BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 16 golden-age SF adventure stories.
PROS: 11 stories good or better, 2 of them outstanding.
CONS: 5 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: Overall a good collection, but there were a few disappointments
The Good Old Stuff edited by Gardner Dozois is an anthology of science fiction adventure stories originally printed between 1940 and 1970. (A follow-up volume of later adventure stories is collected in The Good New Stuff. Both anthologies are collected in a Science Fiction Book Club omnibus called The Good Stuff.)
I like sf adventure stories and perhaps had my hopes set a little high with the theme of this anthology. As it turned out, almost one third of these stories were in the mediocre range and one of those was not enjoyable at all. Still, that left 11 stories that were worth reading. There were 2 standout stories in this anthology: “The New Prime” by Jack Vance and “Moon Duel” by Fritz Leiber. One nice bonus to the book was Dozois’ 10-page preface that discussed the creation of the volume as well as where to make the cutoff for the follow-on volume.
I was surprised by the number of stories that read like fantasy. Sure, they were set on other worlds, but the setting was clearly pre-technology giving them a fantasy-like flavor. One story where this worked quite well was Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Semley’s Necklace” because the reader knew what the real story was while the character of Semley was marveling at the magic and mysticism. Other stories used the old-world locale mostly as a fish-out-of-water plot device.
Many of these tales have since had sequels and some have been collected into fix-up novels. This is one of the things I like about reading short fiction. These stories offer self-contained peeks into larger stories. The collection, then, serves as an appetizer for the book versions.
Reviewlettes of the stories follow.
STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:
- “The Rull” [Rulls] by A.E. van Vogt [1948 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 02/3/06]
- Synopsis: A science fiction survival story where man is pitted against alien on a strategically important planet.
- Review: Very good adventure story. Both man and Rull have the ability to control the mind of their opponent. It was interesting to see the point of view switch between the two characters.
- “Second Night of Summer” [Vegan Agents] by James H. Schmitz [1950 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 02/05/06]
- Synopsis: On the planet Noorhut, a battle is waged between and Agent of the Vega system and aliens who make attacks on humanity every 300 years.
- Review: Excellent characterizations mark this adventure story. The small town is the perfect setting to fight this secret battle. The locals are in the dark as to the true nature of Grandma Wannatel and her medicine trailer. The street smart local boy Grimp is identified by the Agent as her successor.
- “The Galton Whistle” [Viagens] by L. Sprague de Camp [1951 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 02/10/06]
- Synopsis: A renegade surveyor named Sirat Mongkut appoints himself as god to the local centaur-like creatures, the Dzlieri. His intentions are to eventually rule the planet with the unwilling spiritualist Elena Millan as his wife. A fellow surveyor for The Viagen Interplanetaries, Adrian Frome, is caught by Sirat’s forces and set to work as a blacksmith.
- Review: Good story replete with golden-haired hero (Frome), evil villain (Sirat) and damsel in distress (Elena). It reads like any archetypical jungle adventure but with a casual injection of humor.
- Note: The title comes from the proper name for a dog whistle which Serat uses to lead the Dzlieri.
- Note: Also published under the title “Ultrasonic God”.
- “The New Prime” by Jack Vance [1951 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 02/16/06]
- Synopsis: Depicts five scenarios in a kind of virtual reality test to find the next leader to hold the executive office of Galactic Prime. The tests are meant to assess a candidate’s social intuition, aggressiveness, loyalty, imagination and persistence. The result, as ordained by the panel of Elders, is not what the current incumbent expected. The five scenarios let the candidates assume the role of: Arthur Caversham, who mysteriously finds himself naked at a carnival dance and on the run from the law; Bearwald the Halforn, who leads the last of his people against the malicious Brand monsters that have nearly killed his tribe; Ceistan, who is tempted to prematurely end his quest in which he searches a long-deserted city for the evidence that will exonerate his imprisoned liege-lord who is scheduled for execution the next morning; Dobnor Daksat, one of six imagists in a head-to-head art competition; Ergan, who is captured by his enemies the Roc and tortured until to reveals his identity.
- Review: Excellent story written with a well-executed literary style. Each scenario scene reads like an interesting mini-fantasy story. This was surprising to me not only because I tend to prefer SF over fantasy, but also because each mini-episode was so short that I was amazed such a precise (and immersive) picture could be drawn in a limited space. Great stuff!
- Note: Also published under the title “Brain of the Galaxy”.
- “That Share of Glory” by C. M. Kornbluth [1952 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 02/21/06]
- Synopsis: A stingy merchant hires a trainee from the College and Order of Heralds to assist with alien languages and customs on a trade run to the low-tech planet Lyra.
- Review: A good read. The trainee, Alen, basically talks his way out dangerous situations with pirates and locals. There’s a brief courtroom scene where even Alen’s skills are put to the test. The trader, Balckbeard, is a hoot as the whiny trader who complains every chance he gets concerning the cost of his venture. Lyra was an interesting planet as metals are forbidden and that keeps society in a perpetual state of pre-industrialization. The ending was a nicely done, but expected, uncovering of wool from the reader’s eyes.
- “The Last Days of Shandakor” by Leigh Brackett [1952 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 02/21/06]
- Synopsis: An archaeologist on Mars discovers an ancient (and heretofore unknown) race of Martians and enters their dying city.
- Review: Meh. The bulk of this read like standard fantasy fare and was not very interesting. One redeeming factor in the story was the city’s crystal sphere that recorded history. Although the writing style was capable, there was little that engaged me, thus making the poignant ending virtually ineffective.
- “Exploration Team” [Colonial Survey] by Murray Leinster [1956 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 02/25/06]
- Synopsis: A Colonial Surveyor named Roane lands on the planet Loren Two to check the progress of a mostly robot-run colony but instead finds a lone criminal named Huyghen who is illegally living in a station of his own with his trained eagle and four genetically engineered Kodiak bears.
- Review: Good planetary exploration story as Huyghen and Roane seek out any potential survivors of the Colonial station which, it is suspected, has been done in by the ferocious indigenous life forms known as the Sphex. What I found weird, though, was the way that Roane constantly wondered out loud why Huyghen was so forthcoming with information that could only be used to assist with his incarceration – as if it was for the reader’s benefit when, in fact, the reader could easily guess that Huyghen was winning Roane over by showing him the Colonial life firsthand. There also seemed to be some heavy-handed anti-technology message that robots could not take the place of a man.
- Note: Winner of the 1956 Hugo award for best novelette.
- “The Sky People” by Poul Anderson [1959 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 02/27/06]
- Synopsis: A swashbuckling tale set in a future Earth where civilization is an early rebuilding stage after having been destroyed by atomic power. The people of Mayaco (Mexico) enlist the aid of the sea captain Ruori whose is a formidable match against the airships of the attacking Sky People.
- Review: Good swashbuckling tale, but the action tended to overshadow the setting which I though was much cooler. I liked the idea that the half-forgotten histories and the fear of atomic power. Ultimately, it is the Sky People’s command over technology and science (though primitive to our own present-day technology) that is the model for the successful future of all of those in Merika (America) and abroad.
- “The Man in the Mailbag” by Gordon R. Dickson [1959 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/04/06]
- Synopsis: A diplomat to the planet Dilbia – where the natives are very large, very furry and bear-like – attempts to rescue a captured human woman with the help of a Dilbian postman, who carries him in his mailbag.
- Review: This was a mildly humorous story although I think it was supposed to be more so. The honor-bound Dilbian race was nicely portrayed with their knack for making humorous nicknames for everyone they meet.
- Note: This story was later expanded into the novel Special Delivery which had a sequel called Spacepaw.
- “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” by Cordwainer Smith [1961 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/04/06]
- Synopsis: When thief Benjacomin Bozart thinks of a way to rob Norstrilia of its untold riches, he does not count on Mother Hitton and her unique planetary defense system.
- Review: Excellent story. As in the other shorts stories I’ve read by Smith, there are lots of cool science fiction ideas touched upon. This one features telepathy and a collection of cats engineered to by psychotically feral. Particularly well done was the way the Benjacomin, easy to hate because of a dastardly deed early in the story, was being manipulated by the hidden forces of the all-powerful Nortstrilia. He gets exactly what he deserves. Cool stuff.
- “A Kind of Artistry” by Brian W. Aldiss [1962 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/04/06]
- Synopsis: Earthborn Derek Ende parts with his overbearing Mistress to embark on a mission to liaison with a new life form. Afterwards, he gets an outsider’s view of Earthborn life, which is dwindling with every passing year. Ultimately, Derek return to his Mistress and asserts himself.
- Review: This lyrically written and cerebral story had a wonderful scene where Derek discovered a new life form called The Cliff. The power of the writing made it totally believable that a life form could emerge from a sun-borne asteroid. But then the subsequent scenes, heavily steeped in symbolism, seemed to focus on the purpose of life, freedom, need, etc. (Or some such.) The relationship between Derek and his “Mistress” (who is also his mother – how’s that for symbolism?) was on par with moody high-schoolers and was a bit irritating.
- Note: Aldiss’ website has a much deeper analysis of this story.
- “Gunpowder God” [Kalvan; Paratime Police] by H. Beam Piper [1964 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 03/09/06]
- Synopsis: Parallel timelines are known to exist to the Paratime Police in the “First Level” timeline. However, when policeman Calvin Morrison from level 4 is accidentally transported to a technologically stagnant timeline, the “Paratime Secret” is at risk. Because of Calvin’s knowledge of technology, he is quickly put into a position of power, adopts the name “Lord Kalvin” and teaches the locals a thing or two about battle.
- Review: There were some exciting and promising aspects of the story. The concept of parallel worlds and the idea of the police force to protect the Paratime Secret were intriguing. Verkan Vall is the Paratime cop assigned to track “Kalvin “, which he does, straight to a late-medieval era. Kalvin has taught the locals the recipe for making gunpowder, the knowledge of which was previously guarded by Styphon , who used the secret to wield economic control. Most of the story, though, dwells in battle and medieval life making this read like standard fantasy. This fish-out-of-water aspect of the story reminded me of Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” which, if memory serves, had more impact with its dangerously misplaced technology message.
- Note: This story and its two sequels comprise Piper’s book Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen.
- “Semley’s Necklace” by Ursula K. Le Guin [1964 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 03/11/06]
- Synopsis: Semley, wife of the well-to-do Lord Durhal, embarks on a quest to retrieve the necklace that is an heirloom of her previously royal family.
- Review: Very good story that reads like a fable. Semley, whose family was part of the original founders of the world, is now devoid of wealth. But when the rich Lord Durhal marries her and moves her to his castle, she is still jealous of the decadent jewelry worn by others. Even the respect of the people does not make her happy and she eventually seeks out the gold and sapphire necklace that once belonged to her family, with the intent to bring it as a dowry to her new Lord. She tracks the necklace through several tribes and eventually to the “Starlords”, human space travelers, in this case, museum curators. Rocannon of the Starlords (featured in other Le Guin stories) fulfills her request, but the realities of faraway space travel are not understood by Semley until she returns home. Good stuff!
- Note: Also published under the title “The Dowry of Angyar”.
- “Moon Duel” by Fritz Leiber [1965 short story] (Rating: ) [I read this on 06/11/04. Here’s what I said then.]
- Synopsis: A gunfight/chase sequence between a human and an alien on the moon.
- Review: Excellent story from its gruesome initial scene to a satisfying conclusion. At first the human fires at the alien and misses. A manhunt occurs where the human astronaut escapes in a deep crevice, slowly climbing to the surface via interior “bubbles” in the rock. He eventually establishes a mathematical Morse code with the alien, realizing that neither foe is really hostile. Then, the missed shots made earlier by the human, now having orbited the moon, lands near the alien, causing a harsh sudden end to their budding friendship.
- “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” by Roger Zelazny [1965 novelette] (Rating: )
- Synopsis: A quest for catching a huge creature in the seas of Venus. Can you say Moby Dick?
- Review: I liked the writing style, but this tale was ultimately disappointing. The drama played out between the main characters (the loser bait man trying to make up for past failures and his tough ex-wife) just didn’t add any value to this story. This is not science fiction strictly speaking; locating the story on Venus does not make sf.
- “Mother in the Sky with Diamonds” by James Tiptree, Jr. [1971 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 03/11/06]
- Synopsis: The Space Safety Inspector of the Coronis Corporation hides a secret from the company, with tragic results.
- Review: Disappointing. When the story’s intro said that this was jam-packed with ideas and would be better served as a novella, it was being too kind. This is more like a story where you start in the middle, lost beyond rescue. It was almost as if Tiptree (really Alice Sheldon) was limiting herself to a certain length and tried squeezing this 1 gallon story into a half-pint container. The constant use of unexplained sf inventions didn’t help. What are we supposed to make of lines like “His gee-sum index was wobbling up the scale, squeezing him retrograde in a field stress-node – he hoped.”? John W. Campbell, the story intro tells us, rejected this story. One wonders why it was included here.