We might argue about whether Donald A Wollheim is the most significant figure in 20th Century science fiction but there can be little doubt about the influence he had on the development of modern science fiction and fantasy is both broad and deep.
He leapt onto the stage early as an ardent fan, and immediately began to shape history: from his proposal for what is arguably the first science fiction convention, through his championing of the fanzine platform via newly-affordable home-printing technologies, and into his uncanny understanding of the potential of rapidly cheapening media such as the pulps and pocketbooks as a platform to make SFF grow, his contributions to building the SFF publishing world we know today were enormous.
But where I think Wollheim’s most interesting influence really shows is in his editorial hand.
In 1940 the twenty-six year-old Wollheim approached Abling Publications with a proposal to add science fiction to their line-up of western and detective magazines. After two years struggling to keep Cosmic Stories and Stirring Science Stories Wollheim jumped into the book publishing pond early with his Pocket Book of Science Fiction which he edited for Pocket Books (obviously) to publish in 1943. He followed up in quick succession with the Viking omnibus Portable Novels of Science in 1945, which appears to be the first effort at an SFF anthology by a major publisher – and consequently the first such anthology in hard-back.
Both of these collections include impressive works, such as Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John and Stephen Vincent Benét’s By the Waters of Babylon as well as a few “duds” that may have been impressive at the time, but for various reasons haven’t aged very well.
But the pump was primed, and Wollheim went from here into what I think was his biggest contribution to genre: editor of original anthologies (something of an innovation at the time) and from there into publishing what is possibly the greatest series of fiction anthologies of all time: World’s Best Science Fiction.
As I’m sure everyone reading this is already aware, Wollheim launched this series in 1965 with a truly impressive line-up that includes Ben Bova (Men of Good Will), John Brunner (The Last Lonely Man), Philip K. Dick (Oh, to Be a Blobel!), and Fritz Leiber (When the Change-Winds Blow). It even – in deference to its title I presume – includes work in translation from Josef Nesvadba (Vampires Ltd. – trans of his original Czech story Upir ltd) and Harry Mulisch (What Happened to Sergeant Masuro? – trans from the original German). This collection spans an enormous range, not only in the nature of the stories themselves – which is itself impressive – but in terms of the “tone” of the voices. This is no monolithic tome, but a thick slice of what the SFF world was reading.
This approach to SFF seems to have served Wollheim well as he moved forward with later editions of the anthology – the 1967 edition contained work from writers as different as Moorcock, PKD, Pohl, and Zelazny – and showed in his selections for inclusion in the late 60s and early 70s editions of his SFF line of Ace Doubles, with Andre Norton, Jack Vance, Samuel Delaney, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Dean Koonz, and Robert Silverberg all sharing the stage.
Unsurprisingly, many of these names also figure in the World’s Best anthologies of 1968 and 1970 – along with greats like Larry Niven (Death By Ecstasy – 1970, Handicap– 1968), Ursula le Guin (Nine Lives – 1970), and Norman Spinrad (The Big Flash – 1969).
This remarkable range of voice (and politics) is a common thread through his editorship at DAW and through the whole series of World’s Best to the last volumes: Even in 1989 we can read Kristine Rusch (Skin Deep) and John Shirley (Shaman) alongside Fred Pohl (Waiting for the Olympians) and David Brin (The Giving Plague), and in the last volume published in 1990 we get options like Orson Scott Card’s Dogwalker and Robert Silverberg’s Chiprunner alongside J.G. Ballard’s Warfever and Brian Aldiss’s North of the Abyss.
But Wollheim’s contribution here is not simply in being good at picking stories – and pick them he did – or even in being willing to pick amazing stories without concern for whether they were to his personal taste.
No, the key lesson we can take goes much deeper.
Donald Wollheim worked seeing the amazing in stories, and in writers. You can see from the contents pages of his anthologies that he chose stories on the skill of the author, and on that seed of amazing that makes the best SFF, no matter what your personal taste is. He disagreed with many of the trends of the New Wave, for example, and yet he regularly included the best work of its disciples in his anthologies – because they were amazing stories, even if they weren’t quite in his well house. He was praised by authors for his dedication to helping them succeed – both by being a strict editor and by being an enthusiastic coach and cheerleader.
And as an editor, he reportedly didn’t try to impose his vision on the writer as John Campbell was reputed to do – instead he worked on helping authors find their own vision, and to project it onto the page in the most amazing way possible.
Sadly, this kind of dedication to the field of SFF is lacking in the modern era. We need more people to “be Wollheim” and fewer being Knights and Campbells and Ellisons. There’s probably a place for those latter editors in the world, and certainly I’ve seen some very interesting anthologies and magazines come through the gates they keep.
But what we need is a giant like Wollheim who cleaves fast to the Law that should be engraved on every SFF editor’s desk:
Find the Amazing. Look everywhere. Make it grow.
 I’ll win.
 Some claim Wollheim singlehandedly
 Wollheim was a founder and enthusiastic participant in FAPA, which is arguably the longest-running “high volume” (for measures of volume that acknowledge the limitations of the medium and the niche nature of the material) amateur press association in the world.
 Personally, I think he would have been a rabid proponent of both indie and tradpub ebook platforms.
 Indeed, I would argue that while naming Gernsback to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame as the first editor and publisher in 1996, really Wollheim’s contribution and influence far eclipses that of Campbell and it’s a real shame Wollheim wasn’t honored by induction until 2002.
 Progenitor of a raft of later novels and stories about what happens when humanity evolves and the “superior form” regards the mass of humanity as beneath them – arguably an early iteration of the concepts that lead to both Bradbury’s musings on the subject and the X-Men, but more importantly an example of message fiction done right if you pay attention to historical context. Read Galaxy’s printing of the story here.
 One example is Before the Dawn by Professor Temple Bell, writing under his pseudonym John Taine. The story is an impressive piece of technological speculation rooted in real science of the day (and coincidentally gives us perhaps the first example of a “time telescope” for looking into the past) but in modern terms the science stumbles and makes it a bit hard to read now. See the original here – note who published the story in book form, and the commentary in the forward. So much for SFF “always having been for children”.
 Admittedly, a bigger pressure for this sort of thing when you’re trying to keep a commercial magazine afloat.