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The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame: volume one, 1929 - 1964
edited by Robert Silverberg
Orb paperback $17.95
review by Andrew Darlington
Weekend TV does all those cheap top 50s strung together around talking heads and clips from old pop shows, soaps, sitcoms and movies. And you can endlessly debate their 'Now That's What I Call...' definition of great, the exact priority they're assigned, even the critiques they base their choice on. SF has been around for a long time. A strange bastard literature that Lester del Rey calls "one part beauty, one part dream, one part science." And it resolutely refuses to fit anyone's preconceptions. For sake of definition it starts out as 'scientific romance' - amputated from its nominal 'fantasy' antecedents by its manifesto-adherence to fact-based speculation. Hugo Gernsback comes up with the unwieldy 'scientifiction', and it only becomes SF in time for the 1940s' 'Golden Age', before fragmenting into the smithereens of a less text-based new-media sci-fi.
Hence this 26-story selection is strung out across its four peak decades of social, techno-scientific and cultural change. Yet for a genre that supposedly feeds off such stuff the conclusions here are downright contrary. And as the earliest examples hurtle away from us time-wise they now look increasingly odd, quirky, and awkward. The Mars of Stanley Weinbaum's Odyssey - with its canals, thin but breathable air, perambulating plant-animal bio-pods and lovably-comic inhabitants is now as fanciful as anything found down Lewis Carroll's rabbit-hole; an entrancing narrative of genuine strangeness introducing Tweel, fiction's first-ever cute ET. But that 'scientific accuracy' signposted by its original manifesto is a quicksilver target. What you get instead is wild imaginings using impossible alchemies spanning fictional Solar systems in often-stunningly luring visions of dream-science. From the same year as A Martian Odyssey (Wonder Stories, July 1934), you get the sheer poetic end-of-the-world beauty of John W. Campbell's Twilight (originally published in Astounding Stories, in November, under his 'Don A. Stuart' alias), visiting the "lingering dying glow of man's twilight" with the evocative melancholy and "bewildered longings" of its perfect machines and lost denizens. I've read these two stories at different times in my life. Yet they never fail to ignite the same awe and wonder. Stronger than movies. Stronger than drugs. Stronger than TV. And, delving further into the book, if Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are now occasionally seen as clunky oldsters, their Nightfall and The Nine Billion Names Of God respectively feature the most stunningly visual images ever to appear in print-form - "the long night had come again" and "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out." Both still work like immaculate punchlines.
This time round, editor Robert Silverberg omits the extensive essays he once appended to stories in, for example, his excellent Worlds Of Wonder, where he adds perceptive comment to two tales included in both volumes, Cordwainer Smith's Scanners Live In Vain - "one of the classic stories of science fiction, provid(ing) that essential degree of strangeness in two ways: by sheer originality of concept, and by a deceptive and eerie simplicity of narrative," and Alfred Bester's Fondly Fahrenheit, which proves that "dazzle has always been Bester's stock-in-trade." Instead, this compilation is guided by the SF Writers of America. It's their votes that define what's 'great', the priority they're assigned, and the critiques the votes are based on. They also betray the lit-we-love to be an overwhelmingly male (with only 1.5 female writers), and a predominantly American eccentricity. Briton Arthur C. Clarke rates high in the original poll, but is pared down to a single representative anthology entry. Judith Merril scores strongly with That Only A Mother. While 'Lewis Padgett' is a symbiotic alias assumed by Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore for their joint intellectual mind-game Mimsy Were The Borogoves, which rewrites a verse from Alice Through The Looking Glass as a code into a new non-Euclidian geometry.
Other classics here include Clifford D. Simak's atmospheric tone-poem Huddling Place, later to be fused into his future-history City, a tale that "might have been born about a Doggish campfire" where it voices "some of the high moral and ethical concepts which the Dogs have come to value" (read it, read it!). In fact, this book successfully covers examples of all the familiar SF tropes, from time-travel to robots, first contact with an alien civilisation (Murray Leinster), into interstellar war. This later tale - Frederic Brown's Arena, even leaks over into TV-SF, by becoming the Star Trek episode featuring Captain Kirk's single-combat with the Godzilla-like Gorn. Richard Matheson (here with Born Of Man And Woman), Theodore Sturgeon (Microcosmic God) and Jerome Bixby (It's A Good Life) have also contributed Star Trek scripts. Omissions? There's no Brian Aldiss, although I'd have at least gone for Old Hundredth (from the November 1960 issue of New Worlds, and hence qualifying). No John Wyndham, Michael Moorcock or J.G. Ballard either, perhaps their specialisation is longer fiction, or later fiction. But this is only volume one. There's more to come. Or... in CD merchandising terms, there's always the 'the greatest SF of all time 2' option...?
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