Sunday, March 30, 2008

Science Fiction of the 30's, ed. Damon Knight

In 2006, I met some elder statesmen of reviewing at the Los Angeles WorldCon. Since then, I've been trying to read more deeply into the past of science fiction. After all, they said: "To be a good reviewer you need to have read everything published before 1950!" "You can't be a good reviewer if you're younger than 40!" "OK, you can skip Stanley G. Weinbaum, but that's it! Everything else before 1950!" Well, it didn't all stick. I hope to be a good reviewer in fewer than 14 years, for one thing. And I'm skipping a considerable amount of sf written before 1950 (I've probably woefully skimped on my Ed Hamilton, for example). And thanks to this anthology by Damon Knight, I won't be skipping Stanley G. Weinbaum. But the gist of the advice got through: one can understand more about the field by understanding more about it's past. So when I found Science Fiction of the 1930s, I had to grab it.

I'm glad I did. Over its length it shows science fiction beginning to come into its own. Knight organizes the stories chronologically, and breaks the anthology into three sections, "The Early Years," "The Middle Period" and "The End." The first few stories are pretty trashy, and a little hard to read. As the anthology progresses the stories get more readable. They gain more depth, and better consideration of their subject matter. You start to see how a later collection, the all-time classic Adventures in Time and Space (1946) (which stands the test of time amazingly well), could garner so much great material only a few years later.

Many of the stories here can have their plots summed up via B-movie titles: "Kidnapped by Creatures of the Deep Abyss!" "I Was a Bee Queen!" "Time Travelers on Venus!" etc. A lot of them show their roots as flat-out adventure stories. For instance the first story, "Out Around Rigel" by Robert H. Wilson, could just as easily have been a high-seas swashbuckling adventure. Two friends use a new FTL drive to fly to Rigel. When they land, they duel over a woman back home. They're attacked by a native species, and only one of them makes it back. When he returns, the woman they loved is dead (as is everyone else: due to relativity he returns millions of years after he started, even though it seemed like only weeks to him). It's a straight-forward tale, made all the more quaint by its opening with folks walking around on the Moon, which is perfectly habitable.

The stories tackle a wide variety of themes and sciences. They also vary considerably in style, from the goofy Sprague de Camp stories to the elegiac Lester del Rey entry. One noticeable trend, although this may be an artefact of Knight's selection process, is that physics and chemistry rule the day in the early stories, and biology comes into its own at the end. Also, there seems to be growing tolerance for the Other as the stories progress. We move from being attacked and threatened by aliens in "Out Around Rigel," "The Fifth-Dimensional Catapult," and "The Other," to learning and communicating with them in "The Mad Moon" and "Davey Jones' Ambassador."

The strongest stories are "The Mad Moon," "Davey Jones' Ambassador, and "The Council of Drones," all dealing with learning about the Other. "The Mad Moon" convinced me not to skip Weinbaum in my early sf readings. It's a silly tale, with Martians that look like balloons harmlessly harassing a man trying to collect valuable pharmaceuticals. He gets a damsel in distress to deal with, and they end up being chased across the landscape. However, the balloon aliens step up and help him out. It's written with a great sense of humor (otherwise often lacking in this anthology until we get to the two de Camp entries), and the dialog is more readable than most of the stories here, which makes it stand out.

"Davey Jones' Ambassador" inverts Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with our hero submariner captured by abyssal creatures who want to study him. Although it starts out feeling very sinister, in the end one of the aliens reaches out and communication really begins. In "The Council of Drones" a bee-keeper exchanges consciousness with a Queen bee, planning to understand them better. He gets more than he bargained for when his planned one hour exchange turns into a lifetime. He integrates with the hive, and eventually teaches them to turn against their human oppressors. This is played completely straight, and I learned quite a bit about bees and bee-keeping (although I don't know how well the 1930s science would stand up today). It's a strangely compelling story, surprisingly well written.

My continued sense of surprise whenever I encountered a story here that was really readable probably indicates that this isn't an anthology for the casual reader. Here one will find casual and not-so-casual misogyny, truly awful dialog, stilted prose, contrived utopian tours, and totally out-dated science. There are some gems here, but they shine much more brightly when surrounded by dirt clods. However, for those interested in our favorite field's humble origins, this book will reward the patient reader.

No comments: