Friday, December 17, 2010

FFB: THE SHAPE OF THINGS, edited by Damon Knight (Popular Library, 1967)

from the Contento indices:
The Shape of Things ed. Damon Knight (Popular Library SP352, 1967, 50¢, 206pp, pb)
· Introduction · Damon Knight · in
· Don’t Look Now · Henry Kuttner · ss Startling Stories Mar ’48
· The Box · James Blish · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Apr ’49
· The New Reality · Charles L. Harness · nv Thrilling Wonder Stories Dec ’50
· The Eternal Now · Murray Leinster · nv Thrilling Wonder Stories Fll ’44
· The Sky Was Full of Ships · Theodore Sturgeon · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Jun ’47· The Shape of Things · Ray Bradbury · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Feb ’48
· The Only Thing We Learn · C. M. Kornbluth · ss Startling Stories Jul ’49
· The Hibited Man · L. Sprague de Camp · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Oct ’49
· Dormant · A. E. van Vogt · ss Startling Stories Nov ’48
· The Ambassadors · Anthony Boucher · ss Startling Stories Jun ’52
· A Child Is Crying · John D. MacDonald · ss Thrilling Wonder Stories Dec ’48

This thin volume, without making much of a fuss about it, was the first (and [I incorrectly wrote back in 2010] perhaps still is the only) Best-of the Samuel Merwin and Sam Mines years of Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, the Other Good sf magazines of the late '40s and early '50s [Mines had actually published a The Best from Startling Stories that included fiction from TWS, during his run with the pulp titles]...magazines with not as distinct personalities as Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell's revolutionary magazine being challenged finally, in part by writers and editors developed and inspired by Campbell but also by (as, for example, Bradbury) writers who were never too compatible with the ASF ethos, or Planet Stories, by the end of the 1940s not only the home of elegant space opera and a regular market for Leigh Brackett and others, but by those years fully as good and about as diverse as ASF...and such magazines stressing sophistication and good prose as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and briefly also such others as Knight's own Worlds Beyond and Howard Browne's mixed bag of the early Fantastic and the upgraded Amazing.

But, for a while, Startling and Thrilling Wonder, as burdened by their pulp-era titles as was Astounding or Amazing (at least Fantastic, and its predecessor Fantastic Adventures, and Weird Tales had descriptive titles that had some specific relevance to their content), were publishing a range of often fascinating and innovative material, including the likes of Philip Jose Farmer's The Lovers, which dealt directly with tragic interspecies romance and helped establish Farmer's reputation, and the contents of this volume...ranging from James Blish's elegant technological "problem" story (how do you rescue a city encased in an impenetrable force-field?) to Ray Bradbury's whimsical notion of a woman who gives birth to an apparently healthy blue pyramid, to Charles Harness's typical blend of space-opera and mind-blowing philosophical and cosmological speculation...Harness is yet another underappreciated writer in the field, except among those who really love and know This Kind of Thing...his influence on his younger contemporaries Jack Vance and Poul Anderson, particularly, seems pretty clear to me.

I've read that on the strength of this kind of material, Startling managed to become for a while the best-selling of sf magazines, presumably outselling Astounding, just starting to drift due to Campbell's fascination with Dianetics, psi powers, and other matters from the fringes of science, and Amazing, just after Howard Browne dumped the lunatic-fringe-stroking Shaver Mystery material (akin to Ancient Astronauts and the more irresponsible UFOlogy coverage then just coming into vogue, with, as with Dianetics and other pop mysticism, some past-life regression elements) that Browne's predecssor Ray Palmer had used to put that magazine into the circulation stratosphere...and before the insurgence in late 1950/early 1951 of Galaxy.

And yet, these magazines from the Thrilling Group pulp chain, which had been morphed (essentially) into the paperback publisher Popular Library, had been so thoroughly eclipsed, a dozen years after the titles were merged and folded, so that the packaging for this book didn't even bother to mention opposed to highlighting the kinds of writers and fiction they were publishing. (Popular Library had published several Wonder Story Annuals in the '50s and '60s, to test the waters, apparently, for the old title.) That legacy stands...even if this volume is now as obscure, certainly to the average reader, as the magazines it draws from.

For more "forgotten" books this week, please see, as usual, Patti Abbott's blog.


Evan Lewis said...

Looks familiar. Pretty sure I picked this book up long ago because I was a fan of H.G. Wells. Did I read it? Probably not. Should I? You bet.

Todd Mason said...

You'll dig it, Evan.