“Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories #10 (1948)” ed Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg

It turns out that this is where I picked up my ideas of what John Campbell looked for in a story when he was an editor. Asimov’s introductions to a few of these stories refer to Campbell’s liking for stories about supermen among us (preferably our descendants) and about plucky Earthmen outwitting the aliens. I think I liked those plots a bit more when I was a teenager, and certainly the dodgy biology irritates me more now. I can’t help but feel there’s a strong element of wish-fulfilment in the supermen ones too – you know, the “I’m so misunderstood, but one day I’ll find my own kind and we’ll rule the world” thing. And I’m afraid that makes me roll my eyes a bit now (tho I suspect that’s exactly what I was enjoying about them as a teenager … 🙂 ).

Interesting contrast between this anthology and the one for the previous year (post) in that the last one had a few stories that were very “we’re doomed and will die horribly” but this is more about superman mutants or unexpected weird effects of nuclear weapons. Perhaps not significant at all, perhaps an artifact of the editors’ choices? But still interesting. And I think this anthology has more paranoid stories than the last.

“Don’t Look Now” Henry Kuttner

Paranoid story about someone who can see the aliens among us. Not sure if I spotted the twist early on because I’ve read this before & remembered it or because it was obvious. It only occurs to me on this reading to wonder if all these paranoid stories about Martians are to do with the ramping up of the Cold War and the whole rooting out of the communists amongst us rhetoric? Or maybe this is too early.

“He Walked Around the Horses” H. Beam Piper

Alternate history, based on an actual disappearance – in 1809 Benjamin Bathurst walked around his horses in an inn courtyard in Prussia and vanished. This is the story of where he walked to – a Europe almost but not quite the same – told through the letters & witness statements of the people who saw him appear & had to deal with him. Possibly the first alternate history I ever read? One of my favourites in the anthology.

“The Strange Case of John Kingman” Murray Leinster (a pseudonym of Will F. Jenkins)

A man in a lunatic asylum has been there longer than seems possible, and has many other odd things about him. It’s both a “supermen/aliens among us” story and a story about not meddling with things you don’t understand. I find it a little too pat – it’s a trope Campbell was fond of as an editor, and I’m not so keen. At least in this case there’s not also a dodgy understanding of evolution/genetics to make it irritating.

“That Only a Mother” Judith Merril

Haunting story about a mother at the end of her time being pregnant & the first few months of her daughter’s life. The sense of ominous doom is built up well with the protagonist worrying about places she or her husband may’ve been exposed to radiation. And then the child is clearly different – extremely clever, faster developing brain – but still the sense of impending doom, only resolved at the very end. Nicely done.

“The Monster” A. E. van Vogt

Aliens arrive on a desolate Earth – and resurrect long dead humans to figure out why the Earth is empty (after all, if you’re going to colonise somewhere you want to make sure it’s fit for habitation). Things don’t go entirely to plan as one of our far future descendants out manoeuvres them.

“Dreams are Sacred” Peter Phillips

Bit of an odd story this one, tho quite fun. Some SFF writer has gone nuts, mind cracked under the strain of an illness, and he’s withdrawn from reality & in his imagination is living out the sorts of plots he puts in his books (very very pulp SF). Our hero is hooked up to a machine that inserts him into the man’s head so he can participate in the dreams and hopefully snap him out of it & back to reality. Afterwards there are indications of some effects on reality too, which seemed to come out of nowhere to me (and spoil the story a bit I think). I preferred the humorous puncturing of the plots in the dream.

“Mars is Heaven!” Ray Bradbury

The first manned landing on Mars, but some how it all looks like Earth circa 30 years earlier. As the crew explore they meet their dear departed loved ones – this must be heaven! Obviously not all is as it seems. I think this is the Bradbury story I remember when I think of him – paranoid Martian stories.

“Thang” Martin Gardner

Funny short-short about things bigger than us in the universe. I like it.

“Brooklyn Project” William Tenn (a pseudonym of Phillip Klass)

The Brooklyn Project is set up to make a device that can travel in time – and this is the demonstration. At each stop the apparatus takes a picture, and inevitably displaces whatever objects previously occupied that space. We start off one way and end quite differently, but our protagonists don’t notice they’re not the same. I think this is my favourite in this collection. And I want to read something set in the initial world (before it changes/without it changing) as it seems an interesting dystopia.

“Ring Around the Redhead” John D. MacDonald

Told as a murder trial – where the defendant turns out not to’ve murdered the victim, but instead the victim has meddled where he should not. The defendant has acquired (by some strange side effect of a nuclear weapon) a device that lets him reach through into other dimensions. He gets a girl (accidentally) from a time/place where tech etc is much superior to ours so that’s the romance subplot, and the victim tries to get gems & gold but his greed is punished. Fun, but you’ve got to approach it like Doctor Who – handwave the plot device & enjoy the ride, don’t pick at the details.

“Period Piece” J. J. “Coupling” (a pseudonym for John R. Pierce)

A 20th Century man brought forward through time attends an endless stream of parties talking to the people of the 31st Century about his own time. Or is that really what’s going on? Obviously it isn’t, and the inevitability of his discovery of the real truth is there from the very beginning of the story. The very end reminds me of a philosophical essay I read sometime ago, but I don’t want to explain as it would spoil the story a bit.

“Dormant” A. E. van Vogt

A remote island in the pacific ocean hosts an old device/creature that has been dormant for a very very long time indeed. This story both shows us the perspective of the people trying to figure out what on earth is going on with the very odd rock, and the device itself as it wakes up and tries to remember its purpose. A story of failure to communicate because of both sides not even seeing the other as communicable with.

“In Hiding” Wilmar H. Shiras

Another “supermen among us” story – a sweet and cheerful one about a teenage boy with extremely high intelligence. He’s hiding this to fit into school/society but opens up & trusts a psychiatrist and tells him about his real life & enthusiasms. I like the story while I’m reading it, and I liked it a lot when I first read this collection. But now I get stuck at the end of the story where there’s this supposedly optimistic note that perhaps there are others like him because he’s the result of a mutation because his parents were exposed to radiation. And it’s just not plausible – even if you accept that as how he came to be, the likelihood of a second identical mutation in another child is pretty much impossible. So it stops the story being quite as upbeat, and makes the end rather sad – he’ll never find an intellectual peer. (And I don’t think the author intended that.)

“Knock” Fredric Brown

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …”. In this case, aliens have destroyed all creatures on the earth except for a pair of each. Plucky human man outwits the aliens and get them to leave, whereupon he, she and the other animals will repopulate the world (I guess the plants were all left alone …). I didn’t much enjoy this, not sure why – tone or style or something just didn’t sit right.

“A Child is Crying” John D. MacDonald

Another “supermen among us” story, this time disturbing and creepy. The highly intelligent child with mental superpowers is not sympathetic, and he and his cohorts are quite sure they’ll inherit the Earth when they’re good and ready. It’s also strongly influenced by the spectre of all out nuclear war. I liked this, even despite the dodgy biology.

“Late Night Final” Eric Frank Russell

Aliens (very human-type ones) come to conquer a far future Earth. But instead they go native. This is both “humans are better than aliens” and “hippies are better than warmongers” in flavour. It also reminds me of Bradbury’s Martian story, only we’re the Martians & it turns out the paranoia is wrong, going native really is the right answer.

“Before the Golden Age 3” ed. Isaac Asimov

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.

1935

“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.

1936

“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).

1937

“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.

1938

“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.

“Before the Golden Age 2” ed. Isaac Asimov

This is the middle volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographical look at the science fiction stories from the 1930s that influenced him. No absolute shockers here and I enjoyed reading all of the stories – they still suffer from the various -isms of the time but the sins are more of omission than commission which is a step in the right direction. I think my favourite would be “Sidewise in Time”.

1933

“The Man Who Awoke” Laurence Manning

Man invents a method of hibernation and goes to sleep so he can wake up 3000 years in the future & see the wondrous progress. It turns out not to be as simple as that – there’s been progress, but there’s also been a bewildering (to our protagonist) shift in attitudes to consumption. The biology of hibernation is very 1930s, but the future society which now lives in forests using mostly renewable resources, and carefully manages itself not to use up its resources feels a lot more of modern concept. As Asimov says in his afterword this wasn’t yet a fashionable thing to worry about. It’s still a very 1930s story tho, not only in narrative style but also – women, what are they? On the plus side the inhabitants of the future are brown-skinned yet have both good people and bad people and are treated just like people by the narrative.

“Tumithak in Shawm” Charles R. Tanner

Sequel to “Tumithak of the Corridors” which is in the first volume of this anthology. Tumithak now leads an army from his corridors to do battle with the alien shelk – through various twists & turns of the plot they join forces with another subterranean band of people (under Tumithak’s leadership, of course) and win the first real battles against the shelk! I particularly liked the way that Tumithak & co react believably to being out on the surface for the first time (and being the first generation to see the sun in 2000 years), and the way that they aren’t just obviously victorious from the beginning – we know the end because of the framing story of how Tumithak is a legendary hero, but there’s still tension and still mistakes and bad decisions. In looking to see if Tanner wrote any more I’ve discovered that all his published stories are freely available (on what looks like a legitimate website) so at some point I should read a few of the others.

1934

“Colossus” Donald Wandrei

Man travels & grows to burst through to a bigger universe where our whole universe is one of the atoms. This suffers somewhat from poor science even for the time (although as handwaves go, breaking the speed of light by drawing on “intra-spatial emanations and radiations” is right up there with reversing the polarity of the whatever). I think I might’ve preferred this story if it had explored the vaguely dystopian future-on-the-brink-of-war more, rather than had our hero go off on his journey. And if the girl had lived – she had an actual personality, a shame to have her killed off halfway through to make our hero sad & lonely as he travelled. It was nice that the aliens in the larger world actually seemed fairly alien in some of their attitudes & appealing to (effectively) their humanity didn’t work.

“Born of the Sun” Jack Williamson

What if the planets weren’t balls of rock or gas? What if they were actually eggs? A mix of horror (I want to say “Lovecraftian horror” but I haven’t actually read any Lovecraft) and science fiction – our hero learns the Awful Truth just in time and builds himself a spaceship. Reminded me a bit of a (science fiction) book I read several years ago based on Velikovsky‘s ideas, but only in that it takes “completely nutty science fantasy idea” and runs with it in a science fiction type of way. However, I didn’t like the romance subplot here – particularly not the patronising way the protagonist thinks of his fiancÊe, and could’ve done without the racist elements too (lots of exoticising stuff about the Oriental mind, and evil Chinese antagonists). And to modern eyes the ending looks less hopeful than I think was intended.

“Sidewise in Time” Murray Leinster

Some cosmic event happens & the world becomes a tapestry of scrambled pieces of different alternate histories for a time, before mostly descrambling itself – many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics suddenly made real. One man (Professor Minott) has figured out from the initial harbingers of the event that triggers it what’s about to happen and we get his story as he tries to lead a party of undergraduates to a land where he can rule the world, interspersed with vignettes of other events across the world. It’s also a take on a wish-fulfillment story for Minott, only his wishes don’t end up fulfilled – he’s just a maths lecturer at a tiny university, and he sees his chance to gain power & get the girl of his dreams, but in the end he’s not the swashbuckling hero he thinks he will be. In the hands of Meek (who wrote the dreadfully racist stories in the previous volume) this would’ve turned into White Man Reigns Supreme, but this story is much more nuanced and good – White Man gets his comeuppance and isn’t as clever or superior as he thinks he is. My favourites of the vignettes were where the nasty, mean-minded & abusive farmer gets eaten by a dinosaur & we’re very much expected to cheer as his wife realises that she might have gone mad (she’s not) but she’s free. And the Roman army (from a land where the Romans lasted into the 20th Century & conquered the Americas) descend upon a car and kill it because they think it’s a weapon, efficiently brutal. Oh, and a sad one where three diplodocuses (or some dinosaur of that general sort) get killed when they’ve wandered into a town – they’re just confused, poor things, they didn’t even mean to destroy anything 🙁

This made me think of Fred Hoyle’s “October the First is Too Late”, except there the scrambled Earth is in different time periods rather than different alternate universes. It’s been probably 20 years or more since I last read that book – it’s one that my parents own – and I can’t remember much about it except for the premise and the fact I liked it. Even the title and author took a bit of creative googling to figure out. Now I just need to remember by the next time I’m in Oxford that I want to re-read it! 🙂

“Old Faithful” Raymond Z. Gallun

Intelligent life on Mars communicating with Earth people. Told mostly from the perspective of the Martian – who is convincingly alien. He thinks differently, perceives differently, has a different sort of society, looks different, tolerates different atmospheric conditions. But despite all these differences the alien is a sympathetic character. And after 9 years of communication the understanding on both sides is still pretty fuzzy, it’s built up from the beginnings of the basics of arithmetic but they still don’t truely understand each other. Which is refreshing after all these stories where the aliens or whatever are human-ish and understanding is perfect after some minor stumbles.