Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 1: 1939

Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 1: 1939 Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 1: 1939 by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn’t actually read this book; I read it as part of a combined volume:Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction: 36 Stories and Novellas. But there wasn’t enough space in my review there for all my comments on the individual stories, so I’m posting them here. Refer to my review of that book for my thoughts on the book as a whole.

Below is a short description and review/discussion of every included story, as well as some random thoughts I had while reading. This is as much for my reference as it is for the benefit of prospective readers of this book (I wish there was a Goodreads for short stories!). Spoilers are included, but are marked off with Spoiler tags. I did not include star ratings for the stories. I can, if anyone would find that helpful.

“I, Robot,” by Eando Binder: Holy crap, that’s a wonderful story. No wonder Asimov was inspired by it to write “Robbie.” I can’t believe I’ve never read it before. I’m not saying it’s among the best ever, but it’s quite good: thoughtful, insightful, surprising, and with a minimum of scientific error. No, computers will not develop drives and emotions without being programmed to do so, but the story specifically claims otherwise, so fine. It’s told from the point of view of Adam Link, an intelligent, feeling robot who is considered a monster by the public.

“The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton,” by Robert Bloch, is about a man trapped in a spaceship traveling to Mars with a broken instrument panel and no way to communicate. It’s cute, maybe, but completely implausible, and I found it ridiculous. Asimov says that it was better than “Marooned Off Vesta.” I deeply disagree. Apparently people in the 1930’s didn’t believe in testing machines before trusting their lives to them. At least that’s what you’d glean from much science fiction from the era.

“Trouble with Water,” by H. L. Gold: I’m not sure how this story made it into this collection. It’s pure fantasy, not science fiction, and not very good at that, especially in the actual writing. (view spoiler) Even within the conceit of the story, I thought that the way it was handled was silly.  

“Cloak of Aesir” by Don A. Stewart (a.k.a. John Campbell) is surprisingly good. Surprisingly because it starts out very oddly and obtusely, with a strange and obscure writing style. And yet, if you stick with it, it begins to clarify; the obscure is made clear, the obtuse is explained, and the seemingly irrelevant becomes worthwhile. I don’t know if I would say that Campbell is a truly brilliant writer, but perhaps he could have been. “Cloak of Aesir” is at root a novella of resistance to occupation and oppression involving a Cloak with wondrous powers, but there is much more to the story than that. Asimov is right to say of Campbell, “There was no way in which we could have given up the Editor and yet now and then we mourn the Writer and what we might have had.”

“The Day is Done,” by Lester del Rey: What a wonderful story, about an aging Neanderthal (view spoiler). As Greenberg’s preface says, is very hard to do good prehistoric science fiction, and del Rey does it masterfully. A wonderful illustration of the fact that science fiction doesn’t have to be space ships or laser guns; Anthropology is a science too.

“The Ultimate Catalyst,” by John Taine: This is a silly story about a biologist and his daughter who are “guests” of a trapped/exiled dictator. It’s sad that it’s silly, because the actual writing—the scripting—is pretty good. I was liking the story until I figured out what was going on. It’s like he plugged a bunch of unnecessary science into the plot, when much simpler methods would have done. I would really have much preferred a sociological story exploring why and how the world came to reject dictatorship.

Sprague de Camp, unsurprisingly, lives up to his reputation. “The Gnarly Man,” about a Neanderthal who lived to modern times, is an excellent story. Not superb, but interesting and well worth reading.

“Black Destroyer,” by A. E. van Vogt: Wow what a good story, about an alien predator on a dying world. Excellent. The idea of a predator that cunning, that able…chilling. The ending isn’t top-notch, but the rest of the story is. And this was his first published story! I should read some more van Vogt.

“Trends” is quite an insightful story from a 19-year-old Asimov. The writing quality isn’t quite up to his later work, of course, but the ideas are. A story of a spaceship launch attempt in a world consumed by religionism and anti-science fervor (which apparently was a new thing in science fiction, though Asimov eschews credit for the novelty because he got the idea from elsewhere), the phrase in the story that the title is drawn from is poignant: “Trends are things of centuries and millenniums, not years or decades. For five hundred years we have been moving toward science. You can’t reverse that in thirty years.”

“The Blue Giraffe”: Fascinating. Surprisingly good, for a story with what seems to be a silly premise, namely the discovery of blue giraffes and other impossible creatures in an African preserve. Or perhaps not so surprisingly, given that the author is L. Sprague de Camp. This story is not only scientifically plausible and gripping, but has an excellent and unexpected ending. (Mind you, I foresaw the problem, but the way it was resolved surprised me.)
Favorite quote: “He made a resolve never to speak harshly to anybody he couldn’t see.”

“The Misguided Halo,” by Henry Kuttner: A silly and pointless fantasy about a man who is mistakenly made a saint. I don’t mind fantasy, but I don’t like pointless fantasy, and anyway this is supposed to be a science fiction collection.

“Heavy Planet,” by Milton A. Rothman: I don’t understand. Is this an excerpt? It’s not bad, but it feels like a chapter of a larger work. It’s a pretty good hard SF story about life on a very large planet with intense gravity, but it ends too abruptly and leaves far too many questions unanswered.

“Life-Line,” by Robert A. Heinlein: I’ve read this story several times before, although in a slightly different edit. It is, of course, pretty good. Not as good as some of Heinlein’s later stuff, but a fine first story, about a man who can predict when you’ll die through scientific means. All I’ve got to say is, in answer to the implied question at the end of the story: Hell yes I’d want to know when I’m going to die. I’m not sure that was always my answer, but it certainly is now. I’ve got plans to make.
  I have another comment, though, regarding this quote from Greenberg’s preface to the story: “Although [Heinlein’s] political and social views have generated much controversy in the last twenty years, his emphasis on order, individualism, and discipline aroused little comment early in his career, with America in a struggle against an illegal, disorderly, and undisciplined fascism.” I’m sorry, what? Am I missing something? How was fascism/Nazism any of those things?

“Ether Breather” is an interesting story by Theodore Sturgeon (view spoiler). It’s a bit dissatisfying—nothing’s really explained—but a fascinating concept.

“Pilgrimage,” by Nelson Bond: Wonderful! An engrossing story about a matriarchal culture and a girl who wants to be a priestess, but has some surprising things to learn. Very enjoyable and well done. The only problem is the implausible breeding arrangements, but that’s a pet peeve of mine.

“Rust,” by Joseph E. Kelleam is a somewhat oversimplistic story. It’s a pathetic (in the literal sense) tale about killer robots who have destroyed humanity and are now dying out themselves.

“The Four-Sided Triangle,” by William F. Temple has promise, but that promise is not fulfilled. Three people—two men and a woman—invent a perfect duplicator. Great! But the author does not then go on to show us the possible consequences of such a device, as it is put to relatively mundane purposes. Then (view spoiler) Heartbreak and tragedy ensue. But the story only skims over the interesting issues, and instead focuses on contrived dilemmas that really shouldn’t be dilemmas. It’s sad. Apparently there was a book and film based on the story, but although the premise is interesting enough, unless the ideas are greatly expanded, I don’t think I’d like to see them.
  However, “The Four-Sided Triangle” does semi-accurately portray the trials and frustrations involved in the scientific process, which is a surprisingly rare thing in science fiction.

“Star Bright” starts with a fascinating premise—what if wishing on a star actually worked, at least once?—and turned it into something rather silly and disappointing, especially from Jack Williamson. There’s no real moral here, no upshot, no point. It’s not even really science fiction, because although the mechanism for his abilities is (somewhat) explained, how he got them is not.

“Misfit,” about a young man who joins the “Cosmic Construction Corps” and is discovered to have extraordinary abilities, is great. Of course it is; it’s Heinlein. That doesn’t mean that Heinlein stories are axiomatically good, but he seems to grasp the concept of story, of narrative, far better than most of his compatriots. His stories have dramatic tension, they make sense, they are entertaining, and they have moral lessons buried in them. These moral lessons aren’t blatant, or preachy (the few stories where he attempts this fall flat); they’re just implied statements of value, which, whether you agree or disagree with them, enhance the enjoyability of the story as you subconsciously evaluate those moral lessons. Perhaps most importantly, the science-fictional elements of the story, while certainly present, are not the point. The point is the people, and the story. “Life-Line” was largely about the “gimmick,” the science-fictional element, and therefore was not as good as most of his later stories. Don’t get me wrong—I love stories that explore the consequences of a given development or idea. But even when Heinlein does that, he focuses on the people and the story, and drags us along in fascination.

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