This series of anthologies was published in the 1980s and was a retrospective of the best stories from years gone by as picked out by Isaac Asimov & Martin Greenberg (I possibly unfairly have the impression that Greenberg probably did most of the legwork, then Asimov made final decisions & wrote quirky little intros – no evidence for that tho). I picked up volumes 9 and 10 second hand at some point after I’d bought the “Before the Golden Age” anthologies (my first post about those books) – I don’t know if they were even published in the UK as what I have are US editions. I used to look for others of the series in secondhand bookshops but I’ve never seen any of them (and probably now wouldn’t bother buying them).
This volume covers 1947, and there’s a little introduction that reminds us of what was going on in that year in “the world outside reality” – i.e. what most of us call the real world – and “the real world” – i.e. the world of SFF publishing. I think when I first read these two I found that switch of “real” designation amusing, but I find it rather twee now.
One thing that struck me while reading these stories this time round was that they feel closer in style to more modern fiction than the anthologies I just read. For instance, gone are the “lone gentleman inventor and his machine” type stories (a la H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine”) that were still popular in the 1930s. Even when the subject of the story is an invention it still seems to take place in the world rather than off in some secluded mansion somewhere. Of course one thing that’s happened in the decade since the end of the 30s is the Second World War, and that does have an impact on the subject matter of these stories – one of the intros notes that of the 14 stories in the anthology 4 of them deal with nuclear warfare & its effects. I remembered this as a higher proportion of the book, I think partly because two of the stories that have stayed with me the most are of that type.
“Little Lost Robot” Isaac Asimov
This story is one that I know inside out, as well as being here it’s in a collection of Asimov’s robot short stories that my mother owns that I read over & over as a teenager. Basic plot is that someone tells one of his robots to “get lost” in strong terms, and it does so – it goes & hides in amongst identical looking robots. For plot reasons it’s necessary to find that specific one, and Susan Calvin (robot psychologist) does so via logic. To be honest I’ve never been that fond of the story – it’s about the logic puzzle of the idea rather than the characters or even the plot. But when I was reading it this time, I had a bit of an epiphany. It’s a bit of a “well, duh” moment, but still a genuine paradigm shift for me. Look at these bits of dialogue, one of the engineers talking to one of the robots as part of the set up of the logic puzzle solution:
“Sit down, boy.”
“Mm-m. Well, boy, gamma rays will kill you instantly.”
“The only thing I can advise, boy, is that if you detect […]”
The humans call all the robots “boy” and do so frequently, and I’d pretty much not noticed. It stuck out this time, tho, coz I’ve learnt since I last read the story that that would be the way a slave-owner would address their male slaves in the US. Which made it ping into focus that the robots are explicitly replacement slaves, written by someone whose country had fought a civil war over slavery about 80 years earlier. Which, well, duh. But I’d never parsed it like that before – I read the robots as servants, which has different connotations. And now I’m wondering if I’d see different things in the later robot novels (which I always preferred to the short stories). I’m thinking of the ones with R. Daneel Olivaw – who is indistinguishable from a human, but still treated like a robot (coz he is). Is there stuff in those books that went over my head because I wasn’t coming at them from the perspective of robots=slaves? (I don’t own those books, maybe I’ll borrow them from my parents when I next visit.)
“Tomorrow’s Children” Poul Anderson
Story of the aftermath of a nuclear war, and the efforts of what little is left of the US government to find out just how bad it is. Short answer – very bad. It’s a well-written & depressing little story although these days the science feels off (the sorts of “mutants” that are being born since the bombs, for instance, don’t feel right).
“Child’s Play” William Tenn (the pseudonym of Philip Klass)
A parcel containing a child’s christmas present from 2153 is mis-delivered to a struggling lawyer in the 1940s. It’s the futuristic equivalent of a chemistry set – a biology set that lets you build living organisms & do things like twin a person. The protagonist is fascinated & tries things out. The ethical implications aren’t dodged by the story and the ending makes that clear, but you’re firmly in the protagonist’s head and he has no qualms (and squashes any that start to raise their heads). The protagonist is also very sexist, but I’m not sure if the story is or not – I read it as disapproving of the way he sees the woman who’s in the story. I did enjoy this, and I vaguely remembered it once I started, but it’s not really a story I expect to stay with me.
“Time and Time Again” H. Beam Piper
Man dying in explosion in 1975 (in a war) wakes up inside his 13 year old body in 1945. Figures out how to prove to his father this is true & plans to avert the war. This is a kinda neat story, but it feels like it’s all premise & no pay off – like this is chapter one of a longer story. Very boys own club too – I don’t think there’s a single woman with a speaking part.
“Tiny and the Monster” Theodore Sturgeon
The title of this is rather well done – Tiny is a dog, a Great Dane (and thus not tiny), and the monster is only revealed later in the story but it’s not a monster either. Tiny shows an unexpected interest in the work of Alistair Forsythe, a young woman who is a gifted metallurgist (mostly a theoretician, but practical ability too). The story is primarily told from her perspective, and tells us how she (and her mother & Alec who was Tiny’s original owner) figure out what Tiny (and the monster) want and how to give it to them. The romance sub-plot wouldn’t be out of place in a Nora Roberts novel, which means it’s still sexist as hell but at least they’re both people with actual personalities and they have chemistry between them. (Faint praise I guess, but this story does contain the line “a woman is only forty percent a woman until someone loves her, and only eighty percent until she has children”. Yes this is in a character’s mouth, not the narrator’s but it sums up the all pervading sentiment around that subplot.) They’re even presented as complementary & equal in the work that’s done in the story – he’s mostly the brawn & she’s mostly the brains but not only are both important for the solution but also she’s stated to be cleverer than him. I rather enjoyed this one despite eye-rolling at the sexism – it’s quite charming.
“E for Effort” T. L. Sherred
A man invents a time viewer that can look at (but not hear or feel or affect) anything anywhere in the past. Together with the narrator they make a series of films of things like the life of Alexander the Great, but historical drama isn’t the endgame they have in mind. Unfortunately, things don’t work out as well as they hope (I don’t really want to spoil the end of this one) – hence “E for Effort”. It’s a well thought out story – the difficulties of making money out of the device, of getting their films released, are all thought through as are the various ramifications of the device. I enjoyed it.
“Letter to Ellen” Chan Davis
How would you feel if you discovered you were artificial? Two young men working in a big bio-engineering company putting together organisms discover the truth about themselves. The science just feels wrong all over, which detracts from the story a lot for me. They’re basically building an organism from bits like you’d build a house – like there’s a lab doing “the ultramicrosurgery of putting the nuclear wall together around the chromatin and embedding the result in a cell”. And I suppose you could do that to make an organism if you knew everything about every cell in it (I’m thinking with a 3D printer, perhaps?) but the direction real biotech has gone in is growing things & cloning organisms using a cell of an existing organism (which is persuaded to behave like a fertilised egg & put into a womb to develop). So it felt too bizarre for the emotional impact to really come through.
“The Figure” Edward Grendon (the pseudonym of Lawrence L. LeShan)
This is more of a vignette than a story, and on the surface it’s the closest to the “man invents machine” plot in this anthology. But underneath it’s about the world, and it’s one of the nuclear war influenced stories. It’s one of the stories from this anthology that I always remember – it’s chilling, depressing and understated. I think I’d pick it as the best one in the book. I don’t want to say any more, because I think that would spoil the initial impact if you ever have a chance to read it.
“With Folded Hands …” Jack Williamson
This story is in conversation with Asimov’s robot stories, and given my revelation about robots=slaves in “Little Lost Robot” I wasn’t surprised that the robots (“humanoids”) in this story were black in colour. Of course they are, robots=slaves & in the US slavery=black. The point in this story is to explore what it would be like if robots took the first law of robotics (the Prime Directive here) to extremes: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”. For instance these humanoids won’t let a person in the kitchen – knives are sharp you might cut yourself, the oven is hot you might burn yourself. They also do all the work, leaving humanity a purposeless coddled species. Disturbing in implication but not particularly plausible I thought, I don’t think I believed either the setup or the ramifications.
“The Fires Within” Arthur C. Clarke
What if there were a non-human civilisation living 15 miles down in the depths of the earth. A vignette really, told mostly as a letter describing the discovery. With a somewhat predictable twist at the end (not helped by being the second story in the collection to use a similar twist). Felt a bit pedestrian to me.
“Zero Hour” Ray Bradbury
The new game craze for pre-pubescent children is “Invasion” and somehow they’re all playing it across the world at once. 7 year old Mink even says things to her mother like “Mom, I’m sure you won’t be hurt much, really!” or talks about fifth columns, but the adults all ignore it as just yet another incomprehensible kid craze, whatever will they think of next. As the reader you know exactly where it’s going from early on, but Bradbury still manages to make it compelling.
“Hobbyist” Eric Frank Russell
A probeship, manned by a single man & his pet parrot (to talk to, to keep from going nuts with the solitude), crash lands on an unknown planet. In the process of exploring to try & find fuel to get back off again the protagonist finds something that might be our creator. I liked this, particularly the exploration bits & the relationship between the man & his parrot. Tho I did find the creator thing a bit twee.
“Exit the Professor” Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore)
Described in the anthology as a “whacky story” and that’s what it is. A professor comes to a remote rural town to investigate the reports of a family with strange powers. We see the story through the eyes of one of the Hogben family, as they avoid being taken off to be “studied” or put in the circus, or otherwise treated as freaks. A sample:
[…] that time, it all started because Rafe Haley come peeking and prying at the shed winder, trying to get a look at Little Sam. Then Rafe went round saying Little Sam had three haids or something.
Can’t believe a word them Haley boys say. Three haids! It ain’t natcheral, is it? Anyhow, Little Sam’s only got two haids, and never had no more since the day he was born.
It’s a fun story that kinda fits into the “there’s supermen among us” sub-genre.
“Thunder and Roses” Theodore Sturgeon
Post-nuclear war story set in an army base that’s got some of the remaining living people as they basically wait to die. This is the other nuclear war story that stuck in my head – it’s actually the story that I think of first when I think of this book. Depressing, with maybe a note of hope at the end if you squint at it (and very much the counter-example to anyone who thinks SFF is escapism, this is so not ignoring the reality and implications of the time it was written in). I hesitate to say it’s a favourite of mine, because it’s not precisely enjoyable to read – but reading it as a teenager in the 80s it felt as relevant as it must’ve done in 1947.