Intriguing Discrepancies

Tuesday , 23, September 2014 6 Comments

In an interview earlier this year, Robert Silverberg provided a number of new details regarding the old selection process he employed circa 1969 when compiling an anthology of “The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time Chosen by the Members of the Science Fiction Writers of America.” The title of the anthology is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964. He also wrote about the selection process at the time of publication, nearly 45 years ago. He identified two pools from which classic short stories were selected – the top 15 which were drawn entirely from a strict vote of SFWA membership, and then a slightly more discretionary list of the next 15 or so. The uncontested top 15 stories were:

  1. Nightfall, Isaac Asimov
  2. A Martian Odyssey, Stanley G. Weinbaum
  3. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes
  4. Microcosmic God, Theodore Sturgeon
  5. First Contact, Murray Leinster (actually tied with #4 above)
  6. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, Roger Zelazny
  7. The Roads Must Roll, Robert A. Heinlein
  8. Mimsy Were the Borogroves, Lewis Padgett (tied with #7 above)
  9. Coming Attraction, Fritz Leiber (tied with #7 and #8 above)
  10. The Cold Equations, Tom Godwin (tied with #7,8 and 9)
  11. The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke
  12. Surface Tension, James Blish
  13. The Weapon Shop, A.E. van Vogt
  14. Twilight, John W. Campbell (tied with #13)
  15. Arena, Frederic Brown

Sometimes, being The Greatest isn’t everything it is cracked up to be.

Already, there is something interesting to note. These were the top 15 vote earners out of 132 nominated stories by 76 different writers. SFWA members were asked to select their individual top 10, in order, and ranks were assigned accordingly. …and there were seven titles out of fifteen that tied with at least one other title. Keep in mind that, in 1968 there were only about 300 members of the professional organization (although it is worth noting that former president Damon Knight had set professional membership dues at $1 per year. Even in 1968 dollars, it is clear that the SFWA was more interested back then with attracting members than with enjoying a reasonable income!)

If — and this is complete speculation — a simple point system was involved (such as 10 pts for a 1st place voice, 9 pts. for a 2nd place vote…1 pt. for a 10th place vote, for example) it would be highly unlikely that a large number of voters would assign points for one tie in the top ten, much less five titles knotting in a total of three ties.

Unless I’m missing something, it is almost certain that a number much lower than 300 ballots were turned in. My guess, in fact, is that something less than 30 valid responses would be more likely to end in so many ties.

After all, a mere 65 AP voters cast such a vote every week for college Top 25 sports teams, and a tie within those lists is fairly rare. 7 tied finalists in the top 15 had to have been the result of a much more narrow pool of voters. Of course, there is more than one way to evaluate votes cast: perhaps Silverberg simply totalled up all the number of times a certain book was listed as someone’s very favorite. Perhaps Silverberg only asked for respondents’ Top 3 choices out of 132. Either of these methods, for example would certainly have resulted in a higher incidence of ties…but then that calls into question the entire process of determining a hard-and-fast Top 15. What is even more intriguing than this fairly cut-and-dried process is how the next dozen-or-so stories were chosen for the anthology: Silverberg made some judgment calls in the ranks of stories that had been voted 16-30 (or so. It is possible that he even moved someone outside of the Top 30 into the anthology.) I’ll look at that in greater detail in a later post.

There are other oddities in Silverberg’s words, both in the original foreword to the 1969 anthology and the more recent interview. Out of respect for a still-living agent he accuses of belligerence, Silverberg doesn’t name him. However, he names two authors (William Tenn and Roger Zelazny) who shared the agent! He’s clearly talking about Kirby McCauley, the only agent who was a) long-time agent to both men and b) still living and working at the time of the interview. If Silverberg is right in his assessment of McCauley and that McCauley didn’t want to participate in the SFWA anthology because he saw it as little more than a validating mouthpiece for Damon Knight, then I really don’t see how obscuring McCauley’s identity could possibly be done out of respect for him. It seems more plausible that he didn’t want to lend any credibility to McCauley’s critique of the SFWA. (Note: McCauley died earlier this month, 4 months after the Silverberg interview was posted.)

But this raises a more unusual problem with Silverberg: in determining the rankings, he’s unnecessarily polite. Both in his foreword and in the interview, he takes pains to avoid specifics that might indicate that certain well-known authors might not have made the list of finalists. This isn’t gossip that he’s keeping to himself, although he acts as if it very well might be. These are public rankings for selections made more than forty years ago. I doubt very much that the continued, modern sales of Andre Norton, Frank Herbert, Harlan Ellison or anyone else who didn’t make either list (the top 15 or the vague “next 15”) are going to suffer if they were to be “outed” as not having made the homecoming court. After all, Nightfall was the clear #1 in 1969. Tastes have changed, and I don’t think it would even rank as Asimov’s best short story from that era today.

Why not just lay the cards on the table? Explain the vote, list the top 40, and provide an interesting list of classics for engaged readers.

Unless, of course, that isn’t really the primary purpose of ranking the best in the first place…

  • VD says:

    “The Roads Must Roll” as the best of the Heinlein shorts? That seems mad! What about “Requiem” or “The Menace from Earth”?

  • Daniel Eness says:

    Nine Billion isn’t Clarke’s best short either. Not even close. And I actually find the completely nuts Killdozer! to be more memorable than the sturdy and intriguing Microcosmic God, which is basically a gentler, less Darwinian-horror take on The Rats in the Walls.

    I’m telling you, there’s just something weird about a lot of the list, and I suspect it comes back to the respondents. Weinbaum over Wells? I think A Martian Odyssey is contributive in a goofy sort of way as semi-intelligent space ostrich stories go, but it is nowhere close to the significance of H. Beam Piper’s lesser works of the 50s and early 60s. I get that it was a big deal at the time…but so was the Charleston.

  • VD says:

    Nine Billion may not have been his best, but it was certainly one of his most memorable. That ending! I can’t quibble with its inclusion on the list.

    • Daniel Eness says:

      The end is great, and I’m a sucker for nice endlines – but I think The Star pulls it off even better with more economy. Also, I have always compared Nine Billion (very unfairly so) to The Babel Library and Foucault’s Pendulum. I read the latter two long before I got to Clarke’s alleged masterwork.

      So I prefer both The Star and The Sentinel…and also would not call Nightfall Asimov’s best short either because I prefer his robot stories to ones of (admittedly hilarious) stereotypical panicky non-scientists.

  • Ostar says:

    Re: Silverbergs selection criteria:
    In Worlds of Wonder (WoW, circa 1987, also called Science Fiction 101) Silverberg included 13 SF stories (50s-60’s) that he considers among the best, and also discusses how each story works as writing and SF. None of the top 15 listed here are found in WoW, although some stories or authors in the other 11 are also found in WoW. Specifically: “Fondly Fahrenheit” (Bester), “Scanners Live in Vain” (Smith), “The Little Black Bag” (Kornbluth) are shared, and James Blish is in both (for different stories). Silverberg also includes Phillip K. Dick and Jack Vance stories in WOW.

    WoW is a fascinating look into how a SF master views the craft, and something any aspiring SF writer would find some use in, I believe.

    • Daniel Eness says:

      Oh man, that is terrific. Thanks for mentioning it! One good reason to leave the top 15 out of WOW is a) he’d already gathered those and b) their royalties would have been a lot steeper by 1987!

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