“Nightfall One” Isaac Asimov

The final book by Isaac Asimov on my shelves is another anthology. Nightfall One is the first half of a two volume collection of stories by Asimov, first published in 1969 (as a single volume). There are five stories in the book originally published between 1941 & 1951, with introductions by Asimov. One thing that struck me about these stories are that they have aliens in them, which is relatively unusual for Asimov. They’re also further demonstrations that Asimov is more of an ideas storyteller than a character one. I’d prefer to have both but at his best Asimov’s ideas are good enough to carry the somewhat shallow characters (and it’s not a surprise that the story I think is the weakest in this volume also has the least “Big Idea” to it).

“Nightfall”

This is (as Asimov points out in his introduction) often regarded as Asimov’s best story – he finds this a bit irritating because he wrote it in 1941 and feels that surely with practice he should’ve improved. The story is set on a planet which orbits one of a cluster of six stars. Every couple of thousand years there’s an eclipse when there’s only one sun in view and the people who have evolved there see darkness & the stars for the first time. Civilisation collapses, the people return to barbarism & the cycle begins again. Technically these are aliens, but it’s more an exploration of what people & society would be like if this was the case than any attempt at creating aliens. It is the best story in this collection, in my opinion. Partly because of the idea itself and the way Asimov plausibly extrapolates what effect never seeing darkness would have on society. And partly because of the little touches that show just how hard it can be to overcome cultural & biological conditioning with your intellect, like the various characters trying to insist that they themselves aren’t affected by darkness. And how even when you think you’re thinking outside the box you can still be blinded by your assumptions – like the scientists who are going to photograph these “stars” they’ve theorised the existence of talking about how there might even be as many as a dozen of them because they have no comprehension of the scale of the universe.

“Green Patches”

Second best story of the collection, for me. They’re actually ordered in publication order, but for me it was almost in order of quality as well. This is a Bradbury-esque tale of a human spaceship that has gone to an another planet and an alien lifeform has stowed away on the return trip with intent to convert Earth life to the gaia-esque existence that the alien life has. The captain of the previous spaceship to investigate this planet had blown up his ship when he realised that the alien lifeforms were converting his crew. Best bits are the segments from the perspective of the alien, which is satisfyingly not-human. It’s disguised as a piece of wire & is having to hold itself back from rescuing these “life fragments” as it thinks of earthlife – it is trying to wait till it reaches Earth.

“Hostess”

A future where we have interstellar travel, and have met five alien species. All share several characteristics that humans don’t, and in fact humans are more like diseased aliens (in some specific ways). This is one of those “awful truth” stories – by the end of the story we find out why humans are different & it’s not because we’re wonderful 😉 The protagonist is Rose Smollett, a biologist in her mid-30s, and also central to the story is her husband. She’s only been married a bit under a year, and is still (mostly happily) surprised her husband should’ve wanted to marry her. This personal plot intertwines with the interstellar politics, and by the end of the story we & Rose know the “awful truth” about her marriage, too. Very very 1950s social mores, in a way that dates the story so much that is has to be “alternate history” rather than “set in the future”. But still reasonably good.

“Breeds There a Man … ?”

This is a “what if” story where the universe is not quite the way it seems – makes me think of some of the 1930s stories in Before the Golden Age where the planets are eggs or other such flights of fantasy. This isn’t as extremely fantastical but it’s still in that sort of category. The main character is an atomic physicist but we never get his perspective, instead it’s all told via the various police & mental health professionals he encounters when he has a breakdown. He’s figured out what the world really is, and is driven to suicidal thoughts because of it. I liked it better than “Hostess” – although the “awful truth” here is equally as implausible I thought it was a cooler idea to base a story round.

“C-Chute”

For me this was the weakest of the stories in the anthology. Several men are on a spaceship when it’s captured by an alien race with whom humanity are at war. They aren’t comrades, but are flung together by circumstance so there is much tension and eventually one of the least likely of the men to do something heroic manages to carry out a daring plan & they rescue themselves. As I said in my intro paragraph to this post wasn’t really a “Big Idea” to this one so all there was to carry it was the characters, but sadly I found them shallow & the story boring.

“The Alternate Asimovs” Isaac Asimov

I was a bit surprised when I saw this book was still on the shelf – I know I’ve boxed up some Asimov before (my librarything account lists a couple that aren’t on the shelf) and I’m a little surprised that this one made the cut. It’s a collection of three previously unpublished stories, one of which became “Pebble in the Sky”, one of which became “The End of Eternity” and one of which was published with an alternate ending. And the stories have forewords & afterwords explaining their history & how Asimov felt about them now (ie 1987 when this was published).

It’s an interesting idea for an anthology because it shows how the stories evolved, and I think this was probably my first proper introduction to the fact that books aren’t written by someone just sitting down and putting one word after another from beginning to end. That actually stories might be written in one form and then get re-drafted more than once before they get to the reader. But even though it’s interesting it’s still two stories that got rejected then turned into better novels, and one reasonable short story that got a happier ending for publication. Interesting rather than good.

I think I read this anthology before I bought or read “Pebble in the Sky”. So “Grow Old Along with Me” was my introduction to that story (and I still prefer the original title). The novel is next in my re-read so I’ll have to wait until then to discover if I like the story better in that version (pretty sure I do), but structurally speaking this one isn’t great. Asimov makes a big song & dance in a prologue, intermission and epilogue about how he’s telling the story from both ends at once … and it’s not as interesting or entertaining as he clearly thought it was at the time. The afterword says that’s what he thinks by 1987 as well. The thing that struck me most when reading this so soon after reading “Nemesis” was that there are no real women characters in this story – there’s a couple of wives & a daughter but they’re plot devices not people, they only exist to be love interest or to have one conversation that lets someone exposition at the reader then they vanish from the story again.

“The End of Eternity” is one of the Asimov books my mother owns, and as a result I both read it over & over & over when I was in my early teens … and I don’t have a copy of my own. So now the version of the story in this anthology is the only version I have, and that’s probably why the book was still on the shelf. It’s not as good, though. The basic premise is that there is a secret collection of people living outside time in Eternity, and they can move between Reality & Eternity as well as move uptime and downtime in Eternity. They police Reality, making tiny changes which ripple through time to effect big changes later on and change Reality to make it “better” for people (better as defined by the people who live in Eternity, not necessarily anyone else). The plot has to do with the beginning of Eternity, and the novel version (as I remember it) is much more interestingly complex but this story has one of those neat “gotchas” of time travel tales so it’s still pretty good. My favourite of the three here.

“Belief” in its original version is a terribly depressing story of a man who discovers he can levitate but no-one will believe him. I like it in that form, and the happy ending that Campbell wanted instead strikes me as false feeling. But it’s hard to tell how I’d feel if I’d read the two versions the other way round.

Asimov’s bits & pieces in between the stories were informative, but as with his autobiographical stuff in the “Before the Golden Age” books (post) I’m less keen on the tone than I used to be. He comes across as a bit smugly self-satisfied and lacking in self-awareness. There’s a bit right at the end where Asimov says that he doesn’t get rejections or editorial insistence on change any more because he’s just that good & his editors all love him and would of course ask him to change things if it was necessary. This is more than a little undercut by the long section earlier devoted to talking about how he & one particular editor (Horace Gold) rarely saw eye to eye and throughout it Asimov comes across as someone who would be hell to work with. It contains sentences like this one talking about Gold requesting revisions:

“He was quite apologetic about it because by that time he knew very well that requests for revision would be met by me with the sternest possible resistance and that he might have to wait a long time before I was willing to try him again.”

Not quite the rosy picture Asimov paints in the afterword to this book then … There was also a somewhat unpleasant little story where Asimov is self-righteously saying how Gold had asked him to put a female character in a particular story. Asimov just can’t see why there’s any need for that (“since the plot didn’t demand a female”) but he doesn’t want to seem “totally unreasonable” so he writes in a shrewish wife to one of the main characters & Gold was “forced to run the story as revised”. This happened in the 1950s, but clearly in the late 80s he’s still trotting this out as an amusing little tale of how he put one over an editor. Seems a little odd that the man who wrote “Nemesis” (post) with all its female characters (who after all aren’t demanded by the plot to be female) around the same time as he wrote these autobiographical bits was still so smug about how he avoided having a woman protagonist back in the old days.

Overall, interesting but not good sums it up for me. I’ll hang on to it (in a box) because it’s interesting but I don’t think it needs to sit on the shelf.

“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.

“Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories #9 (1947)” ed Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg

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.

“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.

“Before the Golden Age 1” ed. Isaac Asimov

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is a phrase that commonly has two definitions – the first of these is the era when Campbell was editing Astounding Stories and the writers included people like Isaac Asimov. The other definition is that the golden age of science fiction is 12. That the stories that you read around that sort of age when you’re just discovering your own tastes in fiction are the ones that stick with you through your life. This anthology is a selection of stories that Isaac Asimov remembers reading in the 1930s – in his own personal golden age – that had an influence on his writing and thus on “The Golden Age”.

As an aside, I’m not sure I quite agree with either definition – both that those 1940s stories of The Golden Age aren’t (in large part because of my own age) going to be the best thing ever for me. And also that I think I’m still discovering new books & stories I think are as good or better than the things I read in my teens.

But still, as a conceit for an anthology it’s a good one, and as well as reprinting the stories Asimov writes about his own life. He comes across as very full of himself, but also aware of that and poking fun at his own ego. I suspect if I’d ever met him I’d’ve found him irritatingly smug, but the tone works OK in an autobiography.

This volume covers the years 1931 & 1932, when Asimov is 11 & 12. I bought it sometime in the mid-80s, about ten years after it was published. Its been years since I last read it, and mostly what I remembered was that the stories seemed dated, a few were still quite good but most were pretty “meh” to my more modern eyes. That’s a fairly accurate summary – with the addition that some are downright bad to my more grown-up modern eyes. The science tends to be wrong (either because we now know more, or because the author didn’t know what was known then), they tend to be full of info-dumps and “As you know, Bob” conversations. Some of them work despite this.

And they all have what one might euphemistically call “the attitudes of their time”. The sexism tends to be in the absence of women, and in the lack of personality for the women in those few stories with any female characters – the sort of thing you can excuse for any one story as being that the author just happened to choose a male protagonist. But when you look at the collection as a whole there’s a pattern – nobody thought a woman to be interesting enough to be the protagonist or even a primary character (with the exception of the alien in the Williamson story at the end). The racism is … mostly of the same sort. I wrote the little notes on the stories before I wrote this intro & you’ll spot the bit where I’m suddenly taken aback. There are three stories in the middle that are appallingly explicitly racist, two of them (a duology by Meek) to a degree where if you took the racism out there’d be no story left. I skim read the second of those, and wouldn’t’ve even done that if I hadn’t been going to write about the book.

I’ll be keeping the book, but boxed up – primarily for the autobiography and for the nostalgia.

1931

“The Man Who Evolved” Edmond Hamilton

Story about the future evolution of humanity, a morality tale of the “meddle not with things you do not understand” type. Also felt like the H. G. Wells story “The Time Machine”, in that it was a scientist building a contraption to find out how the human race developed & demonstrating it to his friends. The science is dreadful (evolution Does. Not. Work. Like. That. and I suspect even a biologist in the 1930s would wince at it) but the story is still compelling.

“The Jameson Satellite” Neil R. Jones

Another “what will it be like in the far future” tale. In this one a man works out how to perfectly preserve his body after he dies, by shooting it into space in a rocket to orbit the Earth. Much much later he’s discovered by aliens, who are metal men (Zoromes from the planet Zor, I kid you not) who were once biological but have transplanted their brains into metal bodies and now live forever. The science is equally as wince-making as the last one but I have a higher tolerance for bad orbital mechanics etc than I do for bad biology 😉 The “radium repulsion rays” to prevent meteors hitting the rocket were a bit much tho … It was still a fun story to read, I keep wanting to use the word “charming”.

“Submicroscopic”, “Awlo of Ulm” Capt. S. P. Meek

Woah, these two were very much a “product of their time” to an extent that they didn’t have anything to recommend them today. Man builds machine to shrink himself, finds submicroscopic land inhabited by beautiful white people who are being attacked by brutish black savages who want to eat them. The sequel introduces scientifically advanced cruel yellow people with slanty eyes who’d like to enslave them. The hero wins the day because he’s the WASPiest WASP that ever WASPed, and also has guns but if he hadn’t he’d still’ve won. Asimov notes in his afterword that he was uncomfortable with the “touches of racism” he noticed in his re-read, but I’d say that “touches” is inadequate to even begin to describe the level of racism. Oh, and sexist too – these are the first stories in the book to have a woman mentioned at all, but she’s not a person she’s a plot coupon. Save the princess, marry the princess, save the princess (again), duel someone to the death for the princess, duel someone (else) to the death for the princess, reflect on how you didn’t kill them brutally enough because of what they threatened to do to the princess… So I think that’s actually a step back from the woman-free state.

“Tetrahedra of Space” P. Schulyer Miller

A story in the tradition of Wells’ “War of the Worlds” – aliens land, some plucky earth men persuade them to move on when something common on Earth turns out to be poison to them. Astonishingly purple prose, which made me giggle out loud at times because it was so overwrought. Here’s a sample:

It was beyond all reason — all possibility! And yet — it was! Now I could see them clearly, rank on rank of them in orderly file, some hundred of them, strewn in great concentric rings about the softly glowing spheres — harsh as the black rock itself, hard, and glittering, and angular — a man’s height and more from summit to base — great, glittering tetrahedra — tetrahedra of terror!

Unfortunately, also a very racist story 🙁 I kept trying to give it a pass coz I was enjoying the main plot, but it kept getting worse – there’s a nasty subplot to do with a South American native/Portuguese “breed” on the “wrong side” (i.e. his mother was white). However, in contrast to Meek’s stories I feel that it could be edited to remove the racist attitudes & the racist subplot and at the end you’d have a story where the essential plot was the same, just stripped of the 1930’s unpleasantness. (The science would still mark it out as from that time period, mind you …).

“The World of the Red Sun” Clifford D. Simak

Time travel in the style of H. G. Wells – with a well thought out machine that has believable flaws. Plucky 20th Century men save the world of the far future! Given how thought through the time machine was it was startling that the men of the far future still spoke English. An enjoyable story.

1932

“Tumithak of the Corridors” Charles R. Tanner

Far future Earth, long post-invasion by Venusians & the start of the story of how people won back their planet. The framing story is that this is a reconstruction of “how it must’ve been” told from even further in the future. This is one of the stories that had stuck in my mind from reading this book when I was a teenager and I think I like it just as much as an adult – caveats about 1930s story telling styles still apply, tho, and I can’t exactly call it non-sexist or non-racist. It does actually have a couple of women with speaking parts who have about as much personality as the male secondary characters – but that means pretty much none. No overt racism & even an explicit statement that people come in many sorts, good & bad, regardless of nation or era – but everyone’s white except the savages who live in the dark (who are slate-coloured) which is somewhat problematic. Well thought through consequences of the living arrangements of the people, tho the science/arts divide made me roll my eyes a little. My favourite of this volume.

“The Moon Era” Jack Williamson

Another man in a machine goes on an adventure story – this time the machine is invented by an old wealthy childless man who summons his never met before impoverished nephew and announces that if he takes the trip in the machine he will inherit the fortune. The trip is supposed to be to the Moon & back, and indeed he goes to the Moon but the time he arrives is not the time he left the Earth. The alien he meets is female – has to be for the plot to work, but she’s no plot coupon she has a personality of her own. A melancholy story, which I liked although I didn’t quite buy the ending.