Science Fiction Stories

Time for another installment in the series of book reviews which I call "Books That are not Worth Reviewing".

A month or two ago, we were shopping in the local goodwill, which is always a fun adventure in random clothing and other objects. The book section sucks, so I generally skip it. However, on this trip I felt a strange compulsion to look there.  I grabbed a Studs Terkel book, and a few other books that might not be worth reviewing, and also I found something I never would've expected -- a book from my childhood.

Science Fiction Stories is a collection of short stories published in 1979. It was edited by Tom Boardman, Jr, and printed by Octopus Books Limited in Czechoslovakia. As near as I can tell, there was only one printing.  The editing leaves something to be desired. There's a bunch of typos, one or two that actually confuse the book in places.

I got my first copy of it one Christmas as a child, a couple years later, I'm sure I was no more than 7 or 8. And I read that book from cover to cover at least 100 times. I loved reading, and I loved this book. Anyway, my copy of it was lost with just about every other object from my childhood, and it never even occurred to me that I'd see another copy of it.

The book itself is fairly yellowed, and as I read through it again, the binding loosened up some -- age hasn't treated it well. It has a strange smell that I can't identify. It clearly sat in someone's attic or basement for a long time. The stories themselves vary in quality. Some of them are from well-known authors: Asimov, HG Wells, Harry Harrison. There's a lot of pseudonyms -- some authors have several stories under different names.

The jacket of the book has the following text:

For many years the imaginations of many men have turned toward the future and much of what they have written has become fact. American astronauts have now walked on the surface of the moon and spaceships are a reality. Perhaps some of the recent science fiction stories in this book will become the history of tomorrow.

From the dramatic first encounter with beings from another planet as described by Murray Leinster in First Contact to the story of the last man on earth who persuades his captors to stroke a rattlesnake, SCIENCE FICTION STORIES is a remarkable collection from the very best authors of tales of this type.

Each story is illustrated with a full-page line drawing -- as imaginative as the stories themselves.

Man, the illustrations are WACK. Perhaps more than the stories themselves, these drawings are part of my childhood.

The names of three authors grace the front cover - Asimov, HG Wells, and Brian Aldiss. For me, Aldiss stuck out, since I had never heard of him. My only exposure to his work is the two stories in this book -- "Who Can Replace a Man?" and "Not for An Age". The second won a contest in 1955 for a short story set in the year 2500. It was his first published work of scifi.  He was born in 1925 and is still writing today.

Several themes run through the stories in an interesting fashion.  Computers, or computers as we know them, are surprisingly lacking, even from the books written after the 40s.  Punchcards are mentioned a few times.  The story Romp is basically about a scam based on tweaking punchcards.

A bunch of the stories are post-apocalyptic or post-society in one form or another.  Flying Dutchman describes war machines that continue to fight after humanity has been destroyed.  Who can Replace a Man? wonders about what happens to robots in the absence of their human masters.  The Luckiest Man in Denv (google books) is one of the best stories in the book, dealing with the political intrigue of a devastated society trapped in an endless war.

Endless war.  During the time of almost all of these stories, humanity was involved in two major wars and the the Cold War for 40 years, and while this fighting colors the stories, it's not directly in your face.  Many of the stories are bleak, dark, with a wry sort of humor, and not a lot of hope for the future.  It Could Be You is probably one of the first instances of what we would consider reality TV, but it takes place in a future so grisly that it's hard to accept.  Even First Contact and Obedience that have such hope for encountering another race and the promise entailed with that suggest that even those events must end in destruction.  In Obedience in particular, the primary rule of human space ships is to destroy any alien ship they ever encounter -- even though no one has ever encountered one, and doesn't know what to expect.  Shoot first, and don't ask any questions at all.

There is some interaction with aliens. First Contact is the first story of the book, and is generally credited with inventing the term "first contact" -- in fact Murray Leinster's heirs sued the makers of the Star Trek film of the same name, and lost. It also contains perhaps the first instance of a universal translator.  Pictures Don't Lie by Katherine MacLean is another first contact story with some interesting twists.  

Bureaucracy.  Several of the stories are all about paper pushing.   Allamagoosa deals with a ship about to face an inspection, trying to figure out where the missing "offog" went.  It won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1955. Christmas Tree wonders what happens when the rules of space travel strand you far from home.  Spectator Sport is about a time traveler trapped in the system.

There are two stories about crime -- Romp and The Stainless Steel Rat.  They're fairly humorous and really sort of quaint when viewed through a modern lens.  In particular, Romp has not aged well.  It deals with a scam involving tweaking punch cards in a government system -- really!  And then the protagonist is caught on a plane because the police were sneaky enough to install metal detectors in the airport - amazing!

The Hypnoglyph is the last story of the book, and in some ways, it's the best and creepiest story of them all. It was written by John Ciardi who is more famous for his book How Does a Poem Mean? He also was a commentator on NPR where he discussed etymology. He used the pseudonym "John Anthony" for this story - one of several pseudonyms in the book.  Ciardi was an established success when this story was published in 1956, and the editors of F&SF were very disappointed that he didn't want to use his own name.  Supposedly he wrote the story to win a bet with a few SF writers that he could get a story published in what he considered an inferior literary form.  In many ways, that sums up this book.


Science Fiction Stories
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