Friday, July 8, 2016

FFB: ISAAC ASIMOV PRESENTS THE GREAT SF STORIES 18 (1956) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW Books 1988); SPEAKING OF HORROR: INTERVIEWS WITH WRITERS OF THE SUPERNATURAL by Darrell Schweitzer et al. (Milford Series #48) (Borgo Press 1994)

Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg began their retro Best of the Year series with a volume devoted to the (predominantly, but not quite exclusively) science fiction stories published in 1939...a few fantasies found their way in over the course of the series of anthologies, which ended by both design and (almost) necessity with the volume gathering 1963 stories, published in 1992 shortly after the deaths of both Isaac Asimov and publisher Donald Wollheim, two of the most active sf professionals among the (former) members of the Futurian Society of New York in their youth...a very active bunch of budding and eventual professionals in the field.  The hook was that 1939 was the year Asimov first saw a short story of his in print in a professional sf magazine, Amazing Stories; it was also the year that, in the more literarily ambitious Astounding Science-Fiction magazine, that Asimov's mentor John W. Campbell, Jr. really began to find his footing as an editor, and began publishing Asimov and a number of his other most important contributors, including Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and others. Also, no one published a BOTY volume in sf until 1949, when E. F. Bleiler and Ted Ditky becan a decade-long series with the now-obscure but then reasonably visible publisher Frederick Fell; and they were not joined in their efforts until Judith Merril began her rather more widely-read annual in 1956. As it happens, Bleiler and Ditky's annual skipped a year (and the last, 1958 volume of their series appeared from the small press Advent: Publishers), so that between them two volumes of their series barely touched the stories published in 1956; Merril's 1957 volume shares several stories with the Asimov/Greenberg, but in this case (and not every case where they overlap) I'd suggest the selection in the latter-day series is stronger than Merril's contemporary sampling was...this might be the single best volume in the DAW Books series, which Greenberg apparently felt was his most useful and important project. 

As Jerry House has noted in a comment on this blog recently about the similar matter of this year's Retro Hugos, Asimov and Greenberg had the advantage of the perspective of the decades in making their choices, not least in having the example of which 1956 stories had been the most anthologized (including several first by Merril) and apparently most influential...Merril didn't even have the Hugo Awards results for 1956 publications to guide her as she assembled her second annual volume. 

But they did a very impressive job, while focusing only on those stories published in the magazines devoted to fantastic fiction (and only several of those, as it happens in this volume):

Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 18 (1956) ed. Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW 0-88677-289-3, Aug ’88 [Jul ’88], $4.50, 366pp, pb) Anthology of 15 sf stories from 1956.
  • 9 · Introduction · Martin H. Greenberg · in
  • 13 · Brightside Crossing · Alan E. Nourse · nv Galaxy Jan ’56
  • 35 · Clerical Error · Mark Clifton · nv Astounding Feb ’56
  • 75 · Silent Brother · Algis Budrys · ss Astounding Feb ’56
  • 96 · The Country of the Kind · Damon Knight · ss F&SF Feb ’56
  • 111 · Exploration Team [Colonial Survey] · Murray Leinster · nv Astounding Mar ’56
  • 161 · Rite of Passage · Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore · nv F&SF May ’56
  • 203 · The Man Who Came Early · Poul Anderson · nv F&SF Jun ’56
  • 230 · A Work of Art [“Art-Work”] · James Blish · nv Science Fiction Stories Jul ’56
  • 248 · Horrer Howce · Margaret St. Clair · ss Galaxy Jul ’56
  • 261 · Compounded Interest · Mack Reynolds · ss F&SF Aug ’56
  • 276 · The Doorstop · Reginald Bretnor · ss Astounding Nov ’56
  • 286 · The Last Question · Isaac Asimov · ss Science Fiction Quarterly Nov ’56
  • 300 · Stranger Station · Damon Knight · nv F&SF Dec ’56
  • 327 · 2066: Election Day · Michael Shaara · ss Astounding Dec ’56
  • 344 · And Now the News... · Theodore Sturgeon · ss F&SF Dec ’56
--And, of course, there's the good chance that I like this selection better than any other the Asimov/Greenbergs, or than Merril's 1956-stories volume, because I read a number of these when I was very young and even more prone to be devastated by a brilliant story than in my not quite jaded later years.  But I first read "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One anthology Robert Silverberg put together out of a poll of SFWA members, and it's one of the most brilliant stories in that impressive collection, as well as perhaps the single best here. Knight's "Stranger Station" (the one Knight story in the Merril) is almost as good, though not quite..."Kind" is a twisting knife of a story that challenges the reader to think about criminality, institutional punishment, the limits of utopian thought and practice, the nature of art and the degree to which artists have to be troublemakers at least...and at what point that level of deviance is no longer worth putting up with to gain the art or other work in question. It's also a fiction designed to have particularly sf readers of a more reflective sort thinking about how they fit into society. That's a hell of a lot to drop on a ten year old, relatively ingenious misfit. Knight doesn't relent...it's a hell of a lot to drop on any reader in the course of a remarkably well-controlled, beyond-mordant short story.

But that is only the best of an impressive lot here...we have (another very early read for me) Alan Nourse's survival-on-planet-Mercury adventure "Brightside Crossing," which, as with Michael Shaara's "2066: Election Day" is the one story almost anyone will think of first when its author is mentioned...though of course that's true of the Shaara only in the context of his impressive, if only intermittent, career in science fiction, which bookended his rather more obvious career as a writer of historical fiction (The Killer Angels) and to a lesser extent sports fiction (For the Love of the Game; The Broken Place). "And Now the News" by Theodore Sturgeon is one of his stories of this period, in the 1950s, that is Just Barely sf if you squint, being primarily about the mutual support news-media coverage and psychopathic rampagers offer each other...and what the attention we give to both suggests about us all (particularly in the wake of all our recent gunfire massacres, at home and abroad)...in a sense, an only slightly less devastating and wide-ranging consideration of what the Knight masterwork addresses; among Sturgeon's other work, "A Saucer of Loneliness" and the slightly later novel Some of Your Blood are of a similar nature. As with the Shaara, former political science professor Greenberg and lifelong enthusiastic welfare-state liberal Asimov could hardly pass up Mack Reynolds's ingenious "Compound Interest," in which a deft time-traveler manages to set himself up with the most overwhelming fortune imaginable, and what effect that has on the course of human events...another story that might just be the first one most of its author's readers might think of. 

Most of the rest aren't so much the defining short fiction of their authors' careers as they are simply among their better efforts. Budrys's "Silent Brother", the late Moore/Kuttner story (not long before his death and her retirement), Clifton's "Clerical Error" and Anderson's "The Man Who Came Early"  are very effective examples of the kind of concerns each writer would return to in their work, the Anderson perhaps the closest to the final word in its kind of story (a sort of reproach to Mark Twain and other arguable time-travel optimists, the protagonist here finds he doesn't have "the machines necessary to make the machines" to help him revolutionize the past era he finds himself in. Margaret St. Clair's "Horrer Howce" is, for her work, typically incisively satirical and (as its title suggests) very effectively borderline horror fiction in its account of blood-sport entertainments of the future; again, not her best work, but not far from it, even as it deftly overcomes the improbability of the basic situation presented (I first read that one in the Galaxy: 30 Years retrospective anthology)...yet more consideration of what do we Really want. James Blish turns to one of his most effective studies of one of his most central themes...art and artists (albeit in somewhat less dire opposition to much of what's best in us, so much as how it's included). The Leinster was the Hugo winner for this year, and again one of his very better stories, not far from his best; only the Asimov (his own personal favorite of his short stories) and the Bretnor (though a compact account of how frightening it can be to contemplate all that space beyond the sky and what might exist out there) strike me as relatively minor, if amiable...I think Asimov loved how his was almost in the form of a joke story, but with rather more import than his usual efforts in that regard; it might also put you in mind of "Nightfall" in some ways, and that might be part of why Asimov rated "Question" so highly--he was both happy about "Nightfall" as a story and how it got him his first wide-audience attention, and rather put off that so many readers might suggest to him that a story he wrote as a late teen, very much at the explicit suggestion of John Campbell, was the Best Thing He Ever Wrote. (I agree that "Nightfall" is nothing of the kind, but neither is "The Last Question.")

The headnotes and Greenberg introduction (with its running joke throughout the series' prefaces that charts whether Greenberg favorite Mel Brooks was still referring to himself as Melvin Kaminsky) are more than adequate, though not terribly profound, though Asimov's notes can be more so than Greenberg's (which in their turn do most of the heavy lifting in terms of brief biographies and other factual matter). And while Merril in her volume was already casting her net a bit beyond the typical sf and fantasy fiction magazines (which trend would grow with time, to mixed response then and even now), Greenberg and Asimov have managed a very impressive book while focusing on work from essentially only four magazines (officially five; other volumes draw from more sources, but rarely from a non-sf/fantasy magazine or anthology of new fiction)...six stories from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, five from Astounding (which would change its name to Analog in 1960 and still publishes thus), two from Galaxy (which by the mid-'50s was starting to lose some of its edge, if less drastically than Astounding would by decade's end) and two from two of the magazines edited by another ex-Futurian, Robert A. W. Lowndes, which had very low budgets but a receptiveness to experimental work greater than most magazines in the field (and Lowndes not afraid to tap fellow ex-Futurians such as Blish on the shoulder, as well). 

But even such focus doesn't detract from the impressive nature of this volume in a very impressive series. 

For swank, here's the contents of the 1957 Merril volume, as above a Contento index--Merril took the Malpass from a 1956 reprint in Maclean's, the Canadian news/general interest magazine--and it really is nearly as good a selection, and somewhat more wide-ranging in several senses:
    SF:’57: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy ed. Judith Merril (Gnome Press LCC# 56-8938, 1957, $3.95, 320pp, hc)
    • 9 · The Man Who Liked Lions · John Bernard Daley · ss Infinity Science Fiction Oct 1956
    • 25 · The Cosmic Expense Account · C. M. Kornbluth · nv F&SF Jan 1956, as “The Cosmic Charge Account”
    • 51 · The Far Look · Theodore L. Thomas · nv Astounding Aug 1956
    • 81 · When Grandfather Flew to the Moon · E. L. Malpass · ss The Observer Jan 2 1955, as “Return of the Moon Man” by Samson Darley
    • 88 · The Doorstop · Reginald Bretnor · ss Astounding Nov 1956
    • 98 · Silent Brother · Algis Budrys · ss Astounding Feb 1956
    • 119 · Stranger Station · Damon Knight · nv F&SF Dec 1956
    • 146 · Each an Explorer · Isaac Asimov · ss Future #30 1956
    • 161 · All About “The Thing” · Randall Garrett · pm Science Fiction Stories May 1956, as “Parodies Tossed”
    • 164 · Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster · Ray Russell · ss Playboy Oct 1956
    • 173 · Digging the Weans · Robert Nathan · ss Harper’s Nov 1956
    • 181 · Take a Deep Breath · Roger Thorne · ss Tiger 1956
    • 187 · Grandma’s Lie Soap · Robert Abernathy · ss Fantastic Universe Feb 1956
    • 206 · Compounded Interest · Mack Reynolds · ss F&SF Aug 1956
    • 220 · Prima Belladonna [Vermilion Sands] · J. G. Ballard · ss Science-Fantasy #20 1956
    • 235 · The Other Man · Theodore Sturgeon · na Galaxy Sep 1956
    • 290 · The Damnedest Thing · Garson Kanin · ss Esquire Feb 1956
    • 298 · Anything Box · Zenna Henderson · ss F&SF Oct 1956
    • 313 · The Year’s S-F, Summation and Honorable Mentions · Judith Merril · ms

I meant to review Darrell Schweitzer's good, short book of interviews last week (or, as Borgo Press packaged it, also a magazine issue, with both International Standard Book and Serial Numbers). The interviews can dip in to some meat even in their short focus (though Brian Lumley's doesn't have much chance of that, being of vignette length), and it's unfortunate that only the late Tanith Lee is present among women writers, no one in the book is unworthy of inclusion or attention. Darrell can use a bit too much shorthand at times (his first question in the first interview as collected here is asking Robert Bloch why he might be the only "Weird Tales crowd" writer to have any serious Hollywood scripting experience...given that magazine back in the pulp and early '50s digest days published Val Lewton and Richard Matheson, the most egregious further examples among others, one gathers he meant among the Lovecraft Circle writers, or at least the most prolific contributors...but that last would also include Ray Bradbury and...). But the biggest flaws in the book are Borgo's doing...the odd page layout and microprint, which I suspect are replicated in the Wildside reprint (though I haven't seen that yet). Atop the intelligent interviews, Schweitzer's timelines/select bibliographies, dating as they do from before web-accessible databases were in place, is a very useful supplementary feature...and this book is worth the look alongside Darrell's other collections and such similar interview selections as Douglas Winter's, Ed Gorman's, Paul Walker's and Charles Platt's (were Bhob Stewart's ever collected? Shall Go Look...).

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog...where it's Rex Stout day! 

--I continue to recommend this memoir, by Martha Foley, a great friend and writing colleague of Stout's, as informative about the early development of Wolfe and co.:
THE STORY OF STORY MAGAZINE by Martha Foley (assembled and notes added in part by Jay Neugeboren), W.W. Norton 1980


The Hugo Ballot for work published in 1956 (with a few awards for 1955 work):
Best Novel
WinDouble StarRobert A. Heinlein
NominationNot This AugustC. M. Kornbluth
NominationThe End of EternityIsaac Asimov
NominationThe Long TomorrowLeigh Brackett
NominationThree to ConquerEric Frank Russell
Best Novelette
WinExploration TeamMurray Leinster
NominationA Gun for DinosaurL. Sprague de Camp
NominationBrightside CrossingAlan E. Nourse
NominationBulkheadTheodore Sturgeon
NominationHome There's No ReturningC. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner
NominationLegworkEric Frank Russell
NominationThe Assistant SelfF. L. Wallace
NominationThe End of SummerAlgis Budrys
Best Short Story
WinThe StarArthur C. Clarke
NominationCitizen in SpaceRobert Sheckley
NominationEnd as a WorldF. L. Wallace
NominationKing of the HillJames Blish
NominationNobody Bothers GusAlgis Budrys
NominationThe DragonRay Bradbury
NominationThe Game of Rat and DragonCordwainer Smith
NominationTwinkTheodore Sturgeon
Best Artist
Win----Frank Kelly Freas
Nomination----Mel Hunter
Nomination----Virgil Finlay
Nomination----Edward Valigursky
Nomination----Chesley Bonestall
Nomination----Ed Emshwiller
Best Book Reviewer
Win----Damon Knight
Nomination----Villiers Gerson
Nomination----P. Schuyler Miller
Nomination----Groff Conklin
Nomination----Anthony Boucher
Nomination----Floyd C. Gale
Nomination----Henry Bott
Nomination----Hans Stefan Santesson
Best Fanzine
WinInside - 1955 (Fanzine)Ron Smith
NominationA BasBoyd Raeburn
NominationFantasy Times - 1955 (Fanzine)James V. Taurasi and Ray Van Houten
NominationGrueDean A. Grennell
NominationHyphen - 1955Walt Willis and Chuck Harris
NominationObliqueCliff Gould
NominationPeonCharles Lee Riddle
NominationPsychotic / Science Fiction ReviewRichard E. Geis
NominationSky HookRedd Boggs
Best Feature Writer
Win----Willy Ley
Nomination----R. S. Richardson
Nomination----Rog Phillips
Nomination----Robert A. Madle
Nomination----L. Sprague de Camp
Best Professional Magazine
WinAstounding Science Fiction - 1955John W. Campbell, Jr.
Most Promising New Author
Win----Robert Silverberg
Nomination----Frank Herbert
Nomination----Henry Still
Nomination----Harlan Ellison

2 comments:

Richard Robinson said...

The Asimov/Greenberg book has a hell of a line up. I've read them all excepting the St Clair, and they are all fine stories, better than many in much later anthologies. Thanks for this one.

Todd Mason said...

I think you'll like the St. Clair. Thanks for the benisons!