The Observatory: Anthology Limited

(Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. First edition cover by George Salter. Published 1946.)

The mission statement of my blog is to explore SFF in the magazines, of which there are many. Ideally original publications, but at some point I’ll cover stories that were first published elsewhere and then reprinted in the magazines. This is not to say I dislike the other major avenue for finding short fiction, the anthology; after all, I would not have discovered so much short fiction in the first place if not for anthologies, and I have to admit I have a lot of those on my shelves. For every unnecessary reprint of Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” there are over a dozen short stories and novellas I now love that I probably would not have found otherwise. The thing, though, is that by focusing on magazines I feel I’ve created both a filter and unlocked a door to a unfathomably huge world of mostly uncovered fiction, non-fiction, letter columns…

There’s only so much you can do with anthologies.

Not a criticism of anthology editors! Some of the best editors in the field have mostly or solely devoted their time to book publishing; when the Hugo for Best Professional Magazine was replaced by the Hugo for Best Professional Editor, it was to accommodate what was then an uptick in original anthologies, as well as to credit specific people whose achievements were not restricted to magazines. People like Damon Knight, Judy-Lynn del Rey, and Terry Carr would have been shut out from Hugo recognition with the previous category, but now they had a chance; that it took more than a decade for someone in book publishing to win Best Professional Editor is beside the point. My point is that this is not a problem of talent, but simply of the nature of anthologies, of their physical limitations and especially of the grim realities of the publishing world.

Let’s retrace our steps a bit. What is the purpose of an anthology? Obviously the answer will be different depending on whether it’s a reprint or original anthology, and even reprint anthologies (which are so often grouped together as fodder, unjustifiably) have different goals in mind. A reprint anthology might seek to cover a certain span of time or a certain demographic of authors; there are several reprints dedicated to female SFF authors at this point and we still have much work to do. The problem is that it’s never enough. I read a short story recently, “The Piece Thing” by Carol Emshwiller; it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a fine read, and it strikes me as being worthy of being reprinted in at least a couple SF-horror anthologies. Not so. Despite being first published in 1956, it has since been anthologized a grand total of once, in Rediscovery 2: Science Fiction by Women (1953-1957), which came out… this year. How many more are like it?

Editors of reprint anthologies are allowed to be much pickier than magazine editors while also having a bigger pool to work with (keep in mind that magazines have to deal with a lot already), and as such their standards are inherently different. If a story which originally appeared in some obscure magazine in the ’50s was anthologized even once then presumably the editor of said anthology thought it worthy enough to not be stranded in a volume quite literally made of pulp paper which was not built to last and which has been out of circulation for many years. Sure, the issue that “The Piece Thing” first appeared in (the May 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly, for those wondering) can now be read online, but prior to digital archiving there was literally only one way to find this story for decades. Again, how many stories are in this situation? How many “worthy” stories have been trapped in purgatory because anthology editors have overlooked them or simply not been able to know about them in the first place?

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller. Science Fiction Quarterly, May 1956.)

Again, this is not really the fault of editors. Well, maybe some of it is. There were quite a few female authors active in the ’40s and especially the ’50s, but you wouldn’t know that from contemporary reprint anthologies; even Judith Merril’s annual best-of anthologies tended to only have one or two stories by women per volume. Maybe that’s unfair, though. Maybe it really has to do more with the editor’s tastes than with their prejudices, not that the two don’t overlap at all. You can’t make an editor include a more diverse set of authors, and anyway I don’t think setting quotas is very healthy. Still, it’s telling that there have been several anthologies over the decades which have sought to “rediscover” magazine SFF by women, as if to compensate for the failings of earlier anthologies. It’s as if editors are only human and that they’re liable to overlook fiction which is very much deversing of preservation.

Because that’s what reprints are always ultimately about: preservation. Why anthologize in the first place? Why were fancy hardcover anthologies like Adventures in Time and Space and Groff Conklin’s A Treasury of Science Fiction big deals when they surfaced in the ’40s? Because for basically all of the stories included in those anthologies, it would’ve been the first time they met a reader’s eyes outside of the flimsy and brittle pages of a magazine; with book reprints there was hope that these stories could be discovered by future generations. Consider that Lovecraft’s legacy has been allowed to not only persist but thrive for two reasons: he was a compulsive letter writer who formed connections with a lot of people, a few of whom went on to form publishing houses (namely August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, who founded Arhham House), and also because said publishers made his work available in book form.

Lovecraft died poor and in obscurity, but if his work stayed in the magazines like virtually all of it was at the time of his death, he might now be yet another shrouded figure waiting to be rediscovered.

(Beyond the Wall of Sleep, editor uncredited. Cover by Clark Ashton Smith and E. Burt Trimpey. Published 1943.)

Obviously there’s a lot of crap in the magazines that’s not worth actively preserving; Sturgeon’s Law will not be defied. But I feel like even with the good stuff, there’s so much of it that anthologies are simply unable to cover everything. Take one of the greatest SFF anthologies of all time for instance, Adventures in Time and Space: this is a thick fucking book (about a thousand pages), and it has an extra advantage by covering only a relatively narrow range of material, with pieces published between 1932 and 1945. It also does something unusual for a fiction anthology, in that on top of the fiction it also reprints two speculative articles, which other reprint anthologies simply don’t do for some reason. Even with all these parameters, the 33 stories collected only emcompass a tiny fraction of the good stuff from that period, and it doesn’t help that editors Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas give some authors multiple entries, which dilutes the diversity of voices. If you’re looking for a survey of where SFF was at in the ’30s and first half of the ’40s then a volume like Adventures in Time and Space will be a good starting point, but then you must dig deeper after that.

Keep in mind that most anthologies aren’t as long as Adventures in Time and Space; most are half that length, or even shorter. How many times have you started a anthology and the editor’s introduction goes something like this: “If I could edit a hypothetical hyper-dimensional book that never ran of space so that I could fit all the stories I wanted, I would, but unfortunately we don’t live in that reality so I can’t.” The horrors of picking favorites indeed. Imagine being a Gardner Dozois or a Terry Carr where you’re such a voracious reader, and you have hundreds of magazine issues and hundreds upon hundreds (vast oceans!) of stories at your disposal, and you can only pick so many. Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction series was huge, both in its number of installments and the thickness of each book, and yet he still felt it necessary to list stories that he would recommend that unfortunately he could not include properly. These recommendation lists were always quite long, and while these stories weren’t always taken from magazines, that tended to br the case more often than not.

Best-of anthologies try valiantly to sum up “the good stuff” from a given year, and we seem to be living in a golden age of best-of anthologies as we have several of them, all by capable editors. However, even if you were to combine the annual best-ofs by Neil Clarke, Jonathan Strahan, and Rich Horton (we’re looking at a good 1,500 pages or more, by the way) for a given year, you still could not even hope to cover everything. SFF is vast and it’s only gotten vaster as we’ve entered a new golden age for magazine SFF, what with magazines like Lightspeed and Uncanny Magazine voyaging beyond mere page count and entering that fourth dimension: digitalization. I can’t even say for sure how many pages it would take to print all the good SFF in 2022 because most of the magazines currently running publish exclusively online and in ebooks. The sheer amount can drive one mad; it feels like a variation on Borges’s library of Babel.

(The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020, edited by Rich Horton. Cover by Argus.)

What I’m trying to say is that I find magazines ultimately more liberating. Sure, an issue of a magazine will be smaller and contain fewer stories than the average anthology, but there’s that flavor unique to magazines, and there’s always that feeling of digging for buried treasure. If a story shows up in a reprint anthology then it’s not up to you to rediscover it, as someone already did that job for you. Ah, but if you were to find some obscure story from six decades ago that has maybe been reprinted once in all that time while in the middle of digging through an equally obscure magazine issue, then it really feels like discovery! And the best part is that it doesn’t stop there. You’re not just leafing through an anthology—a selection of stories hand-picked by someone who had narrowed a pile down to what they feel are the best of the best—you’re a voyager, on a five-mission mission to explore strange new worlds. With the magazines you’re bound to hear voices you’ve never heard before and see places you’ve never seen before.

When I started this blog I wasn’t sure if I was ready to plumb the depths of magazine SFF, and ironically, as I’ve since only come to find just how deep those depths are, I’ve only become more excited about reaching for those depths. I turn over a rock and I find gold in the mud. Anthologies are a great supplement to magazines, but they’re not a substitute, for there’s always more to be uncovered, and the magazine, when taken collectively, is named Möbius.


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