This book is the last of my first leg of the series of "Best of" anthologies from Ballantine and Del Rey from the mid-70s. If it weren't for the imposing stack in the to-read pile, I would've gone out and found more of them straight away, based on how exciting and thought-provoking this book alone was. I've always heard Edmond Hamilton spoken of in reverential tones by fans better versed in the golden age than myself, and now I understand why.
The first story in the collection, "The Man Who Evolved," seems fairly typical of expectations for the time. A framing device separates the narrator from the action and thus giving the story both deniability and plausibility. The narrator is the fortunate survivor in an experiment that was intended to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, but the researcher suffers from overweening hubris and for some reason, neither the narrator nor his companion have the physical or moral strength to stop the experiment that is being attempted. And, of course, the hitherto untried experiment is being performed on a human—this time the researcher himself. The title of the story gives away what was being attempted—somehow forcing a human through human evolution, fifty million years at a pass. Hamilton's ideas about the various stages that humans will pass through now seem a little cliché, but I'm willing to bet that this story, published in 1926, was one of the first times the ideas had been deployed and so was fresh in its contemporary readers' minds. And, as one might expect of a story published in Weird Tales, the final stage of evolution is cataclysmic, resulting in a destruction that destroys all evidence that the experiment took place except in the narration of the story. However, while the story represents the stereotypes so well, it remains charged and tightly written, a powerful first effort by a young writer and hinting at the promise of much more.
The second story, "A Conquest of Two Worlds" delivers that promise. On its surface, "Two Worlds" is a fairly bland historical accounting of mankind's first interplanetary travel and the conflict that inevitably erupts between man and the natives of Mars and Jupiter, the two planets we first explore. But Hamilton does perform one nifty narrative trick on that clichéd surface, focusing his narrative on three boys who join the space forces and rise through its ranks together. But just below that surface, by having one of those boys (and later men) question why they are colonizing in the way that they do, Hamilton opens the accepted trope to some serious consideration. For modern readers, Mart Halkett's eventual mutiny against his fellow humans because he opposes our tactics, seems rather familiar, especially for readers who also viewed 2009's Avatar. But for the contemporaneous reader, the idea of negating human exceptionalism and manifest destiny was unheard of. Early writers of speculative fiction thought of exploring and eventually colonizing other worlds in much the same way that Europeans narrated their histories of conquest. Europeans felt that they had the right to colonize and even destroy other civilization because they were inherently better than the backward natives. It's taken hundreds of years for even a minority of people to question that kind of value system, so it seems a fairly obvious narrative strategy for stories of exploring space. Hamilton loads his deck somewhat by having both natives of Jupiter and Mars appear backwards compared to humans, so the story proceeds apace, with the occasional red flag waved by Halkett's protests. Finally, after Halkett's court martial and sentence lead to his return to Jupiter to lead the Jupiter natives in open "rebellion" against the humans, the story strand moves to the fore. His childhood companions, now generals in the conquest, must deal with their belief in their lifelong friend and what his mutiny represents. And while Hamilton doesn't spend much time exploring the consequences of the decisions that are made, it haunts the reader even after reading the story is finished. It's a powerful piece, in part, because of the historical position on the conquest that it takes and the exact understated position of Halkett. The questions remain even after the page is turned.
Also taking something of a contrarian position against both history and the stereotypes of speculative fiction is the powerful "What's It Like Out There?". The narrator has just returned from the second expedition to Mars, where he has been injured. Finding himself back upon Earth after his recuperation, he feels compelled to meet with the families of fellow soldiers who died in the expedition. Hamilton places the narrator squarely between the forces of popular imagination and reality. Interplanetary travel is romantic (or it used to be—it's interesting to consider what the global or national reaction would be to a real attempt to go to Mars would be) and its practitioners are heroes and role models. And the narrator not only doesn't want to be a hero, he doesn't believe he has done anything to deserve such treatment. Systematically through four different recitations of misfortune, the last being his own speech to the homecoming crowd that awaits him, we see him carry out a humanitarian goal of consoling his fellow soldiers' families while remembering the actual accidents that before his friends. As a result, the reader sees the reality behind the façade: space travel is not glamorous; it's hard, deadly dangerous, and dirty work. And it will always eventually have a cost in human lives. The narrator can never say this to the families he consoles, because he implicitly and eventually explicitly understands that they really don't want the truth. They want to know that their sons died for a good cause. And if this point is not clear enough by the end of the story, the narrator runs into an old friend who is a veteran of World War II who says much the same thing about battle. This has been said often enough about war that it has begun something of a cliché for that genre, but I honestly can't recall a similar presentation about space travel and so was amazed not only at the audacity but also the power with which the message is conveyed.
The story that immediately follows, "Requiem," dances along the line of cliché but is powerfully written such that the cliché doesn't mattered. In the far distant future, Captain Kellon helms a ship returning journalists to an Earth first frozen as the sun burns itself slowly out to a white dwarf and now plummeting into the sun after a passing body alters the orbit. Kellon is frustrated since civilization has so obviously passed by the old mother world, and he would prefer to be out exploring new worlds. He is also frustrated by the human foibles that surround what is basically a press junket to the destruction and all the politics that must be played. Absenting himself entirely from daily operation of the journalists once they arrive on the dying Earth, he sets about exploring the region outside New York, where his city has landed. It's only when he accidentally discovers the remnants and memories of individual residents that he begins to perceive the beauty and power of what is about to be lost. This story is quiet and sedate, even at its end as the world plummets into the sun, and Kellon's eventual revolt against the furor surrounding the publicity is powerful for its simplicity. Embedded in this story is the question of how far we are lost when we have publicity about publicity, such that the power and impact of the important events becomes lost in the shuffle. That such a statement is made about the death of a home we've not yet left makes the story that much more iconic.
Such is the effectiveness of this collection that I am looking about for more collections and perhaps some novels by Hamilton. So the book has fulfilled its two primary functions—to introduce novice readers to the oeuvre of a speculative fiction master and compel the reader to go out and find more. But this book also stands as the best testament I have found thus far of how powerful the often maligned golden age really was. Even though the clichés still drift in and out of the stories in this collection, Hamilton rises above them to offer something more, something distinct. This book stands in powerful contrast to the puerile Captain Future stories I read at the end of last year and exhibits early strains of the literature that helped to reshape our world.