Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Great Science Fiction Stories 6 (1944)

1944 is the year of Clifford Simak and his City series, with three entries in this volume. Isaac Asimov admits to Simak being one of the important role models for his own writing in the introductions to the individual stories in this volume he co-edited with Martin Greenberg. This may be another lesson in how we are losing the roots of the science fiction that is available today; I seriously doubt City or any other works by Simak (who by the way has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America) are available outside of used bookstores. If you read my blog regularly, you'll recall I've had some issues with Simak—I don't think his prose has aged particularly gracefully, which may also be a cause for his being shunted aside for more modern things.

"Far Centaurus" by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding) This story describes man's first exploration of other solar systems as an experimental ship is sent to the star Centaurus, moving near the speed of light so that centuries pass outside the ship while only months seem to pass inside. However, when the explorers reach Centaurus they find that they lost the race to their own descendants, who came up with a faster mode of travel. The explorers then have to deal with their own alienness in a culture not like the one they know.
This story was a little disappointing to me because it sets itself up as a very cool locked room problem with a great structural twist—that the characters only wake up from their frozen sleep every few months and never interact except by the messages they leave for one another. But this set-up is cast completely aside in order for the ship to reach Centaurus and find humanity's future. The denouement is something of a silly race to return to their rightful time, and lacks any of the potential that the story began with.

"Deadline" by Cleve Cartmill (Astounding) This is the first time I have ever come across a story by Cleve Cartmill, although ISDB lists him as publishing short stories from 1941 to 1956 and a series of novels from 1949 to 1975(!). This particular story may be the weakest in this collection, as it is a not too ambiguous allegory of Allied resistance infiltrating Germany in search of atomic bomb secrets. The author does away with the task of coming up with names for cities, countries and people by merely reversing them—so Germany beomes Sixa and its people the Sixans. Confronting them are the Seilla. We get to follow our hero Roby as he accidentally confronts and then falls in with resistance leader Ylas in an effort to reach the Sixan capital of Nilreq. I suppose the adventure aspects are interesting but it seems worn out by the time I read it in the 21st century, and I find its preachiness and the whole name thing to mark this as monumentally flawed.

"The Veil of Astellar" by Leigh Brackett (Thrilling Wonder Stories) Brackett also belongs to that school of "weird science fiction" that I believe has its roots back in H. P. Lovecraft. Oftentimes, she is more concerned with creating an atmosphere of strangeness than with advancing a plot, but she generally keeps it under better control than C. L. Moore when she writes solo. But Brackett does always come back to the plot, and this one concerns a terrible secret that is making liners that ply the space between the planets of the solar system disappear with all hands and passengers. Brackett makes this a personal story with an interesting turn in narrative focus (how often is the narrator, especially in the 1940s, the antagonist of the story?) with even more Lovecraftian touches, as we discover a "race" of space vampires. How can humanity survive?

"Sanity" by Fritz Leiber (Astounding) When I first came to this story, I was surprised, given my fondness for Leiber and his general regard among critics. However, I had to remind myself that Leiber is better known for fantasy (which of course led me to wonder if there is a market for a similar anthology series but with a fantastic focus). Checking around, I find that "Sanity" is also included in The Best of Fritz Leiber, indicating that the editor of that collection also felt it was good, though it seems to me to be far weaker than a lot of Leiber that I have read. It's a fairly simple plot regarding the relative madness of humans as individuals and as a society, with what I have come to think of as a Twilight Zone twist that is telegraphed way in advance of the conclusion of the story.

"Invariant" by John R. Pierce (Astounding) A very short work with an interesting premise but flawed execution. Again, I have never heard of John R. Pierce, and ISFDB lists sporadic output from 1930 to 1973. The premise is that a scientist works out a formula to retard aging by causing human tissues to return to the state they were in before he undertook the treatment. This means that no matter his injury short of catastrophe, his cells return to their original state, healing his body along the way. Unfortunately, this has some unexpected side effects, given that memory is created by altering neural pathways with each new memory. This is a fascinating idea that could have been expanded much further and made into something more gratifying than five pages.

"City" by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding) Simak posits a fascinating future for humanity as automation and technology make the need for cities obsolete. With the growth of the suburb (a relatively new idea in the mid-1940s) and with the advance of hydroponic agriculture, farms are no longer needed either. As a result, there is a glut of cheap land available outside the cities, which leads to a vast emigration to the pastoral. Those that remain in the cities struggle to maintain the lifestyle they know so well—what good is a chamber of commerce when the city and the businesses the chamber supports are gone? Simak's solution is ingenious though perhaps not entirely plausible. Interestingly, given recent demographic trends, at least in the US, it seems the opposite of what Simak foresaw is happening—people are returning to the cities in large numbers.

"Arena" by Fredric Brown (Astounding) Fans of the original Star Trek series may recognize the name of this short story, given that the classic episode of Kirk creating gunpowder in a battle against a representative of the lizard like Gorn race is a fan favorite. However, the source for the screenplay is decidedly different than the TV episode in pretty much every way (and to say more would be to give too much away). "Arena" is an interesting puzzle story—the protagonist has to solve a problem for some important reason—with an ingenious climax. Sadly, the alien is big ball of fur with claws rather than the beloved Gorn. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating story to read both for its insight into the philosophy guiding the writers of the mid-1940s as well as providing insight into how screenplays are written (another would be "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bate which became the classic movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, to which the story bears very little resemblance other than the name Gort). This story is also in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

"Huddling Place" by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding) This short story is also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, marking it as one of the best science fiction stories between 1938 and 1963. I'll be blunt here—I pretty much detest this story, and given it is the third time I have read it in the past couple of years, it makes my skin crawl. Granted that the premise of most speculative fiction is, well, fantastic in nature, it takes some willing suspension of disbelief. The whole premise of aliens or super-science requires imagination, and sometimes lots of it. But in "Huddling Place", the premise is that a single man holds the future of humanity in his hands, if only he can follow the oath he took as a doctor and travel to Mars to save the life of a Martian scientist—who also happens to be his friend. But given all the reasons to do so, he cannot be convinced to make the trip, thus dooming humanity. Given Astounding editor Campbell's penchant for showing man at his best and overcoming all obstacles, this story feels like an anomaly. And though the story desperately tries to make the protagonist as sympathetic as possible, I've always had trouble buying it—he comes across as a foolish and selfish git. If anyone can explain to me why this story is supposed to be so good, I'd love to know.

"Kindness" by Lester del Rey (Astounding) In this story, del Rey ponders what it would be like for the last homo sapien in a world filled with the next step in evolution. Del Rey trod similar territory in his 1939 short story "The Day is Done", a somewhat maudlin meditation on the last Neanderthal in a world of home sapiens. This story is less sentimental, perhaps because its hook is fairly obvious just a few pages in. We often think of evolution moving in broad swaths, though extinction events capture our scientific attention at the moment. But someone had to be last, and these kinds of story humanize important moments in human history—its beginning and end. Science fiction, especially the stereotypical pulpy kind, often reveled in the coming race of supermen, but this is the only story I have ever read that doesn't measure its cost on the race but instead its cost on the individual.

"Desertion" by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding) This is my favorite of the City stories by Simak, showing as it does the potential of humanity as he deals with other species (as opposed to inexplicable flaws as in "The Huddling Place"). Explorers on Jupiter use advances in the biological sciences to remake themselves into creatures capable of exploring Jupiter without added equipment, duplicates of the native lifeforms there. But when explorers are sent out, they do not return. This story follows the last explorer and his faithful companion as they go out to learn the source of the disappearances. There is a nostalgia to this story that is touching, and it is powerful for its depiction of human relationships—often missing in the City stories. If I had had a vote, "Desertion" would have been in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame rather than "The Huddling Place."

"When the Bough Breaks" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore [as by Lewis Padgett ] (Astounding) "When the Bow Breaks" is a fascinating counterpart to "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" by the same authors in 1943. This time, instead of the children accidentally discovering future "toys" that advance them beyond the capacity of their human parents, this time tutors from the future are sent to train a six-month old child by that child's future self. It turns out the baby is the next stage in human evolution but until his greatness presents itself, he's going to be a miserable child and teenager. So his future self takes pity and seeks to speed up his growth. Unfortunately, his thoroughly modern and sublimely happy parents are ill-prepared for the changes being wrought upon their child. Kuttner and Moore again stock the story to its brim with whimsy, and this time the humor is not balanced against terror at all, unless it is the mild terror all new parents feel for the new alien in their midst. It turns out that those future superhumans aren't as smart as they think they are.

"Killdozer!" by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding) Something of a cult classic among fans of science fiction, this story details mankind's first encounter with aliens as a construction crew tries to build an airstrip on a South Pacific island during World War II. In many ways, "Killdozer!" (note the exclamation point) defines the plot and structure of the great alien encounter stories and movies that follow it. There is some distraction as the technical descriptions of the construction tools and their use get in the way of advancing the plot—I get totally lost in the technical names and parts of steam shovels and dump trucks—but when the action happens, it's awesome and terrifying. This is a story that all fans of action and horror movies really should read, because there is nothing more terrifying than a possessed bulldozer.

"No Woman Born" by C. L. Moore (Astounding) Martin Greenberg, in his introduction to this story, praises it as the deepest of stories about the cyborg—the melding of man and machine. Rather than adhering to the stereotype, reveling in the awesome power that machinery could bring to the human form, this story ponders what happens to an entertainer tragically injured in a fire and brought back to life inside a metal shell. Perhaps it is the insight of a female writer that moves this story beyond the traditional, but "No Woman Born" contemplates the cost of such advancement both on the person and her closest companions. It also wonders if being better is perhaps a good thing if it only results in loneliness. I could not help thinking of Frederik Pohl's award-winning novel Man Plus as I read this short story.

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