The third and final volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographical anthology of short stories from the 1930s covers 1935-1938. And as with the other volumes it’s a bit hit & miss. Some of the misses have aged poorly, some I suspect I’d never’ve enjoyed even if I were a young lad in the 1930s.
I’ve been re-reading this with an eye to diversity – partly, I confess, because it’s easier to see here than it is in fiction from my own era. The original impetus is that there’s a fair amount of conversation around SFF fandom in the last few years about this sort of issue – like this post in Elizabeth Bear’s livejournal which addresses the idea that somehow if you have a protagonist or primary character who isn’t able-bodied/white/Western/straight/cis-male then you need to justify it otherwise you’re just “being PC”. Rather than, you know, writing a story about a person who’s as much of a person as any other person. And as I say, it’s easier in general to pay attention to in these stories because I’m not steeped in the culture of the 1930s like I am in my own (and the only difference between me & the “default” is that I’m female so it’s easy to have a blind spot). Sort of practising the thought patterns for future use.
So I’d been looking for women or lack thereof in these stories. And the racism jumped out at me, and would’ve done if I was looking or not – that’s something where we’ve really come a long way since the 30s. But I haven’t really mentioned the other sorts of categories where people get elided into non-existence or caricatured. People with disabilities & transpeople are mostly Sir Not Appearing in this Universe – although there’s some pretty poor portrayals of mental illness (like the madman in “Minus Planet”). And really I’m not sure I can say much more than that about it.
Sexuality is an odd one though – in the vast majority of these stories it doesn’t feel like any of the people have any sort of sexuality, they’re not even asexual it just isn’t a thing. Even some of the ones with “romance subplots” (like the dreadful Meek stories in volume 1), you aren’t left with an impression that these people fancy each other, or even like each other. It feels like the author is aware that people get married, but has no idea why. A large part of that is style, of course, and differences in the culture of what’s appropriate to talk about. But some of the stories do manage to build that feeling even without anything explicit – taking an example from this volume “Proxima Centauri” has a love match that feels like a(n overwrought, fairly chaste) love match. And then there’s the ones like “Minus Planet” where to my modern eyes the two male protagonists read as gay (in a chaste & understated way). Particularly in comparison to “Proxima Centauri”. In both cases the main character goes off on a mission/trip that may well end in death, and in each case the “love interest” goes with him. The woman because she can’t live without him, the man because he can’t let him go alone. And I’m left wondering if that’s a modern reading pushed back inappropriately, or if it was a deliberate but subtle hint that would’ve been picked up by someone of the time. I’m not sure where, if anywhere, I’m going with this but it’s something that struck me.
A note on the notes that follow – I read this on the plane to & from Berlin, and only took notes on the way out so the second half are written after a few weeks gap.
“The Parasite Planet” Stanley G. Weinbaum
Tale of derring do on the frontier – this frontier being Venus. Strength of the story is the exotic, alien & deadly wildlife. Weakness of the story is the romance plot, although if the last paragraph about how they would get married immediately wasn’t there then it’d be a little less out of nowhere.
“Proxima Centauri” Murray Leinster
Ship travels to other star to colonise. Might not be a generation ship as it was only 7 years, but that’s the feel. Tedium leads to social breakdown, leads to segregation between officers & crew – this sets up the “love triangle” as the daughter of the commander is in love with a crew member but the second in command would like to marry her. Main plot is more interesting – the planet is inhabited by intelligent carnivorous plants who value animal flesh more than we value gold. Death & Doom follow (though our plucky heroes win the day, kinda).
“The Accursed Galaxy” Edmond Hamilton
Meteor lands, turns out to be a strange polyhedron. Reporter who finds it calls in a scientist who opens it under instruction from the being within, who tells its story before being freed. And reveals the “awful truth” about our galaxy. Neat but implausible explanation for the expanding universe. Back to “women what are they?” tho, but at least that means no 1930s romance subplot.
“He Who Shrank” Henry Hasse
Lab assistant to a mad scientist is injected with a potion that makes him perpetually shrink (and includes all sorts of things that keep him alive too). The atoms of each universe are the solar systems of the next. This is one of the stories that stuck in my mind over the years since I last read this – it holds up, I think.
“The Human Pets of Mars” Leslie Frances Stone
UFO lands, aliens have a look around, take a motley crew of humans back as pets. Eventually our plucky hero organises an escape. Too many of the secondary characters felt like types to me – the pompous privileged politician, the older organising matron, the shiftless black workman, the half-crazed black spiritual woman, the sweet girl child etc etc. The protagonist and the other primary characters aren’t much better, to be honest. I think this falls into the “neat idea, shame about the execution” category.
“The Brain Stealers of Mars” John W. Campbell, Jr
This reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury and of Philip K. Dick. Claustrophobic paranoid story about chameleon type aliens living amongst the Martians. The (human) protagonists land, and discover these creatures who start mimicking them – 20 of each man, how do you tell which one was the real one? The solutions felt a little too neat (and the story feels like it worked, rather than being ambiguous), but this is Campbell and as I recall he liked the human protagonists of stories he bought as an editor to win. (And now I’m trying to remember where I’ve picked up my ideas about Campbell’s preferred tropes – maybe I’ll find a book on my shelves during my re-read that tells me.)
“Devolution” Edmond Hamilton
Pessimistic little story about the “true origins” of the human race. This seems to be a Hamilton theme, and he does do them well. Completely preposterous, mind you.
“Big Game” Isaac Asimov
Short-short by the man himself, as of age 21 – written in 1941 and unpublished before this anthology. It’s the “true story about what killed the dinosaurs”, and is as pessimistic as Hamilton (by whom it was inspired).
“Other Eyes Watching” John W. Campbell Jr.
Non-fiction article about Jupiter. I confess to skimming this, and I think I’ve done so every single time I read this anthology. It’s in the purplest of purple prose, and I just can’t be bothered to pick the facts out of the flowers. It starts:
All space was flamed with an intolerable incandescence; for two thousand million miles, titanic streamers of flame shot out, wove and twined, streamers that flared dull-red and cooling where they stretched to breaking, then great clots that swirled in blue-white heat of new creation. Dimming slowly in the distance, the Wrecker was vanishing, the vagrant star that had lashed worlds out of the Sun as it swept by.
It makes my over-use of commas and run-on sentences look tame … Apparently it, and others like it, inspired Asimov to further being interested in science, tho.
“Minus Planet” John D. Clark
Antimatter planet approaches the Earth and will hit & cause catastrophe, but our plucky heroes spot it in time and save the day. Despite the best efforts of a random madman who’d like to stop them. Suffers terribly from “women, what are they??”. Not that memorable to be honest, I preferred “Born of the Sun” in the last volume (which was more science fantasy/horror than this, but at least it had a fun catastrophe).
“Past, Present and Future” Nat Schachner
Man of ancient Greece who winds up in the future Inca lands uses the “secrets of the Egyptians” to enter suspended animation looking for a better future. He’s joined (accidentally) by a (white) man of the 1930s. They wake up in the far future in an enclosed habitat because “the rest of the world is destroyed” – it’s a dystopia reminiscent of Huxley’s “Brave New World” with its castes of people for particular societal functions. Our heroes are better because they’re not stratified like this, they’re more human. And along with a throwback from the upper echelons of the future society they escape to explore the outside world. Interesting premise, but it feels like the story stops before it starts.
“The Men and the Mirror” Ross Rocklynne
It’s a shame this is the story that ends the anthology, because I’ve never liked it. Two men, one a policeman chasing the other an outlaw. They are perfect gentlemen, being gentlemanly. And they discover an impossible physics problem in outer space, having gotten into a pickle they get out of it again by co-operating and using their superior intelligence. They are gentlemanly gentlemen once more. I tend to forget the plot between readings, because the soulless physics problem is actually marginally more interesting despite my general lack of interest in physics.