Friday, November 12, 2010

A Golden Age Odyssey

Starting in on the Golden Age, it feels like I’ve gone back to the beginning. When, at the suggestion of Charles N. Brown and Gary K. Wolfe, I started to beef up on the classics, I first picked up Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Healy and McComas. It collected fiction from 1938 to 1946 and was extremely influential--especially because it was part of a Random House anthology series, and thus stocked widely in libraries all through America.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I is a different beast, even though it contains a few of the same stories. The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) was founded in 1965 and promptly started handing out Nebula awards. However, they needed a way to recognize the excellent sf written before the Nebulas came into existence. Instead of doing some sort of retro-Nebula award, they created these anthologies. This one covers short stories from 1934-1964, as voted on by the 1966 membership of SFWA and then tweaked by editor Robert Silverberg and others.

I haven’t finished reading the anthology yet, but I wanted to put down some initial thoughts on Stanley G. Weinbaum and John W. Campbell:

The more I read “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum, the more I’m impressed by it. For one, it depicts a human expedition to Mars crewed by an American, Brit, Frenchman, and German. Considering the fact that it was written between the two World Wars, that must have been about as progressive as writing about joint US-Soviet expeditions in the 70’s. Next, here’s what happens when our hero Jarvis, after crash landing on the Martian surface, first sees some alien life:

“All I could see then was a bunch of black ropy arms tangled around what looked like [...] an ostrich. I wasn’t going to interfere, naturally; if both creatures were dangerous, I’d have one less to worry about.

“But the bird-like thing was putting up a good battle, dealing vicious blows with an eighteen-inch beak, between screeches. And besides, I caught a glimpse or two of what was on the end of those arms!” Jarvis shuddered. “But the clincher was when I noticed a little black bag or case hung about the neck of the bird-thing! It was intelligent! That or tame, I assumed. Anyway, it clinched my decision. I pulled out my automatic and fired into what I could see of its antagonist.”

So instead of being instantly driven mad by something with tentacles, as so many protagonists in the 1930’s did, he takes stock of the situation, identifies a creature that might be intelligent, and acts to protect it. Very cool! So he and the Martian, Tweel, become friends, and the Martian helps him get back to his base. Here’s another amazing passage:
“...don’t get the idea that there was anything screwy about Tweel. In fact, I’m not so sure but that he couldn’t teach our highly praised human intelligence a trick or two. Oh, he wasn’t an intellectual superman, I guess; but don’t overlook the point that he managed to understand a little of my mental workings, and I never even got a glimpse of his!”
Basically Tweel and Jarvis manage to communicate, but mostly on Jarvis’ level. They established some math, and the fact that Mars is the 4th planet from the sun, but Jarvis could never make heads or tails out of Tweel’s language. The Martian never used the same word for the same thing twice in a row, and seemed amused by the human’s fixed name. So Tweel wasn’t just a friendly alien (rare enough in the 30’s), he was also Other in some important way.

I also regret even more Weinbaum’s early death at age 33 (from lung cancer). He died 18 months after “Odyssey” was published (his first publication!) and only published 13 stories in his lifetime. When I read this story I notice that the dialog flows better than most stuff written at the time, that it’s funnier than most others, and that the characters are at least slightly more natural than most--and I wonder: Could Weinbaum have been the Robert Heinlein of his day? Heinlein came on the scene five years later in 1939, with “Life Line.” Then I think about Heinlein’s leaning towards social engineering and politics, and Weinbaum’s obvious love of aliens, and wonder how the field might have been different if he’d lived to age 70.

“A Martian Odyssey” is followed by “Twilight” by John W. Campbell writing as Don A. Stuart (the stories are printed in chronological order of first appearance). Never has a story suffered more by placement. Technically, both "Odyssey" and "Twilight" are club stories (as was H. G. Wells’ The Time Traveller): a person has an encounter, and we hear about it when he tells it to someone else in a safe setting. However, "Odyssey’s" club tale is a lively adventure, packed with good-natured interruptions and jokes as things build to the climax--at which point, just like a real audience, the listeners get quiet as Jarvis finishes the tale. "Twilight" is being recounted by a real estate agent who picks up a time traveller in his car. The time traveller has gone too far into the past after having gone too far into the future. He tells the agent about a future where man has forgotten how to operate the machines that run the world, and mankind is slowly dying out. It is very elegaic, with mentions of sorrowful songs and the like. However, in no way does it read as if a real person were saying it out loud. In fact, it even mentions the agent trying to sing snatches of the mentioned music, heard third hand, and somehow getting some of the impact across to the narrator. Let’s just say that it doesn’t sell the premise very well, shall we?

The other interesting thing about the Campbell story is what it shows about the mindset of the sf community in 1966. Remember, these stories were chosen by nominations and votes of the SFWA members. For the anthology they limited it to only one story per author so as to get the maximum number of authors represented. (By the by, even in 1966 they managed to avoid the all-male TOC problem--they have Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” and Lewis Padgett, a pseudonym of husband-wife team Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, writing “Mimsy Were the Borogroves.”) I’m betting that if people had to choose a single Campbell/Don A. Stuart story today, they would pick “Who Goes There.” After all, it was turned into a movie a couple of times, and still influences the field (cf Peter Watts’ “The Things”). But apparently in 1966, people could point to “Twilight” as being more worthy in some way. (I’ll have more to say about alternate choices when I review more of the stories.) It’s interesting to see it laid out so clearly: that not only does the field evolve, but the field’s understanding of itself evolves as well.


j. w. bjerk said...

Yeah, A martian Odyssey, is a great story isn't it. I hadn't considered it before, but now that you mention it, it does compare very strongly to other stories written at about the same time.

John D. said...

Best. Anthology. Ever.

Dave H said...

I'm in kind of a weird spot with Golden Age SF. I started reading in earnest about 1970 when I was ten. At the time I didn't pay much attention to titles or authors, but the stories have stuck in my memory and A Martian Odyssey features prominently there, probably because of the humor.

dougsmith said...

Thanks so much for that reminder. SF Hall of Fame was the book (or three) that was probably more responsible than anything for getting me into SF, many years back. It was assigned in a short SF class we had in grade school and really hooked me.

Though I lost my old copy a long time back, I still recall it very fondly.

Only problem is, I found out subsequently, it sets the bar way too high for short story anthologies!

Michael said...

'Who goes there' is in the companion edition of to the science fiction hall of fame which contains only novellas. Who Goes There was to long to appear in the first SFHF book

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks for the comments--glad I'm not alone in my Martian Odyssey love!

This really is an amazing anthology--only the best from the best writers of the time.

Michael--thanks for the reminder about the other volumes. I also have Vol IIa (still looking for IIb), and I'm looking forward to them as well. I hadn't thought to check the TOCs for author overlap.