science fiction.

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In the 19th century the genres we know today were all available in general circulation magazines.  The rise of the literate middle class, combined with the advent of cheap publishing, created a reading boom.  Think of 19th century magazines as the television of its day – the technology of how people studied the world then, because they didn’t have the radio, television, or the Internet.

All subjects and genres have probably existed for millennia as oral tales, myths, bible stories, anecdotes and even jokes, but as they gelled in the 19th century, certain favorite fictional topics and genres emerged, and maybe the last and least of them, was science fiction.

  • Sex – stories of romance, courtship, sex, marriage, children, families have always been the most popular story subject.
  • Mystery – murder, crime, detectives right from the beginning, especially with Edgar Allan Poe, have been the next big favorite.
  • History – recreating the past has always had its reading fans.
  • Westerns – came out of the urge to write historical fiction to become it’s own genre.
  • Fantasy – the supernatural and magic is probably the first genre.  Horror is a major sub-genre.  Think ghost stories.
  • Intrigue – Tightly plotted stories of conflict over politics, espionage, money, industry, diplomacy has a distinctive readership.
  • Travel – people in the 19th century couldn’t get enough reporting from other lands, and even in the 21st century with television and the internet, fiction about travel is still popular.
  • Humor – ranges from crude to highbrow, and is very hard to write.
  • War – many people consider history the chronicles of wars, but war fiction is about humans at their worst and best.
  • Sports – games, hunting, fishing, living in the great outdoors
  • Forbidden – Pornography, sadism, masochism, perversion – all the stuff kept under the counter.
  • Future – it’s very hard to define science fiction, but generally it’s stories about the future.  In the 19th century it was often about planned utopias, speculation about disturbing trends, how inventions would change society, the marvels of possible new discoveries, and that emerging academic discipline, science.

No categorization is perfect, and most stories involve cross fertilization.  Starting with a microscopic audience in the distant past, to a massive audience today, stories about science fictional ideas have appealed to a segment of readers.  For most of literary history there has been little demarcation between fantasy and science fiction.  Mostly, this was due to the concept of science and scientists having not been invented.  It wasn’t until the 1830s that science as a discipline and label was created, so it’s not surprising that it was until the 1930s that the term “science fiction” finally caught on, and even until the 1950s that it was widely use.  Nowadays, in the 21st century, most people associate the term with movies and television shows, and not books, and definitely not short stories.  But I firmly believe it’s the short story where the best SF ideas emerge first.

We know speculation about intelligent life on other worlds has existed as far back as classical Greek times, and that stories about space travel, artificial life, mechanical beings, and such have appeared occasionally throughout the centuries, but there were no real science fiction fans until the 20th century, when the term science fiction was invented.  Science fictional ideas slowly became popular in the 19th century periodical, gained momentum in the first half of the 20th century, and became very popular in the second half.  Most of the 19th century stories were wild, fantastic and even silly.  They are rarely read today, and seldom anthologized. For example, here is one to try, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in 1844.

best-science-fiction-of-the-19th-centuryToC

I’m encouraging modern SF fans to read modern SF short stories, then then to explore the history of SF stories, because they have a rich heritage and are a wonderful art form, if you can get into them.  Most readers no longer like reading short stories.  When I was growing up back in the 1960s, reading the science fiction digest magazines was my introduction to science fiction fandom, but also to a mother lode of science fictional ideas.  SF novels are usually plot driven, whereas SF short stories are idea driven.  Science fiction short stories are memorable for wild, far out ideas, thinking out of the box, pushing the limits of new concepts, experimenting with writing techniques, exploring borders between the known and the unknown, and just having a lot of fun by endless speculation about possible futures.

Like I said, few science fiction fans read the current print and online magazines that publish science fiction, and far fewer still go back and read the older stories where science fiction began.  Older stories reflect an evolution of thinking in general, and specific writing styles over time.  To be honest, most past science fiction stories aren’t worth reading, even many that were collected into anthologies.  Editors constantly resurvey the genre publishing retrospective anthologies looking at our genre history with new eyes, and often old favorites disappear over time.  Few science fiction short stories are worth reading when they are published, and far fewer older stories are worth remembering by modern minds.  But some are, and over the years and decades, anthologists have collected them.

From the first issue of Amazing Stories till the present, magazines and original anthologies have generated millions of science fictional ideas.  Sure the science fiction novel and movie are the far more famous, but it’s the short story that’s the evolutionary engine of the genre.  With less at stake, writers can easily experiment in the shorter forms of fiction, and the short story seems to bring out more variety of science fictional ideas.  Sadly, the art of short fiction is disappearing from the genre just as fast as it has disappeared from the fictional mainstream.  Few science fiction fans read SF short fiction, either in the dying print format, or the emerging online electronic formats.

At the Classic Science Fiction book club we try to remedy this by discussing one short story a week.  Few members join in, but there’s enough to keep the feature going.  For the first couple of years we only picked stories that were free on the net to make it easy for members to find and read.  As it’s gotten harder to find free reprints of classic stories, we’ve decided to pick a big anthology of stories that can be our textbook.  The book we want has to have a great selection, be readily available used, and cheap.  Two were nominated, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame:  The Greatest Science Fiction Stories Ever and The Ascent of Wonder edited by David Hartwell, with the Hall of Fame volume winning out.  It’s pretty easy to find both of these books for less than $5 at ABE Books and Amazon.

This got me to thinking:  “What were the greatest SF retrospective anthologies ever?”  It seems like every decade of my reading life some editor has come out with a huge anthology that surveys all of science fiction for its absolute best stories.  New SF readers need an introduction to the history of the short works of science fiction, but that introduction always needs to be updated.

When I was growing up reading science fiction short stories in the digest magazines F&SF, Galaxy, If, Analog, Amazing and Fantastic, short SF was considered the heart of science fiction because of the high concentration of  exciting science fictional ideas.  Old timers would talk about the great stories from the pulp era, usually describing the idea and not the plot, and there were many anthologies that collected these stories for new SF fans to catch up on the past.  Hell, most of the great SF novels we baby boomers read first appeared as a series of short stories, and they were called fix-up novels, like City, The Foundation Trilogy, A Canticle for Leibowitz, More than Human, A Case of Conscience, etc., or they were famous collections like I, Robot, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, The Menace from Earth, etc.

Fans of the genre usually attribute the beginning of science fiction to the publication of Hugo Gernsback’s  Amazing Stories (April, 1926) but short fiction featuring science fictional ideas have been around a very long time.  At first Gernsback called his stories scientifiction, trying to classify a certain kind of story.  Before that, sometimes this unknown type of story was called the scientific romance.  Sam Moskowitz create a number of anthologies featuring earlier science fiction such as Masterpieces of Science Fiction (1650-1935), Science Fiction in Old San Francisco (1854-1890), Science Fiction by Gaslight (1891-1911) and Under the Moons of Mars (1912-1920).  More can be read about these pre-Amazing era of science fiction in Pilgrims Through Space and Time by J. O. Bailey, a classic study first published in 1947.

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During the late 1920s and for most of the 1930s, Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder and Astounding Science Fiction was the primary source of science fiction as it wasn’t common yet to publish such genre stories in book form.  This era is decidedly different than what came afterwards,  what the first fandom read and loved.  There are two great anthologies to track down if you want to get a taste of 1930s science fiction, Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, and Science Fiction of the 30’s edited by Damon Knight.

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Then in July, 1939 John W. Campbell published his famous issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and what later old timers called The Golden Age of Science Fiction began.  Much of what came out in hardcover from the legendary small press publishers, Gnome Press, Fantasy Press, Shasta, in the early 1950s, first appeared in the pulps in the 1940s.  Few modern science fiction fans know about John W. Campbell and how he changed the direction of science fiction.  He’s famous for discovering Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, among many others.

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Then right after the war, in 1946, maybe because WWII involved atomic bombs and V-2 rockets, or maybe it was just time, two retrospective science fiction anthologies of science fiction short stories were published, Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, and The Best of Science Fiction edited by Geoff Conklin.  I discovered both anthologies as tattered library books in the early 1960s as a neophyte SF fan.  The first, and the one that made the biggest impression on me was  Adventures in Time and Space (Toc).  It was a huge book that collected stories that defined that first The Golden Age of Science Fiction.  Growing up talking to older fans I always thought the Golden Age of Science Fiction was 1939-1949, but later learn the golden age of science fiction was 12.  Every year we have twelve-year-olds discovering science fiction books, but how many today ever discover the new short stories, much less the classic short stories?

In my early teens, the stories I read in the digest magazines Galaxy, If, Amazing, F&SF and Analog, would define my Golden Age nostalgia at 62.   1950s science fiction discovered in the early 1960s, along with newer writers like Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, John Brunner, created my definition of science fiction, that is essentially unchanged today, and I assume is different from how younger generations define science fiction.

I also assume subsequent generations of SF fans will look back and define SF differently, and they probably don’t include SF short stories in their formative years.  Their Golden Age of Science Fiction might be Star Trek, or Star Wars, or video games I don’t even know the name of.  However, science fiction continued to produce short stories, and a few people read them and will remember them.

What anthologies are there for every Golden Age period of science fiction that have come out in the last 60+ years?  The four pictured below cover the 1940s and 1950s, but sadly they are out of print.  They can be found used if readers take the trouble, but probably 99.9% of science fiction readers don’t take the trouble.  As newer retrospective anthologies come out, fewer stories from these years become representative, because more recent anthologies have to cover longer stretches of classic science fiction short stories.  In the early 1960s I had to discover these 1940s books.

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I eventually bought Adventures in Time and Space, but not the original 1946 edition, the 1957 Modern Library reprint.  I lost that copy over the years, and now have 1990 SFBC edition.  I reread this famous anthology every ten or fifteen years to take me back to the headspace of my childhood.  Every time I reread “Requiem,” “Forgetfulness,” “Black Destroyer,” “Nightfall,” “Farewell to the Master,” “By His Bootstraps,” and many others, I’m reacquainted with 1940s science fiction, and the 1964 me.  These stories were already over two decades old when I first read them, and they had a feel of quaintness fifty years ago, so I wonder what teens today will think of them?

Even though I’m encouraging younger readers to try these old stories, I have to warn you, they are old.  Not as ancient as those from the 19th century, but they represent a different mindset than what I assume a kid today has.  Part of reading anything old, whether it’s The Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, or Mark Twain, is you’re exploring ancient thoughts and thinking.  Some old writers can actually speak across time and still have vitality.  Most writers can’t.  You read those writers with an academic mind, playing both an English professor, anthropologist, and historian.

Science fiction is often described as evoking a sense of wonder.  Reading these old stories is like being the Indiana Jones of science fiction, looking for rare treasures of wonder, working as an archeologist uncovering ancient far out ideas and trying to piece together the evolution of science fictional memes.

Adventures in Time and Space is a rare example of a retrospective anthology getting reprinted, and although it’s been reprinted many times, it’s long out of print.  For some reason many anthologies seldom get reprinted or stay in print.  I guess it’s a copyright issue.  So most of these books I mention here are not in print.  Which is a shame, because they represent a special kind of history – our genre history.  And wouldn’t it be great if someone could reprint all these wonderful books as ebooks and audiobooks?

The Best of Science Fiction (ToC) edited by Geoff Conklin, that also came out in that breakthrough year of 1946, never had the lasting fame as Adventures in Time and Space.  This historical collection was reprinted once in 1980 as The Golden Age of Science Fiction.  Geoff Conklin went on to edit many more science fiction anthologies, but none of them became classic like Adventures in Time and Space.  If you can get ahold of a copy of the Healy and McComas volume it contains some of the most remembered stories from the late 1930s and early 1940s era.  Wikipedia shows its table of contents and many of the stories and authors have links to entries.  Of course, the titles in red are the stories now forgotten.  By modern standards, these tales are still part of the ancient history of science fiction.

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Starting in 1949, and running through 1958, T. E. Dikty and Everett F. Bleiler started an annual anthology series that collected the best stories of the previous year.  Then from 1956-1968 Judith Merrill created her The Year’s Best S-F series.

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All through the 1950s there were periodic collections for F&SF and Galaxy magazines that collected the best stories.

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In 1959, Anthony Boucher edited A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, a two volume anthology that collected 4 short novels, 12 novelettes and 8 short stories to give a really big overview of the science fiction genre.  For years this two volume set was a prime inducement to join the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC), and gave new fans a sense of SF history.  It’s not really a great collection for a retrospective short stories because it was dominated by four novels, although great ones.  See TocV1, TocV2, because it might be worth collecting.  Volume 2 has Brain Wave by Poul Anderson and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, a couple of my favorites.

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Starting in 1965 and running till 1990, Donald Wollheim edited World’s Best SF.  Wollheim was the Gardner Dozois of his day, or maybe I should say Dozois is the Wollheim of today.  These were my favorites annual reads when growing up, and couldn’t resist showing four covers that are burned into my memory.  Wollheim’s taste was closer to mine than Judith Merril.

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At the beginning of 1970s, one of the greatest retrospective SF anthologies ever came out, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (ToC), edited by Robert Silverberg.  The selection is so great that every story has an entry at Wikipedia.  That says a lot if a story is remember well enough for people to write a history about it for an encyclopedia.  This book is still in print, and has often been reprinted.  It is one of the most famous science fiction anthologies ever, but it only collects stories published through 1963, and time rolls forward.  Ben Bova, Terry Carr and Arthur C. Clarke edited four more volumes in the series: Two A, Two B, Three and Four.   Annoyingly, only v. 1 and 2a and 2b are in print, but they do collect some of the most famous and loved short stories of science fiction.

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In the later 1970s I started seeing some odd mass market paperbacks called The Road to Science Fiction, edited by James Gunn.  Eventually they included six volumes:

  • The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells (1977) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 2: From Wells to Heinlein (1979) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 3: From Heinlein to Here (1979) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 4: From Here to Forever (1982) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 5: The British Way (1998) (ToC)
  • The Road to Science Fiction 6: Around the World (1998) (ToC)

The original four came out as mass market paperbacks, but eventually reprinted as trade editions when the last two volumes completed the series.  They can be expensive to track down now, which is rather depressing, since they make a very nice overview of science fiction.  Even the Kindle edition of volume one is $31.49, and the trade paper of volume 3 is $57.75, which means few people will ever buy them.

Since 1953, The Hugo Award, selected by fans, has been given to short stories and novelettes, and in 1968 they created the novella category.  If you follow the links from the story length you’ll see listings of famous stories published since then.  Since 1966, The Nebula Award, selected by writers, have been given for short stories, novelettes, and novellas.   Again, follow the links to the listings.  Over the years these award winning stories have been collected into anthologies for The Hugo Winners (5 volumes) and The Nebula Awards (1-33, 2000-).

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In 1992, Tom Shippey edited The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories (ToC) which aimed to give a concise collection of 20th century science fiction.  Luckily this volume is still in print.

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Then in 1993, Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery took another look at 1960-1990 American science fiction short stories with their book, The Norton Book of Science Fiction (ToC).  Not quite a SF feminist manifesto, this anthology included far more women writers than prior retrospective collections.

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In 1994, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer came out with one of the biggest retrospective anthologies ever, The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF (ToC), with stories going back to 1844 (“Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne).  This massive book, almost a 1,000 pages, took a new look at the complete history of the science fiction short story, with the focus on real science fiction.  Sadly, this one is out of print.

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The 1990s was a great decade for retrospective anthologies, especial this two volume set edited by Pamela Sargent that showed a different look at science fiction, emphasizing how women wrote SF.  Women of Wonder: The Classic Years (1940s-1970s) (Toc) and Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years (1970s-1990s) (ToC).

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Since 1984 Gardner Dozois has been editing the annual The Year’s Best Science Fiction.  If you don’t currently read the printed or online SF magazines, this is one of two great annual resources to keep up with short science fiction.  The other is David Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF which started in 1996.

Internet Science Fiction Database offers lists of top stories and anthologies at their site on their ISFDB Top 100 Lists.  Sci-Fi Lists, a fan polling site offers Top 100 Sci-Fi Sort Fiction, and Next 100 SF Short Fiction.  Ian Sales offers “The list: 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women.”  Free Speculative Fiction Online links to legal free copies of science fiction short stories.

Any story that catches you attention from the table of contents listed here can be researched at ISFDB to see if it’s in an anthology you already own.

Current Print and Online Science Fiction Magazines

History of the Short Story

JWH – 1/23/14 – Table of Contents

2014–The Year of the Short Story

Now that I’m retired, I have time to do everything I dreamed of doing, like writing a novel.  Well, novel writing hasn’t worked out like I fantasized.  I keep cranking out thousands of words that go nowhere.  My problem, is I’m building a crappy home before acquiring the skills to even build a good dog house. 

I need to become talented at constructing 1,000 word stories before engineering  a 100,000 word story.

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The trouble is short stories are a dying art.  Few people read them.  If it wasn’t for would-be writers, I doubt if they’d exist at all.  That’s a shame because short stories are a wonderful art form.

My Zen Habits guru recommends focusing on one goal, and learning how to jettison all the extra weight that keeps my rocket from gaining orbital velocity.  Writing short stories will become my Walden Pond of fiction.

This morning, waking before dawn, I grabbed my Nexus 7 and read “The Ghosts of Christmas” by Paul Cornell, from Year’s Best SF 18, edited by David Hartwell, and was inspired by this science fictional retelling of Dickens’ classic tale.  In ancient days, mystical monks were known for finding revelation in the wee hours studying sacred scrolls.  Reading in the dark by the glow of my Android tablet, I realized I wanted to immerse myself into short stories, and put my mind into a 10,000 word reality.

Goal for 2014:  Develop the habit of reading and writing short stories every day.

JWH – 1/16/14

Science Fiction Short Stories

Over at SF Signal they held a Mind Meld asking sixteen of their favorite SF fans and writers to assemble their own anthologies of personally favorite science fiction short stories.  This produced several hundred short stories with annotations and commentaries to think about reading.  Strangely, there is damn little overlap.  Just from eyeballing the list without using any kind of tallies, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny got the most recommendations, with three.  I think the participants consciously tried to avoid the obvious classics.

Science fiction is at its purist in the shorter lengths of fiction where ideas dominate. Reading any good science fiction anthology should showcase the true potential of science fiction, and any recent anthology of the best SF will show the furthest edge of the speculative universe.

Robert Sabella did pick my all-time favorite SF novella, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, and he picked several other of my favorite stories so I need to check out his unfamiliar selections.  Tinkoo Valia, whose web site Variety SF is devoted to short SF produced a rather novel list that shows he reads far and wide.  Jason Sanford made a nice selection of Then and Now stories, and since I remember fondly many of his Then stories, I figure I better go after his Now stories.  Before seeing his list this morning, I read his number 19 choice last night, “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky, a rather tender story about a woman and child in love with a robot.

Since Nancy Jane Moore picked “Empire Star” another all-time favorite that I reread regularly, I’ll need to track down the stories on her list too.  And I’d definitely have to check out Rick Klaw’s quirky anthology of ape stories – his list comes with a nice enticing historical introduction.

The trouble will be finding all of these great stories.  Lucky for us many are reprinted on the Internet just waiting for readers, like “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon.  Other stories like “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” by Samuel R. Delany require a visit to ISFDB to find which books have reprinted the story over the years.  Of course you can jump over to Free Speculative Fiction Online and check there.  Quite often its possible to put the title and author in Google and if you’re lucky, the actual story will be in the top search returns.

But what I really wish for is a totally different way to find these stories.  What if science fiction writers could load their stories into a database at Amazon.com, and Amazon allow their customers to build their own Kindle anthologies at bargain rates – maybe 24 stories for $9.99 (the latest Dozois The Years’s Best Science Fiction has 32 stories for that price).

Readers could build their own anthologies to order, or the contributors of the Mind Meld could have assembled their lists with links to Amazon with their collections pre-assembled for purchase.  Amazon could also keep tabs on the most popular stories to help Kindle users easily build new collections, and maybe even offer a voting system.  And it would be fantastic if Amazon offered Kindle editions of all the classic past SF anthologies, like Adventures of Time and Space, or Before the Golden Age, or reprint all the Judith Merrill, Donald Wollheim, Terry Carr past annual best of anthologies.

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This would be a good time to also recommend to Amazon that they redesign the Kindle with folders, so I could have a Science Fiction Short Story folder, and within it have something like playlists, or virtual folders so I could organize my short story collection by publication year, author and theme.

JWH – 10/19/10

iStories: The Short Story Hit List 100 Weekly

Let’s face it, the heyday of the short story as a popular art form was decades ago, probably as far back as when F. Scott Fitzgerald got rich and famous selling stories to the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers.  Except for would-be writers, required reading for students, fan fiction fanatics and a damn few diehard short story lovers, the marketing of short stories is almost invisible to the average citizen of our pop culture country.  Is the short story art form unpopular because readers don’t like them or because short stories are so poorly marketed?

The short story art form hangs on by a thread, like the art forms of poetry and playwriting.  I expect the remaining for-profit scifi, fantasy, mystery and literary magazines to die off in the next 5-10 years unless something drastically changes.  The question is, can a drastic change be made?

Is there anything that can be done to revive the short story art form to popularity?  The first question to ask is:  What do the popular art forms have that the unpopular ones don’t?  Movies, television shows, songs, video games and novels are the most popular art forms in our world today, ranked roughly in that order.  A single movie, TV show, song, game or book can be admired and loved by millions of fans, and wide consumption in these artistic endeavors are routine.  When was the last time a short story was popular enough to have a 1,000 readers in one week?  How many people actually read the short story in each issue of The New Yorker?

Besides legions of fans, the most important factor that popular art forms have and short stories don’t are Hit Lists.  Movies, TV shows, songs, games and books are extremely well reviewed, charted, rated and ranked by sales and popularity.  Each art has legions of critics working hard to stay current and teach how each example of their craft fits into an overall history. 

Every week we are well informed about the most successful premieres of each art.  Hell, weekend movie sales figures often get touted on the national morning news shows, and sometimes on the nightly news.  Book readers all know about The New York Times Bestseller lists.  We have the Nielsen ratings for TV shows and the Billboard 100 for pop songs.  There are countless websites and magazines that track the success of computer games.  And songs are marketed by hits on the radio and on online stores like iTunes.

As a culture we love keeping up with what’s popular, but is what’s popular just the stuff we track with Hit Lists?  I think so.  If short stories were ranked weekly would they gain popularity?  I think they might, but many factors would have to come into play.

Most important, the Short Story Hit List 100 would have to be weekly and track all genres of short stories.  Separating them out into story types is deadly.  We don’t rank blockbuster movies or best selling books by topic.  The Oscars and Emmys aren’t divided up by genre.  It would be a total water cooler buzz kill to divide short stories out into special interest groupings.  A hit story must be one that people want to read and talk about because of its popularity, not because it puts the reader into a sub-culture.

Next, its vitally important that short stories be sold as singles, and not part of albums (magazines or anthologies).  Few people like to buy a magazine full of unknown short stories.  It’s like getting a free music CD with a music magazine – most of the songs are mediocre and the CD is a disappointment.  People want hits, and that has to apply to short stories too.

For short stories to make a comeback they need a marketing site like iTunes.  They need to be sold for 99 cents in a standard digital format like MP3 songs.  Unfortunately, ebook readers, smart phones and computers use a variety of ebook formats that hurt the concept of making short stories popular, so the iStories site needs to offer all the possible formats but hide the dirty details from the buyers.  Fictionwise.com illustrates well how this is possible.

Ultimately, this universal format needs to be DRM free so short stories can be easily stolen and shared – or if they have to have a DRM, then it needs a mechanism for limited sharing between friends.  Unfortunately, the unethical viral marketing of copyrighted material is too good of a selling tool to ignore.  And I think in the future, this universal digital short story format should be roomy enough to contain graphics, music, video and audio readings.  In other words readers can read the story, listen to the story read on audio, read with eyes and listen with ears at the same time, read the story with background music turned on or off, and see illustrations or photos to enhance the story.  But this super ebook format isn’t an issue right now.

Short stories need to get away from printed formats as their premiere venues (but nice chapbook editions will make excellent marketing additions to the overall sales, and we can think anthology and story collection sales as long term publishing).  The primary publishing format should be for ebook readers and smart phones.  Like I said, short stories should be sold as singles with the goal of creating hits.  Collections and anthologies should be left to the book world to market because they would hurt creating hit short stories.

The key to revitalizing the short story art form is creating hugely popular stories that will become the topic of conversation between people all over the nation.  People share both the experience and love of movies, TV shows, books, song and video games.  When was the last time you were in a conversation about a short story?  When was the last time a group of people at your office discussed a short story they had all read?  This happens all the time with movies and TV shows, and to a lesser extent books, songs and video games.

One of the major factors against marketing short stories is there are too many of them on the net for free.  Free is incredibly bad for revitalizing the short story art form.  Bad editors, no editors and no editing has created a glut of short stories on the Internet.  No one likes to listen to amateur musicians or mediocre bands.  Every time you play a song you want it to be a great song.  When you go to the movies you expect to be blown away.  When you read a book you want to find one that has deep emotional impact. 

To revitalize the short story art form will require a seal of approval either attained by popularity or critics.  Our imaginary iStories site cannot be a slush pile for the common reader to wade through.  Nor should its editors have to select from a tremendous slush pile to find stories to promote on the site.  Stories should be submitted by agents or professional editors that can be trusted.  There needs to be some kind of farm team looking for talent to feed into the system.  I would think existing print and online magazines could play the role as the iStories systems develops, but eventually I expect magazines to die off.  Thus professional editors would become talent scouts and agents for stories.

A theoretical iStories site should also limit the number of new stories released each week, and find ways to publicize the best.  New ways to promote stories should be invented.  They need corporate backers like film studies or record companies but I doubt existing book publishers would take on this role.  It might be left to magazines – so The New Yorker and Asimov’s Science Fiction would campaign to get their stories noticed, and bring attention back to their business.

We have to get away from depending on fiction magazine sales and magazine subscriptions because those marketing methods are no longer successful at making short stories popular.  Buying a magazine is like buying an unknown album with the hope of finding a hit song, especially when you aren’t familiar with any of the artists.  Buying a magazine subscription is like buying a bunch of unknown albums hoping to find several hit songs.  200 channels with nothing to read, huh?  People want smash hits.

I doubt my ideas about revitalizing the short story art form will ever happen, but at least I’m making a point about creating a popular art form.  Look at the short video and how YouTube is promoting them.  Until there is a way to sell hit videos they will never become a major art form, but they could.  Most people go to YouTube and similar sites and look at the most watched videos hoping to discover something really fun.  Yesterday I discovered the Muppets version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” because almost six million people have watched it.  That clue paid off because the video was excellent entertainment.

Back in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s short stories were popular enough that they were the topic of social discussions.  If you watch the credits of old movies you’ll often see movies based on short stories.  Newsstands were filled with hundreds of short story magazines.  Short story reading was a popular evening pastime until radio slowed it down and television practically killed it off.  In fact, television is what replaced the short story for people looking for after work diversion.

Short stories are not mini-novels.  The best are jewels of intense fictional expression that are a unique art form.  Sadly, they are a dying art form.  Because of iPods, iPhones, Kindles, Nooks, and other electronic gadgets that people carry around, short stories have another chance to become popular again.  Short stories can be read quietly anywhere on an iPhone, or even listened to in an audio edition.  They must compete with songs, audio books, novels, movies, videos, computer games and television shows in this small venue, but there is room to compete well if short stories were marketed correctly.

And by correct marketing I mean as singles.  Unless people are saying to their friends, “Have you read the new short story by so and so,” to their friends, short stories will be doomed to an ever shrinking fan base.

How to Start

If all the ebook sites, like Amazon’s Kindle home page, Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony Reader, and the general ebook fiction sites like Fictionwise.com, eBooks.com, eReader.com would create a section for short stories and a mechanism to track their sales, that would be a big start.  It would help even more if they would offer spin-off sites that specialized in short stories.

Another angle of attack would be if online magazines maintained a hit list of their most popular stories ranked by web visitor hits.  They might need to program mechanisms to keep authors or fans from constantly reloading the page to produce fake hits.  And they need to track hits from all their backlog of stories and not just the current issue.  It would be important to provide numbers so popularity could be gauged against stories at other online magazine sites.  And like songs, and even movies, sometimes it takes weeks or months to have a breakout hit.

We’d also need critics that specialize in reviewing short stories, and ones that would be also willing to track many short story web sites and tally the numbers each week to give attention to the stories getting the most attention each week across the web.

If short story reading ever did catch on again, it would be fantastic if magazines like Entertainment Weekly devoted a section to them like the do movies, DVDs, books, music and television.

It would be a tremendous help if best of the year anthologists like those who compile the Best American Short Stories and the various yearly genre anthologies if they would maintain a blog about their ongoing efforts to select stories, even to the point of showing how they tally competing stories as they are discovering them.  We need as much PR as possible on stories climbing the charts, so to speak.

Unfortunately, most fiction magazines are monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly, and hit stories need to be tracked weekly, or even in real time.  Web sites that change their content less than weekly get ignored and forgotten.

It would help greatly if a social bookmarking site like StumbleUpon created a short fiction section for tracking popular short fiction reading.  On the other hand such sites help promote free reading, and that competes with our goal.

The biggest success for revitalizing short stories is if a company would create a web site like Audible.com, or an online store like iTunes just for the sale of short stories.  They should sell both ebook editions and audio narrated editions of short stories.  I’d suggest a standard price too, 99 cents for either ebook editions for reading with the eyes, or audio editions for reading with the ears.  Short story are longer than songs, so some marketing folk might want to price them higher, but they are usually experienced only once, so they should be far cheaper than renting a movie.

Readers can help too.  If you read a great story share it with your friends.  Talk about it.  Tell them where to buy it.  I know this might be painful, but get in the habit of buying short stories, and avoid free stories.  If you read and enjoy free stories at online magazines at least donate money, but it would be better if you supported a paid-subscription site.  Flooding the market with free stories ruins the market and hurts the art form.  Don’t promote free stories, it dilutes the market for selling stories.  Don’t read stories that haven’t been accepted by an editorial process and edited unless you’re part of a writing workshop group or critiquing stories for a friend.  Even fan fiction could be improved by these rules.

Authors like providing free copies of their short stories on the web to help promote their work in general.  This might be good for their career but it has produced so many professionally written short stories for free on the net that short story fans no longer want to buy stories.  Many fans now expect to find a copy of any short story they want for free and there are web sites to track free fiction to help them. 

Free stories are bad for the short story art form in the long run and maybe an additional reason why print magazines subscriptions are declining even faster in recent years.  Maybe free stories should only be those that are older than one year, or five years, and don’t compete with new sales.

If you love short stories and want to promote the art form then do whatever you can to help short story writers and publishers make money.  I tend to doubt the short story market will be revived, but now is the time to try because of the switch to Internet publishing and ebook reading.

JWH – 11/28/9