A Century of Science Fiction, 1950-1959
Robert Silverberg, ed.
My science fiction reading has tended towards the novel much more than the short story, and primarily on more recent works, so when I saw this collection for a very low price, it seemed like a good way to experience some of the early works of the genre. From the editor's notes, this doesn't seem to be a collection of the most influential or most famous works of the 50's, but instead a representative sample of the stories of some of the century's prominent science fiction writers (the preface has a nice account of the history of science fiction, but doesn't go into any detail on how these particular stories were chosen). It's a nice collection, ranging from hard sci-fi to the more closely fantasy and the intimately personal to the space opera. It is a good introduction to the genre, and a fun collection of stories.
Concerning the stories themselves:
Coming Attraction, Fritz Leiber: In a semi-apocalyptic future, gangs roam the streets of a bombed and still radioactive New York City, America has redefined modesty to forbid women from showing their faces (though they can show anything else they like), and the national sport has become coed wrestling. A visiting Englishman gets an inside glimpse into the life of some of the more unsavory residents. Amusing, but not particularly thought-provoking.
The Mindworm, C.M. Kornbluth: A young boy is born with the ability to read minds, and eventually exhibits further psychokinetic abilities. A clever story.
The Pedestrian, Ray Bradbury: Reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451, an old man goes for an evening walk in a town clued to their television sets. Well done, and a sadly accurate view of the future.
Common Time, James Blish: One of the more memorable stories, an astronaut in one of the first speed-of-light spacecrafts experiences relativistic effects and tries to prevent himself from meeting the same demise as his predecessors. Does include some weird bits I didn't entirely understand.
Crucifixus Etiam, Walter M. Miller, Jr.: The life of the manual laborers behind the colonization of Mars, as told from the perspective of a young man who is struggling to remain an Earthling while most around him become Martians for life. A nice speculation on the economics of space exploration from the view of the poor and working class.
Mother, Philip Jose Farmer: An odd story about a mother and son who survive a spaceship crash and encounter an unusual matriarchal alien lifeform. I suspect this author read a little too much Freud.
The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke: Tibetan monks commission a computer to produce a list of all of the names of God. Nothing exceptional, though some cute scenes of the monks being much more modern than the outside world supposes.
Or Else, Henry Kuttner: Two feuding Mexicans are interrupted by an alien with a message of peace and love, but no answer for how to get there in a world of limited resources. A well-done, if pessimistic, allegory.
Warm, Robert Sheckley: A man hears a voice in his head claiming to be trapped and asking for help, and is guided towards his petitioner as he learns to see the truth behind the world. Too much clever and too little content in the end.
Down Among the Dead Men, William Tenn: A military officer in a space war against bug-like aliens takes command of an unusual regiment in a world which is running low on human resources to throw against the enemy. What would be a fairly standard story is enhanced by a nice exploration of the attitudes of the officer and his soldiers for each other.
The Father-Thing, Philip K. Dick: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers Meets The Beaver" - fun and creepy.
Dreaming Is a Private Thing, Isaac Asimov: In the future, "dreamers" are trained to weave richer-than-life virtual reality experiences for the viewing public, and dream producers scout for new talent and placate that which they have. If current artists make themselves vulnerable to their audience, we see that Dreamers do even more so.
The Game of Rat and Dragon, Cordwainer Smith: More aliens-battling with telepathically powered space battles in which human-cat teams hunt and attack together. A so-so story... but, cats!
The Gift of Gab, Jack Vance: Mineral prospectors on another planet examine their environment more closely when crew members start to disappear. A mystery story which ultimately requires the investigators to ask what it means to be intelligent.
Call Me Joe, Poul Anderson: Exploration of Jupiter is facilitated by planting biologically engineered creatures who can survive the harsh conditions on the surface and be controlled by a human mind, but something starts to go wrong. A bizarre battle-of-personalities story.
World of a Thousand Colors, Robert Silverberg: A man murders and takes the place of a candidate approved to take The Test - and then finds out what The Test is. Starts off good, but ends up a bit trite and moralistic.
The Man Who Lost the Sea, Theodore Sturgeon: My least favorite story in the collection, the wandering thoughts of a man crashed on a planet and hallucinating himself back at the ocean of his childhood.
The Wind People, Marion Zimmer Bradley: After a crash and a few-month residence on another planet, a ship's doctor finds herself pregnant and, as the baby will not survive space flight, remains alone on the planet with her child. As the boy grows, their relationship becomes strained, and she starts to hear and see strange things in the forest near their home. Mostly a character study of a mother trying to chose the best for her child and resisting the inevitable changes that come with his maturation.
Review written August 2002.
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