Twenty six influential stories from the early days of science-fiction are collected in this book. For years, friends of the genre would tell me that this is the one collection I had to find and read. I haunted used book stores for it–and the other volumes in the set. Eventually I broke down and bought the newly published edition, only then to find a full set at my local used book store.
So, yes I have two copies now.
One to keep and one to loan out.
Simply put, this is a great collection of some great stories that chart the course of the sci-fi genre. Not every one is a winner in my book, but I can see why each one is as respected as it is. And the good thing about a short story collection is if one story isn’t my cup of tea, I can skip to the next one or come back later to see if I’m more in the mood for a certain author or story.
I’ve written down a few thoughts on each story in the collection. I will warn you this is a long post since it looks at all the stories.
Martian Odyssey, by Stanley G. Weinbaum
It’s interesting to read this story close to a hundred years after its publication and in the light of NASA’s landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. At first, I wasn’t overly impressed with the story because it just seemed like a travelogue across the surface of Mars. However, a little bit of research and use of Google made me realize that while the story seems “old hat” now, it was absolutely revolutionary at the time it was published. Weinbaum’s creation and use of Martian natives who weren’t hellbent on destroying our world or openly hostile to humanity’s arrival was revolutionary and influenced a lot of Martian stories from that point forward. For that alone, I can appreciate the story.
Twilight by John W. Campbell
Another story that influenced everything that came after it but doesn’t seem as revolutionary a hundred years later. A man from the future is attempting to time travel and overshoots the period he intended. He comes from a future in which humanity has become lazy and given up on pursuits because machines make life a bit too easy for everyone. In some ways, it reminds me of the society we saw in Wall-E. It also reminded me of the Futurama episode where time travel could only move one direction–forward–and our heroes had to keep following the rise and fall of Earth as they tried to get back to their original starting point (or at least close to it). I’ll admit that I enjoyed this one a great deal more than the first one, but it went up a bit in my estimation once I did a bit more research on it and cast my mind back a bit to when it was originally published.
Helen O’Loy, by Lester del Rey
An amusing little story in which two scientists set out to create the “perfect” woman. In this case, they do it by purchasing the ultimate female robot and making her self-aware. The first-person narrator is forced to go off-site for a couple of months and returns to find that his partner and the robot girl are now married. The story follows Helen over her lifespan with the scientist and ends on a bittersweet note when he died and Helen asks to be cremated to go along with him. Turns out our first-person narrator has been in love with Helen all along as well–he just missed out because of the extended leave required for his job. A lot more fun than the first two stories in the volume, this story sets the template for a lot of the sentient robots to come in popular culture and the genre. Echoes of Data are here. It was interesting to read this after seeing Ruby Sparks because both offer up some interesting questions about creating the ideal woman and the nature of love over the long term.
The Roads Must Roll, by Robert Heinlein
It’s no great secret that while I respect what Robert A. Heinlein brought to the genre, I’m not necessarily his biggest fan. I think a lot of what he did was good, but often times his novels seem to run out of gas long before we get to the final chapter. So I was hopeful that a short story might impress me a bit more. That wasn’t necessarily the case. In many ways, The Roads Must Roll feels like a bit of a warm-up for The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Not my favorite story of the collection, but still an entertaining (at times) one. You can see the early seeds of Heinlein political philosophy that would dominate his later works here.
Microcosmic God, by Theodore Sturgeon
If you’re like me, you’re probably familiar with the name Theodore Sturgeon from the original Star Trek. Among the episodes he contributed was one of my favorite’s “Amok Time.” Like Heinlein, I probably brought some pre-conceived notions to the story though in the case of Sturgeon they were a bit more favorable. A fascinating premise and a well executed story that went by very quickly and let me curious to read more of Sturgeon’s output.
Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov
In the late 80’s Asimov expanded this short story into a full length novel with help from his friend Robert Silverberg. I read the novel back in the day, but had never read the original short story. On a world with six suns, night only falls once every thousand or so years. The time of night is upon the world with the last sun slowly sinking below the horizon. The debate is on as to how humanity will react to the darkness–will it be paranoia and madness? Will there be light from other far away suns? Will society descend into chaos and be lost?
From my vague memories of the expanded novel, I’ll have to say that the short story version is a lot better. While the novel had attempts at character development, that wasn’t always Asimov’s strongest suit. the short story shows Asimov at his best–bringing up unique ideas and examining if and and how the society in question will react to them. The revelation that the group has created candles to try and combat the coming darkness is nicely done, as is the fact that the story ends where it does. Asimov asks some questions, gives an indication as to how things could go and them wisely allows readers to decide for themselves what comes next.
The Weapons Shop, by A. E. van Vogt
Before I started Shop, I had no familiarity wit A.E. van Vogt. After reading the story, I’m intrigued enough to pursue other works and see if they’re as good. When a pre-fab weapons show appears in a future town, the residents are shocked but don’t seem inclined to do much about it. Except for Fala, who takes action to try and get the shop to go back from whence it came. That is until the shop begins to ruin his business, his family, his reputation and almost his marriage. Going back to the shop to buy a guy to end his life, Fala finds out this is all part of a plot to reveal the true nature of the Empress of Isher and to recruit Fala as part of the resistance against her. The story zigs when you think it will zag and continually surprised me. In the running for the best story in this collection–which given how high the bar is set for this collection is saying a lot.
Mimsy were the Borogoves, by Lewis Padgett
A million years in the future, a scientist invents a time machine and tests it by sending some of his children’s discard toys back in time. The toys are discovered by Scott who takes them home and begins to play with them. The toys soon begin to alter Scott and, more significantly, his two-year old sister Emma. Scott’s parents eventually catch wind of the toys and bring in a child psychologist to try and figure out what’s going on. One of the most intriguing stories in the book, it all culminates with Emma evolving into something completely different under the training influence of the toys. It’s a fascinating and chilling story that has stuck with me long after the final paragraphs.
Huddling Place, by Clifford Simak
I’ve read a couple of stories by Simak and each time I come scratching my head. He’s got some good ideas, but the execution is often lacking. That’s the case here. In a world where cities are gone a rich man in a manor house contemplates existence after he buries his father in a family crypt. After the funeral his son announces that he has been awarded an important contract on Mars. Shortly before the son leaves a Martian named Juwan stops by the manor house and informs the man that his son is on the cusp of discovering something big. Atypical for Simak this is a very, very odd tale about the cost of loss of cities and over-identification with home. The man suffers from agoraphobia and is called out of the house when Juwan is struck sick. It is revealed that the house robots have been conditioning him to be afraid of leaving. The story doesn’t really end, so much as just stop. I found that a bit frustrating.
Arena, by Fredric Brown
In the near future, two vast and mostly evenly matched space fleets are headed for a huge showdown just outside the orbit of Pluto when a representative of each race is whisked away by a superior alien race to a blue sand world to fight to the death. The winner’s race is allowed to live while the loser’s race will be wiped from existence. Carson, the human, must fight against a representative of the alien race. Between the two of them is an invisible barrier through which some objects can pass but others cannot. The story served as the inspiration for the original Star Trek episode “Arena” though Brown’s original version doesn’t feature the more optimistic, Gene Roddenberry influenced ending. But it works within the context of this story just as the Trek ending works within the context of the overall universe there. In this version, Carson figures out that by knocking himself close to unconscious, he get across the barrier and kill his opponent. And that’s exactly what he does.
First Contact, by Murray Leinster
A first contact story in which both participants are hesitant to trust each other. Again, this is one of those stories that had I not seen or read derivations of it in countless other sources over the years, I think I might have enjoyed a lot more. I can see what it’s doing and how it’s influential, but it’s not my favorite of this collection.
That Only a Mother, by Judith Merril
Told in correspondence between an expecting couple, That Only A Mother is a story that addressed the nuclear fall-out fears of its time and yet, remains fascinating and chilling to this day. Told in the form of correspondence between a husband and wife during World War III about the birth of their first child, the story is an interesting one with one of those endings that stays with you long after you’ve moved on to the next story in the collection.
Scanners Live in Vain, by Cordwainer Smith
I’ve not read a lot of Smith’s output, but I’m told he’s great. Based on this story about the creation of a new form of cyborg to deal with piloting ships through hyperspace, I’m feeling an urge to pick up and explore more of his work–and soon. Scanners are vitally important space-farers who have been altered to become cyborgs. Their job is to pilot ships through hyperspace to other worlds while normal humans sleep through the trip. Their job is so important because ordinary humans go completely insane while traveling faster than light. The scanners have been altered so that they have no sensory input save for sight, and no emotions or fears. Because of the importance of their positions scanners wield enormous political powers anytime off planet. In this story an emergency is called while Martel, a scanner, is “cranching” at home. Martel is married to a normal woman, and cranching is what it is called when a scanner allows other sensory input. While cranching Scanners are capable of talking, feeling, hearing and tasting. Martel is experiencing sensory stimulus such as food and music with his wife at home when the call came. It takes scanners some time to stop cranching, so Martel reports for duty while cranching, which is a serious social faux paus to other scanners. When he reports for duty he and the other scanners are told that a normal human has devised a way for ordinary humans to navigate hyperspace and avoid “the pain of space.” The scanners, who are ordinarily a calm and rational bunch, try the scientist in absentia and sentence him to death the next time he sets foot off Earth. The story is about how that conflict is resolved.
Mars is Heaven, by Ray Bradbury
One of Bradbury’s short stories that later became part of The Martian Chronicles. I’d read it before as part of that collection and while it’s good, it’s not one of my favorite stories from that set.
The Little Black Bag, by C. M. Cornbluth
Another story about something being sent back in time and its impact on the people who encounter it. In this case, it’s a little black medical bag that happens to wind up in the hands of disgraced doctor and a woman looking to blackmail him for all he’s worth. The bag helps the doctor regain his career and station in life, all while providing future medical techniques to his patients. The partner wants to use the bag to make money by offering greater cosmetic surgeries and things go awry. Unlike the other time travel story, the future is used as more than just a set-up for the events in the past in this one and I think this story works better for it.
Born of Man and Woman, by Richard Matheson
Matheson is one of my favorite authors and he’s such a solid short story writer. That said, I’m not sure this is the best example of his work and how good he can really be.
Coming Attraction, by Fritz Leiber
An intriguing noir genre story that feels like a product of its time. That’s not a bad thing or marks against the story by any stretch of the imagination. It’s also one of the shorter installments in the collection and one of the ones that’s stayed with me long after I read it. In a post apocalyptic America a foreign dignitary is approached and asked for help getting a woman out of the country. The U.S. has become as religiously repressive as any country in the middle east. Women are chattel and are required to wear burkhas in public, but are sexually objectified and used only for release in private. A woman who has somehow managed to hold on to a little bit of wealth tries to use her sexuality to bribe the diplomat to help her, but ordinary male citizens, angered over any public contact between a man and a woman, intervene and take action again and again.
The Quest for Saint Aquin, by Anthony Boucher
Another post apocalyptic story that finds the Pope dispatches a priest to search for the body of Saint Aquin, who is rumored to be “beyond corruption,” or incapable of rotting. In this place and time Catholics are persecuted and killed on sight. The priest rides off on his “robass,” or robotic donkey, which is AI. The two debate the reality of the post apocalyptic world as well as theology, and together quest through one peril after another. When the body of Saint Aquin is found, the priest comes to a startling realization about the nature and future of humanity. An interesting story, though again not my favorite from the collection.
Surface Tension, by James Blish
It’s always interesting to come across Blish because, to me, he’s always the guy who novelized every episode of classic Trek and gave us the first original novel for the classic series. So, it’s sometimes odd to come across a short story by him and not have Kirk and Spock show up. That bias aside, I will admit I loved this story about a team that has been sent to a very watery planet to terraform it crashes on the one island above water. They realize that they are going to die shortly as the ship is totally destroyed and their food stores are running out. In an odd attempt to survive, the humans design a microbial form of human, that is fully sentient and intelligent, and seed deep pools of water on the island with them.
The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke
It’s a deceptively simple story by Clarke and an intriguing one. It’s also one of the most famous stories in the collection. A group of monks gets a computer to print out all the nine billion possible names for God. If they find the right one and there is a God, the universe ends. If not, they disprove the existence of God. I won’t give away the ending, though odds are you probably already know it. Again, Clarke is one of those writers who can make it look easy, as he does here.
Its a Good Life by Jerome Bixby
Odds are you’ve seen The Twilght Zone episode based on this one. A little boy who can read thoughts and has mental powers rules over a town with an iron fist. Easy to see why Rod Serling adapted it.
The Cold Equations, by Tom Godwin
Girl steals away on starship with the good intention of seeing her brother on the colony. One small problem–the fuel is put on the ship for the exact weight of the cargo and crew. No more, no less. Her stowing away raises the ethical dilemma of the ship not arriving at the colony with much needed supplies and there’s no way to fuel up in transit. A dark, disturbing little tale that’s made even more interesting by the allegations that Godwin didn’t write it himself but copied the idea from other sources.
Fondly Farenheit, by Alfred Bester
I love anything by Bester and this is no exception. trust fund baby, Vanderleer, who has gone broke is fleeing the authorities with his sole asset, a highly complex and valuable android. The android has started killing people for no reason. Vanderleer does not want to give up the android, because he hires it out and lives off the income from it. After the latest murder he fled to a new planet and fell in with a nymphomaniac jeweler who learns his secret, just in time to be killed herself by the robot. Vanderleer again flees, and in his travels with the robot learns that the thing goes insane in high temperatures only. He resolves only to live on cold worlds, and as he plans their next move, the robot begins to project its consciousness into him.
The Country of the Kind, by Damon Knight
Not really a huge fan of this story. It was short enough that I didn’t feel the need to skim or skip it, but it never engaged my interest that much. Could be because I was curious to get to my re-read of Flowers.
Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
I read the longer novel a year ago and loved it. I was curious to see which I’d prefer–the novel or the short story. In the end, I have to say that both are equally effective ways of telling the same story. It still strikes me as a horror story on some level with Charlie being teased with what he could be and then slowly having it all taken away from him.
A Rose for Ecclesiastes, by Roger Zelazney
A human linguist is allowed access to the Martian’s sacred temple where he is taught the high form of their language. As he learns he uncovers the truth of their sad existence. Zelazney does a wonderful job with the linguistics issue.