Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Great SF Stories 3 (1941)

I'm finding that writing a review of this anthology series is pretty difficult. Most anthologies include stories that have something in common, whether it be thematic or genre, or even as simple as all of them having the same author. Instead, as noted earlier, this anthology is made up of what two people have decided constitutes the best short stories of a particular year. And in this case, it may as well be a random decision since the parameters of that decision are never defined. There's also the problem of an editor being forced to consider his own material for "Best of" anything, and so the 1941 volume ends up with two Isaac Asimov short stories. Granted, having a "Best of 1941" book without Asimov's "Nightfall" would be nearly criminal, but there is something a little sleazy about Asimov having to comment on his own stories as a selection. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), Asimov's commentaries remain personal remembrances of the story or author in question, sometimes embarrassingly personal, so we are not forced to see Asimov critique his own writing. But why his co-editor, Martin Greenberg, refuses his own commentary on Asimov's works while providing historical and bibliographic information about every other short story escapes me.

And though I have said it about the first two volumes of this series, I have to say it again…not having any Robert Heinlein in these volumes comes close to a crime as well. At least the Heinlein stories the editors would have included had they been able to are listed and commented on.

And then, once you get beyond these flaws…what an amazing collection of great speculative fiction! Leading the class is the aforementioned "Nightfall," selected by the SFWA as the best science fiction short story up to 1968. Asimov's introduction does not mention the apocryphal challenge between he and Heinlein, and a Web search does not give me any hits on it either, such that I wonder where I heard it. Reputedly, John Campbell was in the habit of coming up with ideas for stories and summoning writers to him to let them riff on his thoughts. So he summoned Asimov and Heinlein and told them to write stories where "someone sees the stars for the first time." The results are Heinlein's "Universe" where the viewer greets this first glimpse with wonder while Asimov's viewers in "Nightfall" are terrified. Given that "Universe" was published a month before "Nightfall," I can understand where such a story might have its origin (and ironically, "Universe" would have been included in this volume had Heinlein's works been used). The point of all this is to say that Asimov's story of a civilization in a star cluster, where night only comes every few hundred years, is a masterpiece not only of setting but in its evaluation of human foible. A great deal of the strength of the short story comes from the various reactions and expectations of the characters to what they think is about to come, and the slow build-up of terror among them as what does happen is so much more than what they expect. Part of the tension comes from the dramatic irony of the reader knowing exactly what the night looks like and raising his eyebrows at the idea of the night sky holding as many as "dozens" of other stars. But the real power comes from Asimov not fully exploring the terror, only building it up to a climax and then leaving the effect of revelation to the reader's imagination and the inertia of the story itself with a simple sentence:

The long night had come again.

Another powerful story in the collection is another Hall of Fame recipient, Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God." There are some echoes of Frankenstein in this short story, as a research scientist gets so wrapped up in the act of scientific discovery that he never fully realizes the consequences of what he has done. However, while Frankenstein deals with the manipulation of a single creature, Sturgeon's story follows James Kidder as he toys with an entire race. And again, though his motives are explicitly pure ("advancing science") there is an implied selfishness as the accolades rain down upon the researcher and not the subject of the research itself. And while Frankenstein is swept up with the terror of the monster, the tension of "Microcosmic God" is far more sedate, especially because it remains an unrevealed threat. After being tortured by Kidder in order to develop invention after invention in, it's far more effective to have them wrap themselves in an impenetrable opaque dome than to act out in any kind of way. As the narrator himself says, "When I think of that I feel frightened."

A sort of counterpoint to Sturgeon's story is "Mechanical Mice" by Maurice A. Hugi (Eric Frank Russell). In it another inventor discovers a way to see into the future and sets about making his fortune out of "inventing" things that he spies with his voyeuristic device. Often though he does not know what it is he is building until it is complete, and such is the case with his latest theft. When the machine he builds sits silently, he asks a friend to aid him in figuring out what it does. Their investigations remain fruitless until a series of strange thefts begin around the city, and the strange device is found to be a "robot queen" that harvests mechanical parts to build workers and drones (and other queens as it turns out) in a what is originally a fairly passive plot to take over the world. The threat is never implied since the story has scenes of thwarted robots summoning fighters to come and defend them and the reader is allowed to glimpse the possibilities of the takeover. The story follows the ensuing hunt for the robots and ends triumphantly, with man conquering the enemy and the common-sense lacking inventor destroying his device.

There are a few humorous stories in the collection that have varying degrees of success. Sturgeon's "Shottle Bop" is ultimately fairly silly and a little trite, while Kuttner and Moore's "A Gnome There Was" is an interesting take on those creatures of long-lived legend. The most successful humorous story is Anthony Boucher's "Snulbug" in which an inventor researches the dark arts and summons a demon to help him make his fortune so he can develop his device to aid man. The humor arises at first from the anti-stereotypical demon that is summoned and how he is put upon by his summoner, but that fades as the inventor fails to take advantage time and again of a newspaper from a day in the future brought to him by the demon. Also funny is Lester del Rey's "Hereafter, Inc" in which a man concerned about how his every action will affect his afterlife finds that it was his patterns that had more effect. But the humor of "Hereafter, Inc." is much thinner, acting as a patina for issues that cause a thoughtful reader to do a thorough self-evaluation.

Really, the only story in this collection that has not aged particularly well is Robert Arthur's "Evolution's End," a ham-handed retelling of the Genesis myth. I think it is the exception that proves the rule, however; the volume is a fine collection of Golden Age speculative fiction well worth reading.

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