Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Isaac Asimov Presents the Great Science Fiction 2

Isaac Asimov Presents the Great Science Fiction 2 Isaac Asimov Presents the Great Science Fiction 2 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 (there wasn't enough space here either, even just for Volume 2. I had to cut significant portions. Sigh). 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.

“Requiem”: Does anything need to be said? It’s a Heinlein classic, if a little sloppily written (for him). Actually it was interesting to learn that this was written before “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” In The Past Through Tomorrow, it appears afterwards, of course, so I never realized it was a ‘prequel.’ So this story of D.D. Harriman’s trip to the Moon is more poignant in some ways than before.

“The Dwindling Sphere,” by Willard Hawkins, is a good story about the invention of a device that will convert any mass to any useful substance (at the cost of some of the mass), and the consequences of this development. I love stories that take a single concept to its logical conclusion (Asimov’s “The Last Question” is the archetype of this genre), and this one does it well. Of course, the conclusions are all crap.
  Asimov expresses his surprise that he had never seen this story before; it amuses me that I had, which is not true of any other story thus far except the Heinleins and the Asimov. I must have read it before I studied Economics, though, because I recall thinking that the conclusion presented was plausible and interesting. Interesting yes; plausible no.
  (view spoiler)
  Don’t think that my extensive criticism means that I don’t like the story. I do, a lot. It’s quite enjoyable, and even though I disagree with many of the particulars, the general moral—that we should be careful to mind the long-term consequences of our actions—is one I agree with wholeheartedly.

“The Automatic Pistol,” by Fritz Leiber, is good enough as fantasy horror, I guess, but, again, I don’t expect to see fantasy in a science fiction anthology.
  (view spoiler)

I don’t care for time-travel stories, so Jack Williamson’s “Hindsight” didn’t appeal to me very much. Technically it’s a time-manipulation story instead of a time-travel story, but my annoyance is similar. Why do ‘history,’ or ‘time,’ or “world lines” care about big events but not small ones?
  Also, though Greenberg (the editor) claims that this story shows rare (for the Golden Age) character development, I don’t think a time-manipulated drastic change in personality counts. The story was well-written and somewhat exciting, though, so if you don’t mind time-travel stories, you’ll probably like it.

“Postpaid to Paradise” is a fascinating and well-done fantasy by Robert Arthur involving some magical stamps. The story and background are involved enough that I don’t especially mind that it’s fantasy; indeed it only qualifies as fantasy because no explanation for the fantastic effects was given or attempted.
  Two things struck me about the story: One, that a story involving grown men obsessing over a painting of a naked sixteen-year-old girl would likely not pass muster nowadays; and Two, that this story and its sequels must certainly have inspired Asimov’s Azazel stories; they’re similar in many ways, most especially in tone (a tone that Asimov’s other stories do not have).
  It’s interesting (and encouraging, knowing that they didn’t just pop out of his head full-formed) to see that Asimov got many of his ideas from these old stories. For instance, Murchison Morks, the main character in this story, is clearly an inspiration for George from the Azazel stories, who instantly has to one-up anything anyone says.

“Coventry,” by Robert A. Heinlein, is excellent. It’s head and shoulders above any of the previous stories in this volume, including the other two by Heinlein. At that, it’s not Heinlein’s best from this period; that honor goes to “If This Goes On…”, not included in this collection. This story of a man sent to Coventry (think Australia in the 18th century) is superb, and contains an actual character arc, unlike the faux character development Greenberg praised in “Hindsight.”
  (Reading Asimov’s preface:) Wow. I’ve long presumed that Asimov felt this way, but I’ve never seen him say so openly. It just goes to show how incredibly wrong geniuses can be. He equates small government with no government, and presumes that a government that does not meddle with every aspect of our lives will not prevent others from doing so. It’s a strange view, but an oddly common one. “I’m also suspicious of those who equate liberty with ‘small government,’” he says, “meaning less interference from Washington over the details of our life. I don’t believe there can be less interference; just a change of interference. If Washington bows out, then it is the local bully on the block who will take over, and I’d rather have Washington. Every once in a while through history, places have tried ‘small government’ and replaced a tyrannical central power with local ‘self-help.’ It’s called ‘feudalism’ and it’s also called ‘dark ages’ and I don’t want it. —But I must say Bob preaches his point of view charmingly.” It’s so odd. It’s like the first hundred or so years of the United States never happened for him.
  I mean, I really don’t get it. “Covenant” begins with:
  “‘Have you anything to say before sentence is pronounced on you?’ The mild eyes of the Senior Judge studied the face of the accused. His question was answered by a sullen silence.
  ‘Very well—the jury has determined that you have violated a basic custom agreed to under the Covenant, and that through this act did damage another free citizen. It is the opinion of the jury and of the court that you did so knowingly, and aware of the probability of damage to a free citizen. Therefore, you are sentenced to choose between the Two Alternatives.’”
  It is later revealed that this guy’s crime is punching someone in the face that probably deserved it. Is this the kind of small government that Asimov thinks will allow feudalism and dark ages? Seriously?
“Into the Darkness” by Ross Rocklynne is an amazing story. This is what science fiction does at its best: Fills you with wonder and speculation and imaginings. Note that I didn’t say that this is what science fiction is; it doesn’t have to be a story about giant amorphous space beings, or anything like it. But great SF expands your mind and makes you think things and ask things you never imagined before.

Unsurprisingly, Lester del Rey doesn’t disappoint; “Dark Mission” is a gripping story. It’s a mystery of sorts, about a crashed rocketship pilot with amnesia. Who is he? How did he get there? What is the purpose of these strange urges he feels? The story drags you along to the end, to a mostly-satisfying conclusion. “Mostly” because it left me wanting more; the story is very detailed, and yet unfinished in a way. I would have preferred a novel-length version.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “IT” is a horror about a plant muck-creature that inspired Man-Thing and Swamp Thing. It’s interesting, and readable, but not remotely as horrifying as the introduction implies. Perhaps it was when first published, but the influence it had has dulled its effect on me through unconscious familiarity. It reminds me somewhat of “The Rag Thing” by Donald A. Wollheim which had the sort of impact on me that this story had on others. I think part of the reason that this story didn’t affect me is that there’s really no origin story for the monster. I don’t need it to be a scientifically-plausible, hard-SF explanation, but not having one at all leaves the story hanging without context, which is less involving and scary. It’s a pretty cool story regardless, just not as scary or horrifying to me as others apparently found it.

“Vault of the Beast” by  A. E. van Vogt is…odd. It’s in essence a mathematical story, involving prime numbers and different types of mathematics (negative, infinitesimal, imaginary). It’s frustrating because van Vogt repeats the common error of believing that infinitesimal mathematics—the math we learned in school, with an infinite number of numbers between any two whole numbers—is fundamentally correct, and “natural number” mathematics is wrong. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. These are simply different models, different ways of looking at problems. Some problems can be more easily solved with one system, others with another. There’s no inherently “correct” mathematics, any more than there’s a “correct” hammer or chainsaw. And actually, I’m not even sure that the math in this story passes muster in our modern schema. Also, there’s supposedly a “robot” in this story, but calling it a robot doesn’t explain it, and it doesn’t act more robot-like than living-thing-like. Perhaps van Vogt meant “construct” instead of “robot.” In all, there are enough new and interesting ideas presented in this story that it would take a long novel to explore them. This short story doesn’t do them justice.
  Still, it’s a fascinating tale, involving a construct that has moral sentiments and can morph into anything, mathematical theory, extradimensional brings, and ancient civilizations on Mars. Even when van Vogt doesn’t hit it out of the park, his work is still brilliant.

Amusingly, this is the second story in this collection that Asimov says he had not read or does not recall from the era, and the second story (besides those by Asimov and Heinlein) that I had read before. “The Impossible Highway” by Oscar J. Friend  is just the sort of story that fascinates me. It could be called a “concept” story, I suppose. It introduces a new, perplexing idea, and then leaves the reader to figure out what to do with it. It involves two scientists, lost in the jungle, who happen upon a highway that has no business being there, with strange biological displays on its route.

“Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne is kind of a typical science fiction story. Not stereotypical—it doesn’t involve humans in rocketships firing ray-guns at bug-eyed green aliens (though it does, in its way, involve spaceships, ray-guns and aliens)—but typical, in that it tries to surprise or disturb us by turning standard expectations on their heads. In this case it interestingly explores what it means to seem intelligent. It’s about two members of a spacefaring bird-species who tries to save the last survivors of a planetwide cataclysm.

“Blowups Happen”: Perhaps it’s that I’ve read this story several times, but reading it now, Heinlein’s utter genius as a science fiction writer is apparent. The story combines psychology, the process of experimentation and innovation, business, mathematics, engineering, philosophy, quite plausible (though ultimately inaccurate) extrapolation from very recent scientific discovery, and brilliant alternate explanations of known facts (a trope I’m deeply fond of) into a meaningful, suspenseful, and engrossing whole. Is there any wonder at his popularity, or why he’s one of my favorite authors? This story, for copyright reasons, is not included in the book. The book suggests reading it in The Past Through Tomorrow, but it’s better, for this purpose, to use the original version, published in Expanded Universe.

“Strange Playfellow,” by Isaac Asimov: I wasn’t looking forward to reading this story (about a little girl and her pet robot) again; I’ve read it (under the title “Robbie”) many times. But this is the original, unpolished version, and it’s interesting to see the changes he made when he republished it, and how those minor changes vastly improve the quality and tone of the story.

“The Warrior Race,” by L. Sprague de Camp: I feel like I’ve read another story with the exact same premise: A warrior race, oppressing a conquered population, (view spoiler), on the model of Sparta. Perhaps it was by Asimov, emulating this one. Regardless, the story is a little sparse, and says “Read your history” a bit too often. It feels more like a proof-of-concept than an actual story. A novelette or better would have been more appropriate.
  However, I was struck by the Aristotle quote at the end of the story: ‘Militaristic states are apt to survive only so long as they remain at war, while they go to ruin as soon as they have finished making their conquests. Peace causes their metal to decay; and the fault lies with a social system which does not teach its soldiers what to make of their lives when they off duty.’”
  The bit that struck me was the last clause. Do we do that even today? It seems that we don’t have a very good conception, as a society, as to what off-duty soldiers are supposed to do with themselves. Reservists do not have this problem.

“Farewell to the Master” (Harry Bates) is a pretty good story, about a benevolent space traveler, or time traveler, or dimensional traveler (it was never quite explained) and robot who visit Earth. I can’t talk about it without spoiling it, so read it before reading further. (view spoiler) Oh well. It’s still a great, classic story, on which the movies The Day the Earth Stood Still were based.

“Butyl and the Breather” by Theodore Sturgeon is not, as the editor’s preface indicates, as good as the previous story, “Ether Breather.” But heck, that one wasn’t that good either. Like that one, this story is entertaining and has some interesting and original ideas, and that’s good enough, I guess.

I’m not quite sure why “The Exalted,” by L. Sprague de Camp is called that, unless “exalted” is used in an unusual way. I guess it’s referring to the elevated state of the professor who takes his own smart pills, with amusing results. Nominally this story is about a bear who had been given these smart pills, but it’s really about what happens (view spoiler) I find it interesting that what de Camp thinks would happen is that the person would (view spoiler) I’ve come to much the same sort of conclusion, though I’m having a devil of a time trying to actually live by it.

P. Schuyler Miller’s “Old Man Mulligan” is the final story in this collection, and a good one, about the adventures (well, one adventure) involving the titular character, who is either a thousands-of-years-old Neanderthal, or a very capable liar. It’s science fiction more by virtue of it being set on Venus than this fact, because Mulligan is not really explained, just presented. A well-done story though.

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