The All-Time Top 40 (-ish) – A Quixotic Endeavor

There’s something just a little bit ADD about the age we’re living in: everything goes by quickly and we seldom seem to take the time to absorb something and consider it. That’s true of the music I fill my iPod with, the television that flickers across my television screen, and the fiction I read for my various endeavors.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but I find it’s completely focused me upon the new, upon what’s next, things that I feel I have to consume quickly. That may explain why I’ve developed an affection for lists of late, and for pursuits that make me slow down, look back at things, and think.

It’s almost certainly what attracted me to the blog of a young barista who, working at a cafe in West Perth near my office, decided to make a list of the 52 most important albums of each decade (starting with the ’60s), listen to each a minimum of five times in a week, and then review one each week on her blog. It seemed interesting, worthwhile, and when I read her blog, kind of fun. I decided to play along, listening to Cream’s rather flabby Disraeli Gears and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s joyous Willie and the Poor Boys over the past week.

And as I listened I thought what a pity it was that it wasn’t possible to do this for science fiction. These albums were less than forty minutes long. To take a novel and read it multiple times so that it could be properly absorbed and considered just wasn’t practical. But, then I thought some more. While novels wouldn’t work, short fiction might. Especially short stories. But where would I find a list of stories? I’m inherently lazy and almost gave up on this gossamer notion, until I suddenly recalled that Locus had run an All-Time Readers Poll back in 1999. And it had featured a list of short stories!

I went to the website and found a copy of the full list. It rambled from 1940 or so up to the 1990s. All of the stories were short (i.e. under 7,500 wds). They were mostly famous. I’d not read ALL of them. It suddenly seemed this might be doable: each week I could read one short story at least twice and write a short review of it. It would give me a chance to revisit some classics and read ones I’d missed. And it might also lead up to an even grander project. If I could cover this list of 43 stories in 43 weeks (or less), maybe I could follow it with a Best Short Stories of the 2000s. That seemed worthwhile, something for 2010, when this would be done.

And so that’s what I’m going to do, right here. Each week I will read a story from the 1999 All-Time Readers Poll Short Story List at least twice, starting at the bottom of the list and working my way up. I’ll then discuss the story with Locus‘s publisher, Charles Brown, so I can get some context on how the story was received at the time, and then I’ll write about it right here. Posts, my schedule permitting, will be every Monday or Tuesday. I’d also encourage you to play along. Read the story too. Post your thoughts. Argue with me and tell me how I’m dumb as post and missed the whole point of the story. It should be fun.

Before I start, though, two things I’d point out. First, these comments are just my point of view. Yes, I’ll discuss them with Charles , yes they’re published on the Locus blog, and yes, it’s based on a Locus list, but still. I’m deliberately keeping this a personal project. It’s not an official opinion, it’s a set of thoughts in progress, a response to something of interest. Second, I’m calling this the All-Time Top 40 (-ish). There are 43 stories on the list. I know.

Anyhow, here’s the list. We start in a couple days with Judith Merrill’s first published SF story, “That Only A Mother”:

  1. “Jeffty Is Five”, Harlan Ellison (1977)
  2. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, Harlan Ellison (1965)
  3. “The Star”, Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
  4. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, Harlan Ellison (1967)
  5. “‘All You Zombies—'”, Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
  6. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, Ursula K. Le Guin (1973)
  7. “The Game of Rat and Dragon”, Cordwainer Smith (1955)
  8. “The Nine Billion Names of God”, Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  9. “A Sound of Thunder”, Ray Bradbury (1952)
  10. “The Green Hills of Earth”, Robert A. Heinlein (1947)
  11. “Day Million”, Frederik Pohl (1966)
  12. “It’s a Good Life”, Jerome Bixby (1953)
  13. “Aye, and Gomorrah…”, Samuel R. Delany (1967)
  14. “Light of Other Days”, Bob Shaw (1966)
  15. “The Last Question”, Isaac Asimov (1956)
  16. “There Will Come Soft Rains”, Ray Bradbury (1950)
  17. “Or All the Seas with Oysters”, Avram Davidson (1958)
  18. “Requiem”, Robert A. Heinlein (1940)
  19. “Air Raid”, Herb Boehm (1977)
  20. “That Hell-Bound Train”, Robert Bloch (1958)
  21. “The Lottery”, Shirley Jackson (1948)
  22. “The Country of the Kind”, Damon Knight (1956)
  23. “The Liberation of Earth”, William Tenn (1953)
  24. “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1961)
  25. “Sundance”, Robert Silverberg (1969)
  26. “When It Changed”, Joanna Russ (1972)
  27. “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death”, James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
  28. “The Third Expedition” (“Mars Is Heaven!”), Ray Bradbury (1948)
  29. “Passengers”, Robert Silverberg (1968)
  30. “Cassandra”, C. J. Cherryh (1978)
  31. “Helen O’Loy”, Lester del Rey (1938)
  32. “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”, Gene Wolfe (1970)
  33. “The Long Watch”, Robert A. Heinlein (1949)
  34. “Space-Time for Springers”, Fritz Leiber (1958)
  35. Speech Sounds”, Octavia E. Butler (1983)
  36. “The Way of Cross and Dragon”, George R. R. Martin (1979)
  37. “Corridors”, Barry N. Malzberg (1982)
  38. “Out of All Them Bright Stars”, Nancy Kress (1985)
  39. “Robbie”, Isaac Asimov (1940)
  40. “Narrow Valley”, R. A. Lafferty (1966)
  41. “The Hole Man”, Larry Niven (1974)
  42. “The Pusher”, John Varley (1981)
  43. “That Only a Mother”, Judith Merril (1948)

22 thoughts on “The All-Time Top 40 (-ish) – A Quixotic Endeavor

  • March 16, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Why aren’t all these stories published in an anthology so I can find them all in one place, Jonathan? Hint, hint . . .

    I mean I have about 80% of these stories, but spread across so many volumes, some in boxes in the garden shed, some at the office, some in forgotten corners of shelves — it would be great to have a book that brought them all together.

  • March 16, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Heh heh. A lot of the stories are available in one book – Bob Silverberg’s excellent and definitive The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Vol. 1. I do agree an update would be a good thing, and I’d consider doing a book covering 2000-2010. That would be a fun project.

  • March 16, 2009 at 1:04 am

    Neat idea, and I’ll try to play along …

    To be sure, the first thing I want to do is argue! Ellison 1 and 2????? Really??? I don’t think so! And I doubt that would happen again just now. And you wonder about things like where the heck is “Out of All Them Bright Stars”? But that’s the fun of it I guess.

    (I’m commenting using my LJ profile because I have either lost or forgotten or screwed up whatever I’m supposed to do to be logged in as part of the Locus Roundtable team. Jonathan, if you could drop me a line? Thanks!)

    Rich Horton

  • March 16, 2009 at 8:12 am

    Jonathan– Think about Garth Nix’s suggestion. I count 5 (five) of the 43 in the TOC of Silverberg’s vol 1. Is there a volume 1B I’m missing somewhere? Great game! I’m looking forward to your posts.

    Susan Loyal

  • March 16, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Hey Susan – I will think on it. I’ve not actually tried to track down all 43 stories yet, other than noting that I have them in this or that. I’ll try to make the comments on the stories interesting enough to make it worth playing along. – J

  • March 16, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Not familiar with the Heinlein at 33.

    Never heard of the Malzberg, either.

    Have read the rest.

    Agree with Rich that no way is Ellison worth having 2 like that.

  • March 16, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Jonathan: Unless it’s there and I’m missing it, I’d have to argue for Howard Waldrop’s “Ugly Chickens.” SF short fiction doesn’t get better than that.

    Jeff Ford

  • March 16, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Quixotic, indeed, and this will be fun. My first reaction is that the list (which I’m pretty sure I’ve read, though remembering details of stories is another matter) shows just how long ago 1999 was. I’d forgotten that Varley originally published “Air Raid” under a pseudonym.

  • March 16, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Just noticed the 7500 word cut-off. Is that what did Waldrop in? Sorry I missed it at first.

    Jeff Ford

  • March 16, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    As Gary says, 1999 was a long time ago, culturally, and this particular list also reflects the tastes and memories only of the Locus readership of a decade ago–not a huge slice of the total SF readership. Personally, I find the two Clarke entries less deserving than the Ellisons–though that is certainly just a matter a divergence of my personal taste from that of the poll participants. (It also signals why I find “best of” lists of little use other than as maps of audience tastes. I take recommendations from a very small segment even of the SF-reading population. But then, my favorite TV shows get cancelled and my favorite restaurants close, so what do I know?)

    Add to this the fact that many of the retrospective anthologies that make up the field’s memory of itself have become even less accessible than the data in the aging brains of long-time readers and you can get some entries that look odd to later cohorts with a different pool of stories available.

    Heinlein’s “The Long Watch” is in the SFWA Grand Masters anthology as well as the apparently OP (but easily available) Green Hills of Earth. The Malzberg, originally collected in Engines of the Night, now seems to be available only in e-book format, though. The Cherryh story is going to be tough to locate, and I’m sure that others have slipped into OP obscurity.

  • March 16, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Great to see all of these comments! I guess I should have said a little more in the opening piece. Were I more diligent I would have gone and pulled the issue of Locus from 1999 that included the Poll – it’s in a box somewhere – and double-checked the accompanying comments, which no doubt explain it somewhat. The reason I didn’t was that I wanted a simple list that I could dive into. I still think I have most of the stories kicking around the house, but you’re all making me a tad nervous to I better start checking,

    Blue Tyson: I agree with everyone’s observation that Ellison dominating the list is an artifact of time, and would also point out that I doubt he’d be our No.1 short story writer of all time either. The Malzberg, btw, is in Michael Bishop’s Light Years and Dark, my all time favorite anthology pretty much.

    Jeff: “Ugly Chickens” is an awesome story. It’s on the novelette list (too low, but on the list). If I were less lazy I would have done the novelette list instead.

    Russell: The Malzberg was also in his recent-ish expansion of Engines of the Night. The Cherryh is in her recent Collected Stories.

    I should have the first review up today!

  • March 16, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    “The Ugly Chickens” is tied for 46th among novelettes. Howard Waldrop himself tied for 19th (with C. L. Moore) for “All Time Short Fiction Writer”.

  • March 17, 2009 at 12:29 am

    Cassandra is also in a Wollheim Year’s Best, and another of her collections, and in an Asimov Hugo Winners volume, I think.

  • March 17, 2009 at 2:50 am

    You need to urlify your url, Jonathan, but looking it up, don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to get it, although there’s a couple of good stories there of the ones I have seen.

    Silly me read the Malzberg as ‘Condors’, dunno why. Corridors I have read.

  • March 17, 2009 at 9:17 am

    I have devoted quite a bit of time from the dying embers of my late youth (thank you, Isaac Asimov) to the compilation of lists and bibliographies, mostly of short SF, so this is right up my alley. I’ve always wondered what an updated SF Hall of Fame would look like, and it seems as if Jonathan is thinking along those lines. Where can I start queueing for the Best of 2000 – 2009? That should, of course, be the Best of 2001 – 2010, but you simply can’t sell numeric literacy to most people, so I’ll shut up.

    But on to the list: Jonathan, it’s inadequate. A reading list of the supposedly all-time best stories simply has to be taken from more than one source. Let me illustrate by example: the most acclaimed SF story ever (check the superb Locus SF awards database) is Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire”. I’ve scanned the list twice, and it’s not there. I agree that you should restrict the list to fortyish entries, but it should be a list blended from more than one source. Given three or four days, I’d be quite happy to come up with one.

  • March 17, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Peter: I too have pondered what a new SF Hall of Fame might look like. There are hints, I suspect, in Le Guin and Atterbery’s Norton Book of SF, but it’s never been done. It’s something I’d like to do, and something Gardner and I have discussed with various publishers. At the moment, though, it’s still a theoretical thing. I would say, if I did a New Hall of Fame it would run 1967 to the present, not just this decade. I’d love to do one for this decade too, and would give due consideration to matters of numeric literacy then.

    As to the list, of course it’s inadequate. Any list would be. Especially any list covering fifty odd years of publishing. I deliberately chose the Locus list because (a) a whole bunch of other people voted on it, (b) it wasn’t simply my opinion, and (c) because I’m lazy.

    Why didn’t Bisson’s enigmatic masterpiece make the list? I don’t know. You’d need to ask the 1999 voters. I suspect it would now, though. As to lists, I’d love to see the one you’d compile. I’m sticking to this one, but I’d be very curious indeed.

  • March 17, 2009 at 3:55 pm


    While dodo jokes are fun, four words will get you SF stories better than that.

    Greg Ted Egan Chiang

  • March 17, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Oh, dear … I’m not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, am I? I’ve just realised that the list is confined to the short story category. I am also quite pleased with the number I’ve read: 31. A few of the ones I’ve missed are in books I own, so when Jonathan gets to those, I may read them to share in the fun.

    By the way, Blue Tyson, “Corridors” is in Nebula Award Stories 18, edited by Roobert Silverberg. Considering all your lists and bibliographies, you may even have that one.

  • March 18, 2009 at 5:14 am


    Don’t have that one actually, pretty sure I found it in a library sometime though.

  • March 30, 2009 at 3:32 am

    There seems to be an at least intermittent flaw with the Blogger comments process. Please be aware of it. We’re waiting for Blogger to rectify it. Our apologies for the problem.


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