Seeing for yourself
What if, as a new reader in the genre, you wanted to conduct your own review of the genre’s fiction, rather than relying on the summaries and histories of others?
A chronological approach
A chronological review is one approach to reviewing sf in the short story form. This, of course, requires a starting point, which requires a definition of sf.
Will you begin with Shelley’s Frankenstein in the early nineteenth-century? Or with the late nineteenth-century (1890s) and the beginning of the Munsey magazines? Or with Hugo Gernsback’s coining of the term while editor of Amazing Stories (founded 1926)?
Beginning with the nineteenth-century
As a starting point, see H. Bruce Franklin’s Future Perfect and the anthologies of Mike Ashley.
Beginning with Gernsback
Using Gernsback as a starting point, you might begin with the “classic” texts of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, which will take you through both the pulp period and the so-called Golden Age. If nothing else, such an investment will familiarize you with many tropes and texts that are still being cited and re-purposed by contemporary sf.
Beloved by many, parodied by some, the canonical and often-anthologized texts in which these tropes were solidified are easily located in anthologies by time period (e.g., “Pre-Golden Age Classics” or “SF from the 30’s”). Some are examples of masterful story-telling; others owe their longevity and influence to the novelty of their core ideas. Others innovated by expanding the boundaries of what was permissible in the genre, such as the use of a slow pace and a melancholy mood in John Campbell’s “Twilight” (1934) or the languorous prose and sensual imagery of C. L. Moore’s early work, beginning with “Shambleau” (1933). Some of the classics may even seem familiar, as they may have inspired films or popularized well-known thought experiments (e.g., Heinlein’s “Life-Line,” in which a machine provides the date and manner of one’s death).
Anthologists and “classic” texts to look for include Sam Moskowitz, Mike Ashley, Roger Elwood, Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg (of Gnome Press, whom I believe published the first hardcover anthologies), Martin H. Greenberg (“the king of anthologists,” with over 1,000 anthologies), Donald Wollheim (who published the first sf paperback anthology in 1943), Anthony Boucher (A Treasury of Great Science Fiction), J. Francis McComas and Raymond J. Healy (Adventures in Time and Space), Groff Conklin (The Best of Science Fiction), Fletcher Pratt (World of Wonder: An Introduction to Imaginative Literature), August Derleth (The Other Side of the Moon, or Portals of Tomorrow), James Gunn (The Road to Science Fiction, volumes I-III), and so on.
Emerging subgenres and movements
Once you’ve read the early “classics” through the end of the Golden Age, you might then turn to influential anthologies that attempted to capture the essence of emerging movements: Judith Merril’s England Swings SF (1968) (British New Wave), Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder series (1970s) (feminist sf), and Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986) by Bruce Sterling are essential investments.
You also might want to familiarize yourself with the wide range of contemporary stylistic and thematic variants, such as “new space opera,” “interstitial,” New Weird, and the post-punk variants, including steampunk, by seeking out related anthologies. Futureshocks (2006), ed. Lou Anders; James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology (2007); and Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006) are sources for both texts and commentary on the development of the genre (see their introductions).
The “best of” science fiction
You might begin your research in the genre by reviewing those texts that have received accolades from those most familiar with the genre. The Hugo (a readers’ choice award, est. 1953), Nebula (a critics’/writers’ choice award, est. 1965) and other awards recognize excellence in sf in the short story form. Reviewing sf in this manner will give you a sense of the best the genre has to offer, as well as a sense of the diversity and development of the genre’s aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities, audiences, and methods.
Having covered the early classics, major phases, and a century of award winners (which, by itself, is a significant investment of time), you might then seek out those stories which made the cut for an editor’s “best of year” series. Editors to look for include Judith Merril, Terry Carr, Everett F. Bleiler, Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Ellen Datlow, Donald Wollheim, and others who made it their business to read widely in the field and foreground what was, in their opinion, the best of each year.
At the same time, you might also include the “best of” anthologies for specific magazines, such as the best of Astounding, Galaxy, Interzone, New Worlds, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which might cover an entire magazine’s “best” in one anthology.
Note that at different points magazines outside the genre also published sf, and their collections may be worth reviewing (e.g., The Saturday Evening Post Reader of Fantasy & Science Fiction or The Playboy Book of Science Fiction).
Other forms of “best of” anthologies include “critics’ choice” and “authors’ choice” anthologies. Some of these offer fascinating supplemental commentary, such as anecdotes from authors about writing for the industry, interpretations of works by writer-critics and, in at least one case, a poll of industry professionals asking them to rank the genre’s texts to-date in terms of importance to the genre.
Exemplars include Visions of Wonder, the SFRA anthology; The Mirror of Infinity by Robert Silverberg; and Frederik Pohl’s The Science Fiction Roll of Honor (which polled industry professionals). Additionally, there are the authors’ choice anthologies to consider, such as the SF: Author’s Choice series by Harry Harrison; the Analog: Writers’ Choice series by Stanley Schmidt; My Best Science Fiction Story, ed. Leo Margulies and Oscar J. Friend; and My Favorite Science Fiction Story by Martin H. Greenberg. Again, these are examples–by no means a complete list.
And, finally, there are now examples of “best of the web” anthologies, such as Rich Horton’s, Unplugged: The Web’s Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy: 2008.
Editor-specific anthology series
Similarly, there were a number of hardcover and paperback publications that one might include under the umbrella of “editor’s choice” series. These series solicited the new fiction of its time and published it in book form (basically, hardcover or paperback magazines).
A hefty list of science fiction editors is available on Wikipedia, but a few suggestions follow: Terry Carr’s Universe, Harry Harrison’s Nova, Damon Knight’s Orbit, Frederik Pohl’s Star Science Fiction series, and Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions and Alpha series. (Note that there may be “best of” anthologies for these series, such as The Best of Orbit.)
Other editors’ collections attempted to convey the history and scope of the genre in mammoth compilations of previously published, often annotated texts, sometimes alongside critical essays. Sometimes similar to a Norton anthology in length and gravitas, due to differences in ideological positioning, they provided detailed–and sometimes competing–definitions of the genre.
A few examples include the The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction by Ellen Datlow; The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories by Tom Shippey; Mike Ashley’s Mammoth Book of Science Fiction; Damon Knight’s A Century of Science Fiction; Past, Present, & Future Perfect: A Text Anthology of Speculative & Science Fiction, ed. Jack C. Wolf and Gregory Fitz Gerald; David G. Hartwell’s The Science Fiction Century; Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology, ed. Eric S. Rabkin; James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction series; The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss and Sam J. Lundwell; Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology by Patricia S. Warrick, Charles C. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg; The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, Sherryl Vint; and The Norton Book of Science Fiction by Brian Attebery and Ursula Le Guin.
Anthologies of this type with a pedagogical purpose in mind are listed in the Resources section.
Next, you might wander into the stand-alone, sometimes surprisingly-specific jungle of “thematic” anthologies, a truly bizarre ecosystem of divergent appetites and agendas. Here you will find a staggering array of previously published or specially commissioned sf relating to nearly every topic of interest.
Due to the varying level of quality involved, you most likely will not want to use these anthologies as your entry point into the genre.
What did the sf anthologies of the 20th century compile? A short list reveals a kaleidoscopic array of themes: the future of art (New Dreams This Morning), alternate histories (What Might Have Been), cities (Habitats and Hot & Cold Running Cities), dreams (Perchance to Dream), religion (Perpetual Light), humor (Laughing Space), children (Children of the Future), death and illness (Time of Passage), corporations (Tomorrow, Inc.), off-planet locales (Mars, We Love You), chess (Pawn to Infinity), drugs (Strange Ecstasies), nuclear war (Beyond Armageddon, Countdown to Midnight, Nuclear War), sports, libraries, dinosaurs, comets, black holes, galactic empires, time, sex, politics, war, the environment, time travel, space exploration and many more.
But indexing by “theme” wasn’t the only approach. Others compiled stories by form (e.g., sf written as news articles or in epistolary form, such as Space Mail) or even title structure (e.g., sf stories which employ questions in their titles: The Future In Question). Tom Boardman, Jr.’s An ABC of Science Fiction is anthology of twenty-six stories, from Aldiss to Zelazny, for each letter of the alphabet.
Some focused on length, restricting their texts to short shorts, novellas, or short novels (Strange Tomorrows), while others showcased first person narratives (The Future I). Some editors sought generic crossovers, showcasing hybrids of sf with detective fiction (The 13 Crimes of Science Fiction, or Space, Time & Crime), horror (Science Fiction Terror Tales), or erotica (Alien Sex, Off Limits).
Some sought experimental asides to preexisting narratives, such as Robert Silverberg’s Strange Horizons, which invited well-known series writers to write “a short story or novelette that explore[d] some aspect of their famous series that they did not find a way of dealing with in the books themselves.”
Others turned their attention to trends or concerns in the genre. Some focused on its fascination with “the odd,” such as Five-Odd, or attempted to identify its values, such as The 7 Cardinal Virtues of Science Fiction. Of course, numerous anthologies concerned themselves with “the future” in general (17 X Infinity), sometimes fixing on a specific date, such as Jerry Pournelle’s 2020 Vision, which sought “studies of life in the year 2020” or Jane Yolen’s 2041, stories of life “fifty years hence.”
Others sought to highlight the emerging concerns and methods of the genre’s avant-garde, such as Ursula K. LeGuin’s Edges.
Still others focused on protagonists, clustering stories of the cyborg, Spacer, superhuman, posthuman, android (The Pseudo-People), conqueror (Conqueror Fantastic), and warrior woman/heroine (Amazons). Certain anthologies limited their texts to confrontations with the alien Other (e.g., Aliens!, Human?, The Alien Condition, The Others, and Contact). Some focused on the concept of “the human,” such as David Gerrold’s Protostars, which saw its theme as “what it means to be human” or John W. Campbell’s Countercommandment, which asked what humanity might become.
Some collections addressed themselves to specialized audiences, such as Fantasia Mathematica, “sf for mathematicians,” or to non-fans, as with Science Fiction For People Who Hate Science Fiction (1966), ed. Terry Carr.
Others chose to use the author as the index, showcasing sf by new authors, old masters, scientists, doctors, female authors, gay and lesbian authors, Jewish authors (Wandering Stars), among others. One anthology, Two Views of Wonder, ed. by Thomas N. Scortia and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, presented male and female treatments of the same story idea. Several anthologies compiled authors’ first works (Before They Were Giants, Wondrous Beginnings, and First Voyages). Some compilations featured only new voices in the genre. Others focused on award winners, such as New Voices (Campbell Award winners) or the graduates of specific workshops, such as the Clarion Writers’ Workshop Anthology, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1975 experimental, transglobal workshop, which resulted in The Altered I.
Other anthologies drew inspiration from authors outside of or predating the genre. Recent examples includes Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, ed. John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, or Lovecraft Unbound and Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, both edited by Ellen Datlow.
Authors’ collections and their “best of”
Finally, one might then scale the mountains of “authors’ collections,” meaning an author’s entire body of work or the author’s “best of” collection. The former may include stories that were never submitted for publication or were rejected (possibly because they were substandard or too controversial to be published in their time). Some of these texts may be of great interest to the fresh eyes of modern audiences, while some may have little merit whatsoever.
If time is a concern, approach this task with caution. For example, you’ve committed yourself to reading eight volumes if you intend to review The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson. To read The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, you’ll need the time for thirteen. Given the tremendous output of these and other early authors (Hamilton, Asimov, and Kuttner come to mind), one might not make it out of the first half of the 20th century with much time to spare.
The one-hit wonders in the slicks, pulps, and fanzines
This type of review inevitably raises a related question. What about the one-hit wonders, those with a relatively short run, or those who weren’t “appreciated” in or after their time? Now, you’ve reached a crossroads. Are you going to dive into the pulps, fanzines, and slicks in search of every last story no anthologist to date has yet seen fit to reprint?
There are some who have attempted this, either by reviewing all the texts from a certain time period or selected year, and you may find their descriptions of their experiences useful should you plan to take on this challenge. See, for example, Eric Leif Davin’s Partners in Wonder, which argues for this approach. In Partners Davin suggests that ancillary material–editorials, photographs, interviews, and letters to the editor–are indispensable research aides if one intends to speculate on the aesthetic preferences of the readership and its response to/expectations for a text.