Hertzsprung-Russell rating: K10-3.5

Available in: Dagon And Other Macabre Tales

Cthulhu was Lovecraft’s bread and butter, but among his admirable repertoire of non-Cthulhu tales is this one. Read it: if you fail to pick up on its overarching themes of desperation, personal failure and the futile repetition of history, you’ll at least learn the location of the Pole Star, the preferred celestial body of firemen, strippers and Polish people.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: F103

Available in: Adventures In Tomorrow

An alien in the year 4000 reads a C20 pulp scifi story about a time machine, builds it, then goes back in time to C20 to write the story he learned about the time machine from. Personally, I hate pulp in my scifi, so I read only the strained, pulp-free kind. Seriously, though: you can’t write a time-travel story without paradox. It’s like writing a tragedy with no sadness – there’s no fucking point. So just pretend it’s your creepy drunken uncle you see once a year at Christmas, embrace it, and hope it doesn’t get a boner.

I’m reading my way through the science fiction and fantasy stories of the 20th century. Here’s why:

I love science fiction and fantasy novels. But, like most people who received vaccinations as a child, I am full of nanomachines. And as these tiny robots gain more and more control of my body, they demand I spend more and more time studying nanomachine periodicals. Magazines like Popular Nanomechanics and The Nano Yorker. I just don’t seem to have the time to enjoy long-form scifi and fantasy anymore, and am thus forced to read only short stories. In fact, I only have time to read one scifi story published in each year of the 20th century.

Damn nanomachines.

As a service to those with even less time than me, I will give every story I read a rating, so that the may know which stories are good and which are turds. To do this, I will use the most accurate and well-respected form of literary criticism available, the Hertzsprung-Russell star classification chart:

This chart generates a story rating based on two factors: the quality of the story and its length. Quality is represented by star class letter, O,B,A,F,G,K,M, from bad to good. Length is determined by star luminosity, from 10-5 solar units (short) to 106 solar units (long).

For example, an excellent 7,000-word story would receive a Hertzsprung-Russell rating of M102. A bad 1,000-word story would receive a Hertzsprung-Russell rating of O10-4.  It couldn’t be simpler.

To sum up: If you’re looking for pithy, illuminating insight into the science fiction and fantasy stories of the 20th century, this website may prove to be a complete waste of your time.

Then again, what in this life isn’t?

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: B/A1

Available in: Best Short Stories Of H.G. Wells

Wells was the Pink Floyd of early scifi; prolific, visionary beyond his time and British. But this story isn’t one of his best. It’s a foray into fantasy (the ‘magic spell’ kind of fantasy, not the sexy nurse kind) that draws away from the hard scientific foundation of Wells’ more notable work. And when that happens, know what you get? You get Pulse.

Hertzprung-Russell rating: A10-3.5

Available in: Eye Of The Heart – Short Stories From Latin America

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This is one of those why-things-are-the-way-they-are stories like ‘How The Leopard Got His Spots’ or ‘How The Puerto Rican Got His Horns’. In this one, the plants all decide they want to be the same size – straight up botanical socialism – and quickly learn that not everyone has what it takes to be a towering oak. Some of us have to settle for being something simpler, like a daisy or a Douglas fir. Of course, if you’re a chick named Daisy or a dude named Douglas Fir, that’s no problem.

Hertzsprung-Russell Rating: A10-5

Available in: 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories

Got a second? That’s how long it’ll take you to read this three-word story (spoiler alert: the last word is ‘up’). There’s a famous anecdote about Hemmingway writing a six-word story (‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’) but ‘Sign At The End Of The Universe’ is half as long as Papa’s. Which means, of course, that Duane Ackerman is twice as good a writer as Ernest Hemmingway.

Hertzsprung-Russell Rating: M10-4

Available in: The Day It Rained Forever

Things you can’t argue with: a shark attack, gravity, the Mafia and the fact that Ray Bradbury is perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th century in any genre. ‘The Dragon’ is a remarkable fusion of fantasy and time travel, simply constructed and beautifully presented. And if you argue, I’ll send a Mafioso shark to your house to push you down.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: A0.1

Available in: The Oxford Book Of Science Fiction Stories

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Things heat up considerably on planet Earth after a gigantic second sun mysteriously appears in our sky. Oceans boil then fall as scalding rain, the sauna industry tanks and Buster Poindexter is mercilessly beaten in the street (which, let’s be honest, was bound to happen anyway). And, yet, the story’s lone Republican congressman still insists global warming is nothing to worry about.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: A/F10-2.5

Available in: Weird Tales, Volume VIII, No. 3

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A man employed by a news wire service (sigh…remember the news?) hears the story of a mysterious fog that has enveloped a small town and subjected its inhabitants to bizarre lights and noises, vertigo and a general sense of temporal displacement. If that small town were only full of stupid hippies selling t-shirts for thirty bucks a pop, it’d be just like a Grateful Dead concert. Or, I guess maybe a Foghat concert, since it’s a story about fog. But definitely not Ram Jam.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: F106.5+

Available in: The Twelve Frights Of Christmas

Aliens with the ability to mimic humans infiltrate a space colony, and the captain is forced to take desperate measures to figure out who’s who, and who’s an ‘it’. Do you have what it takes to be a captain? One of these blogs is an alien mimic. Figure out which one it is and eliminate it.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G103

Available in: The Shout And Other Stories

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A young couple meets a hermit who possesses a magical shout (and I don’t mean the stain remover); a bellow so big and bold it drives people insane.  I’m going to shout it from the rooftops – this story is great! Another thing I’m going to shout from the rooftops is for someone to bring me a ladder because the one I used to get up here fell over and now I’m trapped. Also, the roof is dirty and my pants need some ShoutTM. And that time I did mean the stain remover.

Hertzsprung-Russell rating: G/K106.5+

Available in: A Mile Beyond The Moon

C.M.K. doesn’t seem to have a bad writing bone in his body; not a punny tibia or hackneyed distal phalange to be found. ‘Shark Ship’ begins as a story about a future civilization living at sea, and ends up touring the abandoned slums of New York City. Like a Nazi slipping on a banana peel it’s all at once scary and hilarious, and proves that the Jew-run banana peel industry is still very much a threat.


Hertzsrpung-Russell rating: A10-3.5

Available in: The Best Of Saki

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A small English town is shocked to discover one of the local boys is actually a werewolf. Conversely, a small English wolfpack is shocked to discover one of the local cubs is a wolfwere. Anyone could be a feral wolf in disguise; I’d start by rounding up Will Ferrell and Dick Wolf. Even if they’re bona fide humans you’ve still got the beginnings of the most hilarious sex crime police procedural ever committed to film.