Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Great Science Fiction Stories 1 (1939)

Poking around the Internet Science Fiction Database a few weeks ago, trying to determine where I could find a reputedly classic short story, I stumbled upon a series of anthologies that began their print run in 1979. Edited by Martin Greenberg and Isaac Asimov, the 23 volumes of this series set out upon the enormous task of reviewing the short science fiction for each year from 1939 to 1964, pick the twenty or so best stories and reprint them. For someone like me who readily admits to not having a good knowledge of the works of the early golden age of science fiction, such a series would be a treasure trove. And so, again applying my Internet skills, I was able to find a copy of the first volume, and excitedly settled in for a good read.

To be blunt, it turned out to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, most of the stories were at least interesting, but some of them just have not aged well. As you might imagine, stories written for a popular audience in the 30s that deal with racial stereotypes and sexual dynamics sometimes can make a modern reader flinch. One such story was H. L. Gold's "Trouble with Water" where the Jewish stereotype is thick and heavy, and the humor that uses the stereotypes as a foundation just misses in the current day. This is not to say that the premise isn't interesting, that there are water sprites that become magically offended when slighted; the result is a broad slapstick story of a man suddenly no longer able to touch water and the effects of such a curse. Making the lead character a sorely put-upon Jew might well have been funny in the 30s, but the stereotype rankles now. Nonetheless, that very uncomfortableness provides an interesting historical touchpoint that provides some worth to the story's selection.

But the selection process itself is fairly opaque. While Greenberg writes a short biographical introduction to each story, what would have been more interesting, at least to this reader, is some conversation about why the story made the cut as one of the best of the year. While the biographies are interesting, they do very little to place the story into a context and describe what makes them stand out. Asimov also contributes a paragraph or so to each introduction, usually a description of Asimov's relationship or interaction with the author. Unfortunately, those reminiscences are somewhat over the top, making it appear that Asimov is bending over backwards to not say anything untoward about the authors. Strangely, the only author who doesn't get the kid-glove treatment is Robert Heinlein, for whom Asimov tells the story of Heinlein giving the young Asimov his first (and apparently only) alcoholic drink. Asimov's tone when talking about Heinlein is, to put it mildly, ambivalent and easily read as downright snarky.

But these are just minor distractions, usually less than a single page each, from the usually fascinating stories that were selected. I was delighted to find authors represented that I had never heard of before and others of whom I had read only one or two stories. All told, before picking up the book, I had only read three of the stories before and was delighted to read them again.

The collection starts off strongly with Otto Binder (writing as Eando Binder) and "I, Robot." Fans of The Outer Limits know this story as the basis for an episode starring Leonard Nimoy about a robot accused of murdering his maker. While the TV episode focuses on the human reaction to the "murder," the original short story is actually a journal entry from the accused robot, describing not only what actually happened but the robot's perspective on the people pursuing him. The story clearly evokes the classic Frankenstein but offers a modern twist on it, describing as it does the maturity of a created mechanical brain rather than the reawakening of a human one.

Another powerful story is Lester del Rey's "The Day is Done" describing the heartache and loneliness of the last Neanderthal and his hopeless fight against the evolutionarily advanced Cro-magnons that see him as an oddity or pet. The story cheats a little, giving the Neanderthal a much stronger narrative voice than an actual one—that his conversation sounds like the stereotypical caveman talk is no end of amusement for the village of Cro-magnons that harbor him—but the story that he tells is evocative and emotional in ways that I didn't expect as I began reading it. Similarly evocative is Joseph Kelleam's "Rust," a story about the end of life on Earth.

There are also stories that attempt to couch humor in their speculative fiction settings, such as L. Sprague de Camp's "The Gnarly Man," where an anthropologist makes an astonishing discovery living amongst people as a carnival freak. As may be expected, it's the humans who end up appearing freakish by the end. Henry Kuttner's "The Misguided Rainbow" tells the story of a novice angel who places a halo on a less than saintly man, and follows that man as he is doomed to only do good, making his career as a sales executive appear tenuous.

The anthology also contains a powerful hard science fiction story, "Heavy Planet" by Milton Rothman. On a planet with atmospheric pressure thousands of times greater than Earth's and with gravity also far greater than expected, a race of humanoids long for the stars but are unable to achieve chemical rocketry because the physics of their own world will not allow it. Instead, they watch the skies for visitors in the hopes of adapting an alien technology to their needs.

As I read, I noticed a pattern that I find fascinating, if only in a cultural sense. Without doubt, the stereotype of the science fiction of the 30s is the bug-eyed monster carrying away the damsel in distress, or spaceships launching deadly rays at each other, locked in a stellar battle to the death. But none of the stories in this collection live up to the stereotypes; in fact spaceships appear only four times in the twenty stories and aliens only three times. But what the stories generally do have in common is a single "what if" idea and extrapolation of the logical effects if that idea were to come to pass. This, you'll note, is a generally solid though generic definition of what science fiction is anyway. I suspect that the stereotypical stories did exist but somehow didn't make the cut of the twenty best. The closest the anthology comes to the stereotype is A. E. van Vogt's "Black Destroyer," an often reprinted story of a first contact with a race immeasurably superior to men physically but unable to handle the facile human mind and the technologies it controls.

The end result is a fascinating time capsule of a period few readers know about today. There are some disappointments but nothing screechingly bad. And there is some powerful and entertaining writing along the way. I think this book is worth the effort for a search if you are curious about the history of the genre.

(An afterword of sorts—I found the short story I was originally searching for in volume 2 of this series, and hopefully it will be arriving soon. This piqued my curiosity, and I have actually read through the selections for each of the 25 volumes. Two things really jumped out at me as I skimmed the titles—first, the authors included are the luminaries of the genre. And second, the one name that is consistently missing in the series after volume 1 is Robert Heinlein. I know I am biased, but I can't imagine that from 1940 to 1964, not once did a Heinlein short story crack the top 20 in a year. I only can think of two reasons why they aren't included—either there were copyright issues or Heinlein was so unhappy with Asimov's description of him that he refused to permit the use of any more of his work. The lack of Heinlein makes me question the selection process that much more, and though I had originally been considering more volumes of the series, I'm not so sure any more. Given that I already own every Heinlein short story there is, I wouldn't be missing anything, but I remain torn regarding the genuineness of the selections. Of course, if I read more of them, they'll be noted here.)

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