Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Great Science Fiction Stories 5 (1943)

I'm going to try a different approach with this anthology than I have with earlier books in the series. It seems to me that there is something of value to talking about all of the stories in the collection (though I may feel otherwise by the end of this posting). For some feeling it feels different that a "best of" book for an author, where I can talk about trends and movements in a small selection of an author's output. The stories in this anthology series have been picked as the best science fiction output for an entire year by renowned editors Martin Greenberg and Isaac Asimov, thus they all seem to deserve some discussion. I also happily admit I am being influenced by Jamie Todd Rubin's excellent ongoing blog, Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the link for which you can find over there on the left side under "My Links."

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore appeared to have dominated 1943, at least in the eyes of editors Martin Greenberg and Isaac Asimov. Not only did they get four co-written stories in the list of the best of 1943, C. L. Moore also got one in by herself. I think that there is a lesson here about current readers knowing their roots—I seriously doubt there are a lot of fans for Kuttner and Moore, either together or individually, in the world today. A good reason for that is the difficulty of finding any of their works. Bear in mind, I am buying these books used (or getting them from Paperback Swap), and while each author has a collection in the Best of anthology series from Ballantine in the mid-1970s, they too are difficult to come by. Fortunately, Planet Stories has been reprinting some of their series in a piecemeal fashion over time, but I don't believe any of these stories are contained in those volumes. One wonders how much of a market there is for such works.

"The Cave" by P. Schuyler Miller (Astounding) This story is a fascinating account of the accidental interaction between human explorers and native alien life. In it, Miller posits a fascinating ecology for an alien world, where Man is tolerated until he has proven he can be trusted or not. The human interloper in this case is a greedy selfish rascal, not representing the best of humanity, providing an interesting plot point as human exemplars are not used to make us appear infallible. Instead, it is the fallibility of man that is the focus and how that may well be the face of humanity that gets projected to the universe rather than the one we'd like to be our representative.

"The Halfling" by Leigh Brackett (Astounding) "The Halfling" acts as an accidental counterpoint to Miller's "The Cave" since it offers another aspect to the idea of man interacting with and surviving alien ecology. It's not a fair trade-off since Miller uses sentient aliens while Brackett is mostly concerned with climate and environment as adversary. But the end result is much the same: to be successful in exploration, humanity cannot strive to conquer—which is a more appropriate stance for the stereotypical pulp stories, perhaps of an earlier age—but must adapt. And the children shall lead them.

"Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore [as by Lewis Padgett ] (Astounding) This story is also in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame as one of the greatest short science fiction stories of all time. Kuttner and Moore give their writing a whimsical air as they deal with potentially awful stuff. In this case, a far future scientist experimets with his new time machine by sending toys into the distant past or, as we call it, the mid-1940s. Children get hold of the toys and are educated quickly to the point where they would be average children in that future, but placing them far far in advance of children and even adults of the contemporary time. The whimsy Kuttner and Moore use acts as a counterweight to the real fear and desperation the children's parents feel as they watch their children become something literally alien. I have to wonder if Arthur Clarke was familiar with this story when he wrote Childhood's End, a novel that has many of the same themes (and given Clarke often wrote to the letters column of Astounding, it seems likely he was).

"Q. U. R." by Anthony Boucher (Astounding) Given the "best of" nature of most anthologies from this time, very often stories that involve humor are not included in order to make space for weightier fare. So it's pleasant that a story like "Q. U. R." has been included, showing that science fiction wasn't just drama all the time. This story masquerades as a biographical account of the birth and growth of the most powerful corporation in the world, the eponymous Q. U. R. But there are real science fiction elements here as well, such as robots who start to attain a mentality and emotions. Perhaps more interesting to a modern reader is the cause of the crisis which pushes the story—flawed design and interface, a subject that readers of the 1940s probably did not have much knowledge or need for but which resonates with every release of the latest pad or smartphone today.

"Clash by Night" novella by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore [as by Lawrence O'Donnell ] (Astounding) This story is very much like modern military science fiction than what is stereotypical for the pulps, it can be seen as something of a forerunner forth explosion of that subgenre for today. Like military science fiction, this story follows the exploits of a soldier fighting a future technological war, focusing more on the characters than the technology. Kuttner and Moore do offer some exoticness to the mix by setting the story on a marine Venus, so that the weapons are sea-based, especially including submarines. The story doesn't bog down, moving as it does through rapid changes of locales and engaging many characters. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the last battle is symptomatic of the general weightlessness of the story—it really is what I call "popcorn fare"—and leaves nothing very memorable after the story is finished.

"Exile" by Edmond Hamilton (Super Science Stories) I'm hard-pressed to decide if "Exile" is funny or sad; perhaps like the very best comedy, the humor is based on a sorrowful subject. This is the shortest story in the bunch and involves a science fiction writer who discovers that he can transport himself to the worlds he writes about. A lot of the humor in the story derives from the audience of the narrator who mock him and think he is setting up some elaborate joke, but the final few paragraphs push this story into Twilight Zone territory, providing a pleasing gotcha that causes the reader to sit back and ponder the ramifications.

"Daymare" by Fredric Brown (Thrilling Wonder Stories) Brown ponders the use of hypnotism (still called by its original name, "mesmerism") as a weapon in "Daymare."The story is rather alarmist in its proposition, hypnotism supplemented by technology such that it can be used on masses of people rather than just individuals. Of more interest is the society that Brown has set up as the background for his musings—a nearly perfect culture, where murder is mostly unheard of—but one that is achieved with radical censorship. The exposition about this culture is used to advance the plot that the protagonist uncovers and tries to quash, so it fits nicely into a narrative that is otherwise a crime procedural. Except for the use of technology rather than magic (and honestly, magic is a better explanation for a mass-delusion weapon), "Daymare" feels very much like an early example of the vibrant modern sub-genre, urban fantasy.

"Doorway Into Time" by C. L. Moore (Famous Fantastic Mysteries) What a strange story and yet how very typical of C. L. Moore. A vastly powerful entity that collects beautiful objects uses his viewer that somehow can rip through the fabric of space and time to see…what? We're not exactly sure, but two humans stand in the way of his retrieving his latest objet d'art. Typical of Moore when she wrote alone, a great deal of the story is atmosphere and not very long on action—in fact the plot is fairly basic "man meets super-powerful alien yet comes out alive by total luck" fare. But this is an exemplum of the "weird" aspect of science fiction, especially from such writers as Moore—the universe is a big place and we don't know what is out there. And when we run into it, we may not know what to make of it. Such writing always seems to me to harken back to H.P. Lovecraft for obvious reasons, though in the end, our intrepid humans somehow overcome forces they should not be able to resist. I've read elsewhere that Campbell insisted on the supremacy of man in the fiction he published in Astounding, and that had a ripple effect on the work published throughout the industry.

"The Storm" by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding) This odd story feels very disjointed to me, comprised of two halves that do not fit together very well. The first half is concerned with the idea of a galactic meteorological society, responsible for predicting the path of "space storms" across inhabited portions of the galaxy much as fronts move across the United States and can be tracked on weather maps. Unfortunately, van Vogt is really talking about storms rather than, say, the path of a gamma ray burst across space. This quibble aside, the members of the weather service are highly respected and valuable members of the culture, revered for their efficiency and honesty. And then one of the members is asked to lie to a visiting dignitary from another civilization, suspected of being a scout in advance of an invasion—if the scout and his ship could be made to disappear, perhaps in the wake of a freak storm, then the protagonist's region may seem too inhospitable for invasion. The second half deals with the repercussions of this plan and includes a female captain of a warship accidentally caught up in the plot and lost when the visitor's ship is lost. Modern readers may find it appalling that such a strong female character is quickly turned into a quivering dependent mess by her "love" for the enemy. It's all rather a narrative mess, filled with implausibility heaped upon implausibility, the hallmark of bad science fiction rather than the kind that this series is intended to celebrate.

"The Proud Robot" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore [as by Lewis Padgett ] (Astounding) Another story with humor, "The Proud Robot" doesn't try to make weighty points, but just entertain with an amusing story about a drunken professor and the robot he creates while inebriated. When he comes out of his alcoholic fog, he cannot remember what the robot was invented for, and so the story is a rollicking mystery with absurd characters trying to solve a puzzle from both ends. The solution is clever both for its ingenuity and because the writers had hidden it in plain sight of the readers all along. Unfortunately, the protagonist is a little too one-note for my taste and begins to grate a little bit by the end of the story.

"Symbiotica" by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding) Russell's story of interstellar exploration falls in line with the themes of the first two stories in this collection—human perspective can be dangerous since it has no experience with the truly alien. While Russell focuses on the alien ecology of a new planet as the threat, he also suggests that humans can be as dangerous to one another as any alien can, when stupid and lazy actions by the crew endanger the entire party. The bizarre ecology the ship comes up against is never fully explored, but since the focus is one human frailty, its details really don't matter so much. The final sentence of the story sums up the mood of the whole thing nicely: "When you travel the void, never mind the ship—pick the guys who're going to accompany you in it!"

"The Iron Standard" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore [as by Lewis Padgett ] (Astounding) Rounding out what appears to be an unintentional theme for this volume, "The Iron Standard" describes the near-tragedy of a human exploratory ship running into a culture that is not aggressive but frankly couldn't care less about their presence. Kuttner and Moore spend a lot of time setting up the premise—humans' first visit to Venus, only to find a highly regimented civilization that is are resistant to change. Humans represent dramatic change and so are ignored: treated as sentient creatures who must abide by the restrictive laws of Venus and failing that, simply pushed aside. Unfortunately, the humans are running out of food, which the Venusians have in plenty but are unwilling to share without a price, and the humans haven't anything the Venusians value, so they begin to slowly starve. Setting aside the incredible implausibility of a ship being sent out without enough food to last the entire mission (the explanation of which is finessed away unconvincingly), Kuttner and Moore show humans at the ingenious best—finding something they can do or make that they can sell in order to buy the supplies they need. It's a little ironic that the humans fall to tactics that represent arguably the worst side of human nature, and it's unfortunate writing that they discover that there are natives who secretly support the human point-of-view, but it's all told with a humorous tone so such trivialities generally pass by without comment. To damn this story with faint praise, it struck me more as cute than good, primarily because of the implausibility with the supplies—a poorly used plot device.

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