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The Great Science Fiction Stories vol 2 cover

The achron-integrators were whirring busily, and the Warrior Queen quivered to the first salvo of her guns. Then Brek's clenched fists came down on the carefully set keyboard. The autosight stopped humming. The guns ceased to fire.

—Jack Williamson, "Hindsight" (1940)

In my review of the first volume of this anthology series I made reference to how John Campbell, editor of Astounding, "made it plain that he wanted Homo sapiens to triumph all over the galaxy, and writers including Asimov adjusted what they wrote accordingly."[1] This, of course, isn't nearly the whole story. As a survey of the stories collected in Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: Volume 2, 1940 (IAPGSFS 2) will show, oftentimes humanity doesn't triumph, and is even portrayed in an unsympathetic manner, so that even if victory is achieved it is ill-earned. How are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction?

The answer is twofold. First, Campbell's editorial direction, published extensively in the form of editorials and provided firsthand to his core group of writers, was more complex and far-ranging than can be inferred from the above quote. Campbell wanted "livable" futures in which all aspects of an imagined society had been worked out meaningfully and wholly. As Lester del Rey notes in The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of a Subculture (1979), "Campbell insisted that anything in that future must have implications for other things—and for social patterns to fit. . . . Hence, all implications of any change must be considered."[2] Campbell also wasn't afraid to mix up the "traditional" sciences with the "social ones," rather than merely emphasizing the "harder" disciplines:

"The science that SF writers should concern themselves with need not be just physics and engineering, but could include sociology, psychology (and, notoriously with Campbell, parapsychology), and even [ . . . ] historical science. Indeed, one of the main themes of SF should be future historical change . . . "[3]

This, for many writers, represented a displacement in storytelling away from gadgetry and invention to the conception of new societies and cultures. While Campbell advocated the integrity and accuracy of a story's scientific content, he also encouraged writers to focus on the effects of the extrapolated science upon the characters. Lester del Rey, again:

A sun going nova and destroying its planets lacks emotional interest if no sentient beings are involved . . . 'I want reactions, not mere actions. Even if your character is a robot, human readers need human reactions from him,' is the gist of Campbell's first listing of his requirements in the 1938 Writer's Yearbook. [ . . . ] Campbell was always something of a missionary. From the beginning of his tenure, he set about the happy business of proselytizing at every opportunity, attempting to cross-breed the two cultures.[2]

The "two cultures" del Rey is referring to are that of science and the humanities. Given this proposed fusion and Campbell's challenge to the brightest new talents of the day (Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, van Vogt) to extrapolate culturally, rather than engaging in the less ambitious "thought variant" stories favored by Campbell's editorial predecessor, F. Orlin Tremaine, we begin to see how more diverse perspectives on humanity's intrinsic qualities—and worth—might arise. Though Campbell has been described as somewhat of an autocrat, there is evidence that he encouraged writers to challenge his own notions and stand up to him in argument. Writers "could use stories not only to argue with each other, but to argue with Campbell himself (although, rather more frequently and diplomatically, they drew on his ideas and put them in fictional form)."[3] Naturally, this might lead to instances where humanity did not win, despite Campbell's earlier edict.

The second thing to consider is that though Astounding, under Campbell, may have been the period's leading magazine, it was not alone. In fact, the 1940s saw a veritable proliferation of other markets. This explosion, starting around 1939, included Science Fiction, Future Fiction, Science Fiction Quarterly, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, Comet, Stirring Science Stories, Cosmic Stories, Dynamic Science Stories, Astonishing Stories, Super Science Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Captain Future, and Marvel Science Stories. Earlier magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, and Campbell's own fantasy-flavored Unknown also continued to be published alongside the newbies. Though on the whole the latter were generally short-lived and produced less memorable material than Astounding, it's natural that amidst such a multiplication of venues and editorial sensibilities stories with anti-Campbellian flavors would be cooked up.

Perhaps the greatest strength of IAPGSFS 2, considered as an anthology that doubles as historical document, is that it steers clear of Astounding-worship and includes stories from these other magazines, venturing into horror and fantasy along with the SF. (As in the last installment, the anthology's table of contents can be found at the end of the review). Of the sixteen stories included, ten are from Astounding, and the rest have been culled from diverse markets such as Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astonishing, Super Science Stories, Unknown, Weird Tales, and Argosy.

The biggest, or at least most immediate, complaint that can be leveled at IAPGSFS 2 is that it doesn't include anything by Heinlein, even though by several accounts this was a tremendous year for him. To be fair, Asimov and Greenberg intended to publish not just one but three classic Heinlein stories that originally appeared in 1940 (out of five Heinlein pieces in Astounding), but "arrangements for their use could not be made" and so they were removed from the final published volume. (Curiously, introductions for these three pieces remain throughout the anthology).

Like 1939, 1940 was a strong year for first publications by notable authors: "Martian Quest" by Leigh Brackett, "Emergency Refueling" by James Blish, "Stepsons of Mars" by C. M. Kornbluth, Harry Dockweiler, and Richard Wilson, and "Before the Universe" by Frederik Pohl and Kornbluth. Key stories of 1940 we won't be discussing in detail, but which are often referenced in histories of the field's canon, include "Final Blackout" and "Typewriter in the Sky" by L. Ron Hubbard, the serialized "Slan" by van Vogt, "Darker than You Think" by Jack Williamson, and "The Roads Must Roll," "Blowups Happen," "Requiem" and "If This Goes On—" by Heinlein. (Additional recommendations may be found at the end of this piece). Angela Carter, Thomas Disch, Alexei Panshin, Norman Spinrad, and John Clute were all born in 1940, and the second World Science Fiction Convention, held in Chicago, had an attendance of about 125.[2] Also of interest, the science fiction/horror film Dr. Cyclops, directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack of King Kong fame, was the first U.S. SF film made in Technicolor.

Given our brief historical survey in the preceding paragraphs, we can now leap back to 1940 without surprise at the genuine range of disparate SF modes, from the urban to the galactic, from the tonic and relaxed to the utterly horrific, celebrating the uniqueness of humanity or despairing at its irrationality.


Non-Human Perspectives

Ross Rocklynne, the name used by Ross Louis Rocklin on his SF stories, is not as well known today as it perhaps should be, given the fertility of his imagination, the above-average quality of his prose and the volume of his magazine contributions to the Golden Age and, briefly, the New Wave. (Helpfully, an annotated bibliography of Rocklynne's works is readily available.) Rocklynne, featured twice in IAPGSFS 2, first appeared in Tremaine's Astounding in 1935, kicking off the popular three-entry Colbie and Deverel series of problem stories in which the two protagonists relied on a scientific principle for rescue. "The Men in the Mirror" (1938) is typically considered the best of these. As far back as 1934, however, Rocklynne had written what would prove to be the first of the more significant Darkness series, "Into the Darkness." This memorable story was apparently intended for publication in the final issue of Wonder Stories, which never saw the light of day, and six years later finally appeared in the Pohl-edited Astonishing Stories instead.

I mention this because when one considers the vastness of "Into the Darkness," and its apparent lack of preoccupation with many standard tropes of the day, it is even more remarkable that Rocklynne penned it in 1934. It is, in fact, nothing less ambitious than a living pseudo-nebula's metaphysical quest to discover the meaning of existence. The idea of stellar sentience features prominently in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, but this appeared in 1937. Intelligence on a galactic level was used to dramatic effect in Laurence Manning's "The Living Galaxy," published in 1934—a possible inspiration for Rocklynne? In any case, in his introduction Asimov says that this is "surely New Wave a quarter-century before its time," though he acknowledges that "the style and literary gloss may not be quite as high and polished as was the writing of the 1960s." I'm hard-pressed to disagree with either statement.

The story, divided into six mini-chapters, traces the experiences of Darkness, a sentient star-like system, in "his" exploration of the limits of the Universe and the discovery of a reason for why sentience should exist at all. Darkness "plays" for millions of years, learning the mysteries of the "forty-seven bands of hyperspace," but soon demonstrates individual thought and an unusual preoccupation with philosophy that set him on a fiercely individual path. His relentless pursuit of his curiosity leads to a final answer that is as inevitable as it is poignant, made more compelling by the elevated, almost florid use of language throughout. Though there's not a single human character in "Into the Darkness"—and one of the story's strengths is precisely this consistency of inhuman strangeness in the point of view—it functions as hypertrophied allegory for the traversal of adolescence and for one's first grappling with deep existential questions. As such, this is quintessential SF.

In contrast to the roaring distances and timescales of "Into the Darkness," Rocklynne's second story in IAPGSFS2 is a whisper. "Quietus" is a biting, satirical, somewhat tragic tale with a simple premise: in the absence of technology, human relationships with other animals may not indicate as clearly as we believe who is master and who is beast. What, after all, is intelligence? In the post-apocalyptic future of "Quietus" the aliens Alcon and Tark study a human boy Tommy and his companion crow Blacky. Though the outcome of their observations is somewhat telegraphed by modern standards, the tale nevertheless stings. Its success derives from Rocklynne's deftness in switching between the alien and human point of views, leading to the reader's broader, more empathetic perspective on events, as well as the sense that conscience, and the suffering it may cause in the face of immorality, may be a universal that extends beyond humanity. Incidentally, the narrative does not express any explicit sentimentality about humanity's dark future at the mercy of its own hands, and this ambivalence—perhaps inspired by the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, which generated other SF treatments by writers such as Hubbard and van Vogt—enriches it.

From the godlike aliens and anthropological scouts of the previous two stories we move on to robots. Asimov's "Strange Playfellow" (originally titled "Robbie," and appearing under that title everywhere beside Super Science Stories and IAPGSFS 2), which marks the start of Asimov's "positronic robots" series, was written in 1939 but not published until 1940. The reason for this delay is related to predecessor robots, several of which I mentioned in the previous review. In fact, when Asimov first showed this tale to Frederik Pohl, he predicted that it would be rejected by Astounding on the grounds that Campbell would find it "too reminiscent of 'Helen O'Loy'".[4] The prediction was borne true. It was also turned down by Amazing, which had published Eando Binder's first Adam Link story (see IAPGSFS 1), and Pohl himself ended up buying it. This short publication history is a good reminder that even a story series as famous as Asimov's robot stories was not as conceptually groundbreaking or visionary, if you will, as it may appear in retrospect.

At its core, the story is a somewhat sentimental depiction of the bond established between the young girl Gloria and her mute nursemaid robot Robbie. The essential complications arise not from any suspect behavior on Robbie's part but out of inherent human distrust, voiced through the concerns of Gloria's mother and other members of society. This is an important thematic conflict which is explored in various guises through the entire robot series. Eventually, Robbie demonstrates his single-minded devotion to Gloria's well-being, saving her life at a critical juncture in which human hesitation proves catastrophic. Robbie thereby earns Mrs. Weston's trust and is assured a place in the family.

As Asimov points out in the introduction, "Robbie" does not contain an explicit formulation of the Three Laws of Robotics, though it does foreshadow the First Law ("A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm"). The story's main weakness is the presentation of Weston family life, which seems simultaneously dysfunctional and archetypical, and the unabashed pushing of emotional buttons to gain reader sympathy. Gloria's parents are more attitude than character. And yet, it would probably be unreasonable to expect more subtlety from the work of an author who was nineteen when he wrote it. Interestingly, though Asimov edited the story for the I, Robot collection and all subsequent republications, the version that appears in IAPGSFS 2 is exactly the same as that which was published in magazine form, so it is possible to compare the texts and gain insight into his idea of "polishing." Beyond certain stylistic changes involving the use of adjectives and adverbs, we see an evolution in the story's backdrop. The date changes from 1982 to 1998 AD. Asimov removes references to technology and advancements that date the original: for example, "it was still impossible to equip robots with phonographic attachments of sufficient complexity" disappears: "the latest report of the Douglas expedition to the moon" becomes "the latest reports of the Lefebre-Yoshida expedition to Mars (this one was to take off from Lunar Base . . . "; and so on. We also see the removal of the more garishly "other-worldly" or pulpish aspects of the robot, such as its "tentacles," and the characters are humanized and made more subtle throughout.

A robot of a different flavor now. Harry Bates was Astounding's first editor, and in collaboration with assistant editor Desmond W. Hall, also penned the popular space opera Hawk Carse series under the pseudonym Anthony Gilmore. His most remembered solo authorial outing is "Farewell to the Master," the chronicle of first contact with aliens and "the thing which shall always be the shame of the human race," that is, the murder of the alien Klaatu by the hands of a human shooter. After this tragic event Klaatu's companion Gnut, apparently immobile, remains on Earth, where he is studied without success by scientists. Reporter Cliff Sutherland conducts his own surreptitious investigation under the cover of night and witnesses Gnut at work. Sutherland eventually manages to communicate with Gnut and learns of Gnut's attempts to refashion Klaatu out of a sound recording. Sutherland is able to help with the task, though the story's final line reveals he has not have been helping whom he had thought. This concluding revelation packs a punch similar to Roslynne's "Quietus"; both remind us how appearances may be deceptive in attempting to understand hierarchical relationships, and therefore implicitly question the underlying assumptions and validity of those power relations. "Farewell to the Master" served, loosely, as the inspiration for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, 2008), which generated the oft-cited command used to activate the robot (in the film renamed Gort): "Klaatu barada nikto"

Bates' tale is well-arranged and the pacing effectively creates a sense of mystery. The descriptions of Sutherland's first forays into the night-time museum and his discovery that Gnut has in fact moved are compelling, and the story's world is generally realistic. On the other hand, why Gnut, who would have presumably exchanged words with Klaatu on their travels together, must rely solely on the recording of the phrase Klaatu speaks upon their exiting the ship together is not clear. It also doesn't seem likely that Sutherland's suggestion is one that Gnut, in light of the ending and his manifest superior knowledge and technical know-how, wouldn't have arrived at first. In short, the plot runs into the familiar difficulty of how to make useful a human protagonist to a more highly-advanced alien civilization. But the evocations of Gnut's otherness, the ship, and the theme of moral relativism implied by humanity's ethical inferiority are more than sufficient to forgive the contrivance. Subsequent to this tale, Bates only published four new stories over the next decade, none of which made much impact.

Most of the stories discussed thus far have involved outsiders, human or otherwise. The same can be said of P. Schuyler Miller's "Old Man Mulligan," which shares its Neanderthal heritage with the last review's "The Gnarly Man" and the more nostalgic "The Day is Done." Miller published popular stories throughout the 1930s and 1940s (Asimov comments that "Old Man Mulligan" may be his most popular) but he is better known as Astounding/Analog's monthly book reviewer from 1951 to his death in 1974. Mulligan is part of a gang stranded on a wild and dangerous Venus, and it is his knowledge of ancient survival techniques, gained throughout millennia of roaming across the Earth, that enable the group to defeat a rival faction. Miller was an amateur archaeologist, and though this interest is perhaps more prominent in earlier stories such "The Chrysalis" (1936), it is evident here as well.

Miller's narrative has aged less gracefully than the nearly immortal protagonist at its heart, and is dressed in the robust garments of pulp. Exclamations abound, motivations are not exactly subtle, and physical conflict is never too afar afield. The action set pieces are entertaining enough, but the psychological potential of Mulligan's condition is under-utilized. As I reflect on this and the other two aforementioned stories, I find that perhaps part of the reason I'm not ultimately convinced by any of them is that they're really SF transcriptions of the Wandering Jew theme, sans the religious origin story. They therefore give the impression of lacking an essential ingredient. Though the condition of the original Wandering Jew is typically one of suffering—his immortality is a curse bestowed upon him for his sins —, another reading is possible. As critic Alberto Manguel notes in an essay in The Guardian on the evolution of the theme, which dates back at least to the thirteenth century, one may view the predicament of the wanderer as a kind of blessing too. The important thing in a fictional treatment, it seems to me, is for the narrative to develop some kind of attitude towards the immortal's predicament and to make the origin story an integral part of the events at hand. This is another area in which "Old Man Mulligan" underwhelms.


Space Opera and Politics

Jack Williamson's "Hindsight" is a much more explosive, operatic outing than the unusually character-driven "Star Bright" from IAPGSFS 1. It explores the theme of loyalty by following the exploits of the scientist William Webster, who defects from the human race and becomes Brek Veronar, working in service of the ruthless Astrarchy, a "superpirate" alien power bent on the destruction of the Earth, Mars, and the Jovian Federation. The plot involves heart-rending betrayal, massive space battles, futuristic technology (including the requisite techno-babble, such as the priceless "Veronar achronic field detector geodesic achron-integration self-calculating range finder"), and even time-travel, all in under twenty pages. But if the pulpish qualities of the prose rise to the surface a little too often by our standards, we must acknowledge that Williamson always keeps things in check—he relies on the logic of his plot, and the human focus, to carry the reader safely through the more melodramatic sequences. In the end, it is this sense of narrative balance, of knowing how far to go, that makes Williamson's story appealing. For the epigraph of this review I deliberately chose an amphetamined passage (of which there are a fair few) to evoke Golden Age sensibilities, but "Hindsight" is more maturely balanced than those few lines would suggest. As partial remedy, and as a reminder of Williamson's ability to modulate emotion and description as necessary, consider this more prosaic description from the first page, long before the appearance of any space guns or life-or-death countdowns:

He walked with them, that dry, bright afternoon, out from the yellow adobe buildings, across the rolling, stony, ocher-colored desert. Tony's sunburned, blue-eyed face was grave for once, as he protested.

It is indeed this emotional focus, of which Williamson never loses sight, that keeps us morbidly fascinated by Webster's "treacherous" actions. In aiding the enemy, will he kill those he once loved? How does knowing the future—or the past—help one mold the present? Williamson himself, aged 96, summarizes his thoughts on the story in an Afterword from his Collected Stories:

I'd almost forgotten 'Hindsight,' but it's a neat little story, carefully done, full of the high-tech stuff Campbell used to like. He bought it. Though it lacks the human touch of 'Star Bright,' it was reprinted a dozen times in several languages.[5]

More sober, but still adventurous, is Lester del Rey's "Dark Mission," the account of a Martian plot to save humanity. A Martian crash-lands on Earth and must prevent an imminent manned flight to the Red Planet, so that humans are not exposed to a deadly plague still active on its surface. Part of the story's beauty and excitement are that the Martian himself has forgotten his mission as a result of the crash and must battle his own amnesia while trying to save humanity. The story works well because del Rey allows the memories to re-surface at the moments of highest possible drama, so that they both propel and are propelled by the plot. The overall atmosphere of urgency is absorbing enough to distract us from the convenience of this storytelling device. And though the elements of intrigue and suspense are on a par with grander fare, like Williamson's story, this one is also notable for unfolding from the perspective of the Martian, convincingly enough that his ultimate choice is both comprehensible and empathetic.

If the aforementioned stories by Williamson and del Rey, even with the former's space-opera exuberance, are exercises in narrative control, van Vogt's "Vault of the Beast" is the opposite, a careening contrivance, spinning wildly in all directions and in the end failing to point to a specific place. Knowing where this story lands seems to be less important than understanding how it arrives. Attempting to recapitulate the plot, which involves a robot (telepathic shape-shifter is more appropriate, perhaps) sent to Earth by aliens from another dimension to help crack a math problem that will free an ancient Martian, seems a surefire way to tempt dementia, but if you must know the details you can get a sense of them from the story's wikipedia page. I enjoyed "Black Destroyer" in IAPGSFS 1, but despite the similarly frenetic charms of this story I found it a hard sell. Maybe the numerous lapses in logic were more kindly forgiven in 1940, when Internet-enabled pedantry was still half a century away, or maybe, despite frequent claims to the opposite, our attention spans and sophistication have evolved, making these pole vaults less palatable. I find it hard to agree with Arthur C. Clarke that by the time the hero gets from Mars to Earth in just a few lines "the reader is so breathless that such absurdities pass unnoticed." [6] In fact, the insistent accrual of such absurdities make it difficult to even care about the eventual climax. The story's final few pages add so much new information (much of it through lumps of expository dialogue) that the conclusion, instead of surprising, seems arbitrary, and the final happy-ending line perfunctory. Clarke, in his reminiscences, does chide van Vogt for his faulty science (how can there be an "ultimate" prime number?), but credible mathematics wouldn't have made much difference to the overall effect. Alexei Panshin comments that "van Vogt came very close to making this superabundance of wonders add up to a real and meaningful story," with the clear implication that he did not. And yet, despite my dislike of the overall technique and the story's underlying illogic and inelegance, I recommend it as a example of failed Golden Age ambition.

L. Sprague de Camp's "The Warrior Race" is perhaps the most overtly political story in this anthology. As Asimov notes, and the story itself makes clear, it is a commentary on the rigidity of a society dedicated to warfare, and on the relative weakness of such society in times of peace. The story's titular warrior race, the Centaurans, are modern-day Spartans, and the effects on human society of a strict, "incorruptible" ethos of behavior is made evident by the story's closing quotation from Aristotle's Politics. The characters are moderately interesting but on the whole they tend to be mouth-pieces. De Camp was a polymath whose nonfiction interests often showed up in his fiction. For instance, in "The Isolinguals" (1937) and "Language for Time Travelers" (1938) he speculated on the relevance of language to speculative scenarios. He was also a well-known writer of popular history, including in the pages of Astounding, where he published two articles on the decline of scientific innovation in the period after the collapse of the Roman Empire: "The Science of Whithering" (1940 )and "The Sea-King's Armored Division" (1941). The historical notion at the heart of "The Warrior Race" is not particularly intriguing, and is not presented in a subtle manner, but reading the story as another cautionary response to the eruption of World War II perhaps adds a more interesting dimension.

Horror, Humor and Satire

Fritz Leiber is probably best known for his five-decade long Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sword-and-sorcery series. However, his work is quite diverse, as showcased by several recent collections (in particular Selected Stories and Strange Wonders: A Collection of Rare Fritz Leiber Works, both from 2010). Indeed, Leiber went on to win all the field's top awards for both SF and fantasy works, popularizing sub-genres such as urban fantasy—his 1943 novel in this vein, Conjure Wife, is still in print today—and urban horror.

"The Automatic Pistol," Leiber's first horror outing, is an example of the latter, depicting horrific events in a modern city setting. A gangster with an uncommon attachment to his gun is killed. The bloodshed doesn't end there, though, as the weapon itself proceeds to off those responsible. The eponymous pistol, a supernatural entity sharing a close bond with the original gangster and providing him with support of sorts, has been likened to a witch's familiar. Certainly the same spookiness classically associated with witchcraft pervades this narrative, but, as befits its setting, it has a leaner, more contemporary edge to it; events are filtered through a hardened, pragmatic first-person point of view that acts as more than simple witness. Leiber's prose has been characterized as "ebullient; its idiosyncrasies occasionally appear mannered, but its baroque and colorful qualities are usually prevented from becoming slapdash by the precision with which he used words, and by the appositeness of his imagery, at least in his fantasies." [7] Not so much here, where the dialogue and descriptions are far from baroque and in fact closer to hard-boiled ("I told him in impolite language to go chase himself"; "It's a pretty good game for taking money away from suckers, and Glasses and I used to play it by the hour when we had nothing better to do"). The climax is perhaps the least involving section, but the dread that anticipates it, and the way in which it puts previous descriptive detail like the "stiff, knife-edged sea-grass" to plot use are a testament to Leiber's craftsmanship and storytelling proficiency.

I will admit unapologetically that, as much as I enjoyed Leiber's atmospheric story, it was Theodore Sturgeon's "It" that bowled me over. From the very first line I was gripped. I wondered: What demon must have possessed its author during the composition? Only after the story-trance subsided did I realize that this force, of course, was simply technical brilliance made manifest. Stylistically, Sturgeon does in "It" things that no other writer in the first two volumes of IAPGSFS does, and perhaps things that no other writer in either book could do even if they tied. But the argument for Sturgeon's achievement does not reside in this mastery of sensory evocation alone, but rather in how it serves a well-constructed, ever-ramifying storyline. Simply put, the story depicts the bizarre creation of a monster out of the remains of a human skeleton in a swamp, and the subsequent slaughter of the people and animals who encounter this inhuman thing. Sturgeon provides us with access to several points of view, thereby quickening the pace and augmenting the sense of dread at the roaming creature, which seems to bypass the ordinary processes of human consciousness. The second paragraph illustrates Sturgeon's fine descriptive ability and poetic skill (his prose is deliberately more rhythmic and repetitively lumbering, like the creature itself, in the sections dealing with it than in those focusing on other characters), as well as the twisted nature of the living abomination:

"It crawled out of the darkness and hot damp mold into the cool of a morning. It was huge. It was lumped and crusted with its own hateful substances, and pieces of it dropped off as it went its way, dropped off and lay writhing, and stilled, and sank putrescent into the forest loam."

Sturgeon's story inspired a plethora of swamp-type creatures, specially in the world of comics. The reason the horror at its center is so effective, though, goes beyond setting and atmosphere. Damon Knight, obviously impressed by "It" (" . . . this hits me where I live . . . ") casts light on the underlying mechanism:

Sturgeon's powerful story, from Unknown, exploits the shuddery old idea of growth in decay—worms in dead meat, flies in dunghills. [ . . . ] Here is the myth of anti-life that you see in the visionary paintings of Hieronymous Bosch—the dread of darkness and death, paradoxically animated by the squirming "aliveness" of carrion. [8]

It is this death-in-life that is simultaneously enthralling and detestable. The violence and death caused by the creature are the result of a detached curiosity about the ways of the world ("It began searching") and the difference between life and death ("it lay in the blackness, not alive, not understanding death, believing itself dead"), coupled with the desire to end its own suffering ("it scrabbled painfully with its half-formed hands"). The thing is evil without knowing it is so. Consider some of the salient characteristics of evil proposed by critic and scholar Terry Eagleton in his recent book On Evil (2010): "So how do evil individuals try to persuade themselves that they are alive? The answer is simple and chilling: by tearing other people apart." This applies to the creature (in the exact negative): it believes itself dead and destroys others to persuade itself that this is true. Consider also: "Pure evil detests the very fact of human existence and wants to wipe it from the face of the earth" and "Evil is also entirely pointless." The creature too is filled with "hateful substances" and exists without ever being born, has no reason to be, and in fact ultimately disperses as a result of the same irrationality that keeps it coherent. It is pointless. It's not surprising that this classic has been reprinted often, including in The Horror Hall of Fame (1991), for its potency and wrenching vigor remain undiminished seventy years after it was published.

Sturgeon's "Butyl and the Breather" is a sequel to "Ether Breather" from IAPGSFS 1. There's nothing wrong with it, but it offers characters with little complexity and its plot stretches too thinly the comic tone of its accidentally-discovered-alien premise. If nothing else, this entertaining but rather humdrum sequel serves to once again reinforce the comparative excellence of "It," and offers proof, if any were necessary, of the range of Sturgeon's tone in his short fiction.

Oscar J. Friend's neat, Twilight-Zone-ish "The Impossible Highway" is competent in is ability to evoke strange menace but is technically undistinguished and will probably feel old-fashioned to the modern reader. Dr. Albert Nelson and his assistant Robert Mackensie stumble upon a perfectly smooth concrete highway in the middle of the wilderness, and along its border discover crystal cases containing perfectly preserved samples of each major stage of the evolution of life on Earth. The question, of course, is how far the sequence extends and what, if anything, comes after man. While the answer to these questions is not arresting, the conflict between Nelson and Mackensie helps to drive the piece dramatically, and the unresolved elements at the story's close are a plus. Friend's contributions to the pulp markets of the 1940s are fun but not of enduring value. His greatest imprint on SF probably derives from his role as editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Captain Future Magazine from 1941 to 1944 and from several anthologies edited in conjunction with Leo Margulies. Another story which takes a single fantastic conceit and dumps it into a mundane reality is Robert Arthur's breezy "Postpaid to Paradise," in which magical stamps allow escape to a heavenly place beyond the Earth. This is the first in Arthur's Murchison Morks club-story series, described by Anthony Boucher as being narrated with "delightfully bland plausibility." Arthur was a prolific short story writer, as well as radio and television producer and scriptwriter, and from the introduction it's clear that Asimov was a fan of his work. In fact, Asimov's Black Widower mysteries and his Azazel fantasy series mirror the narrative structure of "Postpaid to Paradise," beginning with the gathering of club members or story-listeners and invariably switching to the first person in the first line of the second section, and thereby introducing the speaker with "[he began]" or its equivalent.

Primarily comical and bright in effect is de Camp's "The Exalted." This was the fourth and last in the Johnny Black series, featuring a talking bear who has been uplifted to human-level intelligence. This was apparently a popular series: "The first story, 'The Command' (October 1938), in which Johnny has to save a scientific team, came first in reader's ratings."[9] In "The Exalted" de Camp pokes fun at various institutions, such as Yale, and other tropes like the scientific genius, through a somewhat convoluted plot involving profligate inventions (including a precursor of Bob Shaw's "slow glass"). In the end, though diverting, the story taken as standalone rather than as the climax of a series seems excessive in its scientific license and lacks the bite of satire. One can see why de Camp chose to make this the final Johnny Black piece.

This brings us to the last story under consideration (which in fact appears first in IAPGSFS 2), Williard Hawkins' "The Dwindling Sphere." This is a satirical take on man's relentless application of science and the depletion of resources in the pursuit of food-stuff production. The fulcrum of change is Frank Baxter's accidental discovery of a physical process, the plastocene principle, that allows the transmutation of any raw source into a specifically molded, textured substance. The most effective and intriguing element of the story is the forward time-jumping, which allows the massive consequences of the invention to be unveiled over a vast stretch of time. (This recall's Asimov's similar time-leaping gambit in "The Last Question"). As in "Quietus," here too there appears to be a an actual event likely to have inspired Hawkins: the emergence of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest, at least in part caused by the increasingly automated, erosion-provoking farming techniques applied to the soil.


In the next review of our survey we'll look at classics from 1941, by authors new to this series, including Eric Frank Russell, Fredric Brown, Anthony Boucher, C. M. Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, and James Blish, and other returning luminaries like Sturgeon, Asimov, Rocklynne, Moore, van Vogt, and del Rey.

Endnotes

[1] Barron, Neil, ed. Anatomy of Wonder. A Critical Guide to Science Fiction. West, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.

[2] del Rey, Lester. The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of a Subculture. Ballantine Books, 1979.

[3] James, Edward. Science Fiction in the 20th Century. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[4] Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. Oxford, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982.

[5] Williamson, Jack. The Crucible of Power: The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, Volume 5. Royal Oak, Michigan: Haffner Press, 2006.

[6] Clarke, Arthur C. Astounding Days. A Science Fictional Autobiography. Bantam Books, 1990.

[7] Clute, John. "Leiber, Fritz." The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Danbury, CT: Grolier, CD-ROM, 1995.

[[8] Knight, Damon. In Search of Wonder. Third Edition, Expanded and Revised. Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1996.

[9] Ashley, Mike. The Time Machines: the Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950. Volume 1 in The History of the Science Fiction Magazine. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

[10] Carter, Paul A. The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

[11] Stableford, Brian. Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories: Volume 2, 1940—Table of Contents

( * = highly recommended)

  1. "The Dwindling Sphere" by Williard Hawkins (Astounding, March)
  2. "The Automatic Pistol" by Fritz Leiber (Weird Tales, May)
  3. "Hindsight" by Jack Williamson (Astounding, May)
  4. "Postpaid to Paradise" by Robert Arthur (Argosy, June)
  5. "Into the Darkness" by Ross Rocklynne (Astonishing, June) *
  6. "Dark Mission" by Lester del Rey (Astounding, July)
  7. "It" by Theodore Sturgeon (Unknown, August) **
  8. "Vault of the Beast" by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding, August) *
  9. "The Impossible Highway" by Oscar J. Friend (Thrilling Wonder Stories, August)
  10. "Quietus" by Ross Rocklynne (Astounding, September) *
  11. "Strange Playfellow" by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, September)
  12. "The Warrior Race" by L. Sprague de Camp (Astounding, October)
  13. "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates (Astounding, October) *
  14. "Butyl and the Breather" by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding, October)
  15. "The Exalted" by L. Sprague de Camp (Astounding, November)
  16. "Old Man Mulligan" by P. Schuyler Miller (Astounding, December)

Further Recommendations

In researching this piece I came across other interesting stories from 1940 which might appeal to the Curious Reader. I'd like to point out references [9], [10], and [11] as useful supplemental tools for understanding the historical and thematic significance of these tales:

  1. "Twice in Time" by Manly Wade Wellman (Startling Stories, May)
  2. "When It was Moonlight" by Manly Wade Wellman (Unknown Fantasy Fiction, February)
  3. "When New York Vanished" by Henry Kuttner (Startling Stories, March)
  4. "The Roaring Trumpet" by Fletcher Pratt and Sprague de Camp (Unknown Fantasy Fiction, May)
  5. "The Unusual Romance of Ferdinand Pratt" by Nelson Bond (Weird Tales, September)
  6. "Cartwright's Camera" by Nelson Bond (Unknown Fantasy Fiction, November)
  7. "Proxies on Venus" by Nelson Bond (Science Fiction, June)
  8. "The Scientific Pioneer Returns" by Nelson Bond (Amazing Stories, November)
  9. "Trouble in Time" by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl as S. D. Gottesman (Astonishing Stories, December)
  10. "Stepsons of Mars" by C. N. Kornbluth as Ivar Towers (Astonishing Stories, April)
  11. "King Cole of Pluto" by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl as S. D. Gottesman (Super Science Stories, May)
  12. "The Kraken" by L. Ron Hubbard as Frederick Engelhardt (Unknown Fantasy Fiction, June)
  13. "The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years" by Don Wilcox (Amazing Stories, October)
  14. "Juice" by L. Sprague de Camp (Super Science Stories, May)
  15. "The Hardwood Pile" by L. Sprague de Camp (Unknown Fantasy Fiction, September)
  16. "Asokore Power" by L. Sprague de Camp (Super Science Stories, November)
  17. "'The Mosaic"' by J. B. Ryan (Astounding Science-Fiction, July)
  18. "'A Chapter from the Beginning" by A. M. Phillips (Astounding Science-Fiction, March)
  19. "The Great God Awto"' by Clark Ashton Smith (Thrilling Wonder Stories, February)
  20. "'Men of Iron"' by Guy Endore (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall)
  21. "The Carbon Eater"' by Douglas Drew (Astounding Science-Fiction, June)
  22. "Crisis in Utopia" by Norman L. Knight (Astounding Science-Fiction, July)
  23. "Reincarnate" by Lester del Rey (Astounding Science-Fiction, April)
  24. "But Without Horns" by Norvell W. Page (Unknown Fantasy Fiction, June)
  25. "The Circular Ruins" (original Spanish title: "Las Ruinas Circulares") by Jorge Luis Borges (El Sur, December)
  26. "The Oversight" by Miles J. Breuer (Comet Stories, December)

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters earned a BS in Theoretical Physics and studied creative writing. He now lives in California. His fiction has appeared in Farrago's Wainscot, Neon Literary Magazine, and other online venues. His reviews and critical essays have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Foundation, and elsewhere. If you too are waiting for your own pet Aineko, visit Alvaro's blog.



Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is the co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, a Stellar Guild series team-up published by Phoenix Pick (Nov 2012). Alvaro has also published short fiction, reviews, essays, and interviews in a variety of markets. He is still, however, waiting for his Aineko.
4 comments on “Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 2”

Alvaro-
Wow, this is awesome! I've been reading back in the classics for a few years now, but I am humbled by your depth and rigor. I look forward to future installments!

JD

I am inspired. I have just ordered Vol 1
Looks like I'll have to catch up....

Karen,
Thanks for your very generous response 🙂
Glad you're getting something out of these. Keep up the inspired (and inspiring) reading lists!

JD --
What better reward for this reviewer than knowing I helped promote the reading of great SF stories? 🙂
Hope you enjoy volume 1!

 

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