01 September 2010

The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction - Edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh & Martin H. Greenberg

  • Author: Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg (Editors)
  • Title: The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction: Ten Classic Novellas
  • Publisher: Robinson 2007 (Reprint, Original 1989)
  • ISBN: 978 1845290962 (Paperback)
The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction is a collection of ten novellas by some of the big names of 1940's and 1950's scifi, so it's a bit of a no brainer that this is a great read. Anyone interested in the history of scifi, and the development of it's thematic content should certainly grab a copy.

I do have a few complaints, however.  In order to read them, you're gonna have to click on the jump link.

Firstly, if you ever see Isaac Asimov listed as an editor along with Marty Greenberg, it means that Mr Asimov wrote a 2 page intro, but had no other involvement. It's a marketing strategy that Marty used often to promote sales of his anthologies. So there you go. (I personally think that Asimov's introductions are not worth the paper they are printed on...One day, I will write about this.)

My second complaint is that despite the back blurb stating that Robert A. Heinlein was one of the greats, he isn't included in the book. Probably due to copyright restrictions and budget constraints, but none the less, it's misleading to stick his name on the back cover when he isn't included in the content.

Another problem with this book is the lack of an introduction to each story. I would think that a short mention of the authors background, the year of publication, and mention of other works by the author would have been included, as per most of these kind of retrospective anthologies. It's kind of the point of having an editor, to my mind. Not having it means that there is little context to the reading. You are reading just a story, not a story bearing in mind that, for example, the war had JUST ended and btw, written by a woman. Or whatever.

Notice how I am not complaining about the rampant sexism and racism in these stories. Every single one has some element of these things. I'm not complaining about it because I have a fucking brain in my head. I can look at a story in the context of it's time and place, think about the way people thought and acted at that time. It doesn't mean I like it. But it does mean that I can still enjoy the main part of the whole thing, the actual story itself.

The introduction by Asimov is essentially a brief history of John W. Campbell and Astounding magazine, extolling his virtue as the creator of modern scifi during his time as the editor of Astounding. According to Asimov, the 1940's and 50's were the time of Campbell, and the only authors who were not mentored by Campbell worth mentioning is Ray Bradbury and Frederic Brown. Only Brown is featured in this volume.

On to the stories, listed in appearance order. Which is how I always do it.

  • Time Wants A Skeleton - Ross Rocklynne (1941): This cute little space opera/cop drama/time paradox stories is riddled with casual sexism. At one point, the 'hero' helps himself to a 'kiss' from the beautiful but headstrong heroine and she belts him in the mouth, but later she apologises and confesses that really, she wanted it. Boy did she want it. And of course she is swept of her feet in the end. I always wonder whether this idea of the woman's place, and how to win yourself a girl, was the authors ideal or just what the author thought his readers wanted to read. The story itself is rather clever, using a time travel paradox to build masses of tension, and the final twist was actually surprising. As far as science goes, this story is pure fantasy, but at the time I suppose it was mostly plausible. I quite like the whole 'asteroid belt is a lost planet' thing.
  • The Weapon Shop - A.E. van Vogt (1942): This story is one of my all time favourites. Politics always makes for good reading, I reckon. In contrast to the previous story, this one is completely modern in it's treatment of women. It's funny that the two were published only a year apart. This one is definitely on the list of must reads, go find it.
  • Nerves - Lester del Ray (1942): A funny thing with this story. It features the highly progressive concept of a woman trained as a doctor, but not a proper doctor, a specialist nursing doctor. I must admit that I laughed. The thought that not too long ago, the idea of a woman as a doctor was so outlandish as to be science fictional? Del Ray wears his politics on his sleeve in this one, as his protagonist heartily approves of the idea of nursing doctors, and openly opines that there should be lots more of them! The plot centres around an accident in a nuclear products manufactory, and the plant doctors must deal with various issues arising from radiation burns, contamination, impact wounds and so on. The lady doctor in question is married to the young assistant doctor, and in the course of the story, old 'Doc' tells the youngster that his girl LIKES working, and is a good doctor, so stop being silly about her staying at home. Very modern.
  • Daymare - Frederic Brown (1943): This is one of those stories that just don't grab you that hard. It reads sort of like a noir cop story, but it uses the highly annoying device of 'you didn't see that twist, because it in no way relates to anything that came before it!! Ha!' About half way through, you get a speech as exposition bit, in which the wise older professor lectures the cop on a lost technology that no one knows about and magically, it turns out to be exactly what has happened and the cop goes on to save the day. It's insulting.
  • Killdozer! - Theodore Sturgeon (1944): Full Disclosure - I am a massive fan of Theodore Sturgeon. This story is brilliant fun. It's not enlightening, or clever, or even particularly science fictional. In fact, without the introductory bit about the deep dark past, this would be a straight up possessed thingy story. And I love a good possessed thingy story. Watch out for the casual racism, with a Hispanic character named 'Riviera' who is more commonly referred to as 'Goony.' Note that the good guys are 'not racist' despite this, as they all quite like him, but the bad guys hate the fact that he is doing a mans work when he's just a goon. It's a strange mix between a stating that racism is wrong, while at the same time suggesting that it's only bad to 'hate' or be inclined to violent toward non-whites, not to discriminate or denigrate them. In a modern context, it's a bit of "Nah mate, I like the camel jockeys, they're good at ditch digging and their women make great cleaners." Worth reading.
  • No Woman Born - C.L. Moore (1944): The only story written by a woman in this book is about a beautiful actress who is burned to death, but her brain is saved, implanted into a robot, and brought back to life. Interesting.
  • The Big and the Little - Isaac Asimov (1944): Pfft, why bother even writing about this one. A Foundation Story, typically wooden and predictable. I really dislike the writing style of Asimov, the way he writes down to the audience from on high. The weakest story in the book, and I would have left it out, because there are far better writers and stories from this period than Asimov.
  • Giant Killer - A. Bertram Chandler (1945): Excellent look at natural selection, radiation induced mutation & isolation as drivers for evolution. A population of pests inhabit the walls of a space craft on it's way to a distant star. Follows the life of Giant Killer as he leads his people to dominance of Outside, being the space between the Inside, where the giants live, and the outer wall of the space craft. Clever, interesting and really good fun.
  • E for Effort - T.L. Sherred (1947): An absolute classic, read this if you read nothing else in this book, or from this era. I won't say anything about it, except to say that you should imagine the cast from Singing In The Rain as you read it. It makes it really cute and fun. This story is in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, so you shouldn't have any problem getting a hold of it.
  • With Folded Hands - Jack Williamson (1947): I want to be able to say that this is a great story, because it is, except for one thing. It's creepy in a way that just won't leave you alone. This is one of my favourite examples of the cautionary scifi tale, in which technology bites you firmly on the ass. Recommended as a fine example of a highly overused plot device.
So there you go. Needless to say, A.E van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon are the two authors I have read the most of. Vogt is always brilliant, Sturgeon a bit hit and miss, but worth pressing through. One day, I might write about them. Might not.

So now, having written this, and collected The Tardis Handbook, I'm going home to have some dinner. Wanna come over? You do? Gee, pity you're on the other end of the Internet.....