RETRO REVIEW –STAR SCIENCE FICTION #2 (1954)

Figure 1 Srar Science Fiction #2 Cover by John Berkey

I had planned to review the British (Sky) science fiction series, The Lazarus Project, now about to enter Season 2, for this week; it’s pure SF with only a minimum of technobabble (just enough to enable the premise), but I think I’ll need to devote a lot of thought to how one can review a continuing series without entirely spoiling the whole season. My wife (the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk) and I were excited about discovering a “new” SF series we hadn’t previously heard of (except, maybe, in passing); and doubly excited to discover it was British. Face it; the Brits are often better at doing less formulaic genre TV, whether SF, ‘tec, or even historical domestic (à la Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey). Maybe it’s because we haven’t been saturated with whatever formulaic TV they have, like we have with ours (of course, when I say “ours,” I mean American TV. Most Americans haven’t watched any Canadian TV except maybe Schitt’s Creek or Due South, if any.) But, alas! I find I can’t do it except to say that it’s a series about—sort of—time travel; it’s a series about the end of humanity—extinction-level events—sort of; it’s about changing the past—sort of. If you have access to it, I highly recommend it, and hope Season 2 lives up to the first one.

So. Back to the Retro Review. Why retro? Partly it’s because back in my past, somewhere around high-school days, I hadn’t yet joined the Navy (US), I was unmarried, and the biggest thing outside of school as far as I was concerned was science fiction, which I sometimes called “sci-fi” because I had not yet learned the negative connotations associated with that neologism. I’d not yet met—except through the pages and letter column of Famous Monsters of FilmlandForrest J Ackerman, who coined that particular phrase. (Steven Spielberg and I both had letters in the same issue of FM, btw. I was proud of that as soon as Spielberg got famous, ha!)

Gads, I was in love with SF; I was a giant fan—before I knew there was any such thing as SF Fandom, and before I was a Fan. Had I only known that David Duncan, who wrote such books as Eight Keys to Eden, lived in my home town, I would have probably made a nuisance of myself. The SF of the thirties, forties and fifties—all pre-New Wave—was my SF (with brief forays into fantasy; Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think was a big favourite). There was a vitality and a brilliance of some of that earlier SF that is lacking in a lot of today’s SF.

I’m not trying to put down today’s SF or its writers, publishers and adherents; I love a lot of the newer writers and their works; and some are friends. But I seldom get the same frisson as I got when first reading, say, The Humanoids, or Galactic Derelict, to name just two of my early faves. So while I still read a lot of modern SF and fantasy, the older stuff is my “comfort food.”

And some younger readers should, I think, dive into some of this older stuff while there are still bookstores and libraries, because sooner than we think, those will go away, as will printed books except for collectors’ editions and the like. (This is, really, only a half-hearted prediction; I don’t think that will actually happen within my lifetime. But then, I’m on the downhill side of that slope.) Some of the best old SF will then be buried in the avalanche of newer stuff available on Amazon or wherever.

The copy I have of Star Science Fiction #2 is from Ballantine Books, copyright 1954, with reprints in 1962 and 1972, edited by Frederik Pohl. Now there are a number of the older anthologists I always looked for, like Groff Conklin, T.E. (Ted) Dikty and E.F. (Everett) Bleiler, Anthony Boucher and, of course, Judith Merril—but the Star series edited by Fred Pohl was, IMO, a standout. Just check the T.O.C. for this volume:
1. ”Disappearing Act” by Alfred Bester
2. ”The Clinic” by Theodore Sturgeon
3. ”The Congruent People” by A.J. Budrys
4. ”Critical Factor” by Hal Clement
5. ”It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby
6. ”A Pound of Cure” by Lester del Rey
7. ”The Purple Fields” by Robert Crane
8. ”F Y I” by James Blish
9. ”Conquest” by Anthony Boucher
10. ”Hormones” by Fletcher Pratt
11. ”The Odor of Thought” by Robert Sheckley
12. ”The Happiest Creature” by Jack Williamson
13. ”The Remorseful” by C.M. Kornbluth
14. ”Friend of the Family” by Richard Wilson
And all that for 95 cents in this edition (probably .25 when it came out)! When I grew up this was a virtual “who’s who” of SF!

  1. Bester’s story is about a future war when every man and woman in the U.S. is needed for the war effort, either as a soldier or some kind of expert, utility person, support, whatever. All surface cities have been destroyed by nuclear bombs; all America lives at least 400 feet underground. But some people aren’t contributing; they’re in the future equivalent of a psycho ward—most are catatonic and don’t seem to be curable. But the general in charge wants them cured and back to work! Only problem is, they keep disappearing! A cautionary tale.
  2. A lot of what I know about human emotion I learned from reading Ted Sturgeon’s work. More Than Human can still affect me deeply. “The Clinic” is about someone who’s supposedly a “mental defective” (to use a term of the time); is he too stupid to learn? Or are we somehow the defective ones? Beautifully written.
  3. A.J.’s story (he was one of my home convention’s “living patron saints,” along with Verna Smith Trestrail, the daughter of E.E. “Doc” Smith, just FYI) shows that most people look, as Sherlock Holmes said, but do not see. Just outside the range of our vision, could we only see as well as look, is a whole ‘nother world. But are we locked out of it or into ours?
  4. Hal Clement (real name Harry Stubbs) is known for writing aliens who live under conditions most people can’t even visualize properly, but also for making them relatable, as in Mission of Gravity. In this story he posits aliens already living on our own planet. Or in it, actually. Thank goodness they’re not familiar with gravity.
  5. By now, practically everyone has seen the Twilight Zone (both TV series and movie) episode made from this story, starring Bill Mumy (Lost in Space) as a very young child. It’s as powerful in this original story. Chilling.
  6. Some older people might remember Lester del Rey as the author of several “juveniles” in the Winston series, like Moon of Mutiny, or Rocket Jockey. He’s also fairly well known for his robot story “Helen O’Loy”; this is a different kind of robot story. Robots can have many purposes.
  7. Crane’s story is another story, like some movies and TV series, that posit that in the future, humanity will have no use for its elders. I won’t say too much about it here except that it kind of hints at a C.M. Kornbluth solution.
  8. Blish’s story is also a war story which, like Bester’s, seems to have at its basis the idea that there will be a war involving everyone everywhere. (Remember that nuclear paranoia reached its height in the ‘50s.) This one gives no more of a solution than Bester’s did.
  9. Boucher’s name will, for many, conjure up an image of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which he and J. Francis McComas founded in 1949, and which he became well known for editing. (The current editor is Sheree Renée Thomas, FYI.) An Earthian spaceship, looking for a habitable world, crashes on a world of giants. Can Earthlings conquer that world using a method they learned from… cats? Hmm.
  10. Pratt may be best known in fiction (only one of his interests, which included wargaming) for his collaborations with L. Sprague de Camp, the Harold Shea/Incomplete Enchanter series. Okay, this story isn’t really SF; it’s pretty much fantasy couched in SFnal terms. A man makes a deal—well, it wasn’t really a deal, more like a purchase—to find that maybe even if you don’t trade your soul you simply can’t trust those little devils!
  11. If you’re not familiar with Sheckley’s work, you may have seen the movie The 10th Victim, with Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni; it’s based on Sheckley’s “The Seventh Victim” story. He was a prolific writer, and published screenplays, novels and many short stories. This story has been published a number of times. What happens if you get stranded on a planet of sightless creatures? On the Planet of the Blind, is a two-eyed man necessarily a king?
  12. Williamson was, he said, the only SF writer ever to come West in a covered wagon. He lived to see men on the moon, and published some of the greatest SF (The Humanoids, for one) ever written. What happens if you’re collecting animals for an extraterrestrial zoo, and the dang planet monitor won’t let you collect one of those funny human creatures, claiming they’re intelligent? Well, you just have to talk it into coming along voluntarily, don’t you? And they couldn’t have picked a better specimen.
  13. Cyril M. Kornbluth wrote a lot of great SF, both by himself and in collaboration with various people. He may be remembered in future by the intelligentsia (or those who think they are) for the story “The Marching Morons,” which for one thing inspired “I’d buy that for a dollar” from Robocop. (But mostly for the story itself.) Yet another war story, this one leaving a devastated Earth with maybe only one survivor—of the corporeal kind. But there are other kinds; and maybe those will be all that we humans leave of ourselves when we finally manage to kill ourselves.
  14. Wilson is not as well known as the others in this anthology, and maybe with good reason. I found this to be easily the weakest story here; there are logical inconsistencies that pop out at me. The US is so overpopulated that having babies is now illegal—and possibly any illegal children are eliminated. Yet there are rural people living on farms by themselves, raising crops; there are woods being hunted in by other rurals. In a way, the ending of this reminded me of the ending of the Nic Cage movie Knowing. And made just about as much sense (though I liked the effects in the movie). But hey, even Jove nods, as the saying goes. One weak story doesn’t destroy the book.

You can find this book on Amazon; on Amazon.ca it’s $7.99 (CDN) for the paperback and $119 for the hardcover. I didn’t see an ebook listed, but in my opinion, it’s well worth buying the paperback (I believe it’s the same edition I have, the 1972 Ballantine).

Comments? Anyone? Bueller? 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!

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1 Comment

  1. I am told by Diane L. Walton (of the Canadian magazine On Spec) that they have found many Americans watching more Canadian TV in the form of Murdoch Mysteries (our own Lloyd Penney appeared in one episode, I believe) and Republic of Doyle, via Netflix and Acorn. So, as Diane says, “There’s hope!”

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