Monday, June 7, 2010

Golden Age Adventures

I published this review on November 15, 2006, on my original non-blog website. That site is now (rightfully) defunct, and very few of those reviews are still around. I was curious about what I'd written on this book today, and realized that if it's not online I can't find it easily. So I figured that I would post it here; that way I'll always be able to find it. Feel free to skip this one. It's the longest review I've ever done, ~7000 words. This book had been highly recommended to me by Charles N. Brown and Gary K. Wolfe when I first met them, and I wanted to chew over each and every story. Also, I like to think that my writing style has improved slightly over the intervening years. (If it hasn't, let me keep my illusions!)

Adventures in Time and Space
is an anthology of reprinted stories that was published in 1946. The stories it contains were written between 1934 and 1945, comprising much of the “Golden Age” of science fiction. It was recommended to me, by those who should know, as one of the most influential anthologies in the history of the genre. They said that if I wanted to understand the history of science fiction, this was required reading. As it was published by Random House as part of a series designed for public libraries, it was probably the most widely available science fiction of any kind from 1946 to at least 1960, so that anyone growing up then would have found this to be their primary source of science fiction, and their basis for understanding what science fiction is. Thus the editors, Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, who make their opinions felt not only by their selections, but also in the short introductions provided to each piece, helped to define the conversation about the genre for decades to come.

As such I read the stories in this book with the greatest attention, and I want to go over each of them in their turn. I wouldn’t normally do this, but I want to get my own thoughts down so that I can refer back to them when needed. The reader may not want to hang around for all this, but I will say that this collection isn’t merely historically important, it’s also good. It contains three A. E. Van Vogt stories, Asimov’s “Nightfall,” three Heinleins, and the core stories behind two classic movies (“The Thing” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still”). I had only previously read three of the thirty-five pieces, but I had read descriptions and discussions of many more of them. Now that I have read the originals, I can read many other works with a much better sense of context.

Another point to note is the central importance of John W. Campbell, Jr. on the whole enterprise. As the editor of Astounding magazine (later Analog, still publishing today), he was one of the single most influential figures on science fiction from 1938 to at least 1953. It is no coincidence that thirty-two of the thirty-five stories were originally published in Astounding. Also, the two non-fiction pieces here strongly reflect Campbell’s idiosyncrasies. One of them is a piece on German rocketry which was exactly what you’d expect, focused on what had been done pre-war, and what might have been done during the war, with a focus on what is technically possible. The other is an odd piece on a possible occurrence of time travel that happened to two women in France in 1904 which would have seemed more at home in Fortean magazine. Campbell may have encouraged hard science fiction in his authors, but he had some strange notions about exactly what might qualify. After reading this, I find it less surprising that he was a promoter of Dianetics when L. Ron Hubbard first introduced it in the 1950s.

On to the stories! (Spoilers will inevitably ensue)

The editors start off with a classic story from Robert Heinlein’s Future History sequence, “Requiem.” In this story, the visionary man that saw to it that space travel to the Moon became a reality (“The Man Who Sold the Moon”) had never been allowed to get there himself. At the end of his life he convinces two down-on-their luck spacemen to take him there despite the risks. He finally passes away, completely content, on the lunar surface. It is a story that I had read before, but frankly it always moves me close to tears. Healy and McComas make a powerful argument here for the emotional power of space flight and belief in the future, one that all of us involved in space technology, however tangentially, share. It’s a short piece, full of imagery and lyricism.

Next up is “Forgetfulness,” by Don A. Stuart, the pseudonym used by John W. Campbell, Jr. himself. It is a story of planetary exploration. A group of scientists land on a planet that has wondrous cities. However, the alien inhabitants don’t live in the cities, they appear to be primitive. The reader is led to expect a tale of a degenerate race, but in truth it turns out that they have progressed far beyond the need for mere technology, instead having unleashed the power of their minds. They have learned to live simply and in harmony. Luckily they are benign and mean the adventurers no harm. The tale of the incredibly advanced alien hiding in plain sight has been used over and over in science fiction stories since then. Probably most of them have been done with infinitely better prose and dialogue. Reading this story made me think that one of the best things that ever happened to science fiction was when Campbell stopped writing and started editing.

“Nerves,” by Lester Del Rey was one I had never heard of before. It was surprisingly enjoyable, with a smooth writing style that put me in mind of Heinlein from the same period. It is the story of a major emergency at a nuclear power plant and the attempt to put things to right. It’s a long story, but Del Rey handles the tension very well, ratcheting it up and then easing, only to jack it up some more. It’s a classic tale of engineering saving the day, although our main characters are actually doctors having to treat all the cases of radiation poisoning that come in from workers trying to excavate, contain, and fix the problem. The engineering and scientific details bear no resemblance to the reality of nuclear power as we know them today, but that’s hardly important. One of the most important parts is how he was responding to some other tales of nuclear energy that had been written previously. Charles Brown feels that “Nerves” was written in reaction to Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which focused on nuclear weapons; here Del Rey points out the potential of peaceful applications. I feel that it might be a response instead to Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen,” where Heinlein’s characters never experience a catastrophe; instead they postulate that one is inevitable and insist that nuclear power plants must all be moved off-planet. In “Nerves,” Del Rey instead puts his faith in the scientists and engineers to contain and control the dangerous energy, even when catastrophe strikes. I also appreciated the Girl Friday character, and the way the main doctor overcame his assumptions about women’s usefulness (or lack thereof) to the point that he recommended she be on the permanent staff even though she was a married woman. I started to think, gosh, this stuff wasn’t so anti-feminist. That was pretty progressive for the day. We’ll come back to that point later.

“The Sands of Time” by P. Schuyler Miller is the first time travel story in this collection, and it won’t be the last. This one hews closely to the model provided by H. G. Wells’ The Time Traveller, although in reverse. His traveler posits that time is a coil, and you can only step up or down from one turn to the next, you can’t travel around the turn except in the normal way. So he can only go 60 million years forward or 60 million years backward. He chooses to go backward, then has to convince our paleontologist narrator that he has really achieved such a feat. He provides his proof, introduces the narrator to the equipment and tells his story, then disappears into the mists of time, never to be seen again. In the past he had met futuristic humanoids of some sort and become involved in their small-scale battle. It wasn’t particularly clear what was going on, but the traveler decided to side with the pretty girl, so his loyalty was fixed. This story wasn’t terribly memorable or ground-breaking.

“The Proud Robot” by “Lewis Padgett” (really Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, a husband and wife writing team, although apparently this particular one was by Kuttner alone) was one I had read about before. It seemed an interesting choice to me to include a funny story about robots before including any serious ones. At this point in the book, no robots had yet appeared. So we’re introduced to both the robot trope (and symbol) and simultaneously to science fiction’s capacity to laugh at itself, its capacity for whimsy. Our hero is Gallegher, an inventor who can only invent when dead drunk. Upon sobering up in this story, he finds himself in possession of a perfectly useless and perfectly vain robot. He has all sorts of contractual obligations that he has to fulfill, but he can’t do a darn thing sober, and can’t get the robot to help him unless he can figure out what its actual purpose is. (It turns out it’s the world’s most complex and over-engineered can opener.) Gallegher is pretty much the inverse of the typical science fiction hero, whose superior knowledge of science and engineering and superior rationality will help him win through. Gallegher only wins through when he gets his mind turned completely off with the aid of liberal amounts of booze. It’s a fun puzzle story, and Gallegher is a great comic protagonist.

“The Black Destroyer” was the first science fiction short story that A. E. Van Vogt ever sold. This is the first sinister alien we meet in the collection, an uber-predator, the last of its kind since it wiped out all major life-forms on its planet. The arrival of human explorers is a godsend, and he proceeds to terrorize the expedition members both on the ground and in the ship. Eventually it is defeated by the superior knowledge and rationality of the crew, of course. The story is chock full of Freudian imagery, with the beast representing the id and the crew operating with the superego. The plot ends up in familiar horror movie territory with the beast in the ship; it feels very similar to the movie Alien, which was partly based upon another van Vogt story from the same period: “Discord in Scarlet” (later combined with “Black Destroyer” to make a fix-up novel, Voyage of the Space Beagle). Van Vogt’s prose turned out to be much easier to read than I had feared; other reviews of his work mention it being somewhat complicated and metaphysical, but on a sentence/paragraph level it is not hard going at all, and it is infinitely better than “Don A. Stuart’s” stories.

“Symbiotica” gives us a new batch of aliens. They’re not benign, but they’re much less sinister than the “Black Destroyer.” Eric Frank Russell’s aliens are also considerably more alien than what we have met in the collection so far. Once again we have the standard human exploration vessel landing on a new planet. The characters here are already comfortable with each other, it turns out that this is one story out of a series of linked stories featuring the same cast. It’s an admirably progressive mixed crew, both in terms of race and species (Martians), plus the actual hero of the piece is a robot. The planet they land on features lush vegetation that seems curiously self-directed and easily annoyed, as well as some humanoids that are intricately involved with the plant life. The editors tip us off in their intro that the intelligent species here are the plants; today they’d be accused of evil spoiler behavior. The tone of the piece is light and adventuresome, with a high “Gee Whiz!” factor even when the characters are running for their lives. One senses similarities to African exploration narratives, as well as to “Boy’s Own”-type juvenile literature, although the cast is all adults. It was fun to see things called “extramundane aboriginals” as opposed to today’s favored “extraterrestrial intelligences.”

“Seeds of the Dusk” by Raymond Z. Gallun again presents us with vegetable-based aliens who don’t mean humans any good, but in this case the author presents a very bleak picture of future humanity. What passes for human in this far-future tale is a degenerate race of hateful goblinoids who have completely devastated the Earth and are in the process of moving to Venus (where it will be warmer as the Sun cools down, which wouldn’t work with today’s astronomical knowledge) so they can mess that planet up too. Meanwhile a spore from freezing Mars falls to Earth and sets up shop in desolate Antarctica. The alien spore is basically the main character here, and his description of the spore’s growth process is fascinating and very detailed. This tale is more focused on bioengineering than most here, and is really a very early environmentalist warning story. Among today’s authors one can read similar things in tone and focus from Neal Asher (“The Skinner”) and Paolo Baccigalupi (“The People of Sand and Slag”).

“Heavy Planet” gives us our first taste of classically physics-based hard science fiction in the collection, being a small adventure story set on a gas giant. There is a backdrop of politics that the hero is fighting for, but it’s all very vague. The main focus is how a race evolved in gas giant conditions (although made of ultra-dense stuff, not gaseous jellyfish-types as you tend to see in today’s gas giant fiction, which are working with more current planetary science) would interact with technology made by people of our type. Our toughest alloys would practically be silly putty to them. As one would expect, Tony Russell (who uses the pseudonym Lee Gregor here) had a sideline writing popular physics books. The story is very slight, with little characterization and no follow-up, existing only as the hook to hang some nifty world building on.

For our fist repeat appearance, we have a second Lewis Padgett story. It again features the lush Gallegher, now renamed Galloway, and he has once again invented an amazing thing while stinking drunk. This one appears to feature infinite transdimensional storage, but when a shady lawyer tries to use it to hide evidence for his corporate criminal client, he discovers a very unpleasant (and bizarre) consequence of the “Time Locker.” Galloway only features at the beginning and the end, most of the tale involves a funny tale of science fictionally abetted crime. Does it make much sense? No, but it’s amusing enough.

Cleve Cartmill is better known for writing “Deadline,” a story with so accurate a description of an atomic bomb that the FBI investigated Astounding magazine for possibly leaking secrets. “The Link,” however, is a member of that rare breed of science fiction that takes place wholly in the past. It imagines that day in the distant past when a single individual has become homo sapiens, and must somehow deal with his less-evolved relatives. It has a slightly Kipling-esque feel, with Lok having conversations with the animals of the jungle. One wonders if Lok’s name is perhaps a reference to the philosopher John Locke, especially the bit about “consent of the governed.” Cartmill doesn’t pull many punches with this story, and he rigorously imagines the consequences of his scenario. It may also in some small way have influenced the famous first scene from the film 2001, quickly linking consciousness and violence.[ed. to add: Nowadays I'd compare it strongly to Jack London's Before Adam.]

“Mechanical Mice” gives us our first serious look at robots in the collection. It’s combined with a sort of time-travel viewing device, where one can see events from the future. An inventor uses the device to build amazing things, especially batteries. When he first builds a robot he doesn’t actually know what it does, much like in Padgett’s “Proud Robot.” It doesn’t take long before it turns out to be threatening, and the menace of the self-replicating robot, seen over and over again in science fiction, makes a solid appearance here. The story by Maurice A. Hugi isn’t particularly memorable, but it does wrap up well.

Then we get one of the two oddities of the collection, a non-fiction piece on rocketry. The author was Willy Ley, a German refugee from the War and previous Secretary of the German Rocket Society. He covers the state of rocketry research as done by amateurs before the war, then offers solid speculation on what was done after the research was nationalized by the Nazis, as gleaned from newspaper reports and his knowledge of the participants. His writing is very precise and engaging, and offers a window to the times. It is a reminder of how much warfare has changed when you read: “Fighter interception destroyed twenty-four percent of the [flying] bombs in flight, A.A. guns and rockets accounted for seventeen percent, balloon barrages for five percent so that only two thousand bombs, or about twenty-nine percent, actually fell on London. They killed 5,864 persons, injured 17,197 badly and 23,174 slightly, destroyed 24,491 houses, rendered another 52,293 uninhabitable and damaged over 950,000. The results were impressive as far as figures go, their influence on the course of the war was nil.” The biggest surprise looking back and knowing how the history of rocketry unfolded is that the article has no mention of Wernher von Braun.

Previous to this volume, I had only read Alfred Bester’s novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. I can’t say I enjoyed them - they’re not necessarily the sort of thing one enjoys - but there is no denying their brilliance. With “Adam and No Eve,” take that feeling and square it. This apocalyptic story is like a visceral punch in the stomach. One man’s hubris in rocketry causes the entire world to be turned to ash; when he lands he ends up crawling inch by inch through the devastated landscape, flashing back to how this happened. Bester makes it very clear that no good intentions can redeem us if in our ignorance and pride we cause ultimate catastrophe, and he holds out only the slightest, most uncomforting sliver of abstract hope for the future. I would’ve said that he was keying off the now-famous bets that some of the atomic scientists were making at the Alamogordo test as to whether or not a nuclear explosion would incinerate the atmosphere, but when he wrote this story in 1941 that hadn’t happened yet. In much the same way that “Requiem” expressed the emotional power of hope in the future, “Adam and No Eve” gives us the intense emotional power of destruction. I will never forget this story.

After that solid beating by Bester, we get the (oddly) much cheerier “Nightfall,” by Isaac Asimov. To say that this short story has stood the test of time would be a drastic understatement; it is probably one of the most referenced and reprinted short stories in all of science fiction. It was later expanded to novel length with Robert Silverberg, but skip that. If you haven’t read the original yet, you should. Its pro-science, anti-religious zealot, rigorously extrapolated, and you can’t beat its most amazing image: seeing the galaxy full of stars for the first time from the heart of a globular cluster.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we move to Harry Bates’ story, “A Matter of Size.” It is your typical adventure story of a man making his way through the world when shrunk to only an inch high or so, a scenario almost never seen anymore thanks to the wide acceptance of the square-cube law and related biological scaling laws. I found this story mostly trite and annoying, although that might be in part because it doesn’t compare well to the stunning stories that preceded it. His casual misogyny (“’Then let me congratulate you,’ he said, ‘for admitting your dumbness. I’m not accustomed to such extraordinary modesty on the part of women. I may say I find it very becoming.’”) and fundamental arrogance make Arthur Allison a most unsympathetic hero, and he never gets better. The story is overlong and takes some pointless digressions. Just about every collection ends up having a notably weak story in, regardless of the best efforts of the editor, and this is one of the worst ones in a collection otherwise packed to the gills with classics.

P. Schuyler Miller gives us another time-travel story in “As Never Was,” this one featuring the trope of the time-loop with no beginning and no end. This is one of the only stories in the book to mention alternate universes caused by time forks, an idea still quite current in today’s environment. It’s a good illustration of its type, but again not terribly memorable.

Anthony Boucher (real name William Anthony Parker White) gives us another take on robots in “Q. U. R.” This story fits smack dab in what is now the Asimovian tradition of robot stories, with robots having psychology that needs attending to (essentially puzzles that need solving). It’s one of the few examples of its type in the collection, which I was surprised to see lacked any Asimov robot stories. “Q.U.R” is a fun story with an engaging light-hearted narrator. He’s a robot repairman who is run ragged as robots start to fail in odd ways all across the city. He teams with an eccentric genius to solve the mystery and gain fame and fortune. In the background it also makes some very progressive statements against racism (as Asimov’s stories often did as well), and Boucher also includes Martian and Venusians doing business on Earth as a casual matter. Very cool stuff.

“Who Goes There” is our second Don A. Stuart/John W. Campbell Jr. story. It would later be adapted as the screenplay to the classic horror movie The Thing. However, much like Van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” for something that was made into a horror movie it really isn’t that scary. Campbell’s incredibly stilted info-dumping prose isn’t well suited to suspenseful tension, and once again the scientific tendency to examine and understand overcomes the horror of the unknown. When an alien is dug up from beneath the ice in Antarctica, where it had lain with its wrecked ship for some millions of years, it looked very, very scary. Red menacing eyes, tentacles, that sort of thing. However, once it thaws out and regains its shape-shifting and mimicking ability, its true potential for terror is unleashed. Again you have the monster let loose in a claustrophobic environment, where you never know which of your colleagues you can trust. Classic stuff. Really though, that’s not the point. Possibly the strongest characteristic of Golden Age science fiction, exemplified again and again in this collection, is the ability that reason and science has to conquer any threat. After a few aborted attempts to identify those who have been replaced by the monster, the doctor figures out a way to test the blood of the monsters. Each person lines up to have his blood tested, the monsters are outed, and the world is saved. The initially Horror-From-Beyond-type monster is remarkably cooperative when it comes to this method of investigation, and thus does science conquer horror yet again. There is also a telepathic element here, presented as perfectly scientific. This would continue to be Campbell’s stance pretty much until his death, much to the exasperation of some of his writers.

“The Roads Must Roll” is another story I had read before, by Robert A. Heinlein. It is part of his amazing Future History sequence. Actually, in his Future History this comes before “Requiem,” which started this collection, but each operates completely independently from the other. “Roads” is a political story, possibly the most explicitly political story in the collection (with Van Vogt’s “The Weapons Shop” coming in second). In this story, the major infrastructure of the future is moving roads, like conveyor belts on a massively industrial scale. Powered by solar power, they carry most of the trade and commerce of the country, plus the commuters. They require a vast amount of very careful, skilled, and highly regimented maintenance. Because their jobs are so important, the workers on these roads are forbidden from striking in much the same way doctors and firefighters are. However, they stage a sabotage action anyway to protest their working terms. We follow the Chief Engineer Gaines as he descends into the bowels of the Roads to confront Van Kleeck, the chief agitator of this labor movement. Van Kleeck insists that since the Road workers are so critical to the economy, they should be the kings of it. It’s basically a straw man argument; farmers, doctors, power plant workers, just about anyone can claim the same – that society will collapse if they quit doing their jobs, so they should be paid accordingly. It’s essentially holding society hostage. However, the conflict in this case isn’t solved by reasoned economic debate. It is solved when Gaines realizes that Van Kleeck has psychological issues (a Napoleon complex) that cause him to make trouble and can be used against him. It is an oddly ad hominem approach to take in a story that could have been simply a soapbox for Heinlein’s economic theories.

Our second Van Vogt story, “Asylum,” illustrates the tendency of science fiction to appropriate objects from the fantastic tradition and explain them scientifically instead. Here we have vampires who are aliens. They are vastly superior to humans in strength and intellect. However, there are also guardian aliens who are as far above them as they are above us, and it all works out fine in the end. The story is very odd, involving Leigh, our journalist hero (an example of the still-common type) being manipulated by one faction after another. In his future humanity, murder is completely unknown, since psychology has become reliable enough to adjust any potentially murderous personality back to normal. (This is almost an aside – its consequences aren’t developed at all.) Leigh turns out to be even more than he thinks he is. The story is weird, and it doesn’t really make much sense. The issues basically boil down to ones of superior intellect protecting and dominating lesser beings. This is particularly illustrated when Leigh is being manipulated to love one of the vampires: “If you think I’m going to fall in love with a dame who’s got twice my I.Q., you’re…” Van Vogt isn’t necessarily being misogynist here, since he’s got no problems portraying women vastly more intelligent than the humans. It’s more that he’s using an inversion of normal male/female relationships (at the time) to illustrate the potential uncomfortableness of the alien/human power relationships. This may also be seen when it’s pointed out that for Leigh: “The very thought of getting down on his knees to any woman was paralyzing.”

OK, so we’ve gotten through 21 stories of the Golden Age. We’ve learned about how science and reason can conquer all, that our future can be amazing, that aliens can be beneficent or frightening, etc. It’s been mostly male in terms of characters, but there hasn’t been much that’s been horribly anti-feminist really. Until Healy and McComas take “Quietus,” an interesting post-apocalyptic story with aliens by Ross Rocklynne, and proceed to use their introduction to put a specifically anti-feminist spin on it. “One might well conclude that the essentially tragic significance of this tale is its brilliant portrayal of the historical struggle of the feminine mind to cope with logic a priori.” The story is that after an apocalypse, a man has been running around with a talking crow he’s had since boyhood. After many years, he’s finally spotted a woman and is tracking her. During this time, a husband and wife pair of bird-type alien explorers has been looking around the Earth for signs of intelligent life. They look at the man and the crow. The crow scared off the woman just as the man was about to make contact with her, so he starts throwing rocks at it, mostly out of annoyance. The alien wife shoots the man, trying to protect the crow. She assumed that the crow would be the intelligent one, and the man simply a domesticated animal. Her husband has some quiet qualms about this. After being unable to make contact with the crow, they fly away. The story wouldn’t have struck me as being particularly misogynist is the editors hadn’t deliberately spun it that way, and it really surprised me. It goes to show the power of the editor’s introduction. Interestingly, the hero of “Farewell to the Master” will make exactly the same mistake, but that story will be lauded as the best they’d ever read, with no mention of men’s inability to reason logically.

“The Twonky” starts off with a light premise. A factory worker, dazed from slipping through a dimensional rift, builds what he usually does – a twonky. He finally realizes what happened and slips back to his home dimension, leaving the twonky (in the shape of a nice radio set) behind. The unsuspecting owner of the twonky soon discovers its potential, and its threat. It starts out as a scary but sort of nifty servant - lighting cigars, doing dishes, etc. However, its definition of looking out for the welfare of its owner goes overboard quickly, and things take a turn for the disturbing. In the end it is the darkest of the three Padgett stories here, sharing with the Gallagher/Galloway stories only the theme of remarkable things happening due to confusion. It certainly speaks to the fear of robots that Asimov would spend a large amount of time trying to alleviate.

“Time Travel Happens!” is the other non-fiction piece in the collection. I suppose that if “V-2: Rocket Cargo Ship” was supposed to represent adventures in space, this article is supposed to represent adventures in time. It is the story of the supposedly true experience of two English women in France in the early 1900s. They apparently were momentarily thrown back in time to around 1789 without traveling in space. They saw changes to the grounds and the buildings they had been looking at, and interacted with a few people, then returned. This happened on a few occasions. They deeply researched the area, trying to find confirming or dismissing details. They found records of the changes that had been made to the premises, and also details of clothing and uniforms they had noticed. It does all seem plausible. However, it is so extraordinary that it seems a better article for the Fortean Times magazine than a science fiction collection. Basically, it seems remarkably out of place. It may represent Campbell’s continuing credulity about certain subjects that undermined the pureness of the Golden Age paradigm of rationality.

“Robot’s Return” is a melancholy tale. An exploration crew of robots lands on Earth. They’ve been searching for knowledge of their origins, as they remember nothing from before when their Original Five progenitors had been activated. On Earth they discover the remains of our civilization, and a handy plaque describing our fate. The robots are quite human: they give us awkward expository dialog, they doubt that anything organic could have built robots, they experience the tension between logic and intuition. It’s a nicely done tale, if not terribly memorable.

“The Blue Giraffe” by L. Sprague de Camp takes us back to the African explorer model that science fiction often used, and here it is actually taking place in Africa. In the near future, a British gentleman is asked to help look into problems at an African wild animal preserve. He discovers the consequences of a mad scientist’s experiments when some mutated animal/human hybrids take him captive. Lovecraft would’ve taken this premise and made a horror story out of it, but de Camp takes us through the adventure with an air of whimsy. It’s pretty dated now: the traditional colonial era was pretty much over by 1975, and traditional colonial attitudes about Africa have either gone away or been suppressed by now. All in all this is more of a fun story than not, but one that certainly takes a look at the mutant concept in terms of “the other,” whether that other be animal or aboriginal. It’s certainly not a politically correct story, even if it does treat the native park staff as good, competent people.

“Flight Into Darkness” was written by one of the editors of the collection, J. Francis McComas, under the pseudonym “Webb Marlowe.” The editorial introduction includes some crowing about the accuracy of predictions about Nazis building a rocket. The story involves a Nazi insurgency under a post-WWII American run reconstruction. The Germans have been given control of a factory, and are using it as cover to build a rocket to escape Earth and spread Aryans and Nazi philosophy to the stars. The Nazis here are basically pure evil (they even engage in monologuing!), and the moral is not to be too lenient with conquered peoples. It does remind us that even after WWII, when everything was supposedly easy and simple, reconstructing defeated countries has never been a straight-forward task.

“The Weapons Shop” rounds out the trio of Van Vogt stories for this collection, further cementing his place as one of the central authors of the Golden Age. As with the others, this one can be justly described as strange. A Weapons Shop lands in the middle of a small town far in the future. They seem to appear in order to subvert the distant monarchy that rules over all. Their sign reads “The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to Be Free.” Fara is a true believer in the monarchy (and also a bad father with a rebellious son), and tries to challenge the weapons shop owners. He makes a large, ignorant fuss, but doesn’t get anywhere. Between his reactionary ways and his son he ends up ruined. He goes to the shop to buy a gun for suicide, but ends up traveling in time and space to a place where the folks fix most of his problems for him and send him back. The underlying philosophy ends up being a bit Heinleinian, refusing to force change on people who don’t want it, trying to change attitudes in more subtle ways, apparently by righting injustices. It all ends up being very anticlimactic, especially since Fara was never the architect of his own destiny. He was simply picked up and carried by events. It was very interesting to read, but left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.

“Farewell to the Master” is the story that was later turned into “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” As you would expect, it is very different from the movie. The philosophical thrust of it is completely different, as is the big surprise at the end. Here the “big reveal” is that the robot is the master, not the human. As one used to science fiction, this seemed anticlimactic. I wanted to know what happened afterwards. However the protagonist (another intrepid journalist), staggered away as if his whole universe had been shaken. The editors describe this as “one of the finest stories we have ever read,” but it didn’t seem that special to me. It was certainly head and shoulders above “A Matter of Size” by the same author in this collection, and it is certainly memorable, but (with 20/20 hindsight) it seems quite a missed call to draw so much attention to this story instead of say, “Nightfall.” (Also the plot of this book is one that couldn’t happen after video surveillance technology came into effect – another story that would have to be significantly re-written to work today.)

In “Within the Pyramid” by R. De Witt Miller we return to the archeologist hero, another character still pretty common in science fiction. Here there is a discovery related to the Mayan pyramids. One older archeologist wants to keep it hidden, and the young brash one wants to publish it all over the place. They’re both fairly annoying specimens of their type. It’s a very short story about aliens masquerading as gods to the Egyptians and the Mayans and hiding out, effectively immortal, waiting for rescue. It actually prefigures part of the plot of Stargate (both the movie and the original series), which is pretty cool. It’s a well done tale, but not really striking.

“He Who Shrank” is a much better example of shrinking people than “A Matter of Size,” and here Henry Hasse also takes on the (now mostly defunct) universe-inside-an-atom story that had its origins in “The Girl in the Golden Atom” (Ray Cummings, 1923). A lab assistant is co-opted by his mad scientist boss to be his guinea pig. He will undergo and infinite shrinking progression and telepathically report back what he finds. The scientist very sensibly makes him immune to vacuum so as to survive in the spaces between the worlds inside the atoms he goes through. The assistant describes his journeys, landing on world after world, approaching them as a huge space monster, landing on them as a giant, shrinking and interacting with the natives, then shrinking into another atom and repeating the process. It is a fantastic framing setting for any number of space opera plots, and we get several here before the narrator gives it up and simply says he has passed through thousands of worlds since. He meets telepathic scientific aliens, evil machine dominated planets (with early examples of von Neumann machines), and primitive jungle planets. The science of it is absolutely ridiculous, but it’s a rousing adventure tale. Finally the narrator lands on a planet much like ours and relays his story telepathically to a science fiction writer, a nice meta-fictional touch, before fading away to nothing once again, doomed to wander infinitely in the infinite regression of space. It adds a nice touch of melancholy to the story, which could have been over done in a “Gee-Whiz!” kind of way.

“By His Bootstraps” is the third Heinlein story here, under the pseudonym “Anson MacDonald. I understand why he used a pseudonym, since this story is nowhere near his standards. It’s the story of another closed time loop, a paradox with no beginning and no end. The nice bit is when he describes the same scene from three different perspectives, as the protagonist had managed to intersect himself in one spot three times over. After that, the whole thing falls flat. “As Never Was,” the P. Schuyler Miller story earlier in the collection addressed the same issue much better. This narrator is a bit of a dolt, and it’s hard to sympathize with his plight.

“The Star Mouse” by Frederic Brown is a nice, light story. A German rocket engineer, working in America after the war, befriends a mouse in his lonely lab. When the time comes to test his rocket, he says farewell to Mitkey (his way of pronouncing “Mickey,” the natural name for your pet mouse) and loads him as a test subject. Mitkey’s rocket successfully launches, then is captured by the alien civilization of really tiny people who live in a stealthed asteroid in orbit around the Earth. They make Mitkey as intelligent as a human so they can talk to him about conditions on the ground, then they send him back with the ability to make more intelligent mice. It doesn’t end up going well, as you’d expect, but you might not expect why. Brown milks the story for exactly the right amount of comic potential without ever violating the principle that Mitkey is just a mouse, not a superman(mouse). There’s a really nice tone about the whole thing, as if he’s making fun of the mad scientist and his mouse, but he really feels affection for them. I enjoyed this one, especially for its humane humor.

“Correspondance Course,” by Raymond F. Jones strained the suspension of disbelief, but was a very interesting story. A wounded veteran is feeling pretty down on himself. However, he rouses himself to work on a correspondence course he found advertised. He doesn’t expect it to amount to much, but over time he finds himself immersed in learning the principles of “Power Co-ordination.” It’s like nothing he’s ever seen before. He is so fascinated by it that he travels to try and meet the author of the course. In an odd bit of plotting that seems like page-filler, he travels to the town of the return address, fails to make contact with the author (in fact, no one in town had ever heard of him), goes back home and then gets a letter from the author asking him to come to the town for a job. It will be no surprise to the sf reader that the author is an alien. He’d been searching for someone who could understand the principles and fix his crashed ship. It’s essentially a big-brain type alien, one of the few in this collection. Our hero bargains with the alien: he’ll repair the ship if the alien will teach him enough so that humanity can build one. Finally they reach an understanding and a symbiosis, something transcendent. Jones writes a very beautiful ending, allowing humanity to integrate with and benefit from the “Other.”

“Brain,” by S. Fowler Wright, has the honor of the concluding spot in the volume. Unfortunately it is nowhere near as strong as the introductory entry by Heinlein. It’s barely a story, being mostly a description of a dystopian governmental system. It certainly doesn’t have any characters worth the name, and it’s all very improbable. Wright describes a scientific meritocracy, with the best scientists forming a ruling council. Of course they disdain the common people, regarding them as little more than lab rats. The President uses a pig to test a serum that will make the populace docile. Rather predictably he gets hoisted by his own petard. I suppose that as a warning against the easy assumption of the superiority of science and scientists that the entire rest of the volume was proclaiming, it has some value. And it does have a dark sense of humor. However, it seemed to leave the collection with a bit of a sour note at the end. A surprising choice.

And thus concludes the tales.

To sum up: lots of time travel and robots. Lots of rockets. “Atomic” is the magic word, just like “Quantum” is now. Heros are always male, usually scientists of some nature. Acceptable alternatives: journalists (good for infodumping to), archeologists. Several mad scientists, also a source of humor. A good number of humorous stories balancing out the slightly scary ones. Horror-type stories mitigated by scientific understanding of the threat. Lots of aliens, pretty evenly divided between benign and threatening (as are the robots), with a few just like us and a couple of vegetable ones for variety. Not as much explicit misogyny as expected, but basically an ignorance of the fact that 50% of the population is female. Lots of jungles, and a significant amount of time spent in the past. No explicit sex. A few stories going straight for the emotional punch, most of them more cerebral. Several stories where humanity doesn’t turn out well, with two killing off the entire race. Lots of stories where the engineer solves the problem and saves the day. More varied in tone and subject matter than the “Golden Age” is often accused of, which is impressive considering that almost every story sprang from the same magazine.

I’d like to give a note of thanks and praise to the editors of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for without it I’d never have been able to track down all the pseudonyms, and to my husband for finding me a copy.

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