Short fiction sweep; Mammoth 50s SF, part 1.


I’ve been reading short stories over the last month, mostly from Robinson’s The Mammoth Book Of Vintage Science Fiction: Short Novels Of The 1950s. This book collects ten short novellas/novelettes from the decade, works originally anthologised in Galaxy and F&SF from a mixture of well known and more obscure names from the field.

We begin with Poul Anderson’s vaguely Wellsian fifty page novelette of time travel, Flight To Forever. After a fairly dry, routine and straightforward first third it suddenly becomes a romping Empire Strikes Back/Foundation style space opera (with cat men), a gear change that was unexpected, but which goes a long way to redeeming the overall thing. 3/5

Isaac Asimov’s The Martian Way is a story of Martian scavengers who make a living by reclaiming junk metal in space. Their livelihood is endangered by a fear mongering populist politician on Earth, who wishes to restrict the export of water to off-world colonies in an ‘anti waste movement.’ After racking heads together for a solution, the scavengers head for the rings of Saturn. The contrast of Earth VS Martian colonist behavior, and how this is formed from their differing environments, is the most interesting thing about this story. Colonist frontier ingenuity is contrasted with Earth’s complacency and politics of fear. Written in Asimov’s usual dialogue driven style, this is an amiable if unremarkable tale. 3/5

Next I came across Charles De Vet & K Maclean’s 1958 SF novelette, Second Game, a highlight of the collection. At the outset, Earth is flourishing and colonising thousands of worlds except one holdout, a planet inhabited by a proud race of warriors who prefer to be left alone. An envoy is dispatched from Earth to begin diplomacy and gather intelligence, and the story is told from his POV. He plans to ingratiate himself with the ruling caste by beating them at their national past-time, a complex game much like chess. The writing is noticeably above 1950’s pulp standards and reads more like 70’s New Wave or something by Ursula Le Guin; particularly in its observations of the differences and reconciling of the logic driven Veldians and the more emotionally driven Terrans. The prose is smooth and the dialogue is cerebral without being overly verbose and complex. As far as novelettes go this deserves full credit. 5/5

In Walter Miller’s 1951 occasionally profound post-apocalyptic novelette Dark Benediction, a space borne virus has landed on Earth. Those who are contaminated by it turn grey and are inflicted with a frenzied desire to lay hands on others, thereby passing on the contagion. With no cure found, the virus soon spreads widely, and society regresses to murder and brigandism; civilisation collapses. Two years on, a young man scavenges for food around Texas (Houston and Galveston) where the action takes place. He encounters dangerous men, a love interest, and a religious hospital who aim to research the virus and rebuild society. Here there is much of the same imagery and meaning as can be found in Miller’s later novel A Canticle For Leibowitz. However, this is arguably better written: a more concise treatment of similar aspects (of sublimation, and the role of knowledge) in a more approachable package. 4/5

A lighter tale altogether is Frederik Pohl’s 1954 satirical short story The Midas Plague. Here, cheap energy and robotic industry means an overabundance of goods, and so every citizen must fulfill a consumption quota. By fulfilling their quota, people progress into a higher class of society where the amount of compulsory consumption is less. By this, the poor live in large mansions full of trinkets and grow fat while the rich live in simpler houses. The story follows a couple of newlyweds of a lower class as they negotiate and overcome the rules. Overall this is a buoyant piece of satire which humorously explores a single idea. Domestic troubles, boozy antics, robotic shenanigans and group therapists abound; a bit like crossing Mad Men with I, Robot and Philip K Dick. 4/5

Frank M Robinson’s 1958 short novel of sixty pages, The Oceans Are Wide, is an SF story set on board a generation starship. Five hundred years after embarking for a habitable planet its hereditary ruler dies, with his timid young son being the sole heir. However, rivals seek to murder him and usurp the throne. The story follows his exile and growth among the ordinary families of the starship, and his mentoring by a mysterious figure named Joseph Smith. This is a structurally traditional coming-of-age story with many of its usual tropes, but it’s written in a slickly modern style that wouldn’t feel out of place forty years later. It’s also a dark story, full of murder, political scheming, compulsory euthanasia, bloodsports, and public executions – but it is also simply written, and this along with its blatantly didactic asides make me believe this was written for the YA/juvenile market.

Robinson is mainly preoccupied with what qualities it takes to be a leader, and what is required for the prosperity of a large group of people. He writes with a lot of literary allusions, with epigrams and references from the Psalms, T.S. Eliot, Pope, Coleridge – and, more importantly, Machiavelli. Interestingly, in a surely deliberate machination the novel’s mentor figure shares his name with the founder of Mormonism. Overall I enjoyed this dystopian take on the exiled prince tale. 3/5

Part 2 soon, where I finish the roundup with stories from Eric Frank Russell, Sturgeon, Tenn, and Farmer.


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