The Golden Age of Science Fiction (Kindle Edition)

All of my posts on SF books up until now have been on “real” books, the paper, printed kind. Which is fine and dandy, as I have a massive collection of books. But back in 2012, I bought myself an Amazon Kindle e-reader (3rd gen), and since then, I’ve been reading more and more SF in electronic format.

Despite being a computer user since the mid-1980s, I’ve always been a bit slow keeping up with the newest technologies (I still don’t have a smartphone, and can’t be bothered with them, to be honest). I’ve been the same with e-readers. I’m pretty old-fashioned when it comes to books, almost always preferring the actual physical book to a bunch of pixels on a computer monitor. That’s the book collector side of me showing his face. But, as a mere reader, as opposed to a collector, I spend a lot more time actually reading books on my Kindle these days. The computer is on virtually from when I wake up until I go to sleep, so, in many ways, I actually now find it easier (or at least AS easy) to read on a Kindle or computer monitor than I do reading from a book.

It seems that I’ve been split into two personas – the obsessive book collector, who will always prefer “real”, physical books, and the reader, who likes a quick, dirty read on his Kindle. It’s much easier to carry hundreds of books around on a Kindle, and it certainly is a huge space-saver, not having to clutter up the house with yet more paperbacks (I’ve long ago run out of space, and my home is already totally cluttered up with paperbacks), and the Kindle certainly seems to have replaced the mass market paperback for me, leaving the buying of physical, print books mostly in hardback or trade paperback for more collectible books or my favourite authors.

Since I bought my Kindle four years ago, I’ve been buying huge numbers of cheap Kindle author collections and anthologies of vintage and classic SF. So I reckon that it’s long past time that I start listing and recommending a few of these ebooks, in addition to the print books I’ve been collecting. I’m going to start off with a series called The Golden Age of Science Fiction – I’ve found fifteen volumes so far on Amazon, although there may be more. Here’s a listing of the fifteen volumes and their contents:

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume I

They Twinkled Like Jewels, by Philip Jose Farmer
This Crowded Earth, by Robert Bloch
Time and Time Again, by H. Beam Piper
Time Enough At Last, by Lynn Venable
Toy Shop, by Harry Harrison
Two Timer, by Frederic Brown
Watchbird, by Robert Sheckley
Year of the Big Thaw, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Sensitive Man, by Poul Anderson
The Skull, by Philip K. Dick

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume II

Warrior Race, by Robert Sheckley
Advanced Chemistry, by Jack Huekels
Spacewrecked on Venus, by Neil R. Jones
The Martian, by A.R. Hilliard and Allen Glasser
The Velvet Glove, by Harry Harrison
Gambler’s World, by Keith Laumer
Invasion, by Murray Leinster
The Knights of Arthur, by Frederik Pohl
The Missing Link, by Frank Herbert
Sand Doom, by Murray Leinster

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume III

The Silver Menace, by Murray Leinster
The Birds of Lorrane, by Bill Doede
Half Past Alligator, by Donald Colvin
The Weather on Mercury, by William Morrison
Today is Forever, by Roger Dee
Education of a Martian, by Joseph Shallit
Earthbound, by Lester del Rey
Not Fit for Children, by Evelyn Smith

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume IV

A Gleeb for Earth, by Charles Shafhauser
The Highest Mountain, by Bryce Walton
Soldier Boy, by Michael Shaara
Tea Tray in the Sky, by Evelyn Smith
Alien Minds, by E. Everett Evans
Proof of the Pudding, by Robert Sheckley
Green Grew the Lasses, by Ruth Wainwright

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume V

The Moons of Mars, by Dean Evans
Orphans of the Void, by Michael Shaara
The Luckiest Man in Denv, by Simon Eisner
The Awakening, by Jack Sharkey
A City Near Centaurus, by Bill Doede
How to Make Friends, by Jim Harmon
A Bad Day for Sales, by Fritz Leiber
Bimmie Says, by Sydney van Scyoc
Shipping Clerk, by William Morrison

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume VI

Proof of the Pudding, by Robert Sheckley
Green Grew the Lasses, by Ruth Wainwright
The Luckiest Man in Denv, by Simon Eisner
The Awakening, by Jack Sharkey
Orphans of the Void, by Michael Shaara
The Moons of Mars, by Dean Evans
A Bad Day for Sales, by Fritz Leiber
How to Make Friends, by Jim Harmon
A City Near Centaurus, by Bill Doede
Bimmie Says, by Sydney van Scyoc
Shipping Clerk, by William Morrison

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume VII

The Highest Mountain, by Bryce Walton
A Gleeb for Earth, by Charles Shafhauser
Not Fit for Children, by Evelyn Smith
The Barbarians, by John Sentry
He Walked Around the Horses, by H. Beam Piper
Last Enemy, by H. Beam Piper
Assassin, by J.F. Bone

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume VIII

Sjambak, by Jack Vance
One Man’s Poison, by Robert Sheckley
Earthmen Bearing Gifts, by Frederic Brown
The Leech, by Phillips Barbee
The Day of the Boomer Dukes, by Frederik Pohl
No Strings Attached, by Lester del Rey
Keep Your Shape, by Robert Sheckley
The Machine that Saved the World, by Murray Leinster

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume IX

The Protector, by Betsy Curtis
Jaywalker, by Ross Rocklynne
Picture Bride, by William Morrison
Two Weeks in August, by Frank Robinson
Queen of the Flaming Diamond, by Leroy Yerxa
No Shield from the Dead, by Gordon Dickson
Fair and Warmer, by E.G. von Wald
Human Error, by Raymond Jones
Oogie Finds Love, by Berkeley Livingston
The Prophetic Camera, by John McGeevey
Sinister Paradise, by Robert Moore Williams

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume X

Yesterday House, by Fritz Leiber
Wailing Wall, by Roger Dee
The Valor of Cappen Varra, by Poul Anderson
The Thing in the Attic, by James Blish
The Street that Wasn’t There, by Clifford Simak
The Snare, by Richard Smith
The Repairman, by Harry Harrison
The Bluff of the Hawk, by Anthony Gilmore
The Problem Makers, by Robert Hoskins

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume XI

Bodyguard, by Christopher Grimm
Med Ship Man, by Murray Leinster
The Judas Valley, by Gerald Vance
The Misplaced Battleship, by Harry Harrison
Piper in the Woods, by Philip K. Dick
The Happy Unfortunate, by Robert Silverberg
Genesis, by H. Beam Piper

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume XII

Once a Greech, by Evelyn E. Smith
Pandemic, by J.F. Bone
My Fair Planet, by Evelyn E. Smith
Sorry: Wrong Dimension, by Ross Rocklynne
Junior, by Robert Abernathy
Song in a Minor Key, by C.L. Moore
The Right Time, by Walter Bupp
The Man Who Saw the Future, by Edmond Hamilton
Citadel, by Algis Budrys
The Doorway, by Evelyn E. Smith
To Remember Charlie By, by Roger Dee
The Last Place on Earth, by Jim Harmon
Do Unto Others, by Mark Clifton

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume XIII

Death Wish, by Ned Lang
Assignment’s End, by Roger Dee
Double or Nothing, by Jack Sharkey
The Victor, by Bryce Walton
The Nostalgia Gene, by Roy Hutchins
Garrity’s Annuities, by David Mason
The Freelancer, by Robert Zacks
My Lady Selene, by Magnus Ludens
The Great Nebraska Sea, by Allan Danzig
On the Fourth Planet, by J.F. Bone
$1,000 A Plate, by Jack McKenty
Sweet Tooth, by Robert F. Young
Hot Planet, by Hal Clement

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume XIV

Problem on Balak, by Roger Dee
Star, Bright, by Mark Clifton
Man in a Sewing Machine, by L.J. Stecher
Point of Departure, by Vaughan Shelton
Of All Possible Worlds, by William Tenn
End as a World, by F.L. Wallace
Arm of the Law, by Harry Harrison
Subspace Survivors, by Edward E. Smith
Prison Of A Billion Years, by C.H. Thames
The Nothing Equation, by Tom Godwin

The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Volume XV

Project Mastodon, by Clifford Simak
The Holes Around Mars, by Jerome Bixby
Big Ancestor, by F.L. Wallace
Jack of No Trades, by Evelyn E. Smith
The Piebald Hippogriff, by Karen Anderson
Shipwreck in the Sky, by Eando Binder
Sentiment, Inc., by Poul Anderson
Postmark Ganymede, by Robert Silverberg
The Next Logical Step, by Ben Bova
Tedric, by E.E. Smith

“Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt

TITLE: “Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Short Story
SOURCE: BEST SCIENCE-FICTION STORIES edited by Michael Stapleton (Hardcover, Hamlyn, 1977, ISBN: 0-600-38243-5, 750pp)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Startling Stories, November 1948

I was rummaging in the vaults a while ago, and I came upon an old anthology that I haven’t read in years. Well, me being me, I couldn’t resist having a browse through it, and looking at the extensive contents listing of excellent stories, the memories started flooding back.

I fondly remember this particular story as one of my favourites from that anthology. A. E. van Vogt’s short story “Dormant” was one of those Golden Age of Science Fiction classics first published in the November 1948 edition of Startling Stories, and the story isn’t one of those far-future, outer space tales, but is actually pretty much in a contemporary setting, 1948, the same year as the actual publication date of the story. Being an historian (I was actually studying history at school at the time I read it), I’ve always really liked the strong post-World War II setting of this tale, with the US destroyer Coulson and it’s crew doing mop up operations on a remote pacific island, finding hidden caches of fuel and other goodies left behind by the Japanese.

But they also find a lot more than just Japanese leftovers. There’s the perplexing mystery of a gigantic rock, weighing millions of tons, which seems to be able to move around the island at will. A rock with a surface temperature of many hundreds of degrees, and which hurls out seemingly random destructive radioactive blasts. A giant rock which is not actually a rock, but an ancient, sentient robot bomb left on Earth countless millions of years ago by some alien race in a long-forgotten interstellar war.

The sections of the story from the POV of the bomb are among my favourites. The bomb, which actually has a name (it calls itself Iilah), has been dormant for countless aeons, but has recently been reawakened by the radiation from the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in 1946. It has got only low-level life functions back, and is suffering from amnesia. It cannot see the water, air, and even the humans around it. It’s simply totally unaware of their existence. All it can see are the ships and the planes, which it takes for strange lifeforms, flying around in the “sky”. And it’s the bomb’s attempts to communicate with these “lifeforms”, to try find out where it can get more sources of atomic energy to revive it, which unwittingly causes so much destruction and kills so many people.

And of course the humans, predictable as ever, just HAVE to start shooting at the damned thing. The giant “rock” fights back, kicking their asses and destroying the Coulson, much of the other equipment, and unknowingly snuffing out dozens of lives of which it is totally unaware. The remainder of the taskforce is ordered off the island, and an atomic bomb dropped, which is, ironically, exactly what Iilah needs. The flood of energy totally reinvigorates it, and it remembers its mission. It IS a robot bomb, after all, so it promptly follows orders, explodes and knocks Earth out of its orbit and into the sun. And so the world ends in 1948. 🙂

“Dormant” must be one of the first A. E. van Vogt short stories that I read (maybe even the first) back in the day, although I’d definitely read a few of his novels before that point. It was during this timeframe that I also came across three other van Vogt short stories – “The Monster”, “Vault of the Beast” and “Black Destroyer” – in anthologies that I’d taken out from the local library, but I’m pretty sure that I read “Dormant” before any of the others. Those four stories became huge favourites of mine during my mid-to-late-teens, and kick-started my obsession for hunting down collections of van Vogt short fiction.

“Dormant” (indeed all four of these stories) has stuck in my mind these past forty years, and is one of those early gems that cemented my newly-acquired obsession as a hardcore SF fan. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this one.

Anyone who might want to read this story, and is finding it hard to get a copy of this anthology, can also find the story in a couple of van Vogt’s short story collections, notably Destination: Universe! and Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt.

CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION – THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE edited by Terry Carr

Classic Science Fiction - The First Golden Age

Here is yet another SF anthology edited by one of my favourite SF anthologists, Terry Carr. It’s a nice, beefy one this time, at 445 pages, with twelve stories, plus an introduction by Carr.

I know most people usually dive on into the stories first, but take my advice, and do NOT skip the Introduction. It is a fascinating, lengthy, detailed 17-page thesis by Carr, which serves as an excellent historical background to the First Golden Age of Science Fiction. This one is an absolute must for anyone, like myself, who is as much a student of the history of science fiction as I am a fan of the literature itself.

TITLE: CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION – THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE
EDITED BY: Terry Carr
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Anthology
PUBLISHER: Harper & Row, New York, 1978
FORMAT: Hardback, 1st Edition, 445 pages
ISBN 10: 0-06-010634-4
ISBN 13: 9780-06-010634-8

CONTENTS:

  • Introduction by Terry Carr
  • “The Smallest God” by Lester del Rey (Astounding Science Fiction, January 1940)
  • “Into the Darkness” by Ross Rocklynne (Astonishing Stories, June 1940)
  • “Vault of the Beast” by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1940)
  • “The Mechanical Mice” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding Science Fiction, January 1941)
  • “-And He Built a Crooked House-“ by Robert A Heinlein (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1941)
  • “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941)
  • “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1941)
  • “By His Bootstraps” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science Fiction, October 1941)
  • “Child of the Green Light” by Leigh Brackett (Super Science Stories, February 1942)
  • “Victory Unintentional” by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, August 1942)
  • “The Twonky” by Henry Kuttner (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1942)
  • “Storm Warning” by Donald A. Wollheim (Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1942)

Intriguingly, and in addition to the fantastic main Introduction, each of the twelve stories has its own multi-page introduction, each of which which gives detailed background information on the author and the story itself. How I wish that every anthology would do this. And then there are the twelve stories themselves. And what stories they are.

This anthology contains some of the greatest short stories from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and I’m familiar with most, but not all, of them, as they’ve appeared in other anthologies or single-author collections. Just looking at the roll-call of authors, it’s like a who’s-who of the biggest SF names from that era. Of course, eight of the twelve stories are from Astounding Science Fiction, which is unsurprising, as it was by far the biggest SF magazine of the Golden Age.

We have two of the best of the early stories written by Isaac Asimov, as well as one of the best and probably the most famous story written by Henry Kuttner, and likewise absolute gems by Eric Frank Russell, Theodore Sturgeon and Lester del Rey. I’ve always been a huge fan of Leigh Brackett, and her story “Child of the Green Light” is also a cracker. Even the two stories that I was totally unfamiliar with, “Storm Warning” by Donald A. Wollheim and “Into the Darkness” by Ross Rocklynne, are excellent stories.

A. E. van Vogt’s story “Vault of the Beast” easily ranks up there alongside “Black Destroyer”, “The Monster” and “Dormant” as one of my all-time favourite van Vogt short tales. And the two Robert A. Heinlein short stories, “By His Bootstraps” and “-And He Built a Crooked House-“, well, what superlatives can I heap upon them other than to say that they are two of the greatest SF short stories ever written?

As this is an older book, and has been out of print for a number of years, I guess anyone looking for a copy will have to haunt the second-hand/used books stores. And if you spot one, snap it up right away! This is a fantastic anthology of Golden Age SF short fiction. I enjoyed every single story, which is something that I rarely say about most anthologies, as there are usually at least one or two stories which aren’t as good as the rest.

Terry Carr very rarely disappointed with his anthologies, and with this one, he came up with the goods yet again. This is an absolute gem of an anthology, and I’d recommend it without any hesitation to all fans of Golden Age SF.

Remembering Frederik Pohl (1919-2013)

Back in June, this blog marked the first anniversary of the sad and untimely death of one of my favourite SF authors, Iain M. Banks, who we lost to cancer last year at the age of only 59. This month marks the first anniversary of the death of yet another of my favourite SF authors, this time one of the old greats, Science Fiction Grand Master and one of the true titans of the genre Frederik Pohl, who died on September 2nd last year, at the age of 93.

Fred Pohl had been with us seemingly forever, since the dawn of time, or, more accurately, since before the Golden Age of Science Fiction began, way back at the end of the 1930s – his first published work was the poem “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna” (under the pseudonym “Elton Andrews”), in the October 1937 issue of Amazing Stories. I’m one of those many people who felt almost as though he was always going to be with us, although that was sadly obviously never going to happen.

The previous year or two had been very unkind to the world of SF, with the loss of a number of great authors. Ray Bradbury (91) died in June 2012, and Harry Harrison (87) in August 2012. Jack Vance (96) and movie special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (91) both passed away in May 2013. And then Banks (59) in June 2013 and Pohl (93) in September 2013. True, with the exception of Banks, all of these authors were “greats” from an earlier era, and all lived to a grand old age (Harrison was the youngest to pass on, at “only” 87). But they were all giants of the genre, and their passing was a great loss to all of SF.

I’ve been a huge fan of Pohl’s writing since I first encountered him in my early teens (way back in the early-to-mid 1970s), and he was a huge figure in my formative years as an SF reader. His SF novels were some of my favourites, among them GATEWAY and the other Heechee books, MAN PLUS, THE SPACE MERCHANTS (with Cyril M. Kornbluth), SEARCH THE SKY (with Kornbluth), GLADIATOR-AT-LAW (with Kornbluth), WOLFBANE (with Kornbluth), MINING THE OORT, JEM, SYZYGY, STARBURST, THE AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT, DRUNKARD’S WALK and many, many other classics. These still grace my bookshelves to this day, although most of them are long overdue for a re-read.

But as much as I like his novels, I’m an even bigger fan of his short fiction. As a matter of fact, the irony is very first Pohl story that I recall reading, “Wings of the Lightning Land”, was one that I didn’t even know was written by Pohl, as it came from that period during the Golden Age of SF the 1940s, when he wrote much of his short stories under the pseudonym “James MacCreigh”. I still remember “Wings of the Lightning Land” with great fondness, and it’s one of those old stories which hit me between the eyes at an early age, and has stayed with me ever since.

It’s now amusing for me to recall that, for quite a while after I read that story, I had absolutely no idea that this “James MacCreigh” dude and Frederik Pohl were one and the same person. And it’s even more amusing to recall that the classic old anthology, in which I first read “Wings of the Lightning Land”, was SCIENCE FICTION: THE GREAT YEARS, edited by none other than a certain Carol & Frederik Pohl! It was ironic (and very creepy) that, last year, after not having read that story for many, many years, I just happened to come upon that old anthology again, and re-read “Wings of the Lightning Land”, the very week before Frederik Pohl died. How weird is that? 🙂

So this year, to mark the first anniversary of his death, I once again opened up SCIENCE FICTION: THE GREAT YEARS, and re-read “Wings of the Lightning Land”, in memory of Frederik Pohl and his alter ego, “James MacCreigh”. And to add another one for good measure, I also dug out a really good collection of Pohl’s earliest short fiction, THE EARLY POHL (1976), which contains a bunch of his Golden Age stories, all written under his “James MacCreigh” pseudonym. Great stuff!

Of the short fiction that Pohl wrote under his own name, I think that the first one that I read (and one that has also stuck in my mind all these years) is “Let the Ants Try” (1949). Fantastic tale, and the ending of that story still sends chills up my spine, even now, forty years after I first read it. But he also wrote so many other memorable short stories. “Day Million”, “The Tunnel under the World”, “The Midas Plague”, “The Man Who Ate the World”, “Critical Mass”, “The Abominable Earthman”, “The Gold at the Starbow’s End”, “In the Problem Pit” and so, so many others.

Fred Pohl was an awesome, awesome writer. But he was also hugely influential in SF as an editor throughout the 1960s, on classic SF magazines Galaxy and its sister publication If. And over the decades he has also edited far too many great SF anthologies to even start listing them here.

I’ve also been following his blog, The Way the Future Blogs, assiduously over the past couple of years. I’ve been really loving his recollections about the past history of SF, and I’m going to miss the writings of this great man, but he’s left a huge body of work out there for all of us to enjoy. He should be compulsory reading for all SF fans, old and young.

In Memory of Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction Grand Master.

Frederik Pohl (1919-2013)

Back in June of this year, I made a blog posting about the tragically sad and untimely passing of one of my favourite SF authors, Iain M. Banks, who we lost to cancer at the far, far too young age of 59. He was merely the latest in a long line of all-too frequent announcements of the passing of yet another top SF author.

This past year or so has been particularly unkind to the world of SF, with the loss of far, far too many great authors. We lost Ray Bradbury (91) in June 2012, and Harry Harrison (87) in August 2012. Most recently, we also lost Jack Vance (96) and movie special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (91), both in May 2013. True, unlike Iain Banks, these other “greats” were from an earlier era, and all lived to a grand old age (totalling a combined age of 365), with Harry Harrison being the “youngest” to die (if I manage to live till I’m 87, I’ll be more than happy). But they were all giants of the genre, and their passing diminishes and saddens all of us.

And only last night, I come online to find out that we’ve lost yet another one. Science Fiction Grand Master and one of the true titans of the genre Frederik Pohl passed away yesterday, September 2nd, 2013, at the grand old age of 93. Fred Pohl had been with us seemingly since the dawn of time, or, more accurately, since before the Golden Age of Science Fiction began, way back at the end of the 1930s (his first published work was the 1937 poem “Elegy to a Dead Satellite”). I’m one of those many people who felt almost as though he was going to be with us forever, although that was sadly never going to happen. But it still hurts that he’s now gone.

When I first read the news last night, on a Google+ status update by SF author David Brin, all I could do was stare at the computer monitor with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Even though he was so old, and we’ve been expecting this to happen for some time now, it still came as a complete shock. I’m absolutely, absolutely gutted by this terribly sad news.

Isn’t it strange how we can get so upset about the passing of someone that we’ve never even met in person? But Fred Pohl (and his writing) was more real, more vivid, and more important to me than any of the thousands of faceless Joes and Josephines that I see walking the streets of my home town every single day. I’m fifty-two years old now, and I’ve been reading SF since I was about eight years old. I’ve been a huge fan of Pohl’s writing since I first encountered him in my early teens. He’s like an old friend, and I’m so, so sad to see him leave us, even if he was just a shade over six years off his 100th birthday.

I love the writing of many SF greats, but Frederik Pohl was a particular favourite of mine, and was a huge part of my overall life as an SF reader, as I’ve been a fan of his writing since way back in the early-to-mid 1970s. His SF novels were some of my favourites, among them GATEWAY and the other Heechee books, MAN PLUS, THE SPACE MERCHANTS (with Cyril M. Kornbluth), SEARCH THE SKY (with Kornbluth), GLADIATOR-AT-LAW (with Kornbluth), WOLFBANE (with Kornbluth), MINING THE OORT, JEM, SYZYGY, STARBURST, THE AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT, DRUNKARD’S WALK and many, many other classics. These still grace my bookshelves to this day, and all are long overdue for a re-read.

I’ve also always been a huge fan of his short fiction, going right back to the Golden Age of the 1940s, when he wrote much of his fiction under the pseudonym James MacCreigh. I still remember “Wings of the Lightning Land” with fondness, one of the earliest Pohl stories that I read (although for many years I never realized that James MacCreigh and Frederik Pohl were one and the same). A fantastic Pohl collection to read for this early stuff is THE EARLY POHL (1976), which contains a bunch of his James MacCreigh stories. Great stuff!

Of the short fiction that he wrote under his own name, one of the earliest that I read, and one that has stuck in my mind all these years, is “Let the Ants Try” (1949). The ending of that story still sends chills up my spine, even now, forty years after I first read it. But he also wrote so many other memorable short stories. “Day Million”, “The Tunnel under the World”, “The Midas Plague”, “The Man Who Ate the World”, “Critical Mass”, “The Abominable Earthman”, “The Gold at the Starbow’s End”, “In the Problem Pit” and so, so many others. What an awesome, awesome writer.

He was also hugely influential in SF as an editor throughout the 1960s, on classic SF magazines Galaxy and its sister publication If. And over the decades he has edited so many of my favourite SF anthologies that I wont even start listing them, or I’ll be here all evening. In an eerily weird stroke of synchronicity, just a few days ago I was re-reading one of my very favourite classic anthologies, SCIENCE FICTION: THE GREAT YEARS, edited by a certain Frederik Pohl and his then-wife Carol, and in that anthology was “Wings of the Lightning Land”, by some dude called James MacCreigh. I hadn’t read that book and story in many, many years, and I just had to pick the week that Frederik Pohl dies to read it again. Wow! How creepy is that? 🙂

I’ve also been following his blog, The Way the Future Blogs, assiduously over the past couple of years. I’ve been really loving his recollections about the past history of SF, and I am just so, so gutted that he’s gone, and we’ll never see another one of those charming, fascinating blog posts ever again. Tragic.

I’m going to miss the writings of this great man, but he’s left a huge body of work out there for all of us to enjoy. He should be compulsory reading for all SF fans, old and young.

RIP Fred. You done well.

A Couple of Classic Alternate History Stories

I’ve recently come upon an unusual (but nice) little paperback anthology of alternate history stories, OTHER EARTHS edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake. I’ll talk more about that one at a later date.

Strangely enough (well, maybe not so much for me), finding this anthology started me on a major alternate history trip, sending me off on an expedition to dig out of the vaults some of the best examples of classic AH in my admittedly large collection of SF books. I’ve just finished re-reading two of my favourite classic alternate histories, and these two stories are a perfect example of just how good AH can be.

The first is the magnificent novelette, He Walked Around the Horses, written by one of my favourite-ever SF authors, H. Beam Piper. The story was first published in the April 1948 edition of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, but I first read it back in 1982-1983, in the anthology THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Kingsley Amis, which is also where I’ve just finished re-reading it. It is set during the Napoleonic War, when a British ambassador to her European allies takes a step sideways into an alternate reality where Napoleon never made it big, there is no war, and the political and military alliances in Europe are quite different from those in “our” world. This world’s alternate version of the protagonist leads a different life altogether, and, understandably, the authorities in this alternate reality consider “our” protagonist to be some crazy guy, so he’s locked up.

The second story is the excellent novella The Summer Isles, written by one of the best SF authors in the UK, Iain R. MacLeod. I first read this little gem back in the October/November 1998 edition of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, and I’ve just re-read it in MacLeod’s excellent short story collection, BREATHMOSS AND OTHER EXHALATIONS (2004). This is a sensitive tale of a forbidden homosexual relationship, set against a background of fear, paranoia and deadly political skullduggery. It takes place in an alternate 1930s Britain, in a reality in which the Allies lost in World War I, and the Germans were obviously victorious. In this reality, it is, ironically, Britain which has become the repressed fascist dictatorship, and not Germany.

Both stories are exquisitely written, and examples of the best of the genre. They’re the sort of story you can show to even mainstream literary snobs without fear of them ridiculing you, and they are also the type of story that the pretentious “mainstream literary wannabies” within SF itself can’t even begin to criticize. I don’t believe in any of the elitist bullshit that these people hold to – a good story is a good story, irrespective of genre. And keep in mind that SF isn’t merely a “genre”, it’s a “state of mind”, a meta-genre, encompassing many other sub-genres. Alternate histories represent one of the many “respectable” faces of SF, a sub-genre with (in the vast majority of cases) no spaceships, laser guns or BEMs, just mankind and the “human condition”, and a lot of history, mixed with a big dollop of “What If?” that really gets the speculation flowing. And one of the main fundamental pillars of SF has always been “What If?”

In my “mundane”/non-SF persona, I’m an historian. I’ve always been fascinated by history, its mechanics, and its possibilities, its futures. And I’ve also always loved SF. So mixing the two in the shape of alternate histories was always going to be a winner in my book. The two stories above are among my favourites, but there are so many other great alternate histories out there that I can’t even begin to list them all. Go track them down, take your pick of a few of the recommended ones, and read some of the best stories that SF has to offer.