Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Great Science Fiction Stories 9 (1947)

The ninth in this anthology series, this volume contains stories that were being written and revised soon after the close of World War II. It’s obvious that the shadow of that war and its ending hangs over the stories, as more than the usual number are concerned with the after-effects of atomic warfare. It’s a stereotype that science fiction is inherently optimistic, and a number of stories show the reality opposing the stereotype.

“Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding) – I admit to not being very fond of Asimov’s famous Robot series. It’s not that I don’t like them; it’s just that I don’t think they are as amazing as is generally held. For me, this story is a great example of their weakness. There is no denying the impact of Asimov’s robotic laws both on fiction and in developing technology, but that doesn’t mean that all the stories that used those laws are necessarily good. While a lot of science fiction uses aliens as the gimmick on which to write other genres of fiction, Asimov instead used robots.

“Little Lost Robot” is, really, a mystery, a tidy little logic problem based on the premise of the robotic laws. The characterization, often a problem with Asimov, is decidedly flat. Asimov actively makes the characters share animosity towards one another for no reason that is apparent in the story itself, while the story implies that they should get along, not just for a common purpose, but because they are smart and thoughtful people. The story ends up being ingenious, but not really “great”. It makes a terrific example of what was good about the writing of that time, but I have a lot of trouble making it signpost of the best science fiction has to offer.

“Tomorrow's Children” Poul Anderson (Astounding) – Given the current interest in post-apocalyptic stories, Anderson’s first story in this anthology series might be interesting to modern readers. I find it interesting that the story comes out of Astounding, whose editor John Campbell believed in human exceptionalism and the ability to rise above any obstacle. Then again, the story does go to an interesting place if only because it is far more realistic than most of the current post-apocalyptic stories. Still, it’s a bit over-long and flat in its delivery, making it a little difficult to read. However, given that it was Anderson’s first published work, it serves as a sign of what was to follow in a long and brilliant career.

“Child's Play” by William Tenn (Astounding) – There seems to be a running motif, usually found in stories by Kuttner and Moore, of toys from the future coming back to wreak havoc on contemporary characters. This is another of those stories by a mostly forgotten writer, William Tenn. The motif allows the story to dance along the edge of whimsy and dread, but they usually end up strongly on the side of dread. This one cuts a little harder, since it involves biogenetics, and the narrator may not be entirely sane as he plays with a child’s science kit from the future. While the ending is telegraphed pretty early on, it is still an evocative piece.

“Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper (Astounding) – Piper is probably best known for his Fuzzy novels, which are enjoying a resurrection among modern readers. “Time and Time Again” is an interesting twist on a time travel story, probably fairly ground-breaking in its day but a little clichéd now. If you could travel back into your own past, how would you change things? Piper chooses to use an altruist as his protagonist, so his interest is in changing rotten history rather than just making his life easier. It’s a departure from the Piper I know and so valuable for that alone. The story also makes an interesting introduction into the possibility of time travel, forming an interesting resonance with the recent move Looper.

“Tiny and the Monster” by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding) – Science fiction of this time is stereotypically known for its alien invasion story, but Sturgeon turns that trope around a bit. The gimmick ends up being a little bit hokey, but Sturgeon’s writing is fun and breezy. Sturgeon shows off his ability to build characters in this story as well, adding straightforward humor to a story that otherwise could be considered twee.

“E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred (Astounding) - This is a fairly well-known piece, reprinted in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It’s an interesting take on time travel, imagining that instead of physically moving backwards in time, the characters can merely see into the past. They decide to use this technology to make movies, and the story becomes an interesting view into mid-century moviemaking with a slow progression to something bigger. The writing is very much like Robert Heinlein’s short stories, with a mildly cynical take on culture and human nature. Its climax comes fast and requires a few re-readings to fully understand, but it’s powerful in its delivery. I’ve thought about this story often recently and was delighted to uncover it again.

“Letter to Ellen” by Chan Davis (Astounding) – One of the characteristics of some of the best short stories from this general time period is the attempt to put a human emotional face on technological changes. Science and invention were blossoming at the end of World War II, and the best science fiction stories attempted to put an emotional element on those advances, weighing if they were perhaps not worth their cost. “Letter to Ellen” is an interesting story about technology that we’ve really only begun to explore to its full potential in the past decade, so there is a predictive element to Davis’s writing. However, he points out a bias that grows because of the use of the technology, a bias that doesn’t feel logical but I’m sure would happen if our science reaches the state described in the novel. Interestingly enough, it’s a similar question raised by the novel Frankenstein, but from a different point of view.

“The Figure” by Edward Grendon (Astounding) – This story is very much like an episode of Twilight Zone: short with a twist ending that leaves the audience dangling to find out what happens next. While it is fun, the twist is unfortunately telegraphed early and often. It may well be that decades of watching Twilight Zone and similarly themed and paced TV shows has made it easy to spot the twists of such things.

“With Folded Hands . . .” by Jack Williamson (Astounding) – This is perhaps the most well-known story in this collection. I’ve also come across it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, so it is fairly well regarded by readers and critics.

I think this story is a nice counterpoint to the Robot stories by Asimov, wherein the three laws of robotics generally force the robots to be relatively docile and benign. But Williamson extrapolates the idea of telling a near-perfect machine to help man to ironic but plausible extremes. Given the near-universal understanding that the greatest threat to man is man itself, it’s fairly amazing that no one attempted to write this story before. In addition, the story has Williamson’s knack for placing a contemporary man of the 40s into a future that is easily recognizable, but different enough to allow there to be space for the story. While a lot of science fiction projects a future where the world is far less complicated, Williamson also recognizes that no matter how automated the world might become, the nature of people is less likely to change quickly.

“The Fires Within” by Arthur C. Clarke (Fantasy) – This is a strong example of Clarke’s own puzzle stories, involving characters trying to solve a mystery. To me, Clarke does this much better than Asimov, especially because his characters are far more believable. Clarke also doesn’t fall back on the clichés as models for what he writes. The framing device for this story is fairly unique, definitely unpredictable, and a delight when fully revealed. The final few paragraphs may seem trite, especially to an audience familiar with the twists and turns of The Twilight Zone, but that ending is merely Clarke’s nifty way of closing out his story, rather than the shocking purpose for the story in the first place. It’s not a weighty story and not Clarke’s best, but it is a good example of what he does when he truly excels (see “The Star” and “Nine Billion Names of God”).

“Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury (Planet Stories) – “Zero Hour” is a great example of Ray Bradbury’s ability to take the mundane and turn it into something terrifying. The story focuses on fairly generic children’s games based on imagination, but as it proceeds, the sense of lurking dread grows and grows. The story begins with the adults laughing on the childish games until coincidences begin piling up. Bradbury pulls off a neat trick, allowing the reader to know exactly what is going on, so the horror comes not from our discovery of the truth but of the slow realization by the adult characters about what is going to happen. I’m reminded of the lengthier “Something Wicked This Way Comes” in the story’s basis on the usually innocent, but the the brevity of “Zero Hour” compacts and condenses the chill.

“Hobbyist” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding) – Eric Frank Russell is a mostly forgotten writer from the 40s and 50s, but whose admirers think he deserves a revival. “Hobbyist” concerns an explorer who ends up far from human culture with no fuel. His lone companion on the planet he finds himself on is a macaw named Laura. Russell spends some time justifying choosing a macaw, but I’ve never been a fan of pet birds, so the explanations ring hollow. But it does give the lead character someone to talk to and to provide a second reaction to the story’s events for the reader.

The planet the explorer finds himself on is lush and lively, but something about it unsettles him. It was pretty clear to me what that something was, but it takes the trained explorer a while to figure it out. And just as he struggles to understand the cause of his concern, the action accelerates and gives the explorer an extremely deus ex machina way home.

Russell’s writing has a fine style and subtle humor, more subtle than the story that follows it, for example. Russell also raises some huge questions, especially in the last few paragraphs, but his handling of those large questions feels a little trite. Nonetheless, the story is engrossing despite the macaw and the “sense of humor” she displays.

“Exit the Professor” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Thrilling Wonder Stories) – It’s astonishing how small a role humor plays in longer fiction. “Exit the Professor” is another of Kuttner and Moore’s outrageously charming stories where the science fiction takes a backseat to making the reader laugh. The story is based on a fairly common premise—a few individuals have taken the next step evolutionary step, but the story imagines them being brought up as, for lack of a better word, rednecks. And when their difference is uncovered by a visiting professor, all sorts of mayhem ensues as they race to keep their secret from the world at large.

“Thunder and Roses” by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding) – Asimov makes the point that atomic destruction certainly seemed to be on everyone’s minds as reflected in the stories of 1947. With the dramatic end of World War II and the revelation of the resources available via atomic power, there was perhaps reason to be fearful. Sturgeon’s story is a powerful piece set after the United States has been devastated by a surprise attack. The narrator stumbles across an important secret and must weigh whether to use it, balancing his instinct against the request of an unexpected companion. The writing is contemplative and compelling, and it’s difficult to not feel for the narrator as he puzzles through his final days in a city dying from fallout.

1 comment:

  1. you seem a good writer. i see you are a professional writer. I'm quite fond of the film Ladyhawke and the original 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' also. I will question you about the film 'Prometheus'. I would claim the message of the film is subliminal. Only our unconscious mind is supposed to understand it. The human-aliens do have reasons behind their action. They want to kill us/destroy earth because they are afraid of us. There is quite an emphasis on this in the film. Specifically the lines, 'Doesn't everyone want to kill their parents'? and also the lady telling her aging father 'just die'. this cannot be a coincidence, being this film is about us meeting our parents, so to speak. No doubt the film-makers were successful in their subliminal messaging (there are many reasons in this world we have to be afraid), but i would agree with you, the film itself wasn't that good.