Wednesday, 21 August 2013

To Serve Man by Damon Knight

First published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950.

This kind of twist-in-the-tail story is really becoming a feature of this volume. There were a few in the previous anthologies in this series – Out of the Sub-Universe in volume one, and Almost Human and The 4 SidedTriangle in volume two - but most of the stories are generally adventure stories or satirical traveller’s tale.

The twist in the tale typically takes the form of bad luck of the kind you reap when your sowing choices are poor. In this way the genius scientist is destroyed by his own work, the foolish lover loses their heart’s desire and the choice you made is never what it seems.

These stories are a sort of joke. They trick us like a joke does. But like a joke, after you’ve seen the trick you need something else to keep this type of story interesting.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury

First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949.

I found this fantastic video on youtube - it's by youtube user Joey Fameli.  

This is probably the closest thing to a bona fide sci fi classic in these three volumes. I know it, of course, from The Illustrated Man, one of the greatest collections of SF stories ever. I read it again and again when I was a kid. I can still feel the strangely embossed cardboard cover of the edition I owned back then (Corgi Essential SF Library Edition – I also owned Golden Apples of the Sun in this version). It came from the stack of second hand sci fi in The Beehive Book Exchange in Porirua, down the alleyway by the big butchers’ shop in the old part of the mall.

That copy’s long gone, but I picked a new copy a couple of years ago, after many years away and visited it again. Some of the stories are a little corny by today’s standards – The Man, The Visitor and The Other Foot, for example, are very much of-their-time – but everything was dignified and carefully crafted and some of the stories pack a real kick. The Veldt is still brilliantly chilling, The Rocket is sweet and moving, The Exiles is delirious and slightly unnerving.

This is another one that still has its charge. Understanding why must surely take us closer to understand the heart of classic sci fi.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Don’t Look Now by Henry Kuttner

First published in Startling Stories, March 1948

There’s always been a lot of common ground between science fiction and the work of Charles Fort. Like SF writers, Charles Fort tried to make his readers see a world that was like their own but changed. Fort understood the fundamental law of SF that we are always just one surprise discovery away from the paradigm shift.

Stories like this one are usually associated with the saucer craze and Cold War paranoia, but the current issue of Fortean Times covers (number 305) – coincidentally – a very similar tale that has it’s origins in the years immediately after World War I. There are even older examples if these type of delusions like the air loom gang from the early 19th century, and Arthur Miller famously drew parallels between the atmosphere of the Cold War in America and the 17th century witch craze in Salem, Massachusetts.

So, this sort of story was already out there before the red scare, in the popular consciousness. In many ways, it just waiting for the red menace to come along and give it a credible human origin, because science fiction had already created and discarded its own version of the insidious enemy within in the shape of the Shaver mystery.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Fires Within by Arthur C Clarke

This story was originally credited to O G O'Brien
First published in Fantasy, August 1947

This story casts the mad scientist and the pulp prodigy aside in favour of a more realistic version of science. In this story we get scientists affiliated with a university, financed by government grants and working on a specific technology rather than just plundering the secrets of the universe on their own more at less at random.

The bulk of the story is written in the form of a report from a certain Doctor Matthews to the Minister of Science concerning the work of Professor Hancock and Dr Clayton. They’ve been investigating ways of using sonar as a geological probe, but when Dr Clayton is killed in a motor accident Professor Hancok goes a little bit unhinged and discovers what looks like artificial structures miles underground.

Okay, I take it back. Maybe we are back into the pulp world of mad scientists and mysterious subterranean civilizations.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Memorial by Theodore Sturgeon

First published in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1946.
Sturgeon is immediately to the left of the spine, in the top row in a blue jacket.*

Six months or so after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, Astounding SF published this dark and bitter story of human folly. Ashley highlights this several times as one of the key stories in his narrative of the history of SF. For him, it signifies a moment when SF stopped being playful conjecture and began to engage with the forces that shape the world.

I wrote in my review of the introduction about how Ashley regards this period as the years when science fiction grew up, and clearly this is the sort of story that he’s talking about. It’s a well-written story, that makes its point with careful force. It’s angry and outraged and at the same time helpless, addressing all colours of atomic-age angst.

For all that though, it still relies on some hoary SF cliches that have have become overly familiar over the course of these volumes.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The End of Summer

And so summer comes to an end. Oh yes, I know it's only the middle of August, but I've had my holidays and now begin settling in for work once more.

While I was away, I found this at The Bookman in Norwich:

Signed by the man himself!
This is why I maintain my second hand book shop habit! I actually own a more up to date version of this in the British Library publication Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography but who could resist a document signed by JV himself. Only a tenner, too, which is beer money, really!

While I was away, I also decided to turn my incorrigible instinct for second hand bookshops to evil: I intend to build up my collection of large SF coffee-table art books from the 70s and 80s.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Reading report - second quarter 2013

Summer is typically a busy time of year for me and this year is no different. The unexpected arrival of hot weather and sunshine has further kept me away from the keyboard, and I admit that the blog has had to take second place recently to some fiction I’m working on (gasp!) and a Secret Project: the latter two will hopefully come to fruition in the autumn when I suppose I’ll make another of my misguided attempts to make something of my dreary creative ambitions.

So, there’s not been a lot of time or motivation to consider my quarterly reading report. I’d hoped to have the three volumes of the History of the Science Fiction Magazine wrapped up by now, but that hasn’t happened. The fact is that the necessity to blog about each story holds up the reading: as I get behind, I’m disinclined to read more. This means I’m on track to have read even fewer books this year than last year. But, as I approach volume three, it seems a good time to think about what these volumes have shown us about what SF and where it came from, and that’s mostly what this review is going to look at.

But first, let’s have a look at what’s turning into my primary source of reading love: super-hero comics.

It makes for a long post, but there you are: these reading reports always get out of hand.