Like many of you, I spend a lot of time on Facebook. Despite the negatives (of which there are many), it remains a way to stay in contact with friends—even those I’ve never met—and family who don’t live nearby. I find it useful, as well as time-consuming and maddening. Some of my regular readers are also Facebook friends, and although they don’t always subscribe here on Amazing Stories® online, they give me feedback and encouragement on Facebook, so that’s a FB positive. One of those FB friends, Carolyne Pickup, asked me the other day, “Have you ever written a column about people ‘discovering’ classic science fiction? Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Silverberg, Bova, the path cutters who braved a genre that few respected. They made it respected. Have you written that one?” She continued, “…one of my Facebook friends was introduced to sci-fi through another friend and she is very articulate as to how it has infiltrated how she sees things. How these writers have enriched, fertilized her imagination. I read many a long time ago and it was a pleasure to be reminded of these great authors. Also an inclusion of a list of the classics, a must read would be a good addition. The Earthsea trilogy, The Martian Chronicles, The left hand of Darkness; these would be part of my list.”
Another friend, one who used to be part of “my” fan group, the Palouse Empire SF Association (PESFA) back in the ‘80s—Scott Hysmith—said, in a related comment on the same thread, “I handed a new SF reader a copy of Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 1 (“Golden-age stories by the best that era had to offer”). That’s all it took.” Well, Carolyne and Scott, you have stirred me to start a column about a particular collection, as it contains some of the best SF published way back when I was much younger, and for my money might be a better intro to SF than the volume (Figure 1) you mentioned.
While I was growing up in the 1960s, I belonged, as did many hundreds—if not thousands—of other young nascent fans, to the Science Fiction Book Club. At the time if was owned or run by Doubleday, but now it’s a subsidiary of Bookspan, which has eight different book clubs. Back in the day, Doubleday put out lower-quality book club versions (with cheaper paper, covers, and binding) than the original publications; and those versions came to be looked down on by readers and booksellers—until the SFBC started publishing original books, some of which (Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, for example) are the only first hardcover printings of certain books, and are now sought after. But I digress. “Reader cards” were inserted into many paperback books and magazines, and you could usually get four books for 99 cents. For several years, this two-volume set (Figure 2) was one of the main attractions of the SFBC, and was the reason many young readers got hooked on SF. Today we’re going to look at the first novel in Volume 1 of this series; I’d like to examine that story in a little detail. (Vol. 2 will come in a later column, as it possibly has the edge over this one.)
Volume 1 contains two novels: Re-Birth by John Wyndham, and The Weapon Shops of Isher, by A.E. Van Vogt, along with novellas/novelets and short stories by Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Theodore Sturgeon, George P. Elliott, Joel Townsley Rogers, and Poul Anderson. With only a couple of exceptions, this is almost a pantheon of SF “greats,” and most of the stories still hold up well upon a later reading (say, 50 years later). Although the SFBC is still in operation, you will only get two introductory volumes when you join, and they will cost you $9.99 each plus shipping. And I’m guessing they’re identical to the books sold in bookstores. So there’s not really a cheap way for younger readers to get introduced to some terrific science fiction.
Figure 3 shows an unassuming British man (photo circa about 1957) who published some terrific SF under the near-pseudonym John Wyndham. (Wyndham is actually a shortened version of his full name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, so you can see why he shortened it.) In his day he published a couple of books that have been filmed—The Day of the Triffids (also published as The Revolt of the Triffids) is perhaps the best-known—at least once; the other is The Midwich Cuckoos, filmed twice as The Village of the Damned (and a sequel, Children of the Damned, which wasn’t written by Wyndham). Other well-known books by Wyndham include Out of the Deeps (also published as The Kraken Wakes), Chocky, and The Trouble With Lichen. Re-Birth, the novel in this volume, has also been published as The Chrysalids.
This book blew me away when I read it as a kid; it was one of the first “post-apocalypse” books I ever read set in a post-nuclear world. (I had read other PA books before, notably George Stewart’s Earth Abides and Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, but this was the first post-nuclear one I’d read.) Now, of course, we know that the threat of human mutation we all thought would be a consequence of nuclear war isn’t going to happen. Mutation doesn’t work that way; still, it makes a good hook to hang a story on. (For other “mutation” stories that stand the test of time, see “That Only A Mother,” by Judith Merril, and the “Mutant” stories by “Lewis Padgett” [Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore].) The bare bones of Re-Birth/The Chrysalids are this: A long time ago, there was a world of Old People, who angered God. He sent the Tribulation, which destroyed the old world. A number of people escaped and built a new world over a long period; but for reasons no one understood, the new world was plagued by mutations. In the area called Waknuk, live the Strorms, the first family to settle there. The patriarch, Joseph Strorm, is a God-fearing man who will allow no deviance from the God-given norm: his house is filled with mottoes “Watch Thee For the Mutant,” and “Blessed is the Stock of the Lord,” and so on. He is constantly on watch for Abominations, which are ceremonially burned on a pyre. Sometimes when the wind blows from the east, farm crops and animals produce mutants, but nobody knows why; there is nothing to the east but the Badlands. The technology in Waknuk is relatively primitive.
David Strorm is the child protagonist of the book; he has a friend named Sophie, who is also a child… but she has six toes on her feet. If David’s father found out about Sophie she would be sterilized and sent to the Fringes (between Waknuk and the Badlands) where the other human mutants live, and her family banished. David is quite young, but understands he must keep Sophie’s secret. It’s only one of several David is keeping.
The other big secret David is keeping is that he, his even younger sister Petra, and six other neighbourhood kids are, though outwardly normal, also mutations. They can communicate mentally through “thought pictures.” Petra, though the youngest, is also the most gifted at mental communications; she can broadcast so strongly that she can mentally shock the others, no matter whether they’re nearby or not.
One day, Sophie is outed, sterilized, and sent to The Fringes to die or perhaps live with other Abominations. Petra begins a communication with a woman who lives far, far away—in a place called “Sealand” or “Zealand.” Soon, David, Petra, his friend Rosalind, and the others who can communicate telepathically are also outed and forced to flee. Lots of trouble, a flight to the Badlands, capture by some of the Fringe mutants, and other adventures ensue. Finally, David, Petra, and the remaining Waknuk mutants (two of the girls were tortured by the Waknuk elders) are rescued by a party from [New] Zealand, which seems to have escaped the nuclear holocaust. They have airships, and cars, things David has dreamed about, and all go to live in Zealand, where everyone can communicate telepathically.
It wasn’t until I was researching this book that I found out that Waknuk is really Northeastern Canada, according to one source. So for Petra to telepathically contact New Zealand would make her very strong indeed. This is a well-written, nearly unforgettable novel; it’s a wonder that it, too, hasn’t been made into a movie.
“The Shape of Things That Came,” by Richard Deming, is a short story about a man from the 19th century whose uncle left him a time-traveling nightshirt; he spent two weeks in 1950 and came back to the 19th century amazed at the progress of the human race (technologically). He attempted to write his experiences as a story and to get it published, but the editor of his local paper wouldn’t buy it. There’s a punchline, which I won’t spoil for you.
Ray Bradbury’s “Pillar of Fire” is one of Bradbury’s fantasy novellettes, full of the usual Bradbury breathless sparks and wonders, about a man—William Lantry—who revives in the far future, and begins to walk around even though he’s actually dead. In this future, people have become fully rational, and no longer believe in spooks, Halloween, dead people walking, and so on. There are no murders, and no police detectives. People don’t read Poe or other weird fiction. (Oddly enough, people still smoke cigarettes). Lantry conceives a program to remind people of what they’re missing, but is thwarted in typical Bradbury fashion. It’s a lot of fun.
Waldo, by Robert A. Heinlein, may be familiar to a lot of fans, but not as familiar as it used to be. (It was published in hardcover as one of a set of who novellas: Waldo, and Magic, Inc.) It’s a novella of a future in which a lot of air traffic depends on wireless power transmission. Unfortunately, a lot of air vehicles, from giant freighters, to individual passenger “broomsticks,” are crashing when their power fails. Nothing can be found wrong with the power source, or with the receivers, so engineer James Stevens is sent to ask his friend the medical doctor, to introduce him to the doctor’s lifelong friend and patient, Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones. Waldo is a genius, who lives alone. The reason he’s the Doc’s patient is that he has always suffered from myasthenia gravis to the extent that he’s too weak to life a spoon by himself, let alone sit up and walk. But Waldo’s so bright that he invents mechanical aids that he can manipulate with his fingers and arms, needing no strength at all, to feed himself and do many other things (among them, he invented remote manipulators that let him do all sorts of work as if he had strong arms. (That idea took hold IRL, as they say, and now remote manipulators are called “Waldoes.”) They hope Waldo will find and fix what’s wrong, or invent a substitute.
The reason Waldo lives alone is that he’s an egotistical butthead (I’m being nice here) who has no use for the rest of humanity, and he couldn’t care less what humanity needs. He lives in a spherical house in free orbit around the Earth, and has enough mechanical aids (including Waldoes) to fulfill all his physical needs. The only way Stevens can get Waldo interested in fixing the problem is to get his ego involved—“you’re the only person on Earth smart enough to fix this”—which he does. What Waldo finds and how he fixes the problem are the very odd and entertaining parts of the story. This one’s a classic for all the right reasons.
Okay, folks, I’m going to have to leave this book here for now; I’m already at 2000 words, and I don’t want “column fatigue” to set in for you. I’ll pick it up next week, I hope, or for sure the next week after; we have a lot of great fiction to get through.
I’m not sure that this book was ever published in a non-book-club edition; I’ve checked Abebooks and a few sources, and it’s not available right now from a traditional brick-and-mortar store. You can buy it from Amazon or Abebooks, and some of the fiction is out of copyright, so you have several ways to get these stories. But I do recommend that, if you haven’t got it, you get the Treasury itself.
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