Tag Archives: Astounding

Great SF Stories

fig. 1. 1939: still not much to see here. Cover of The Great Science Fiction Stories Volume 1, 1939 (published 1979).

A bit over two year ago I finished the final story in Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories. Over the 25 volumes, the editors—Martin H. Greenberg and Isaac Asimov—introduce us to their choice cuts of primarily Anglo-American SF between 1939 and 1963.

The collection is a good introduction to Anglo-American SF that takes you from the so-called Campbellian “Golden Age” right up until the precipice of the New Wave of SF in the 1960s. First published between 1979 and 1992 by DAW Books, The Great SF Stories is now sadly out of print. Many of the stories can be found elsewhere, and I have heard that pdfs of the collection exist on the interwebs. However, I desired the hard stuff, so I hunted the entire collection down through various online secondhand bookstores between 2016 & 2019.

As a result of the read through I’ve assembled a list of works that I liked, divided into three categories: Top shelf (three ***), Good (two **) and Not Bad (one *). My system, like most—or rather, all—is highly subjective. Make of it what you will.[1] The list is linked here—and can be accessed through the menu bar above. Or, if you want to cut to the chase, you can check out the Top Shelf picks alone, that can also be accessed through the menu bar above.

Over the coming months I am planning on revisiting some of the Top Shelf stories in order to critically assess them on this blog. Who knows, maybe an occasional Good and Not Bad will creep in too. And I will no doubt even change some of the ratings from time to time, depending on rereads and whim.

I found that reading Asimov and Greenberg’s selection spun me off further to pursuing stories from this period and beyond. As a result I’ve added other works not found in this collection to my list, drawn from author collections and other collections from the period—for instance, T.E. Dikty and E.F. Bleiler’s Best Science Fiction Stories, Frederick Pohl’s Star Science Fiction, Judith Merril’s The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy and Year’s Best S-F.

At the odyssey’s end I found myself wanting to continue the journey, so I first of all read Robert Silverberg’s one-off attempt to continue Asimov and Greenberg’s collection. Sadly, Silverberg didn’t continue with this. So, I began reading collections that fortuitously began the year following Silverberg’s selection of 1964 stories, notably Donald Wolheim and Terry Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction Series. I have plans to extend my reading into other collections from the 1960s and 70s, but here I begin to find certain limits that were a kind of negative factor in inspiring Asimov and Greenberg’s attempt to present a “definitive” collection from 1939-1963. When one reaches the mid-1960s SF collections begin to mushroom, alongside of the growing popularity of SF. Indeed, it was partly the scarcity of collections prior to the mid-60s that inspired Greenberg and Asimov’s 25 volume collection.

*

fig. 2. 1950: things are heating up. Cover of The Great SF Stories Volume 12, 1950 (first published 1984).

One of my prime motivations for reading the entire collection was to get a better idea of the general themes and trends of this crucial period for SF. I have been reading SF since I was a wee boy in the 1970s. But it was only upon discovering the likes of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in my teens in the 1980s that I began to understand the true power and importance of the short story. Over the years I increasingly turned to short SF, but my journey through written SF through the 1990s and 2000s was more of a meander while other things competed for my attention: primarily university, far left politics, avant-garde literature and parenthood. It has only been over the last decade that I have begun to more systematically explore the riches of short SF.

Having read the entire Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories collection, I can now heartily recommend it, but with a few caveats. Of the 30 stories that I rate as Top Shelf in the 25 years covered by the collection, only 7 of these lay in the so-called “Golden Age” period (1939-50)—and none in the first two years of the collection (1939 and 1940). No doubt what I rate as Top Shelf would differ for another reader. However, to that reader and all readers of this collection I would propose that the “real” Golden Age of science fiction—or at least what I term “Anglo-American” science fiction—begins around 1950. Something Barry Malzberg believes in too. [2]

The years that first leapt out in my read through were 1950, 1951 and especially 1952. What a year it was that could manifest “Delay In Transit” by F. L. Wallace, “The Altar At Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth, “What’s It Like Out There?” by Edmond Hamilton, “Cost Of Living” by Robert Sheckley and “Ticket To Anywhere” by Damon Knight—to name just a few. 1957, 1963 and 1964 are also great years too.  

Nonetheless, without Campbell’s so-called “Golden Age” what would modern science fiction be? This model, replete with its fanzines, fannish conventions, DIY ethos, and Campbell’s much vaunted (by himself) “professionalisation” of the pulps, became the model par excellence for SF. It was exported on the coat tails of US cultural hegemony, replicating itself across the globe, starting scenes where there were none, and in other cases displacing and converting pre-existing ones.

Certainly, the unquestionably science fictional works that pre-exist this “Golden Age” both inside and without the Anglophone countries somewhat undermines Campbell’s late claim. Still, I am fascinated by the focus SF achieves from around 1940—though more so around 1950 (coincident with the arrival of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy in the US). Indeed, it is my belief that between 1950 and 1970, SF, in its own distinct and science fictional way, replicates the paths and patterns of modern literary and artistic culture outside the ghetto. From the enthusiastic fury of its half-baked DIY pulp origins, SF rapidly matures, aspiring after a literary renown the equal of the mainstream, only to find by the end of the sixties precisely the impasse reached by the European artistic avant-gardes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this sense I see the New Wave of the 1960s—and New Wave adjacent SF works—as signaling the end of not just the first phase of Anglo-American SF, but the end of literature in a similar way to the literary avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, the ‘end’ I speak of is not the actual cessation of the writing and consumption of literature, but rather the end of a project that was embodied in the avant-garde. The ‘freedom of the word’ announced amidst the poetic experimentation in France in the mid-19th century not only led to the ultra-modernist experiments of the Dadas and James Joyce (for example), but posed the possibility of a freedom of creative action beyond the expressive impasses reached upon the written page. It was Guy Debord’s wager that this movement toward self-destruction—that is, the formal experimental destruction of the received wisdom regarding what counted as ‘art’—demonstrated the limits of merely artistic experimentation, and the pressing need to transform such experiments beyond the canvas and the page into a revolutionary transformation of everyday life itself. It is to this ‘end’ and ends of art and literature that I am pointing to here.

This ‘impasse’ of the apparent self-destruction of so much of what we would consider ‘literary’, whether met with in SF or elsewhere, is what Debord called the “decomposition of culture”.[3] It is this that I seek to explore more fully on this blog, through critical reviews of individual works, as well as more general reflections on the place of science fiction in the three or four decades after the Second World War. I might even try and explain what I mean by ‘impasse’ and ‘self-destruction’ more clearly—at least more clearly than I have previously done!

*

A brief note on my definition of ‘Anglo-American SF’. What it is: what is sounds like: SF produced in and or by people in the US and the Anglophone countries, broadly defined (Britain and ex-British Colonies, though primarily Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the period 1950-1970). The importance of this SF is undoubted, coincident with the rise to dominance of the USA in the post-Second World War globalisation of capitalism. However, it is hard to disentangle the “triumph” of Anglo-American SF as the dominant model of SF from the rise to cultural, economic and political dominance of the US itself (and, to a lesser extent for the period we’re talking of, the dominance of the British Empire prior to this). What do I mean? In the case of the classic John W. Campbell “competent man” SF promulgated in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, the resonance with the overwhelming influence of the US in the West after the war is obvious. But less noted—to my mind—is that even strains of SF that were more open to oppositional ideas (for instance H. L. Gold’s Galaxy), indirectly benefited from US cultural dominance. Which is not to damn such oppositional strains—far from it. Rather, it is to reckon with the context and conditions in and by which English language SF was singularly predominant in the period covered by Asimov and Greenberg’s anthology.


FOOTNOTES

[1] As the evil Hegelian-Marxian that I am, I prefer to think of the subjective as in truth a dialectical interplay of subjective and objective determinations—no subject is purely subjective, and perforce is capable of objectifying not only their subjectivity, but the world which they inhabit too.

[2] For instance, see Barry Malzberg, ‘Introduction: The Fifties’, in The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, eds. Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Prozini, Ace Books, 1979. Available to borrow online here.

[3] See the definition of ‘decomposition’, here. Debord spoke of the movement toward the ‘self-destruction’ of poetry in France in the 19th century as been bound up with the assertion of the ‘autonomy of poetic language’ around the time of the poet Charles Baudelaire: ‘Henceforth, poetry—which is to say the people who wanted a poetic use of language—rejected all reasoning beyond itself and gave itself the goal of contemplating its own power. While undertaking the demolition of all conventional forms of expression, this poetry simultaneously set itself against the society whose values it denied and proclaimed itself in revolt against “bourgeois” order. Such poetry rejected everything in the world that was not poetry, while progressing toward its self-annihilation as poetry’ (see, here). It is my belief that a similar movement exists in Anglo-American SF between 1950 and 1970.

In praise of the infodump

fig. 1. Astounding Science Fiction, September 1948, in which John D. MacDonald’s ‘Dance of a New World’ first appeared.

In praise of the infodump:
or, the joys and pains of reading science fiction in general and John M. MacDonald and Laurence Manning in particular, and various other works of the last century and more, and etcetera

Infodump: “An item of sf Terminology commonly used to designate chunks of technical discourse inserted into fictional texts […]. In sf criticism, the term is often used to pejoratively name a flaw, when the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it”—from the SF Encyclopedia

1.

Why is the infodump so hated, so derided? I suspect that the chief reason is unstated—or barely suspected. Could it be that vast slabs of unadorned information impede our ability to suspend disbelief and briefly escape the humdrum world of wage labour and quiet despair?

Though often polarising, the infodump is a common feature of science fiction. For its detractors it is the very epitome of all that is non-literary about SF. For instance, the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia’s entry on the infodump notes that for some critics, ‘the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it’. For such critics the infodump simply is a literary flaw. But is there only one type of infodump, an impossibly perfect Platonic form whose perfection is, perversely, its distracting imperfection?

Recently, what set me off ruminating upon the infodump was reading a short story by John D. MacDonald: Dance of a New World (1948). The story is not one of McDonald’s best SF genre pieces (for that I would recommend Spectator Sport). But it’s not all bad. A solid tale to while away some of the perils of boredom.

For the first few pages the story tootled along, establishing character, plot and setting in relatively efficient fashion. From the first sentence, unquestionably a story of the future set on a more hospitable Venus than what we got, with one of the characters working as a supervisor of a work gang of local indigenous lifeforms called Harids. The Harids are conveniently insectoids, presumably so we don’t have to care too much about them being rendered zombie like all the better to slave away upon the human run plantation—no doubt one of many projects spreading the unalloyed joys of marginal economics throughout the solar system and beyond. All this information is deftly arranged by MacDonald, woven into a story that works hard to make more of less. A good example of the “show, don’t tell” principle in action. And then this happens:

Shane Brent went up to his room in Hostel B, shut the door wearily, listlessly pushed the News button under the wall screen and watched the news of the day with little interest as he slowly undressed. Crowds demonstrating in Asia-Block against the new nutrition laws. Project 80, two years out said to be nearing Planet K. Skirts once again to be midway between knee and hip next season. The first bachelor parenthood case comes up to decide whether a child born of the fertilization of a laboratory ovum can legally inherit. Brent frowned. Soon a clear definition of the legal rights of “Synthetics” would have to be made. He stopped suddenly as he had an idea. He decided to submit it to Frank. Why not get Inter-Federal Aid for a project to develop Synthetics to fill personnel requirements for future project flights? But would humanity agree to colonization by Synthetics? It still wasn’t clearly understood whether or not they’d breed true.

This block of information—a microdump perchance?—plays little or no role in the main plot. Nonetheless, it helps further set the scene—or rather flesh it out. After reading these tantalising flashes of the world that the character Shane Brent inhabits, I found the author’s previous efforts at convincing me of this future even more secure. Though clearly an infodump, it is far from the indigestible mass hated by the haters. The chief protagonist even interacts with it. It is an example of the infodump at the service of the story, working in concert with the “show, don’t tell” principle with the aim of further establishing mood and setting with subtle, not overwhelming detail.

Laurence Manning’s story, The Living Galaxy (1934) is, on the other hand, the very opposite of MacDonald’s wonderfully brief and efficient infodump. These days when Manning’s story is remembered, it is best known for being arguably the first, fully fictional rendering of the “generation starship” trope—though this is under dispute (see, the Generation Starships entry at SF Encyclopedia). Manning’s story is all infodump. It’s at its best in its initial conceit of fictional pedagogy: a future history presented as the past of the near immortal heirs of homo sapiens. Unfortunately, this wonderful set up is frittered away in its dull delivery. My heart goes out to my imaginary descendants in this story, having to sit through their marvellous past rendered boring. It seems as if school sux, even in utopia.

Being all infodump is by no means a slight upon this work. For is the absence of entertainment or convincing distraction the best damnation we can manage?

Indeed, I have not come to damn the infodump but praise it.

fig. 2. Wonder Stories, September 1934, in which Laurence Manning’s ‘The Living Galaxy’ first appeared.

2.

I believe there are at least two souls of the infodump. The first is all that is listed as worthy of despair; for instance, the too common reality of the indigestibly prolix and dull in information retrieval. But there is another, more striking class of infodump of which the example from John M. MacDonald above gives us a glimpse. One of its hallmarks is an excess of realism—though excessive only in a literary sense. What I mean is that the reality conjured is by way of a sensory overload, in which fragments of the imagined future (or “present”, for that matter) threaten to drown the reader. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is an excellent, though partial realisation of such an excess (more on this below). Nonetheless, both souls—variously dull and poetic—push at the limits of the novel, even if one is more self-consciously set upon breaking the conventions of literature.

The source of my ruminations on excessive realism is Guy Debord. He once wrote upon a situationist use of theatre which influences my thoughts here. Debord’s aim was decidedly more anti-literary, insofar as he envisaged the negation of theatre by way of ‘an excess of realism’. The characters would meet in a ‘normal’ situation lacking in ‘spirit or interest’, in which the conversation would be equally ‘normal […], which is to say, not very intelligent, not very stupid. A permanent and empty spectacle, like life […], with brief overtures of what could be’.[1] Such a vision reminds me of some of the achievements of literary modernism: from Lautréamont’s Maldoror to Joyce’s Ulysses by way of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The point being that the excess of realism Debord invokes is neither just tedious nor simply marvellous, but both (‘not very intelligent, not very stupid’ surely being alternate names for the two souls).[2]

Two of my favourite SF novels are arguably all infodump: Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Stapledon’s works, founding epics after the fact, are without peer. In the case of the former, the excessive nature of a future history is underlined by its being an unrelenting infodump, albeit in a more poetic register than most. Stapledon errs on the side of epic, the form in which the infodump is best suited, wedged as it were between the lyrical and the dramatic. Nonetheless, they are not the only examples of the prose poetry of the infodump. Walter M. Miller’s short story, The Big Hunter (1952), is also an excellent example. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) approaches the majestic scale of Stapledon by taking a leaf from the masters of modernity to turn its eye upon the epic quality of the future everyday. Indeed, Brunner comes close to Debord’s demand of an excess of realism. He falls short only to the extent that he concedes ground to the strictures of plot and characterisation.

I have often envisaged an infodump novel that would push further in the direction Brunner opened. Except, whereas Brunner inserted character and plot to relieve the reader of his assault upon their sensibility, I would strip the novel of all such concessions in order to leave the cavalcade of these fragments from a future mass culture. Undoubtedly, by turns tedious and entrancing, the two souls of the infodump would be reunited, all the better to underscore the necessary irreality of aspiring after the real upon the page.

Is it too much to imagine the infodump in its excessive guises as the real source of literature? I am thinking here of not just the dull and repetitive parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey, but especially of the hard prose of the chronicles, Herodotus’ Histories being the true grandaddy of all the infodumps. Closer to the present, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick comes to mind with its innumerable and often unjustly maligned digressions into whale history and folk lore. Stephane Mallarmé’s two paragraph prose poem Le Phénomène futur (1871) is more obviously science fictional, and a simple joy at two paragraphs in length, leaving its world building remarkably dense and slight simultaneously. Mallarmé, to my mind, constitutes a bridge of sorts between the SF ghetto and the 19th century literary avant-garde of Europe. On the far, more science fictional side of the bridge I can see Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848) and J. H. Rosny aîné’s La Légende Sceptique (1889), both prose poems of cosmic dimension. On the more self-consciously literary side of the bridge I spy Jorge Luis Borges—though he undoubtedly slummed on the far side as well. Surely Borge’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) is the prose poem of the infodump? Further away, harder to see, buried in the sub-structures of the bridge, an old, dog-eared copy of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658) lies wedged.

Can I be serious that all of these are iterations of the infodump? At the very least I believe not only in the merit of the infodump, but also that what we categorise under this term is somewhat less straightforward than is often imagined. Not only is the SF infodump not as dull or turgid as is often imagined, infodump-like examples of prose can be found scattered through modern literature and its more ancient progenitors. My attraction to the infodump is, nonetheless, leavened by a certain fascination with those that have set out to break literature, or at least give it a good thrashing.

For where does the infodump begin or end? On the page? In a conversation? Broken up into a cavalcade of memes? Indeed, I dream of the world as infodump, and of a work that is one great infodump, a science fiction tour de force that inevitably and simultaneously will be a grand misstep. My Zanzibar that is no longer Zanzibar. Necessarily, it will divide opinion. There can be no other way.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, Correspondence: The foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-August 1960), trans. Stuart Kendall & John McHale, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 376 (letter to André Frankin, 24 July 1960).

[2] It’s worth noting that Debord saw little of use in the novel form (at least for situationist uses): ‘There is not much future in the détournement of complete novels, but during the transitional phase there might be a certain number of undertakings of this sort’. The only such uses that Debord approved of, insofar as they brought him and other situationists the use of money in a moneyed world, were Michèle Bernstein’s parodic detournements of Françoise Sagan on the one hand, and the Nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, on the other: respectively, Tous les chevaux du roi (1960), and La Nuit (1961), both Roman à clefs of sorts, dealing with Bernstein’s life among fellow young International Letterists.