Last week in this column, I covered one of my “comfort food” old SF paperbacks, Star Science Fiction #2, edited by Fred Pohl. As I said in that column, Fred edited a series of six anthologies as well as a “best of” called Star of Stars. Each volume contained around ten to fourteen original stories not published before (that is, in the original 1954 to 1959 printings—each one was reprinted at least twice. The ones I have, with the John Berkey covers, are from the 1970s). Almost every author, although some of them were pretty new on the SF scene in the ‘50s, were already, or became, a “big name” in the field. All the original paperback printings had covers by Richard Powers in his distinctive style. (In a letter to Jon Gustafson, my late friend and Art Editor on New Venture fan magazine, Powers expressed his disdain for the science fiction field and most of the writers and artists working in it. It didn’t seem to keep him from taking the money, though. I was always amused by that contradiction.)
Since the original post I’ve reread a couple more of the books in this series and I have to say that, despite my love for the SF of the ‘fifties, the stories vary wildly in how well I liked them. (I’d love to say that all or most of the ‘fifties SF is marvelous and fantastic (no pun intended) and better than much of today’s SF but, alas! that just isn’t the case. I don’t hold disdain as Powers seemed to, but some of the writers either left the field or were, thankfully, forgotten. Powers himself was one of the “stylists” of SF art, who didn’t do “realistic” (however that might apply in SF) covers and illos, like Ed (EMSH) Emshwiller or Kelly Freas, or even H.R. Van Dongen, but I loved his stuff just the same. But that’s neither here nor there, as they say. Let’s talk about the fiction in Number Three.
The stories in this one are:
“It’s Such a Beautiful Day” by Isaac Asimov
“The Strawberry Window” by Ray Bradbury
“The Deep Range” by Arthur C. Clarke
“Alien” by Lester del Rey
“Foster, You’re Dead” by Philip K. Dick
“Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo” by Gerald Kersh
“Dance of the Dead” by Richard Matheson
“Any More at Home Like You” by Chad Oliver
“The Devil on Salvation Bluff” by Jack Vance
“Guinevere for Everybody” by Jack Williamson
Back when I was reading SF “Before Fandom” (i.e., before I became a Fan; when I was just a fan) I knew every one of these names and had already read many of the stories published here. Although some of the stories have been rendered moot by the passage of time, they’re all pretty well written.
The Asimov story could well be a precursor to his Caves of Steel, in which he posits a society where nobody goes outside of they can help it. This story isn’t a police procedural—there’s no R. Daneel Olivaw, for example, but people stay pretty close to home, only exiting by choice through a “Door” with a capital “D”—it’s somewhere between a transporter and a teleporter; it disassembles you at the sending side and reassembles you at the receiving side. All you need is a code for where you’re going. If it fails you will be locked in (or out) unless there’s an old-fashioned door (with lower-case “d”) and you can go out in the sun/rain/wind/dirt like some kind of barbaric animal. But nobody does if they can help it. Except young Dick Hanshaw, who seems to like Outside. A cute if somewhat minor piece.
Bradbury’s “Strawberry Window” is another of his stories set on a very Earthlike Mars. The only Martians in this story are transplanted humans who are trying to make a home in a strange world. Nostalgia for the past is always very strong in a Bradbury story, and this one’s no exception. But maybe nostalgia can help you adapt to the present.
“The Deep Range” by Clarke was hard for me to read back in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties because I was very claustrophobic and, due to an episode involving a shark in Florida, not terribly fond of the ocean. (That’s obviously why I joined the U.S. Navy, right?) But it’s a prime example of Clarke’s early attempts to publicize the ocean as a source of food, recreation and possibly, living space. He was an avid diver and lived in Sri Lanka. It’s a good story that holds up pretty well.
Del Rey’s “Alien” is a well-done first contact story. There were a lot of different kinds of first contact stories in that era; many of them hopeful, but a lot of fear abounded, which is why we had a lot of “the bad aliens have landed” shows on TV and in movies. It’s not an outstanding story, but shows del Rey’s workmanlike writing and has an upbeat ending.
“Foster, You’re Dead” by Dick typifies the paranoia of the times. Many of us who grew up in the U.S. in the ‘fifties absorbed the “there’s gonna be an atomic war for sure” attitude; we were taught to “duck and cover” in school (apparently our school desks were blast- and radiation-proof). We leared about Civil Defense and where the closest fallout shelters were. My fear of that kind of war didn’t completely go away until the 1970s. Seriously—I was conditioned! I was never as scared as the protagonist, Mike Foster, though.
“Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?” by Gerald Kersh was a favourite of mine; I was taken by the idea of a man made immortal—kept unchanged in mind and body forever—by the application of four simple ingredients: eggs, roses, honey and turpentine. It’s a classic that has been filmed for TV at least once, though I can’t remember where I saw it—possibly on Alfred Hitchcock’s half-hour show.
“Dance of the Dead,” by Matheson, is another story—like one by Fritz Leiber in 1950 called “Coming Attraction”—set in a post-nuclear-war U.S. The story is very choppy, full of advertising jingles and dictionary definitions; St. Louis has been bombed, and bacterial warfare has produced a type of zombie whose dance (“The Loopy’s Dance”) is very popular. Of course, like the Leiber story, time has invalidated the premise, but it’s kinda catchy. I’m not fazed (or “phased,” if you prefer) by stories with old, invalid premises as long as the story hangs together. This one does, methinks. (But YMMV.)
Chad Oliver was an anthropologist who wrote some excellent stuff; this one, an early one called “Any More at Home Like You?” didn’t really hit me. Yes, it’s well written, but for me it lacks “punch.” You might like it better than I; I didn’t dislike it, but I expected more.
“The Devil on Salvation Bluff” was for me, not typical Vance. While well written, the blowoff (carny talk for the reveal) didn’t carry any force; I couldn’t justify it mentally. On a planet with several suns or moons, settlers from (av very religious, apparently) Earth must have a central Clock (with a capital “C”) to let them know whether it’s day or night. Even the orbits seem to be unpredictable. But there’s an old saying, “Adapt or die.” Does it apply in every case? Again, well written, but for reasons already cited, I wasn’t very impressed.
Williamson’s “Guinevere for Everybody” is, in a way, an answer to del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” about a female clone?/android?/robot? that is designed to sell cheaply from a vending machine. In this case, “Caveat Emptor” and “You Get What You Pay For” seem to apply equally. A somewhat sentimental but effective ending, I thought.
So there you have #3—some top names in the field—from the past—and a few stories that have apparently resonated enough to be republished by others. Overall, I liked it, although I didn’t find it as strong, overall, as the previous one—which was better than the first one, IM(not so H)O. Again, I think this one’s available from Amazon. Heck, I’ll sell you mine; we’ve both read it! <grin>
Oh, about that shark. When we lived in Panama City, Florida, in the late ‘50s, my family was in the habit of driving out along the Gulf coast to where there were no people, no houses, just sea and beach. We’d find a secluded spot (often somewhere around Port St. Joe, SE of Panama City, because my parents could get/catch fresh oysters there) and set up a big fire and a giant pot on the beach; dig butterfly clams, catch crabs—for a kid it’s simple: put your foot on their shells because they can’t reach over their heads then reach down and grab their claws), bring corn on the cob to cook in the same pot. We had inner tubes for flotation; it was an idyllic time. One day I was floating about 20 feet off the beach, daydreaming in my inner tube, and a noticed my family yelling, waving, and jumping up and down—at me! I looked down and saw a big shark passing right underneath me! My mother told me I somehow levitated to shore without touching the water. It kind of gave me a distaste for swimming. I was about eleven and I’ve never really liked swimming since.
Did you like this column? Got any comments on it? Did you hate it? Let me know either way–you can comment here or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). All comments are welcome! (Just be polite, please.) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!