1940s, 1943, A.E. van Vogt, Anthony Boucher, Astounding Science Fiction, C.L. Moore, DAW Books, Edmond Hamilton, Eric Frank Russell, evolutionary transcendence, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Fredric Brown, Hard SF, Henry Kuttner, Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, Mars, military SF, P. Schuyler Miller, pulp, robots!, science fiction, short fiction, space opera, Super Science Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Venus
My parents are awesome people. A few months before I started this blog, they sent me a gem that they dug out of a library booksale, a collection of pulp science fiction stories: Isaac Asimov Presents: The Golden Years of Science Fiction (Third Series). In fact, it’s a hardcover reprint of an earlier paperback series (Isaac Asimov Presents The Great Science Fiction Stories), collecting the volumes for the years 1943 (volume 5) and 1944 (volume 6) in one hardcover. This was (is!) right up my alley, so I immediately read it, and have meant to write a review since. There are some real gems in there, and a lot of stories and authors I’d like to see brought back to SF readers’ attention. To try to make reviewing it more manageable, I broke the hardcover back into its original halves, so here’s the 1943 half.
“The Cave” – P. Schuyler Miller – Astounding, Jan 1943
During a rough Martian sandstorm, a trio of creatures take shelter in a cave: a human, a humanoid Martian grak, and a bear-like carnivorous zek. Neither human nor grak are quite sure of the ferocious zek, but both grak and zek share similar Martian culture and values. A chamber opera which unfolds along with the uneasy alliance; interesting commentary on communication and the difference between Terran and Martian societal values. An interesting and memorable story, decent writing though a bit too much exposition; still, very imaginative and quite a strong tale. I have to wonder how much allegorical relevance the Second World War had on the tale.
“The Halfling” – Leigh Brackett – Astounding, Feb 1943
In a California sideshow, circus manager John Greene handles strange beasts from the stars in lieu of acrobats and elephants. One of Greene’s charges is an unruly cat-man from Callisto; another is a beautiful dancer who recently joined the circus. Chaos follows in their wake. An interesting idea, taking down-on-their-luck aliens and trucking them across the States in a carnival freakshow; I’m pretty enthralled about the idea of an alien carnival. Well written and entertaining, though a bit light on science fiction. This is my favorite of Brackett’s short works, written in the dead-accurate noir tone that won Brackett the role to write screenplays for Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep. The ending is also a winner.
“Mimsy Were The Borogoves” – Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore – Astounding, Feb 1943
The most famous of Kuttner and Moore’s works, this story follows some children who find a box of strange alien artifacts. At first they trick their parents with the ruse that these were gifts from their uncle, though their parents are a mite suspicious about these “toys.” Said parents (and the child psychologist they bring on) allow them to keep these as playthings, studying their interactions, but as time passes the children become more and more changed by these devices—the children’s pliable minds allow them to easily learn alien physics and mathematics, being unburdened by the concepts of Euclidean geometry and Einsteinien physics.
A beautiful, shocking, well-written, and above all creative story; this is Kuttner and Moore near the top of their game. It’s one of several famous tales dealing with the theme of humanity’s children transcending homo sapiens through some help from aliens, something both horrifying and inspiring. (Clarke’s Childhood’s End is probably the most famous tale in that field.)
“Q.U.R.” – Anthony Boucher – Astounding, Mar 1943
Things aren’t looking good for our protagonist, an engineer dealing in robots. Robot productivity is down, and our hero has found himself fired because his robot repair jobs didn’t look human enough. Finding himself in a bar with two fellow engineers, they decide (over drinks) to pool their resources and found a start-up company, Quinby’s Usuform Robots. The usuform part basically means “robots designed based on their function,” so our geniuses are the first people to realize a button-pressing robot only needs to be a mechanical arm and a box on bulldozer treads instead of a big metal human with arms and legs and everything—arms and legs which are maintenance-prone. Voila, robot happiness increases and our hero and pals are on the fast-track to success.
One of those good-old-fashioned tales that they don’t make any more, charming in its nostalgic naivete. Hell, it starts out like some episode of Mad Men, with the main characters chilling in a Martian bar over Three Planets cocktails. Boiling it down, it’s about three super-genius inventors who reinvent the wheel and become billionaires. So, one of those Rockefeller rags-to-riches tales, dated and overly idealistic, but still a solid story, one which I enjoyed reading—I may knock the story, but that’s only because I loved it. Also worthwhile to note is Boucher’s inclusion of minorities, including a black President. Considering that today, most real-world robots look nothing like metal people, it’s safe to say usuform won out over Asimov’s positronic style.
“Clash By Night” – Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore – Astounding, Mar 1943
Mankind has fled to Venus, establishing a number of aquatic “Keeps” as pseudo-independent city-states deep beneath the blue-green seas, hiring out to Free Companies of mercenaries to battle out grievances on the high seas. One such Free Company, Doone’s Free Companions, gets hired by the Montana Keep to fend off an attack of the Helldivers, hired by Virginia Keep. Espionage and big-gun-battleship-style naval warfare ensues, as our hero—one of the Doones’ officers—maneuvers against the Helldivers.
This is the first story in the collection that didn’t really feel “great” to me; following in the footsteps of four amazing stories, this one failed to live up to the volume’s standards thus far. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fun pulp adventure story and solid early military SF, but it felt a bit shallow despite being one of the longest works in the book. On the other hand, it’s a neat historical relic: back in the ’40s, people figured Venus was a lush, dinosaur- and water-laden jungle planet. Kuttner and Moore transplanted their contemporary great naval battles—the Pacific Theater in ’42 and ’43 was full of them—to Venus, and made it work in a future setting. Now we know that Venus is an inhospitable wasteland, which is a buzzkill, and big-gun naval battles have gone the way of the Venusian dinosaurs.
“Exile” – Edmond Hamilton – Super Science Stories, May 1943
The shortest work in this volume, “Exile” deals with four pulp science-fiction writers talking shop. One of the writers jokes that they’d have a better time living on their imaginary worlds; another jumps in to say that he once had to do that, “write about an imaginary world and then live on it.” As he tells his tale, his companions cheer him on, until (you guessed it) they’re stunned by the Twilight Zone-style twist ending. The last sentence would be a punch in the gut, if we hadn’t been conditioned to this type of “shocking” twist over the last seventy years. Ed Hamilton produced an impressive body of work; sadly most of it was in novel form or written in the ’30s, so this so-so tale is the sole inclusion in Asimov’s collections.
“Daymare” – Fredric Brown – Thrilling Wonder Stories, Fall 1943
Investigating a murder in town, our detective protagonist realizes that the five men who saw the corpse each saw a different cause of death—one saw what looked like an axe-like chop to the head, another saw a bullet in the center of the chest, another saw that the corpse had died of shock. The investigation continues, trying to unravel this mess of conflicting eyewitnesses. And then there’s another murder in town: the same man killed again, with the next five witnesses seeing another five causes of death…
Fred Brown was one of the few authors would could blend “mystery” and “science fiction” and have the two genres meet seamlessly, and “Daymare” is an ideal example. Brilliant creativity meets smart plotting and a solid mystery. The best mysteries are those you can’t predict, and thanks to the SF elements, “Daymare” is anything but predictable. One of my favorite tales in this volume; then again, I’m fascinated by the blending of the mystery genre with the fantastic.
“Doorway Into Time” – C.L. Moore – Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Sept 1943
A pair of earthlings get sucked through a doorway into the realm of an alien interested in capturing bits of other realms to add to its art collection, something like a decadent Roman emperor. One of the big complaints about Moore’s protagonists is that more often than not, things just happen to them rather than the protagonists interacting with the setting (much less the plot). This story is no exception; rather, its two human protagonists don’t seem to do much at all. Some more characterization and depth would have really helped out this tale. An neat idea and passable execution, but the story itself feels like the rushed outline to a greater novel.
“The Storm” – A.E. van Vogt – Astounding, Oct 1943
After thousands of years of countless war between humanity and the Dellians (robots), things have come down to one climactic event: an advanced Dellian called a Mixed-Man is sent to lure mankind’s most powerful cruiser into the teeth of a cosmic storm, but ends up staring to fall in love with a human female. Shades of the new Battlestar Galactica. Gripping space opera as done by one of the genre’s greatest, though I found it somewhat forgettable—I’ve read it three times now and still have trouble remembering it. Probably more a fault with my memory than the story, which is well-crafted and unique.
“The Proud Robot” – Henry Kuttner – Astounding, Oct 1943
One of Kuttner’s humorous Gallegher tales, about the genius inventor Galloway Gallegher whose genius only comes out when he’s stonking drunk. In this one, he wakes up hungover to find he’s invented an egotistical singing robot, to the chagrin of his employer, an entertainment magnate fighting in the war between movie theaters and television. All of the Gallegher tales are great combinations of science fiction, comedy, and puzzle-like mysteries, and this is one of the best. Interesting enough, the conflict between television and movies was prophetic, not just on the rise of TV but in contemporary technological issues like Digital Rights Management (DRM) and copyright.
“Symbiotica” – Eric Frank Russell – Astounding, Oct 1943
A multinational band of Terrans and Martians (including a “Negro surgeon” but no women) land on a distant world, finding it inhabited by sentient plants and animals which share closer symbiosis than any species on Earth. After initiating hostilities, things go badly for our intrepid star heroes. Kind of an early military SF story, “Symbiotica” is well-rounded an interesting, if another quaint throwback to the Golden Age. It’s similar to “Clash By Night” in that it’s less of a cerebral venture and more honest swashbuckling fun, though both are great examples of adventure science fiction. “Symbiotica” is quite long, and though EFR is a capable writer who penned an enjoyable story, this one’s very straightforward. Good, but one of the least unique tales in the collection.
If I had to pick, I’d say the first four stories and “Daymare” were my favorite; all of them were very unique and entertaining, and worth looking for. “The Proud Robot” also ranks up there, being a brilliant puzzle with a great sense of humor. There really aren’t any bad stories, though several were weak links. “Clash By Night” and “Symbiotica” stand as closest to bog-standard pulp, being superior versions to the stories that filled Planet Stories, Amazing, and Thrilling Wonder. I still enjoyed them, and would definitely read them again. “Exile” is worth a look, but it’s a trope that’s been done to death since the story was written, which tarnishes it. “Doorway Into Time” is in my opinion the weakest; brilliant idea and atmosphere, but uneventful and lacking. All in all, a solid collection, well worth reading.
Oddly enough I’ve seen four or five copies of the same Third Series copy (the hardcover at the top, which is what I read), but the only other volume in that series I’ve found so far has been the Fifth Series. I do have other volumes in the DAW paperback series, so I’ll continue to read and review those.
This review is part of Vintage Sci-Fi Month; not that I needed an excuse to read vintage science fiction.