This is a pick for my book group, so this post will be necessarily short.
I've owned this wonderful collection for more than 20 years, since I took a science fiction course and an undergraduate in college. However, I had always cherry-picked through it, starting with my teacher's selections from it, so this was the first time I have read it from cover to cover. The premise is pretty standard: Robert Silverberg polled members of the SFWA and collected their picks as the best science fiction short stories from 1938 to 1964, then collected their votes into a single volume. There were some interesting rules associated with the collection, like no author could have more than one story in the collection. And beyond the top votegetters, Silverberg padded the collection with his own picks to give the volume 21 entries.
One of the strengths of the collection is its organization, putting them in chronological order rather than by number of votes. In this way, the reader can see the progression of themes and ideas through the best of the genre. Interestingly, the collection has lived well past its basis, such that the early winners—who may have been household names in science fiction circles when the book was first published—are distant, both chronologically and philosophically. The second highest ranked short story, Stanley Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" suffers from this issue; it is clearly very weak in comparison to the rest of the collection. It is simplistic and shallow—shallow really, and it really has no thematics to speak of. Curious, I went off and did some research, finding that the story is generally accepted as the first story in which aliens are truly alien; not only do they not look like us, but their thought processes are different from human, forcing part of the story to be an attempt on the part of the humans to understand the alien Tweel. Now, I am partial to the groundbreakers, enjoying reading the stories that first went into places that are now almost clichéd, but I had to go outside the book to find out why the story was selected. And so I dearly wish that Silverberg, or someone after the fact, wrote a few paragraphs about why each story was selected, relieving the reader of trying to figure out "why" and instead basking in the achievement of early science fiction
The other clunker for me is a huge surprise—Richard Matheson's "Born of Man and Woman." I have always thought highly of Matheson's work, most of my exposure being to the episodes he wrote or adapted for The Twilight Zone. But I recently read I am Legend and had some feeling for his strength as a writer of books alongside his reputation as a screenwriter. "Born of Man and Woman" is extremely short, less than three full pages, but it thuds to an unsatisfying conclusion. Its main character is an enigma, suffering terribly from some sort of ailment that causes his parents to hide him from the neighborhood. It is unclear if the character is a child or an adult who thinks childishly, nor is it clear what his handicap is, though there are some clues given. The only impressions that come out of the story are his inability to comprehend why his family treats him so despicably and the despair his parents feel, filtered as it is through the eyes of the narrator. If that was the goal of the story, to express the despair of all the characters, it succeeds, but it is unfulfilling for the reader. It could well be that "Born of Man and Woman" is equally as groundbreaking as "A Martian Odyssey" but if so I don't know what ground it breaks. Post-apocalyptic freaks perhaps? I just can't figure it out.
So out of 21 stories, only two really fell flat for me, an astonishing percentage and a testament to how powerful a collection this is. Nearly every story is vibrant and rich, astonishing in some facet of crafterly writing, and often in a number of them. It also suggests some interesting thought experiments, such as what would happen if the SFWA were to do this again, with its larger more contemporary membership? Would any of the stories still be in the collection (I can name two three or four that just can't be left out—"The Cold Equations," "The Nine Billion Names of God," "Nightfall")? What if the SFWA expanded the range, from 1938 to the present? I wonder if a few well-addressed letters could convince the SFWA to take on any of these polls. In the end, though, this is just a superior collection of writing—a must-have for anyone who considers themselves to be a fan of science fiction. I'd even go so far as to say it should be read regularly, not less than once ecvery couple of years.