A review that first appeared back in The Third Alternative #35:-
THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF 20th CENTURY SCIENCE FICTION Volume One
Edited by David G. Hartwell
Robinson pb, 586pp, £6.99
reviewed by Peter Tennant
Hartwell in his introduction talks interestingly of the creative tension between Science Fiction and Modernism, before announcing his intention to present, in this and companion volumes, a ‘representative selection of world SF in the twentieth century’ and one that is ‘filled with wonder for those with eyes to see’, an aim that seems entirely admirable. Looking over the twenty three stories in this volume, some rightly famous, others unjustly neglected and a few rescued from obscurity for specious reasons, and each presented with a concise and informative introduction to the writer’s work, several common themes seem to assert themselves.
The nature of reality is one, with either the characters themselves and/or the reader learning that things are not at all as they believe them to be. Leading off in this vein is James Tiptree, Jr’s ‘Beam Us Home’, whose protagonist has his whole perception of reality changed by early exposure to a never named TV show, and it remains for the reader to decide whether this is subjective or objective truth, simple madness or some deeper understanding. Similarly the heroine of ‘The Angel of Violence’ by Adam Wisniewski-Snerg goes through a series of bizarre ordeals with the air of unreality steadily increasing until the incredible secret of her world is revealed, though with the benefit of hindsight the events leading up to this revelation seem more of a distraction than necessary preparation. The theme receives its most thoughtful and provocative exploration in Lino Aldani’s ‘Good Night, Sophie’ in which a star at the top of the VR porn industry ponders as to why men prefer a fantasy to the reality of making love to her, an intelligent and well thought out story that deftly questions the premise that reality is superior to illusion and whose hard to refute conclusions leave the reader feeling suitably uncomfortable. Chad Oliver’s ‘Blood’s a Rover’ tackles the theme on a far grander scale with mankind spread throughout the galaxy, and Earth deftly manipulating less advanced civilisations to a state of general preparedness for the inevitable encounter with hostile aliens, only for one man to learn what is really going on, a story that set a trend in its day and still has about it a certain freshness, even if the ideas have become a genre standard. Conversely Eddy C. Bertin’s ‘Something Ending’ is a poor and slight variation on the type, its success hinging on the protagonist who knows exactly what is going on never actually revealing it in his thoughts, a contrivance I found hard to take seriously. ‘Sundance’ by Robert Silverberg, arguably the most technically accomplished story here, utilising different narrative tricks to telling effect, is set on a distant planet where humans are extinguishing a native life form and a scientist of Amerindian extraction draws uneasy comparisons with what happened to his own people, with the reader left in the dark as to whether this is all real or curative psychodrama.
Dystopian societies of one stamp or another provide a second theme. Both ‘The Music Master of Babylon’ by Edgar Pangborn and Jack London’s ‘The Scarlet Plague’ presuppose a fall of civilisation from its technological high and back to some more primitive state. The Pangborn has something of an elegiac quality about it, with an old man trying to avoid becoming a god to the young tribes’ people who seek him out. London’s take on the theme is much more pessimistic, with another old man but one who this time is mocked for the stories he tells of a populous and civilised world, a brutal and effective rebuttal of the concept of the noble savage, London along the way taking some swipes at the social order of his own times. Harlan Ellison presents a thoroughly up to the minute dystopia in his classic story ‘”Repent, Harlequin!”, Said the Ticktockman’, a world in which time wasting is the ultimate crime and those who persist pay the ultimate price, and yet with its picture of futile resistance it celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and puts the case for constructive rebellion. ‘As Easy as ABC’, one of only two SF stories produced by the prolific and popular Rudyard Kipling, is set in a future where the world is ruled by the Aerial Board of Control, the idea of privacy is regarded as an oddity and people who believe in democracy get put in a circus as primitives for the amusement of the common crowd, a surprisingly sophisticated piece of writing for its day, packed with pointed satire and invention, none of which seems to have dated at all.
No volume of Science Fiction could claim to be comprehensive without touching on the theme of alien contact. One of the weaker offerings, and a story more rightly considered as supernatural drama in my opinion, is Frank Belknap Long’s ‘The Hounds of Tindalos’ in which an occultist falls victim to creatures native to a geometry different from that of man, using its ideas for shock rather than speculation. Michael Swanwick’s ‘Ginungagap’ combines hard science with a laidback style as humans make first contact with the aliens on the far side of a black hole, having to deal not only with the language barrier but issues of trust on both sides, a story that entertains and provokes also. From the sublime to the ridiculous, though offering an amusing contrast to the serious tone that pervades much of the rest, ‘Minister Without Portfolio’ by Mildred Clingerman has the Earth spared when aliens interview a little old lady and decide that she is representative of our species. Bruce Sterling’s ‘Swarm’, the first of a long series culminating in his novel ‘Schismatrix’, cleverly examines the nature of intelligence itself by positing an alien race for whom it is nothing more than a survival factor, to be bred on demand.
Another theme that’s become a staple of the SF genre is time travel, here represented by Connie Willis’ ‘Fire Watch’, the story that was the departure point for her novel ‘Doomsday Book’. Students of history are allowed to travel back to the past, and this story is about a scholar specialising in the Apostle St Paul who, through a bureaucratic ‘error’, is sent back to help defend St Paul’s during the Blitz, the narrative deftly illuminating the dangers of tampering with the past, as our hero tries to figure out exactly what his mission is in this time and place. ‘Great Work of Time’ by John Crowley, the longest story here and arguably the best, comes at the same problem from a different angle, with a society of time travellers intent on preserving and expanding the British Empire, only to have their efforts throw up all sorts of unforeseen consequences. Crowley’s story ranges far and wide, combining historical fact and mythopoeic fancy in a narrative that is as thought provoking as it is beautifully written, culminating in a chilling portrait of a man out of time. John Wyndham’s ‘Consider Her Ways’, the second longest piece in the book, uses time travel to explore the dystopian theme, with a woman given an experimental drug that sends her forward in time, where she lives as part of an all female society, men having become extinct, one where love is outlawed as symptomatic of masculine repression. The story ends in cliché, though perhaps this was not the case at the time of its original publication, but before that we have a grim picture of a bleak and regimented society, with passionate argument in favour of qualities Wyndham considered eternal verities, such as love and freedom of choice.
And lastly the oddballs, that fit in with no obvious theme or maybe touch on them all, such as Hal Clement’s ‘Hot Planet’, a sample of the Hard SF with which this writer made his name, as astronauts on an alien world shift themselves to cope with an environmental problem, an apt representative of the problem solving mentality that has shaped so much SF. The emotive ‘Nobody Bothers Gus’ by Algis Budrys looks at mutation from an unusual perspective, with selective memory used to protect the next step in evolution from his human peers, but soul destroying loneliness is the price. ‘Time in Advance’ is one of the best stories written by William Tenn, a sadly neglected master of the short form, looking at the consequences of a criminal justice system where people can do the time before they do the crime, the theory being if they knew what they were letting themselves in for most would stay within the law, and, while perhaps not as sharply satirical as Tenn’s very best work, this is a beautifully constructed and moral fable. Poul Anderson’s ‘Goat Song’ is another classic, an SF retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, with Anderson’s language never finer and serious issues about the nature of freedom addressed in some depth. There’s a similar poetic quality to Richard A. Lupoff’s ‘Sail the Tide of Mourning’, space opera set in a Japanese dominated future where to preserve his honour a man must abandon his ship and seek death among the stars. Finally there’s ‘The Dimple in Draco’ by Philip Latham, one of the lesser offerings, counter pointing the delights of a dinner party with those of astronomical discovery.
This is a substantial volume, one that should serve as a marvellous taster for those relatively new to the Science Fiction genre and still finding their way among its labyrinthine byways, though also appropriate for those more seasoned journeyers who will no doubt have many of these stories on their shelves already but should still find plenty that is new within the covers of this book. Recommended.