Edited by Robert Silverberg
I started reading this last year. The first half of this review can be found elsewhere. To recap: My general purpose in re-reading this collection of historically noteworthy stories is to see how the stories have aged since I was a boy; I’m older, and the world has moved on, but is this book, one of the best anthologies in the field, still as excellent as I remember? The answer so far is, for the most part: yes, indeed.
Arena, by Fredric Brown
This story of two alien beings sent against each other in a gladiatorial contest probably wasn’t an original concept in 1944; possibly, neither were the stakes—the survival of the participants’ entire races—but the tale is well told, logical, and I enjoyed it. Its placement right after the introspective Huddling Place is jarring and effective. (To Star Trek fans, the story may have been the basis for the original series episode Arena, or perhaps was an embarrassing duplication of plot.)
First Contact, by Murray Leinster
Two races encounter each other in space for the first time, and the human captain comes to the conclusion:Even though I’d like very much to establish friendly relations (it would change life on Earth to know we’re not alone), can I afford to trust the alien not to tail us back home? Even the faintest possibility of humanity being exterminated is one I dare not take. After the human captain makes friendly overtures to the alien captain through a translator: “That is all very well, but is there any way for us to let each other go home alive? I would be happy to hear of such a way of you contrive one. At the moment it seems to me that one of us must be killed.” While this collection is arranged strictly chronologically, I kept finding themes echoing from story to story, and this one shares the theme of genocide with the previous tale Arena.
That Only a Mother, by Judith Merrill
This one was a little disappointing. A story of mutations, nuclear paranoia, and parental denial, the payoff ending follows a portrayal of the main character’s life filled with impatient waiting and loneliness. The shoulda-seen-it-coming twist ending is creepy and sad, although it does play off then-contemporary common portrayals of women as housewives and patient caretakers. The author wrote two novels in collaboration with C. M. Kornbluth, who also has a story in this collection; their styles are fairly similar, although Ms. Merrill seems more concerned with character as seen from the inside, if this mostly-epistolary story is a fair sample of her writing.
Scanners Live in Vain, by Cordwainer Smith
“The Great Pain of Space” is a wonderful, haunting metaphor, but for what? It requires space-venturing humans to cut themselves off from all senses but that of sight, resulting in men who are severed from all humanity. The author, whose real name was Paul Linebarger, wrote an entire arc of stories in this world. Dr. Linebarger was an expert in psychological warfare, and it shows in his writing. I’ve put his short-story collection The Rediscovery of Man on my to-read list.
Mars is Heaven! by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury wrote with a style that many have called poetic, including my high-school English teachers. This story is one of his creepier works: Man lands on Mars, finds a small town with long-dead relatives. The ending is predictable, but why cares? Re-reading this makes me want to search out my trade paperback of The Martian Chronicles.
The Little Black Bag, by C. M. Kornbluth
A small Medical Bag From The Future makes a legendary physician out of a deservedly down-on-his-luck doctor. While the characters in this story made little impression on me when I last read it, I found them memorable and complex. Despite some unnecessary techobabble in the framing story, I’ll be looking for some more of C. M.’s work, yes I will.
Born of Man and Woman, by Richard Matheson
The narrator is beaten by its parents, chained to a bed, and hidden away in humiliation. This extremely disturbing and short tale is almost certainly the hardest to read in the book, yet the most compelling; I read it twice, trying to figure out what, exactly, the protagonist is.
Coming Attraction, by Fritz Lieber
I’m not a fan of Mr. Lieber’s prose, as I’ve explained in my review of The Big Time. The story at hand—a slightly dystopian one of an America where women wear masks voluntarily—may change my mind. (It’s hard to miss the resonance of the mask with the veil and the burqa, even though the purpose of a woman’s mask in this story is to entice, not to shield men from their own desires.)
The Quest for Saint Aquin, by Anthony Boucher
When the Bishop of Rome sends a priest on a quest to find the body of a man who, according to stories, died and miraculously remained intact over the years, it contrasts sharply with the portrayal of this world in decay. The oppressed and crumbling Earth in Mr. Boucher’s story has a similar dry, rocky feel as the world in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Christianity is an outlaw religion again, and the priest Thomas’s traveling companion is an unassuming robass, a mechanical steed who is more interesting than any of the other characters.
Surface Tension, by James Blish
Part of a larger arc concerning mankind seeding the stars with adapted versions of himself, this story is legendary in its setting: Genetically altered men live in a puddle, and explore to discover who and where they are. Their odd viewpoint of the universe results in an image I’ll never forget of a tiny, perhaps inch-long “spaceship”, holding a dozen or so men, floating in the shade at the edge of a puddle.
The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke
I read Mr. Clarke’s most well-known short story last summer before reading it yet again this year, and have lost count of the probably dozens of times I’ve re-read this over the years; reading it with fresh eyes hasn’t been an option for me since the age of Disco. Sir Arthur has brought nearly-mystical elements into otherwise rock-hard science-fiction in much of his work, in particular in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End where one can look at these elements as sufficiently advanced technologies. The Nine Billion Names of God is short enough to preclude that old indistinguishable-from-magic point of view, which only adds to the tale’s lofty feel.
It’s a Good Life, by Jerome Bixby
Anthony is a child with god-like abilities: He knows what people are thinking, and can do anything he likes, and what he wants to happen is usually quite horrible. Before the story opens, he had wished his town elsewhere; or maybe he destroyed everything but the town, nobody knows which. The adults dare not ask. If you get on Anthony’s bad side, he’ll send you to a grave in “the cornfield”. The written version has a scene where Anthony idly torments a rat; this is far more disturbing than any of the other things we see—or don’t see—Anthony do.
The Cold Equations, by Tom Godwin
The setup here—a spacecraft with just enough fuel to get to its destination and land, to deliver badly needed medicine—is implausible, but there’s enough on-the-edge-of-the-frontier scenery painted about that the reader can buy the premise, at least while reading the story. A young and stupid girl stows away in a supply closet, and the pilot must jettison her before deceleration and landing, or the ship and its cargo will crash. The story has a lot of great character moments, such as Marilyn’s brother’s reaction via radio that goes a long way towards selling the setup to the reader. It’s unfortunate that the message of the story—you can’t have a happy ending if the science won’t allow it—wasn’t comprehended by more science-fiction writers, many of whom use the props of rockets and stars but little else that’s disciplined and worthwhile about science-fiction.
Fondly Fahrenheit, by Alfred Bester
Alfred Bester’s science was never his strong point, but his stories and words and characters can make one swoon in admiration. Like Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe, and China Mieville, the prose stops well short of purple but easily the dotted line of “poetic” prose, a way of telling a story through beautiful language. In this case, one of the major themes of the story—confusion of identity, a favorite theme of Mr. Bester’s#151;is conveyed solely through keeping the point of view unclear; who is the viewpoint character here, the disgraced playboy or his murderous android?
The Country of the Kind, by Damon Knight
After continual sedation turns out to be impractical, a violent criminal is punished by giving him free reign of a world that, by legal fiat, cruelly ignores him: This is obviously extremely effective, and is probably a worse punishment than simply locking him up would have been. I found myself sympathizing with the unnamed protagonist just, a little bit.
Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man, is the subject of an experiment that raises his intelligence threefold. His rise and deterioration are effectively portrayed by the quality of writing in his journal. This story still moves me, and I can’t do a better job praising it than Ben Bova did here:
Flowers for Algernon, in whatever form, follows the classic pattern of Greek tragedy in its depiction of a man raised to almost godlike heights, only to be crushed to the dust once again. Yet, Keyes goes beyond the limits of Greek drama, because he shows that it is possible for the human spirit to learn, to grow, to become better even in the face of overwhelming defeat
The story is virtually the only contribution Daniel Keyes has made to the science fiction field, outside of some magazine editing and a few stories published in the fifties and sixties.
It is enough.
(1989, from The Best of the Nebulas.)
A Rose for Ecclesiastes, by Roger Zelazny
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Roger Zelazny’s strongest writing is contained in this short, all too brief work about a translator. A dying race on Mars opens its treasured holy books to an alien poet, a glutton of language and religion, who stays apart from his own people. Despite its protagonist’s literary conceits, this story is simultaneously disappointingly and beautifully ordinary, yet somehow also a grand vision of hope rising from the ashes of the death of an old race. A fitting end to this volume, it is also the last story chronologically. As Gallinger was for the Martians a new beginning, the field of science-fiction underwent an enormous change in the years after this collection was printed.
These stories do indeed work better as an adult, particularly the ones by Cordwainer Smith and Lewis Padgett. I hope that the next two volumes will appeal to me more than they did in the seventies; I’m fairly sure I didn’t finish either of those.