I started this post by writing about each story as I finished it. I just realized that I’m about halfway through the book by page count, so there’s no reason for me not to post the first half of this review now. (That I’m up against deadline and don’t have a post for tonight doesn’t factor into this, of course.)
This series is in three volumes, cunningly called “Volume 1”, “Volume 2A” and “Volume 2B”. (The second volume was split into two physical books for publication.) That makes this article the first of a series of… I’ll play it save and say “a bunch”. It seems appropriate to split up this review in particular.
Edited by Robert Silverberg
In 1965, the Science Fiction Writers of America started giving out the Nebula Awards. They published this anthology and its companion volume(s) by way of recognizing pre-1965 work that the membership thought was exceptional.
I read this book and its siblings in the seventies; the stories seem better in some ways, particularly the more sophisticated prose. A few stories haven’t aged all that well.
A Martian Odyssey, Stanley G. Weinbaum
This story is not only the oldest in the book, but the style hasn’t aged well. Jarvis is an astronaut who gets lost on Mars, and has to hike across eight hundred miles of Martian landscape to get back to his ship. His companion for the story is an alien named Tweel, who is a better character than Jarvis himself. The story has some very sophisticated alien lifeforms. I understand there are other stories in this world as well, but I don’t know if we ever learn more about Tweel. The aliens glimpsed in this story are interestingly strange and more fully realized than most. (Star Trek probably cribbed the idea for the alien Horta from this story’s Martian “Pyramid Builders”.) (Read this story on gutenberg.org.)
Twilight, John W. Campbell
A tall tale about traveling forward in time to the end of the world. Campbell somehow manages to make the last lonely years of humanity achingly heartbreaking. I didn’t like this as a child, I ate it up as an adult.
Helen O’Loy, Lester del Ray
These two guys own a robotics business, see, and they keep failing at making a robot woman to cook and clean. Until they succeed a little too well. Summarizing this story makes it sound pretty absurd. The character of Helen is as good or better than Daneel Olivaw or Robbie, and those later robots probably own more than a bit to this story.
The Roads Must Roll, Robert A. Heinlein
Early engineering-porn at its best and worst. The idea of road-towns is a great, world-altering concept. The “roads” in the title are giant conveyor belts that cross hundreds if not thousands of miles. Trade and traffic depend on them, so what happens when the road workers go on strike and stop them? Heinlein was more sophisticated later on, but this story is the template for later works such as Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I still don’t understand what happens to a road town at the end of a road; does the road circle around, taking the town with it?
Microcosmic God, Theodore Sturgeon
A great inventor, secluded on his island, creates a race of tiny beings in the laboratory, forcing them to invent stuff on pain of the wrath of god. God being… well, you get the idea. The story is immensely disturbing. This is another one that didn’t work as well in the days I rode my bike to that dusty bookstore. (Although if anyone knows a dusty bookstore around here, I’d love to ride my bike to it.)
Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov
This is probably one of the most well-known stories in this volume, along with the stories by Clarke and Keyes; it’s almost certainly the most-read story the good doctor ever wrote, although it wasn’t his personal favorite. In a world of eternal daylight (imagine this summary in a deep, echoing voice; the theater lights are dimming and people are opening candy wrappers), what happens when night falls?
The Weapon Shop, A. E. van Vogt
Opinion on this author’s work is sharply divided. While there is merit to this story, it’s simply never spoken to me personally; rereading it years later has not changed my opinion. Fara, the prototypical hard-working protagonist, tries to keep the eponymous shop from opening in his town is unsympathetic, and the plot seems pointless if somehow oddly compelling: I want to see what he’ll do next, as he’s increasingly alone in his struggle. Unfortunately, Fara is stubborn and unmoving, the misunderstood cranky-old-man who’s maybe not all that misunderstood.
until I was 40 pages into the story, and everything changed. I found myself suddenly worrying about Fara. (I must have abandoned the story when reading it years ago.) “I” I stammered to myself “How dare you be good?” Fara is a good deconstruction of Heinlein’s capable-man stock character. He starts life as a caricature, not really a well-rounded person at all, and he doesn’t respond well at all to being pulled out of a life where hard work is rewarded with a family and a roof over his head. (Lazarus Long at least knew how to deal with the prospect of homelessness and despair. Heinlein himself would pull the type apart with Jacob Burroughs and the Reverend Alexander Hergensheimer.)
Mimsy were the Borogoves, by Lewis Padgett
A husband-and-wife team wrote this chilling story about how the a child’s mental development might be interrupted and changed. It feels a lot like the so-called “new-wave” fiction that would become popular in the sixties, and would be codified in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies.
Huddling Place, by Clifford D. Simak
The major theme of the story is how a comfortable home can be a trap of sorts, and Dr. Asimov explored this theme more fully in The Naked Sun, although without the almost visceral horror Mr. Simak injected here. Both the elegant prose and refined setting of Huddling Place are similar to the poetic style of Gene Wolfe. This story, as do many others in this collection, rewards patient reading.
I have half a book of these still to go, so I’ll post a followup review to this soon. I’m not sure if I want to re-read the other two books just now; I have a large to-read pile awaiting me. (All my problems should be so terrible, yes?)