BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Twenty-nine stories (plus notes and a preface), only one of which was not a winner.
PROS: A collection of some of the best-recognized names in the industry.
CONS: Strongly biased towards the 1960’s and earlier, few fantasy entries.
BOTTOM LINE: This book belongs on the shelves of every fan.
This dense book is a collection of short works that influenced the three editors (the late Jim Baen who edited at Galaxy, Ace, Tor Books and then Baen Books; David Drake, who has written, collaborated and edited a small library; and Eric Flint, one of Baen Books more popular authors and editors). My first glance at the contents showed a lot of familiar favorites and as I read I would occasionally have a “I remember this one!” moment. This is a very solid collection that ought to sit any fan’s bookshelf (or, if you read eBooks, be a permanent resident on your PDA or eBook reader).
For a complete list, see below. I’ll just highlight a few of the stories. I will note that given the authors involved (Murray Leinster, as one good example), the editors often picked a solid, lesser-known story (“The Aliens”) instead of a more widely known tale (“First Contact”).
“Code Three” (Rick Raphael): This story and author was a new one to me. The author spent a bit too much time, to my taste, in describing the background technology of the fictional universe and not enough time either talking about the implications (for example, having a extra-national superhighway that stretches from Mexico to Canada…what does that do to immigration, trade, smuggling…) or the characters. It’s a good story, but might have been made better with the one aspect trimmed and the other expanded. It would make one heck of a movie! (an audio version can be found here.) Raphael wrote two additional tales in this series; the second is pretty good, the third pretty forgetful.
“Hunting Problem” (Robert Sheckley): Sheckley is one of those authors that seems to have faded from the catalogs, alas. This story is proof that he ought to be back in print. Maybe Baen Books will remedy this, or NESFA Press. This is a hoot of a story that could be read with appreciation by kids or adults with a very lovely twist to the end.
“A Pail of Air” (Fritz Leiber): A family manages to survive with little technology after the Earth is wrestled away from the Solar System by a dead star. If that ain’t a cool idea, then you have no business reading science fiction! One of the classics. I seem to recall reading comments by Leiber that this was going to be a series, too bad that never materialized.
“Thy Rocks and Rills” (Robert Ernest Gilbert): I have never read anything else by Gilbert that I can recall and I’m undecided as to whether I would seek him out. This was a strange sort of-post-Holocaust tale involving conflicts in the US plus mutated talking animals and bull fighting. Will have to let this one sit for a spell.
“The Only Thing We Learn” (C.M. Kornbluth): . Kornbluth was one of science fiction’s absolute masters of short fiction. The only tragedy greater than his early death is the fact that mainstream publishers have let his stuff go out of print. Thank goodness for this collection as well as efforts by NESFA Press! Perhaps stories such as The Marching Morons make people feel too uncomfortable? Well, if being uncomfortable means you are thinking, then we need more Kornbluth! This tale will also make you feel uncomfortable. Should you cheer for the plucky rebels who exhibit behavior that is less than sterling? How about the corrupt and deteriorating empire? Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? And in the end, in a twist worthy of an O. Henry, the worm turns.
The Aliens” (Murray Leinster): Leinster had a long and distinguished career as a science fiction author, and it would be easy to pick out a “turned upside down” tale from his body of work. Instead of picking out one of the obvious possibilities (for example, “First Contact”), the editors went with a first contact tale that is not as well known (at least, not to me). A Terran ship is looking for an elusive alien race that appears to have been responsible for some attacks and losses. They encounter a ship in a lonely solar system, but through a freak mischance, are bonded to the other ship on a path towards the system’s star. Can the humans overcome their mistrust of the aliens in order to save both ships. A couple of interesting twists here, plus some ideas that were explored more fully by other authors (for example, Joe Haldeman and C.J. Cherryh).
“All the Way Back” (Michael Shaara): Shaara is better known as a writer of historical fiction, even if you probably don’t recognize the name at all. He “burst on the scene” with the movie Gettysburg, having written the book the movie was based on (The Killer Angels). I’ll bet most folks who saw the movie did not bother with the excellent book. And I’ll bet those who have read the book, for the most part, did not know that Shaara also wrote science fiction. “All the Way Back” could be taken for a fairly mundane science fiction tale. We’ve got the superior galactic federation confronting members of a upstart race. Except that the upstart race is us, we’re in the middle of the “galactic desert”, the superior galactic federation are those aliens and…we’ve got an awful secret. A very well-written story.
“Who Goes There?” (John W. Campbell, Jr. writing as Don A. Stuart): Possibly the most suspenseful piece of fiction that Campbell produced, either as himself or any of his alter egos. And, despite two attempts in Hollywood, several quantum leaps better than what we’ve seen on the screen. I dare you to read this at night, during a storm. The final battle and the final paragraph still manage to raise the hair on the back of my head (and me with a high-and-tight!). Heck, I double-dog-dare you to read this at night during a winter storm. Go ahead! Equal to anything that writers such as Lovecraft ever produced, a masterful blend of horror and science fiction themes. Much better than most horror produced today because it was the first, and touched our primal self first.
“Quietus” (Ross Rocklynne): Rocklynne is not as well known as many of the other authors in this collection (as can be seen by this rather sparse entry at Wikipedia), but don’t let that stop you. Set on a post-holocaust Earth, it’s short, but has the impact of longer works such as Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon or George Stewart’s Earth Abides. It’s also an excellent tale of misconceptions, as two well-intending aliens complete the work that the holocaust that wrecked the Earth started.
“Shambleau” (C.L. Moore): I first read this tale when I was young, but the opening lines have certainly haunted me since then:
“Shambleau! Ha…Shambleau!” The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol’s narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undernote to that swelling bay, “Shambleau! Shambleau!”
Northwest Smith heard it coming and stepped into the nearest doorway, laying a wary hand on his heat-gun’s grip, and his colorless eyes narrowed. Strange sounds were common enough in the streets of Earth’s latest colony on Mars–a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and very often did. But Northwest Smith, whose name is known and respected in every dive and wild outpost on a dozen wild planets, was a cautious man, despite his reputation. He set his back against the wall and gripped his pistol, and heard the rising shout come nearer and nearer.
Then into his range of vision flashed a red running figure, dodging like a hunted hare from shelter to shelter in the narrow street. It was a girl–a berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment whose scarlet burnt the eyes with its brilliance. She ran wearily, and he could hear her gasping breath from where he stood. As she came into view he saw her hesitate and lean one hand against the wall for support, and glance wildly around for shelter. She must not have seen him in the depths of the doorway, for as the bay of the mob grew louder and the pounding of feet sounded almost at the corner she gave a despairing little moan and dodged into the recess at his very side.
When she saw him standing there, tall and leather-brown, hand on his heat-gun, she sobbed once, inarticulately, and collapsed at his feet, a huddle of burning scarlet and bare, brown limbs.
Not since Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” (certainly a story that turned my world upside down) did an opening of a story grab me. What or who was “Shambleau”? Was Smith going to shoot her? Would the mob attack him? What was going on? A great mix of pulp science fiction and pulp horror, with some wonderous phrasing going on here. C.L. Moore’s tales of Northwest Smith are terrific, and this first story of his career is one of the best.
“Turning Point” (Poul Anderson): It would be very hard, for me, to pick out one story by Poul Anderson for such a collection. It it be a tale of the Trading Teams? A story of master spy Flandry? One of his collaborations with Gordon R. Dickson? One of the non-series tales? The editors managed to find one that I had not read before, about the encounter between a team from an Earth-based empire and a newly discovered planet. Which are the primitives? Does “primitive” equate ignorant? Stupid? And how does one protect one’s culture from a superior race? Some of the answers may surprise you.
“Heavy Planet” (Milton A. Rothman, writing as Lee Gregor):Eric Flint points out in his afterword to this story that Gregor was a minor science fiction author, with a dozen or so titles to his name. Despite this, “Heavy Planet” has been anthologized almost as many times as some of the major works in the collection. Why is that? It is definitely pulp in feel and style, but Gregor (or Rothman, if you prefer) manages to convey a very alien planet and very alien aliens extremely well. If you enjoy Hal Clement, you’ll find a work equal to many of Clement’s best.
“Omnilingual” (H. Beam Piper): I first came across this story in an anthology edited by Isaac Asimov and it still thrills me. Piper manages to weave elements of mystery and detection into this puzzle tale. What happened to the Martians? How can we read their books. To boot, a tale from the “Golden Age” with a strong female character!
“The Gentle Earth” (Christopher Anvil): Instead of picking one of Anvil’s more populare works (such as his Interstellar Patrol tales), the editors went for this amusing piece about an invasion of Earth. Too bad the invaders did not do their homework before they landed in the middle of the United States! This one was good for multiple chuckles and even a few belly laughs.
“Liane the Wayfarer” (Jack Vance):As with Poul Anderson, I’d be hard-pressed to pick out just one Jack Vance story to represent his body of work. His opulent words, his baroque stylings, his wonderful characters and plots. Which to choose? Here’s a tale set in his Dying Earth sequence, when advanced technology is thought of as magic and people scheme and counter scheme as the Sun swells to swallow our planet. Good stuff, and makes me want to read the whole sequence again. Maybe later this year (especially with the Dying Earth tribute anthology scheduled from Subterranean!).
“Spawn” (P. Schuyler Miller): O.K., sorry, but every anthology has one story that just didn’t work. For me, this was the one. Sorry guys, I just don’t understand why you picked this one!
“St. Dragon and the George” (Gordon R. Dickson):Fantasy, not science fiction, but a classic humorous story in the vein of de Camp and Pratt’s tales of Harold Shea or today’s stories by folks like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett. Two people from our world are transported into a world of wizards and dragons. Unfortunately, one of them appears in the other world as a dragon. Then there’s this knight who has sworn to kill all dragons… Good stuff, and I’m not sure which is better, this work or the later (expanded) novel. If you can’t have one of Dickson’s Childe Cycle works, this would work as well!
“Thunder and Roses” (Theodore Sturgeon): As David Drake points out in his preface to this story, the concept of nostolgia for the 1950’s is a pretty strange concept. After all, readers of science fiction knew that atomic war was going to break out anytime. We might survive, but there would be horrid mutations and we’d have to live a primitive (but lusty) existence. Some stories, like Ward Moore’s “Lot” and “Lot’s Daughter”, took an opposite tack. The war would not be a good thing. Sturgeon takes a similar approach, but in all the horror, finds hope. An excellent way to end the collection.
The collection overall: Hey, the title of the review says it all: some of the stories in this collection will turn your SF world upside down. This is an essential book for your bookshelf, if you are a fan of science fiction. The editors do a good job of pulling together many of science fiction’s essential themes and many of science fiction’s best authors (many of them founding mothers and fathers of the field). I can only hope that Baen Books can come out with another collection as fine as this one!
Made up of: Preface (Eric Flint); Rescue Party (Arthur C. Clarke); The Menace from Earth (Robert A. Heinlein); Code Three (Rick Raphael); Hunting Problem (Robert Sheckley); Black Destroyer (A.E. van Vogt); A Pail of Air (Fritz Leiber); Thy Rocks and Rills (Robert Ernest Gilbert); A Gun for Dinosaur (L. Sprague de Camp); Goblin Night (James H. Schmitz); The Only Thing We Learn (C.M. Kornbluth); Trigger Tide (Wyman Guin, writing as Norman Menasco); The Aliens (Murray Leinster); All the Way Back (Michael Shaara); The Last Command (Keith Laumer); Who Goes There? (John W. Campbell, Jr., writing as Don A. Stuart); Quietus (Ross Rocklynne); Answer (Fredric Brown); The Last Question (Isaac Asimov); The Cold Equations (Tom Godwin); Shambleau (C.L. Moore); Turning Point (Poul Anderson); Heavy Planet (Lee Gregor); Omnilingual (H. Beam Piper); The Gentle Earth (Christopher Anvil); Environment (Chester S. Geier); Liane the Wayfarer (Jack Vance); Spawn (P. Schuyler Miller); St. Dragon and the George (Gordon R. Dickson); Thunder and Roses (Theodore Sturgeon).
[Note: Counts as thirty (30) contributions to my 2009 Short Story Project at The Lensman’s Children.]