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The Great Science Fiction Stories vol 3 cover

Clipping the headband over my cranium, and fitting the copper rings against my skull where it sprouted ears, Burman connected his psychophone to the mains, switched it on; or rather he did some twiddling that I assumed was a mode of switching on.

"All you have to do," he said, "is close your eyes, compose yourself, then try and permit your imagination to wander into the future."

—Eric Frank Rusell, "Mechanical Mice" (1941)

The proliferation of markets I mentioned in the previous column reached its apex in 1941. Lester del Rey recollects:

The peak year was 1941. That year, the US stands carried a total of 100 issues, counting fantasy magazines (Unknown, Fantastic Adventures, Uncanny Stories, Weird Tales and Strange Stories) as well as science fiction. [1]

Mike Ashley reaches a similar verdict:

And so we reach the summer of 1941, the pinnacle of the sf pulp magazines. In this one period more pulp sf adventure titles were on the news-stands than at any previous time [of US origin only] there was a total of eighteen current publications, including Weird Tales and excluding Marvel and Uncanny. The general price was fifteen cents, some were ten, others twenty. The total output in one month was as much as $3.15 . . . a fair outlay in the pre-War days. [2a]

That's equivalent to about $50 in 2010 dollars. Given the effects of the 2007-9 recession, possibly the worst post-World War II crisis on record, spending $50 a month on speculative fiction may be a similar "fair outlay" for some present readers, so it’s easy to get a sense of scale. Ashley also arrives at a total of 100 issues in his tabulation, though his count includes two Canadian ventures. When he adds in a sampling of North American weird magazines, British SF, and other foreign SF, the total becomes a grand 191 issues. Granted, a lot of the foreign material consisted of reprints, but still, that's a healthy dollop of material.

Like the preceding two years, 1941 was a good year for debuts, and included first stories by Frederic Brown, Cleve Cartmill, William Morrison, Damon Knight, Ray Bradbury, and Wilson Tucker. Incidentally, it was Tucker who coined the term "space opera" in the same year:

In these hectic days of phrase-coining, we offer one. Westerns are called 'horse operas', the morning housewife tear-jerkers are called 'soap operas'. For the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn, or world-saving for that matter, we offer 'space opera'. [3]

It's a pity the term never caught on. If it had been adopted, one can almost foresee it becoming divorced of its original connotations and being used as a term of praise for popular space melodrama instead . . .

Tucker's "space opera" suggestion wasn’t an isolated case of genre-reference, either: Philip Babcock Gove published what may well be the first full-scale scholarly genre study, The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction, which includes such delightful concepts as the "fake voyage of discovery." Sam Moskowitz, who would later become known primarily for a number of book-length critical and historical studies, including one with which this very magazine shares its namesake, saw publication as well, but not with a non-fiction piece, rather a short story published in Comet Stories. Original book-form SF novels were still somewhat of a rarity, though L. Sprague de Camp's well-remembered time travel romp Lest Darkness Fall proved to be a remarkable outing, and Phil Strong edited the first speculative anthology of note, The Other Worlds.

It may have been an even stronger year for non-debuts. Heinlein dominated the top markets (see his recommended stories in the endnotes) with nine new stories, at least four of them Certified Classics. Alas, by the end of the year he was supporting the war effort as an engineer and didn't publish any new SF until 1946. Asimov produced two new robot stories in 1941, as well as the much-beloved (over-beloved, as I’ll argue later) "Nightfall." In fact, these contributions point to two deficiencies in IAPGSFS 3: once again we have no actual work by Heinlein, and "Reason," which I consider Asimov's best 1941 story by a wide margin, is left by the wayside. (Fortunately, it is readily available in other anthologies that are more reasonable on this issue, including the recent massive The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010)). On the whole, the anthology still provides a good balance of Astounding and non-Astounding material, and a decent mix of fantasy and science fiction. The emphasis tends to be on stories with surprise endings.

James P. Hogan, Gregory Benford, Jane Gaskell, and Anne Rice were born in 1941. But then again, just for perspective's sake, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, Rabindranath Tagore, and Virginia Woolf all died, so it's not clear what the balance was for human literary culture on the whole. Did I mention that E. E. Smith began publishing the "Second Stage Lensman" stories? Maybe that tips it over in favor of SF. The third World Science Fiction Convention, Denvention I, held in Denver, had an attendance of about 70.[4] Notably, and not surprisingly when perusing his bibliography, Robert A. Heinlein was Guest of Honor. Genre pictures that year included The Wolf Man (though dated, still superior to the 2010 remake) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while mainstream film included such anemic offerings as the now-forgotten Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon.


Non-Human Perspectives

Sturgeon is in full swing in "Microcosmic God," a compelling novelette about the creation and evolution of artificial life. Reclusive science whiz James Kidder creates a race of tiny creatures that live at a vastly accelerated rate, the Neoterics, and alters their environment in a controlled fashion that maximizes their technological inventions. His goal is to create a civilization that will produce inventions far surpassing anything dreamed up by humanity (of course the Neoterics themselves qualify as an astounding invention). He's a kind of supreme techno-farmer. Kidder's arch-nemesis banker eventually drives Kidder to summon a protective force field which turns out to be utterly impenetrable. The story's ending makes it clear that Kidder, in his God-role, has fashioned something of unimaginable power that will continue to evolve indefinitely. The theological implications in Sturgeon's treatment of the theme of creation are clear. As Farah Mendlesohn observes:

For most sf authors, religion is functionalist. But religion also provides a discourse

of power. The most impressive and the forefather of this tradition is perhaps Theodore Sturgeon's 'Microcosmic God' (1941). His protagonist succeeds in creating a microcosmic civilization, which he bullies and tortures to solve scientific and political problems. The story embodies both an assertion that we are god, and a challenge to the ethics of God's authority.[5]

Gabriel McKee, in the third chapter of The Gospel According to Science Fiction, his study of the religious iconography of SF, contrasts Sturgeon's position with that of H. G. Wells in The Island of Dr. Moreau:

In Wells's story, attempts to usurp God's position through science are destined to fail—nature is greater than humankind, and will remain unchanged despite our misguided attempts to force its hand. Sturgeon, however, argues that humankind can control nature; we can become gods. The trouble arises not when we fail, but rather when we succeed. We run the risk of creating something that can surpass us, and in time this risk may spell our doom.

At the risk of being narrow-minded, I'd like to suggest that the interpretation summarized in both the preceding quotes, though logical and textually defensible, may be, if you'll forgive the inversion, missing the trees for the forest. The opening line ("Here is a story about a man who had too much power, and a man who took too much, but don't worry; I'm not going political on you") bears close scrutiny in light of the conclusion, for despite the immensity of Kidder's creation, the fundamental circumstance that enables it is an excess of power. I don't feel that the main thrust of the tale, therefore, is that we are God or can become gods, but rather that an excess of power in the technological age is synonymous with what we tend to think of as religion. In other words, it is excessive material power, and not our inherent or technologically supported ability to become gods, that breeds theological influence.

The first of our next two-for-one selection also features a non-human race that replicates at an alarming rate, though the context and tone are quite different from Sturgeon's story. Eric Frank Russell is a new writer to this series and is here represented by two markedly varied pieces: "Mechanical Mice" and "Jay Score." He first appeared in Astounding in 1937 and, though British, it's hard to infer this from his early stories, which have been described as using "a slick pastiche-US style"[6a] and more specifically revealing the "the inspiration of Stanley G. Weinbaum".[2b] Readers who didn't catch his work in Astounding wouldn’t have missed it in Unknown, though, since its first issue debuted Russell's first novel, Sinister Barrier. In fact, John W. Campbell had been receiving science-lite material which he nevertheless wanted to publish and had been planning a fantasy-based companion magazine to Astounding as early as 1938; it seems that Russell helped him reach critical mass and launch Unknown in 1939 with that novel. Russell would go on to write in a variety of modes; space-opera and exploration stories, humorous and satirical tales (he won the Hugo award in 1955 for one of these, "Allamagoosa," and was nominated for a 1951 Retro-Hugo in 2001 for the novelette "Dear Devil"), somewhat occult fantasy inspired by the ideas of Charles Fort, and horror fiction for Weird Tales. All his key work is currently in print thanks to two handsome collections by NESFA press, Major Ingredients (2000) and Entities (2001), which gather his short stories and novels respectively.

"Mechanical Mice" makes use of two interesting SF ideas, each of which singly could have fueled a story of this length. The first notion is that of peering into the future and "inventing" in the present that which one has seen, in order to accumulate riches. Such is the operation being run by rich "inventor" Dan Burman, who uses a "psychophone" to psychically travel forward in time. He allows the narrator Bill, his friend and a reporter, to partake in the experience, and once Bill is convinced of its reality, shares with him his latest "creation," a mechanical box whose function neither man can initially explain. The machine is soon sending out "golden shuttles" to steal precision materials, ruthlessly appropriating them from nearby jewelries and killing a multitude of cats in the process. As Burman and Bill investigate further, they hit on the horrific truth, which is the second main idea of the piece: the machine is replicating itself, following some higher mandate to propagate and spread. As noted in the website Technovelgy, this precedes the first serious scientific proposal of the same idea by seven years: "The first scientist to write about self-reproducing automata was John von Neumann, who delivered a lecture in 1948 called 'General and Logical Theory of Automata' at a symposium in Pasadena, California." Russell visited the idea of machine-intelligence in other stories, and even described a society of machines in "Mechanistra," but what remains compelling about his "mechanical mice" is their insidious, mindless, relentless nature: their purpose is blind to ethics. Outside of this chilling, visionary SF element, the story can be curiously read as a conservative affirmation of the belief that it’s best not to know the future—or at least, best not to know it imperfectly. The style is a little whiz-bang dated, and I enjoyed the early "psychophone"-related scenes the most, specially the mention of far-future events such as the Antibox Rebellion, "the revolt of the automatons against thirty-first century Technocrats." Now there's something I wouldn't mind reading more about.

Russell's second story, "Jay Score," which would be succeeded by two further entries in the same starship series, also features mechanical intelligence, this time in the form of a robot. In my review of IAPGSFS 1 I mentioned some stories from the mid-to-late 1930s that featured sympathetic robots before Asimov's famous creations, and "Jay Score" can be added to that roster. The story itself chronicles the peril faced by a mixed starship crew en route to Venus after suffering damage by a micro-meteor, which wrecks the ship's propulsion system and sends them off toward the sun: "Our fat in the solar fire." Jay Score is the emergency pilot, closely watched by the narrator, who on more than one occasion is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible and ultimately, through a heroic action that leaves him blind and mute, saves the crew. Readers will guess in advance of the ending what makes Jay special, but there's fun in the ride. As Damon Knight commented, despite the "trick-ending gimmick" the story is "very good in its own way".[7] The idea of a space-crew comprised not only of humans, but of non-Caucasian humans (the ship's surgeon is black) and aliens, has caused this story to be cited as a forerunner of Star Trek's multi-ethnic starships template. I can see why the story might be praised for this element, but I'd like to point out Russell's futuristic rationale for including Blacks as surgeons: "because for some reason none can explain no Negro gets gravity-bends or space nausea." In other words, to justify the presence of black people in space, Russell invents a spurious biological attribute.

And now we welcome James Blish to this series. Blish's significant contributions to the field as a writer, critic, and editor are hard to summarize in a line or two, and we could do worse than quote one of Peter Nicholls's closing observations from the SF Encyclopedia:

JB was an interesting example of a writer with an enquiring mind and a strong literary bent—with some of the crotchets of the autodidact—who turned his attention to fundamentally pulp genre-SF materials and in so doing transformed them. His part in the transformation of pulp sf to something bigger is historically of the first importance. Nonetheless, he was not a naturally easy or harmonious writer; his style was often awkward, and in its sometimes anomalous displays of erudition it could appear cold.

"Solar Plexus" may be the first story about a human-ship cyborg (and may also hold the distinction, in its anthologized form, of containing the first instance of the term "gas giant"). Scientist Murray Bennett has had his own brain surgically removed and connected with the spaceship Astrid's electronic systems; in essence, he and the ship are now one, and he perceives directly via its sensors, now the equivalent of his body's organs. Bran Kittinger is taken prisoner aboard the ship, and learns that Bennett intends to perform on him the same procedure that he underwent, thereby creating a second sentient ship. Naturally, Kittinger has some objections to this and, after discovering a second captive, devises a plan to gain control of the Astrid by capitalizing on Bennett's fused condition. Ship cyborgs and related riffs have appeared frequently since Blish's story, all the way from Henry Kuttner's "Camouflage" (1945) to the multi-limbed Pilot who is biologically connected to the sentient ship Moya in Farscape (1999-2003), by way of famous stories such as Anne McCaffrey's "The Ship Who Sang" (1961; novel 1970) and George Zebrowski's "Starcrossed" (1973).

In his book-length study on Blish, David Ketterer speculates that the several-times reprinted "Solar Plexus" is the story Blish was referring to when he wrote of his first ten that "only one had any merit whatsoever".[8] Knight observed of this piece that "technically it was pretty crude"; I think it's competently if unspectacularly crafted and readable. Knight had a lot more to say about the story, too, most of which is related to one of his most famous critical analyses, that of Blish's own "Common Time." Knight had earlier provided an elaborate symbolic interpretation of "Common Time", creating a full page-length table of lines unconsciously referring to Intercourse and Death. Blish must have been intrigued by this in some measure, and became an active participant in Knight's line of thinking, going back and identifying a "covert plot" and repeated theme, which he termed Being Born, in every one of his early stories.[9] In "Solar Plexus" he anatomized the theme explicitly for Knight, who subsequently remapped the story's ship-based events to a genital space (and argued that, in fact, Being Born is the one thing that doesn't happen symbolically at all). Knight reinterprets Kittinger as a sperm who is expelled from the testis, travels down the epididymis, inguinal canal, into the uterus and then the space between the ovary and oviduct, when he joins forces with the ovum and returns to the uterus.[10] While impressive for the apparent accuracy of its one-to-one correspondence between the ship's landscape and the reproductive systems, this model fails to assign special sexual significance to Bennett's technologically merged status and is problematic on a macro-level. What does it mean for Bennett to be both inside the uterus and outside of it, for his consciousness to permeate the rest of his (her?) organs? Knight suggests that Bennett is "mama," but is this the case only because Bennett and the ship are indivisible? If "mama" harbors the desire to extract some unit of sentience from Kittinger (his brain) and create a second ship/mother (reproduction, it seems), is the implication then that Kittinger is not only a sperm, but one who has revolted against the biological drive toward procreation and has taken matters into his own hands? And just for kicks, I'd like to offer a reminder that Astrid derives from the Old Norse words for Divine Beauty, and surely, in the hands of the ever-wily Blish, that can’t be a coincidence. . . .

Perhaps what I find even more interesting than Knight's interpretation is Blish's accomplice status in its formulation. It denotes the attitude of someone detached enough from his own work to find things in it of which he was completely unaware, but also perhaps astute enough to encourage extended critical discussion of his work, regardless of the discussion's specific applicability.

Back to robots now. We looked at Asimov's "Strange Playfellow," his first robot story, in IAPGSFS 2, and now we examine "Liar!", his third robot story, and the first to feature robopsychologist Susan Calvin and to explicitly spell out the Three Laws of Robotics. Asimov writes that after completing "Liar!" he fell in love with Calvin, and he penned nine other Calvin robot stories. (The character may yet be resurrected: in 2009 it was announced that Mickey Zucker Reichert would write an Asimov Estate-authorized prequel trilogy featuring a young Calvin.) In "Liar!" the robot Herbie has been accidentally gifted with telepathy, and as the story unfolds he is placed under increasing stress by the main characters to reveal what the other characters are thinking about them. As always in the robot stories, the tension arises from the Three Laws: to prevent the humans obvious harm, Herbie tells them what they want to hear. Eventually the truth comes out and Calvin, wounded by the realization that her aching love for Milton Ashe is in reality unrequited, despite the fact that Herbie had led her to believe the exact opposite, takes her revenge on him by confronting the robot with the paradox that no matter what he does—speak the truth or lie—he will be causing humans harm and therefore breaking the First Law. This overwhelms Herbie's postrionic brain and kills him. While I admit that Calvin is developed more fully in latter stories, here she comes across as insecure, adolescent, and vengeful. Still, despite the somewhat wooden prose, the story clicks along, and it's interesting to see how the resolution of the human problem, in particular Calvin's love story, provides the resolution to the robotic problem. It's also of note as canon in Asimov's broader development of his Robot/Empire series, as he later cast the events of "Liar!" into a quasi-mythical light in the novel The Robots of Dawn (1983), which takes place almost one thousand five hundred years later. Fans of the original Star Trek, in which Kirk has a notorious habit of driving computers to self-destruction by confronting them with some cognitive dissonance, may also get a kick out of this early embodiment of the idea. Though I won't repeat the exercise in stylistic comparison I did last time, I'll note that as with "Strange Playfellow," the version of "Liar!" that appears in IAPGSFS 3 is exactly the same as that which was published in magazine form, while the version in I, Robot and other venues contains polishing edits.

We've come to an important moment, the time for me to make a heretical declaration. Hiss and boo if you must, but I'm charging forward with this claim anyway: it's unnecessary to read "Nightfall" in order to enjoy it, and reading it may in fact diminish its pleasure.

Yes, I'm aware that "Nightfall" has been reprinted fifty times or more, adapted in radio and film, expanded to novel length by Robert Silverberg, and in 1968 voted "the best science fiction short story written prior to the establishment of the Nebula Awards in 1965" by the Science Fiction Writers of America. I still think one doesn't miss much by skipping it. For one, it's not well-written. There are no memorable characters and little distinguished description. On the whole it's not particularly moving. (Asimov himself, by the way, characterized it as having "serious flaws and crudities as far as writing style is concerned" and liked at least three of his other stories better.) Its strength relies almost entirely on the drama generated by its conceptual setup, namely a society unused to seeing the stars because of continuous bright sunlight, but which nevertheless experiences nightfall once every thousand years. I would venture that there aren't many readers who haven’t heard of this premise by now (and how Campbell originally proposed it in disagreement with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson), and few who don’t know the outcome. Knowledge of the effects of nightfall upon this invented society, and the astronomical situation that leads to such effects, is tantamount to knowing the identity of a murderer in a whodunit and pretty much eliminates the need to read it. James Gunn notes that "the plot develops much more mechanically than in some of his better stories . . . the characters are barely functional, and the language is little more than that." He then tackles the inevitable question of why, if this is the case, it has been so highly regarded. Partly, he argues, because "it is a puzzle to be worked out," partly because of the "alignment of forces: the rational people, the scientists, opposed by the irrational, the mobs and the Cultists," and finally because of the "size of its concept and the image with which the story concludes." I think Gunn's central insight is that the subject of the piece is really "ignorance; the ignorance of the laws that govern the universe, ignorance of phenomena such as 'night' and 'stars,' which makes the Lagashians, even the scientists, victims of their own fears."[11] From a cultural perspective one can see the appeal of this theme both to rationalist readers and to devotees of Campbell's flavor of speculative fiction; indeed, a tale in which people behave irrationally because of their incomplete worldview might seem specially relevant in a year in which the U.S. entered the Second World War.

Robert Reed published an homage story, "Night Calls" (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 2007, which also republished the original as part of the magazine's 30th anniversary celebration), which can be read as a sort of inversion. One thing it obviously shares is its preoccupation with what Gunn called the "most important element" of "Nightfall," namely the subject of the "relationship of people to the universe," and it handles similarly deep questions about science and religion. Though Reed's story is perforce less conceptually distinguished than Asimov's, his overall craft is considerably superior and his characters better developed.

Pierre Bayard, in his mischievous book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, provides a list of abbreviations that includes HB for "books I have heard about" and a rating system where "++" denotes an "extremely positive opinion" and "+" merely a "positive opinion." Someone should create the list of HB that we don't need to read in speculative fiction. I’d like to suggest that "Nightfall" occupy one of the top spots in that list. But I claimed before that one can enjoy "Nightfall" without reading it. How to accomplish this task? Look up a detailed plot summary, as many spoilers as possible included, and marvel at the ideas. The story won't rival whatever you dream up.


Beginnings, Endings, and Timebends

Brian Aldiss once coined a term for stories whose "twist" endings reveal them to be nothing more than transfigurations of Biblical or mythological lore, most notably related to the Garden of Eden: "Shaggy God" stories. Robert Arthur, whose breezy contribution to IAPGSFS 2 was entertaining but perhaps not exactly a classic, here works squarely in the disreputable tradition of the Shaggy God subgenre with "Evolution's End." My apologies if that's giving away too much of the plot, but readers will probably figure out where things are headed early on anyway; the far-future, uber-evolved Masters are huge-domed, super-smart, and emotionless. They are curious, though, and Master Dmu Dran, in an unusual bow to humility, muses as follows: "I sometimes think . . . that though we consider ourselves the last step in evolution's chain, we may be wrong. Who know what plans nature has for us? None of us. But we shall." For he has devised a machine that speeds up the evolutionary transformation "that lies in all plants and animals" and reveals the terrible fate towards which his race is headed 100,000 years hence. Naturally, the two protagonists, members of a servant sub-race, present a viable alternative to such a destiny. Arthur's story gloriously misunderstands the process of evolution—in a fashion similar to Edmond Hamilton's classic forerunner "The Man Who Evolved"—attributing an inbuilt directionality outside of the process of adaptation to the environment. The story's conclusion, which takes an End and turns it into a New Beginning, is neat in a rosy-spectacled Golden-Age-tint sort of way, but outside of this feel-good nostalgia there’s not much else to recommend for contemporary readers.

If you haven’t ready anything by Alfred Bester, another new name to this series, you ought to start yesterday, preferably with The Demolished Man (1951). I am hard-pressed to try and summarize Bester's achievements in a sentence, so I will simply quote Robert Silverberg, from his book on craft Science Fiction 101: "Dazzle has always been Bester's stock-in-trade." That is immediately evident in Bester's most famous works from the 1950s, but the early "Adam and No Eve" is no slouch either, even if a little more less technically sophisticated. It tells of Stephen Crane's hubris and the disastrous consequences of his actions. Crane has discovered a method of propulsion that could be used to reach the Moon, but is advised against it because even a tiny amount of the new catalyst leaked by his rocket exhaust could start a chain reaction that would eat away all of the Earth's iron. And of course, it does. Crane, to boot, loses consciousness as he's pushing high-Gs in his space-climb, and wakes up to find himself in the unimaginable apocalypse of which he was forewarned. Bester depicts Crane's grim and waning journey across the wasteland without sentimentality, and weaves in the back-story artfully through fragmentary, almost-hallucinogenic flashbacks. It's the ending, though, that's the real kicker, delivering a profoundly redemptive personal idea in the context of a vast biological process, and elegantly illustrating once more how an end can also be a beginning. I imagine some readers might find the overall experience glum; for me the starkness was beautiful.

Far less satisfying, and at times almost a chore to get through, was Ross Rocklynne's "Time Wants a Skeleton." I have to admit, I approached this one with high expectations, having seen it was part of The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction (ed. Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg, 1989) and having heard comments from veteran writers about its charm. Tony Crow, criminal Harry Jawbone Yates, Professor Overland, daughter Laurette, and a few others accidentally travel back through time millions of years, and end up stranded on Asteroid 1007, where Crow makes the discovery of a skeleton wearing a gold ring. How a skeleton can exist in a time before humans is more than befuddling, and the mystery is only compounded when Crow notices that one of the crew has the exact same ring he saw on the skeleton. In essence, without giving away the details (which are less relevant than you might suspect), the novella relies on a highly convoluted closed causal loop. As Paul J. Nahin notes in the excellent study Time Machines (1990), the physical "principle of self-consistency," which allows for events that are not strictly causal, as long as they are logically consistent at different times, has existed in scientific literature since the early 1900s, and Lord Dunsany used it in a play from 1928. Rocklynne exploits it in the most dramatic form of having his characters confront a skeleton that seems to be one of them at some future time, but the pleasure of discovering how all of the pieces fit together in an apparently impossible timeline isn’t enough to offset the myriad weaknesses. My main objection is that the underlying notion of self-consistency is stretched well past the breaking point: the narrative is studded with poorly-delineated, almost interchangeable characters, and spectacular things, pulpishly described, happen and happen and keep on happening to the point of exhaustion. Less would have been considerably more. The opening lines should give you an idea of the adrenaline levels:

Asteroid No. 1007 came spinning relentlessly up.

Lieutenant Tony Crow's eyes bulged. He released the choked U-bar frantically, and pounded on the auxiliary underjet controls. Up went the nose of the ship, and stars, weirdly splashed across the heavens, showed briefly.

Then the ship fell, hurling itself against the base of the mountain. Tony was thrown from the control chair. He smacked against the wall, grinning twistedly. He pushed against it with a heavily shod foot as the ship teetered over, rolled a bit, and then was still—still, save for the hiss of escaping air.

Keep in mind, this is just the start; things are going to get a lot more Exciting. I can appreciate how this time-bending tale might have proved thrilling and, in a less visceral way, intellectually satisfying in its resolution, back when it was published, but it's too creaky for my tastes.

If Rocklynne's construct examines, with Technicolor earnestness, the predetermination of certain things happening in one timeframe so that others may happen (or have happened, as the case may be) in a different timeframe, Anthony Boucher's "Snulbug" develops a more picaresque attitude towards the question of temporal inevitability, suggesting that knowledge of the future may be a useless weapon against it. Attempting changes may in fact serve only to trap one inside a loop. The eponymous Snulbug is a demon summoned by one Bill Hitchens, eager to exploit his talents in order to generate a small fortune. Though Snulbug isn't powerful enough to change the future, Hitchens nonetheless attempts, time and again, to raise cash by using next day time travel. As you can imagine, his efforts don't quite culminate in the payoff he's hoping for.

Though "Snulbug" isn't mind-blowing, it's certainly amusing, confident in its storytelling tone and ironic style, and additionally praiseworthy for being Boucher's first published story. To give you an idea of its perceived merit, It has been reprinted numerous times, including in the 1983 edition of The Fantasy Hall of Fame. (Boucher would be represented in the 1998 edition with another excellent story, "The Compleat Werewolf"). Boucher is probably best known to SF readers today as the co-founder, along with J. Francis McComas, of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which he edited from 1949 to 1958. His collected SF material can be conveniently located in the NESFA-published The Compleat Boucher (1999). Boucher's contributions to the mystery field are even more extensive than his SF-related enterprising, though: he penned several well-received novels, authored many critical pieces on the genre, and even inspired Bouchercon, the annual Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention dedicated to mystery and detective fiction, which started in 1970 and continues to this day.

Practically all of the comments I made about A. E. van Vogt's "Vault of the Beast" in IAPGSFS 2 could apply to "The Seesaw," too, which causes me some trepidation—will all his remaining stories in these volumes be like this, wild birds jammed to excess with delicious stuffing, but sorely undercooked, ever more akin to turkeys? Still, "The Seesaw" has wings enough to get off the ground, even if it ends (literally) in a vast collision of forces, and it does mark the beginning of the famous Weapon Shops of Isher series, so I suppose I can't entirely dismiss it. Oh, what the heck, it's entertaining enough. It opens with a newspaper extract that tells of a building that materialized in a spot normally occupied by other shops, mysteriously advertising "THE FINEST ENERGY WEAPONS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE." Then we find out what ensued when reporter C. J. McAllister entered the building to discover that it's no ordinary shop, and no longer 1941, but rather "eighty-four of the four thousand seven hundredth year of the Imperial House of Isher." McAllister, naturally, has become embroiled in a struggle of cosmic proportions, becoming a "weight" at the end of a "crowbar" which will fling him five thousand years into the past—and so on.

As the ideas pile on and the action explodes in fits and bursts of ever-escalating unpredictability, one is easily disoriented—but this effect almost enhances the story, lending it a sort of surreal charm. In a 1980 interview van Vogt describes his working method at the time of writing this story, and reflects: "I was—so I thought later—unnoticingly tapping my subconscious mind.” I hope that for modern readers experiencing "The Seesaw" for the first time, it holds their attention long enough to not unwittingly tap into their subconscious mind or, said more simply, put them to sleep, because it really is worth sticking around to for the very last line, which inflates Rocklynne's closed time-loop notion to mind-staggering proportions. Arthur C. Clarke wrote of it: "Si monumentum requires, circumspice indeed! I defy anyone to find a more awesome last line in the whole of fiction."[12]

There's also another upside. The idea of the "seesaw" effect, or time-travel-conservation, for lack of a better term, in which forward traveling must be compensated with backward traveling, may have inspired at least two stories superior to van Vogt's: William Tenn's "Brooklyn Project" (which we will get to in IAPGSFS 10!), and Robert Silverberg's novel Project Pendulum (1987). Both are worth seeking out, if only to see that good things can come from muddled beginnings.


Horror, Humor, and Satire

Cyril Kornbluth, subject of recent somewhat controversial biography ten years in the making (C. M. Kornbluth (2009) by Mark Rich) only lived to be thirty-four, but in that short time left an indelible stamp on the history of SF. He was the most prolific of the Futurian fan-group, and stories like "The Little Black Bag" and "The Marching Morons" were regarded as nothing less than brilliant. (We will examine them for ourselves, when we reach volumes IAPGSFS 12 and 13 respectively.) Short fiction was the form in which he excelled, and it's been observed that "much of his work is deeply ingrained with bitter irony,"[6b] perhaps one its most salient and recognizable qualities. His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth (1997) provides the best one-stop shopping for this output. Though his novels, mostly collaborations, are less inspired and dynamic, several, including the classic The Space Merchants (1952) (with Frederik Pohl), still retain artistic vitality and cultural relevance. Kornbluth was only eighteen when both of the very short pieces in IAPGSFS 3 appeared professionally ("The Rocket of 1955" was in fact previously published pseudonymously in a fanzine when he was fifteen!), and while they don't achieve the mastery associated with his work in the late 1940s and beyond, they do hint at greatness or, at the very least, unequivocal stylistic originality. The tone is important: both "The Rocket of 1955" and "The Words of Guru" hum along acerbically, even cynically. Asimov describes the man who wrote them, whom he speculates never liked him, as "erratically and morosely brilliant," and Kornbluth's personal eccentricities had been documented in several writer's autobiographies. "The Rocket of 1955" is a somewhat humorless piercing of the dream of space-travel, concocted of mordant psychology and a first-person voice that approximates some of Mark Twain's short stories. Of "The Words of Guru" Knight wrote that it "deserves the place in the literature generally assigned to something by Dunsany,"[13] and it's certainly otherworldly (with settings like "No-place" and auras like the "Presence"). The metaphysical implications of the power of language not only to transform, but sunder the world, are probably best pondered in the context of Kornbluth's own life experiences and complex personality.

I have the sense, based on reader's reviews and comments, that Sturgeon's "Shottle Bop" is generally better liked than I like it. Part of this may be the result of Sturgeon self-competing in this anthology, like he did in IAPGSFS 2 with "It" and "Butyl and the Breather." If "It" hadn’t existed, I would have probably thought more of "Butyl," unfair as that is. Something similar happens here: "Shottle Bop," a comic supernatural tale about wasted talent, can’t compete with "Microcosmic God," and so I irrationally like it less on that account. The protagonist, distraught after a failed courtship, enters one of those infinitely familiar old magic shops and later imbibes the contents of one of the bottles acquired during his visit. His resulting ability is to see the spirits of the dead, though here, unlike in Dean Koontz's recent four-book Odd Thomas (2003-8) series that shares the same premise, the effect doesn't work both ways and they cannot see him. Hubris, insecurity, or desire for revenge lead him to exploit his gift and eventually cause harm, after which he loses the talent, and even more disastrous consequences ensue. We know Sturgeon is capable of horrific things (see "It" or "Bianca's Hands") but here he's going mostly for laughs and suspense, grounded in morality. Still, I'd choose a store that wryly advertises "WE SELL BOTTLES / With things in them" over one that boasts "THE FINEST ENERGY WEAPONS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE" any day.

Fredric Brown, like Anthony Boucher, labored in the mystery field extensively, winning an Edgar Award for his first mystery novel. His SF work is typically characterized in terms of its sharpness, comedy, and punch-packing skills, and he specialized, to some extent, in short short stories, in cases short enough for modern readers to think of them as flash fiction. His two best-known SF novels, What Mad Universe (1949) and Martians, Go Home (1955), are a parody and a satire respectively. "Arena," one of his best-known and most influential stories, is included in the SFWA-selected Science Fiction Hall of Fame (we'll get to that story when we reach IAPGSFS 6), and the voluminous NESFA-published From These Ashes (2001) collects his entire short fiction. "Armageddon" doesn’t quite reach the heights of witticism, satire, or elegance of Brown's top works, but it provides a diverting showcase of his skills, placing the burden of saving the world on the shoulders of young Herbie Westerman. Herbie attends a stage performance in which the magician Gerber the Great has been, through an accident involving a Tibetan lama, replaced by Satan. How can "little Herbie," armed only with a water pistol, hope to save the world? The explanation is clever and the outcome enjoyable.

In IAPGSFS 1 we encountered Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore separately; here, in "A Gnome There Was," we get them combined. In that same volume we met water gnomes in H. L. Gold's "Trouble With Water," and here, as plain as the title, we obtain of the regular variety. Tim Crockett, almost killed in a mining explosion, falls into the underground world of gnomes, is transformed into one, and must adapt to their strange ways or perish. As Don D'Ammassa points out in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction (2006):

There are lots of amusing tidbits in the story. For example, the first emperor of the gnomes was unaccountably Podrang the Third, whose descendant is Podrang the Second. Most of the humor results from reversals. The gnomes bathe in mud, and cheating in a fight is admirable rather than dishonorable. Crockett is put to work mining anthracite, and before long he is involved in organizing the other gnomes into a union.

While I agree that these inversions, together with the general rampant outlandishness of Crockett's predicament, make for a few chuckles, the elements of violence and the underlying claustrophobia temper the humor with an atmosphere of quasi-horror. The ending, involving a transforming spell, is worth hanging around for, but most definitely does not add to the humor. This unlikely combination of mischief and murk, together with the strengths in the writing, lend the narrative more freshness than one might anticipate based on the subject matter and its overtly fantastical treatment.

Lester del Rey's "Hereafter, Inc." is a smoothly ironic variation on the Heaven-turns-out-to-be-different than-you-think theme, which avoids the more overt sentimentality and adventure focus of his pieces in the previous two volumes. The unsympathetically named protagonist, Phineas Theophilus Potts, has been living a tedious life of self-denial, trapped in an apartment he doesn't like, working for a boss he can't stand, and in general reining in his every impulse to curse at the world for fear of sinning and thereby forfeiting a ticket to a heavenly afterlife. Except, one day, he wakes to find himself in a world much like the one he's always known, with just a few notable differences . . . enough to make it clear he's entered an altogether different realm. Given the drabness of his surroundings and how similarly petty to his real life this one is, he suspects that a mistake has been made and he's been sent to the Other place instead. He then proceeds to register a complaint with the Adjustment and Appointment office (!), who challenge him with the task of imagining what his Heaven ought to be, if not this. Small minds, del Rey's tale makes clear, are above all trapped by the smallness of their thinking, whether in this life or the next; specific belief systems come second. That's a fine reflection on which to conclude the anthology.


In the next review of our survey we'll look at classics from 1942, by authors new to this series, including Hal Clement, Donald Wollheim, and George O. Smith, along with familiar names like Brown, del Rey, Asimov, van Vogt, and Boucher.

Endnotes

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

[2a] Michael Ashley, ed. The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part Two 1936-1945. New English Library, 1975.

[2b] Mike Ashley. 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.

[3] Wilson Tucker, writing as Bob Tucker. "Depts of the Interior." Le Zombie, p. 8. January 1941.

[4] del Rey. The World of Science Fiction.

[5] Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[6a] John Clute. "Russell, Eric Frank." The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Danbury, CT: Grolier, CD-ROM, 1995.

[6b] Brian Stableford. "Kornbluth, Cyril M." The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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

[8] David Ketterer. Imprisoned in a Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish. Kent, Ohio and London, England: Kent State University Press, 1987.

[9] Knight. In Search of Wonder.

[10] Knight. In Search of Wonder.

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

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

[13] Knight. In Search of Wonder.

Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories: Volume 3, 1941—Table of Contents

( * = recommended; ** = highly recommended)

  1. "Mechanical Mice" by Maurice A. Hugi [pseud. Eric Frank Russell] (Astounding, January)
  2. "Shottle Bop" by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding, February)
  3. "The Rocket of 1955" by C. M. Kornbluth (Stirring Science Stories, April)
  4. "Evolution's End" by Robert Arthur (Thrilling Wonder Stories, April)
  5. "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding, April) **
  6. "Jay Score" by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding, May)
  7. "Liar!" by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, May) *
  8. "Time Wants a Skeleton" by Ross Rocklynne (Astounding, June)
  9. "The Words of Guru" by C. M. Kornbluth (Stirring Science Stories, June)
  10. "The Seesaw" by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding, July)
  11. "Armageddon" by Fredric Brown (Unknown, August)
  12. "Adam and No Eve" by Alfred Bester (Astounding, September) **
  13. "Solar Plexus" by James Blish (Astonishing, September) *
  14. "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, September)
  15. "A Gnome There Was" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Unknown, October) *
  16. "Snulbug" by Anthony Boucher (Unknown, December)
  17. "Hereafter, Inc." by Lester del Rey (Unknown, December) *

Further Recommendations

For anyone interested in extracurricular points, here are some additional fantastic entertainments from 1941 with which to while away a rainy afternoon or twelve. And don't think that these are all just ripping yarns, either. Some writers and scholars praise them quite ardently. Richard Lupoff, for instance, contends that E. E. Smith's "The Vortex Blaster" should have won the Hugo Award for best short story, had the award existed at the time.

(You'll also notice that the selection includes a Heinlein mini-festival. Within it, + denotes Heinlein stories that would have been published in IAPGSFS 3, rights permitting; as in previous volumes, Asimov introduces them, even though the stories themselves are absent).

  1. "The Garden of Forking Paths" (original Spanish title: "El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan") by Jorge Luis Borges (El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan)
  2. "The Lottery in Babylon" (original Spanish title: "La Lotería en Babilonia") by Jorge Luis Borges (Sur, January)
  3. "Reason" by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science-Fiction, April)
  4. "Logic of Empire" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, March)
  5. "And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, February) +
  6. "Elsewhen" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, September)
  7. "Universe" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, May) +
  8. "Lost Legacy" by Robert A. Heinlein (Super Science Stories, November)
  9. "By His Bootstraps" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, October) +
  10. "Solution Unsatisfactory" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, May) +
  11. "They" by Robert A. Heinlein (Unknown, April) +
  12. "Common Sense" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, October)
  13. "The Stolen Dormouse" by L. Sprague de Camp (Astounding Science-Fiction, April)
  14. "The Sea-King's Armored Division" by L. Sprague de Camp (Astounding Science-Fiction, September)
  15. "The Geometrics of Johnny Day" by Nelson S. Bond (Astounding Science-Fiction, July)
  16. "The Ballad of Blaster Bill" [poem] by Nelson S. Bond (Planet Stories, Summer)
  17. "A Matter of Speed" by Harry Bates (Astounding Science-Fiction, June)
  18. "Spaceship in a Flask" by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding Science-Fiction, July)
  19. "Artnan Process" by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding Science-Fiction, June)
  20. "A Meteor Legacy" by Raymond Z. Gallun (Astounding Science-Fiction, August)
  21. "The Probable Man" by Alfred Bester (Astounding Science-Fiction, July)
  22. "The Robot God" by Ray Cummings (Weird Tales, July)
  23. "Almost Human" by Ray Cummings (Super Science Novels, March)
  24. "Cosmic Derelict" by Neil R. Jones (Astonishing Stories, February)
  25. "Captives of the Durna Rangue" by Neil R. Jones (Super Science Stories, March)
  26. "Vampire of the Void" by Neil R. Jones (Planet Stories, Spring)
  27. "The Mislaid Charm" by A. M. Phillips (Unknown, February)
  28. "Golden Nemesis" by David A. Kyle (Stirring Science Stories, February)
  29. "The Vortex Blaster" by E. E. Smith (Cosmic Stories, July)

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.
One comment on “Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 3”

An attentive reader has observed that there were in fact four "Jay Score" stories, not three, as I state.
They are:
"Jay Score" (Astounding, May 1941)
"Mechanistria" (Astounding, January 1942)
"Symbiotica" (Astounding, October 1943)
"Mesmerica" (first pub in the collection MEN, MARTIANS AND MACHINES, 1955)

 

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