I’ve always enjoyed science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. Partly because that was what I grew up reading in the late 1970s and 1980s, when so much of it was still in print. But part of it is that the overall style appeals to me. I can’t point to anything specific, but it seems to me that even in the darker stories from those years there was a sense of fun that is missing from so much of what is written today. I don’t know if contemporary science fiction takes itself too seriously or what, but I always enjoy reading older science fiction (which is not to say that I don’t enjoy the new stuff). Your mileage will certainly vary.
Anyway, Haffner Press has long been a source of quality science fiction and fantasy from years gone by, packaged in beautiful editions that are the kind of thing you keep and don’t take to the second hand store.
The current volume is a selection of stories from Super-Science Fiction, a magazine that ran for three years, from 1956 through 1959. This short-lived magazine was never one of the top tier, but it was a solid second tier magazine. Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison wrote many of the stories, usually having at least one each in every issue of the magazine. A number of other writers also contributed.
Editor Robert Silverberg has assembled an excellent collection from the years of the magazine. He begins with an introductory history of Super-Science Fiction and his role in it. Basically he and Harlan Ellison had at least one story in every issue. It wasn’t uncommon for an issue to have multiple stories by these authors, as well as other writers, so pen names were common. Each story also has a brief introduction about the story, the author, and their place in the history of Super-Science Fiction.
Silverberg opens and closes the collection, both solid stories, with the latter story one that he wrote under a pen name. (Interestingly, there is nothing by Ellison in this book.) What is in the book is a number of entertaining stories by some of the best known writers of the day. These include James E. Gunn, A. Bertram Chandler, Robert Bloch, Alan E. Nourse, Jack Vance, Robert Moore Williams, Henry Slesar, Tom Godwin, and others.
These stories deal with not just space opera, although there’s plenty of that, but other things as well. Examples include a juvenile delinquent who may not be from around here (“I Want to Go Home” by Robert Moore Williams), multiple minds sharing the same body (“Who Am I?” by Henry Slesar), consumerism run amuck (“Every Day is Christmas” by James Gunn), sentient computers (“I’ll Take Over” by A. Bertram Chandler), and the ability to understand and manipulate numbers for personal wealth (“The Gift of Numbers” by Alan E. Nourse).
Jack Vance gives one of the adventures of Magnus Ridolph, in which Ridolph has to determine who killed a man on a space station. It has the characteristic Vance charm and wit. “Worlds of Origin” is the last of the Ridolph stories and a fine way to close out the series.
Tom Godwin’s “A Place Beyond the Stars” tells of a scout sent to prepare way stations for the exodus of Earth. A dark star has been discovered which is on a collision course with Earth. A great exodus is planned to find a new home. Because faster than light travel isn’t possible, the ships which will carry humanity will need to stop for supplies until they find an uninhabited planet. So scouts are sent out to find sources of fuel, food and water, and other supplies. In this story, a scout lands on a planet in which a paranoid dictator has the world locked in an iron grip, allowing no development and scientific advances that contradict official policy. The way the scout completes his mission is a clever one, and one that uses plausible science.
The story, though, that had the greatest impact was “First Man in a Satellite” by Charles W. Runyon. This story was written before anyone had been into orbit. And while it was quickly surpassed by current events, to me at least, it still hasn’t lost any of its power and impact. Runyon took a hard look at the conditions of the space environment and the sacrifices a manned space program would require.
The viewpoint character is a struggling vaudeville actor who is a dwarf. He’s selected because he has the physical conditioning needed to perform the job and is small and light. The mission is a top secret, so he can’t even tell his stage partner about it. She only thinks he’s run off on her and is broken hearted because they had hoped to one day be able to marry and quit the life.
So the man is in orbit when disaster strikes. The rest of the tale is one of a struggle to figure out how to save the first astronaut. This one foreshadows the event of Apollo 13 in many ways, and Runyon doesn’t flinch from the hard realities of numbers. Easily the best story in the book.
Super-Science Fiction featured Ed Emshwiller and Frank Kelly Freas on the covers. Haffner has selected 16 covers to reproduce inside the front and back covers. The original illustrations for each story are included at the beginning of the story, and Emshwiller and Freas are joined by Paul Orban and William Bowman in providing interior illustrations.
Tales from Super-Science Fiction is a great little anthology, full of fun gems from a long-ago magazine. If you like science fiction from the 1950s, then this is one you will want to check out.
Editor’s Note: The cover illustration for Tales from Super Science Fiction is a re-use of the cover of the August 1957 issue of that magazine. It’s also an issue in which A. Bertram Chandler, like Silverberg and Ellison in other issues, does double duty. I’ll Take Over is listed as by George Whitley, a common Chandler pseudonym and Search For Sally appears in the TOC as by A. Bertram Chandler.
The cover is by Kelly Freas, who ought to be familiar to everyone.
Incidentally, the August issue also includes stories by Silverberg – Three Survived and Invasion Footnote by Cortwainer Bird – none other than Harlan Ellison.