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”.
“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.
“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 fiancée, 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.