Off The Shelf - "The World Treasury of Science Fiction"

by Marcus Pan

Chain Border

The World Treasury of Science FictionI've mentioned in my last review of The Stars My Destination that following that I would be staying for a while in the science-fiction genre. With that in mind my next foray was into the horse-killing sized The World Treasury of Science Fiction. A near 1100 page, larger than pocket sized anthology of some of the greatest writers of the genre. All the greats are here - Vonnegut, Campbell, Sturgeon, Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, even Burgess. And the thrill of this book is the fact that this is not your typical collection. Within are the more obscure short stories of these giants of the SF genre. Instead of finding yourself reading yet another retelling of Asimov's I, Robot or Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, you are treated to their earlier works. All are quick and I can easily warp through three within a day's time. Some of them are grand studies that involve not only technological advance and futurism, but theological, philosophical and moralistic studies in what, at the time of the stories' writing, the future might bring.

Now before you delve into a book of this nature, you must first put yourself in a certain mindset. I've read a lot of SF over the years, as many of you have I'm sure, and what you have to realize is that lest you find yourself disappointed in the works herein you must realize that these stories are from the golden age of SF literature. Pre-80's literature, that is, as far back as the 40's in some cases. So before you skip a story because you feel you've read this type of plot before, remember that at the time the story was penned down this type of plot didn't exist yet. These are originals from the genre…stories which have influenced and formed the foundations of SF for decades to come.

The book is wonderfully put together with an introduction that discusses in depth and detail the effects of SF literature around the world. Taking you back as far as 1929 when the term "science fiction" was first coined, and how from there it has grown in stature, interpretation and form to move from the sordid laughing stock of the literary world it began as and into the current highly-respected genre it is today. Also prefacing each author's contribution to the book, you'll find a short introduction of them, including their works, where the story you are about to read first appeared and how the author overall has influenced the future of the SF literary form.

As an anthology I thought it best to write this Off The Shelf column in the same style I wrote the review for The Disciples of Cthulhu…that is to say, providing a bit of insight into each story. Also, because of the book's size, I have begun writing this book review prior to completing the book. I'm about halfway through it now, and before I lost the feel and enjoyment I might have gained from earlier stories in this collection I thought it best to break and write them up before I forgot anything of importance from each. With over fifty stories in this book, there is no doubt that this review will be the longest I've written yet. So onward we go into the golden age of SF!

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
One of the SF's earlier contributors, Vonnegut later disavowed his membership within the SF community because of SF's undesirable flavor to the literary world at large in the 50's through 60's. However, he has been published numerous times in slick fiction and SF magazines and his The Sirens of Titan was a Hugo Award nominee. His inclusion within World Treasury as the opening story kicks off the book with a utopian brutality unmatched. Harrison Bergeron is a phenomenal piece of writing, however short, and shows Vonnegut's trademark wit and sarcasm. One of the shortest, yet best, pieces within this anthology.

Forgetfulness by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Campbell was the first to build his writing career strictly within the science fiction genre of writing. His death in 1971 left a legacy of short stories and his editorship of Astounding magazine broadened the scope of the genre and introduced to the world such future greats as Heinlein, Van Vogt, Sturgeon and Bester. The earliest story in the World Treasury collection, Forgetfulness was brought forth in 1937. Forgetfulness looks into the idea of mythology-as-alien culture, a popular plotline. But again, one must remember - published in 1937, it was one of the first of its kind.

Special Flight by John Berryman
One of Astounding's earlier writers, Berryman was one of the forerunners of the "galactic drama" form of science fiction now popularized still today by such media giants as Star Wars and Star Trek. A crew flying against the odds through space, Special Flight is somewhat atypical - but again an earlier and genre-establishing example - of the crew-as-hero storyline.

Chronopolis by J. G. Ballard
By the 1950's, the science fiction world was starting to evolve into a more intellectual pursuit. Ballard was an author from this period, and publishing a colder, darker style of science fiction concentrating more on the utopian aspects of futurism. Chronopolis is the story of time-as-enemy, a significant plot that takes us into a new world where the timepieces of the earth have become the tyrants blamed for a civilization's near-downfall.

Triceratops by Kono Tensei
While America has and probably still does hold the reigns of science fiction literature, there were other nations that stepped up with their authors to peek into the fray. One of these was Japan's Kono Tensei. His Triceratops translation found here shows the Japanese' fascination with large animals - Godzilla, Mothra, etc. Triceratops leaves the reader without much in the way of explanation on how the plot opens up, providing a very weak example against the theoretic nature of American SF.

The Man Who Lost the Sea by Theodore Sturgeon
Wonderfully written, The Man Who Lost the Sea shows how Sturgeon was easily one of the more classic-style writers. Concentration here is on the prose moreso than the science and one might even be hard pressed to find an SF variable beyond its dramatic flair, if not for the obvious space and astronaut references herein. Theodore takes the reader on a journey that leads into the deepest recesses of a man's mind, and provides at the end a wonderfully surprising turn.

On the Inside Track by Karl Michael Armer
Another national contribution to World Treasury, Armer's SF from Germany is one of the few English-translated authors of the genre. The story is interesting but slightly dragging, the highlight of it being the personalities of the alien and human stars of the plot. The ending is bittersweet and satisfying however, providing a unique look at alien-human camaraderie which is rarely found, the aliens typically being the harbingers of evil or destruction in many of SF's popular stories of the period (War of the Worlds comes to mind). Coming to mind when I think of On the Inside Track insofar as the friendship journey goes is movie Enemy Mine.

The Golem by Avram Davidson
One of the few examples of wit and humor within the anthology, Davidson's The Golem twists the mythological man-made robot and spins it into a witty conversational story. It's a strikingly funny piece and clearly shows the twisted nature of humanity, at any age, to turn whatever comes up in their own favor.

The New Prehistory by Rene' Rebetez-Cortes
Spanish SF is few and far between, but herein lies a contribution of such in the form of The New Prehistory. This shorter work is a drama of evolution gone wrong - or then again, right, who am I to say? Powerful and disturbing from beginning to quick end.

A Meeting with Medusa by Arthur C. Clarke
Britain's Clarke is a giant of contemporary SF. Such novels as the highly acclaimed 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood's End have graced the shelves of science fiction aficionados for years and will continue to do so. Who doesn't remember the rise of Hal within the former? A Meeting with Medusa is one of this collection's longer works. It is nowhere near exciting to read, but instead is a progressively wondrous piece of discovery as mankind learns just what type of strangeness can be found in the Universe at large.

The Valley of Echoes by Gerard Klein
One of the more distinguished French writers of SF literature, Klein was a master at device styles within his writing. Switching between past, present and future tenses at will to heighten the literary stature of his work, France's SF contributors - Jules Verne comes to mind - are some of the more literate of the genre. The Valley of Echoes is a slow moving piece, but shows how loneliness and non-contact can be just as much a hurdle in space travel as technology.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolf
In the 80's, classic science fiction was finally making more headway into the minds of mainstream media. This can easily be shown by the sudden burst of Hollywood into the traits of the genre with everything from alien contact (Close Encounters, E.T.) to android action (Terminator). At this time the doors of SF was opened to the world and as such new writers flocked in to provide the public with new material for the SF craze. Gene Wolf was one of these, beginning in the 1970s but bursting heavily onto the scene with award winning novels and multi-volume sagas in the 1980's. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a longer contribution here in this anthology, but is well worth the read dropping you right into the midst of a new sociological structure and viewing the rebellious nature of youth during a future look. The story moves on elusively until it is suddenly questioning morality, sociology and even philosophy by the end. Truly an intellectual endeavor.

The Chaste Planet by John Updike
Updike is a contemporary American writer that has built up quite a following in the literary world. He has, however, once tried his hand at SF, and the result was The Chaste Planet. A study in alien sexuality, interesting and well written.

The Blind Pilot by Nathalie-Charles Henneberg
The writing team of Nathalie and Charles Henneberg were French SF writers that populated France's Fiction magazine, begun as a translation of America's The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The Blind Pilot is an unusual story that has a similar, darker tone to it and I found it reminiscent to the works of Lovecraft and Poe. A tale of the mesmerizing effect that other-world creatures can be imagined to have on humanity.

The Men Who Murdered Mohammed by Afred Bester
Bester's The Stars My Destination was what got me on my current science fiction kick. His work is well known, most notably the Hugo Award winning The Demolished Man. He employs quite a number of twists and turns in all his SF writings, and The Men Who Murdered Mohammed is no different. A wonderful story with witty action and humorous outcomes, this was a highlight to the anthology. The ending is pure genius.

Pairpuppets by Manuel Van Loggem
A Dutch story in the vein of Brave New World, Pairpuppets looks into the future of sexuality within the human race. In this plot, mating and sex have been boiled down to a science, and humankind loses the thrill of the chase, courtship and, above all, love. Looking for alternatives, one man is lead back to the beginning in a great twisting of the tale.

Two Dooms by C. M. Kornbluth
Dark and ironic, the work of Cyril Kornbluth remained in the shadows until the arrival in the 50's of such new pulp SF magazines as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A wonderful tale of twisting dimensions, Two Dooms is one of the stories that visits the "what if" scenario by placing America as a loser in a world war. The discovery of nuclear weapons leads a scientist to question the morality of such destructive powers…and shows him a scenario designed to guide him to the right choice.

Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon by Stanislaw Lem
Lem is one of the few Polish writers of contemporary SF, and his story found here takes on a strange and ironic twist in the form of a fable. Mixing up folklore with technology, Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon is ironically simple yet wonderfully written. It almost has a child's parable feel to it, easily read by anyone. Although the deeper meanings of theology and philosophy hidden behind the flair can only be seen if you look deeper.

The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein
A great of the genre, Heinlein has brought us such novels as Stranger In a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, The Number of the Beast and one of my personal favorites, The Door Into Summer. A folk style story, The Green Hills of Earth is the saga of a spaceway hero by the name of Rhysling. Dipping us deep into the history of a time we've never seen, he has the knack of keeping the reader from drowning in an unfamiliar place with his literary flair, giving us only enough technology of the time to keep the story smooth and flowing without becoming stooped in intellectual fodder. Very unlike his highly-scientific and moralistic Stranger In a Strange Land, of which he was most known.

Ghost V by Robert Shcekley
Sheckley is one of the few writers to attain near-fame based only on his short fiction. He did turn to novels later with such works as Immortality, Inc. and Mindswap. The very witty Ghost V is a comedic story of childhood nightmares come true. A refreshing read.

The Phantom of Kansas by John Varley
Varley burst onto the scene in the 1970s, but faded away in the 80s as he become a revisor of scripts in Hollywood. Asimov himself hailed Varley as "the new Heinlein" in the 70s, as he poured a virtual barrage of short fiction into the genre at the time. The Phantom of Kansas is a great story, a futuristic version of the mystery. It closes with a great twist and even a slightly Hal-like system of databanks that, in the end, questions its own morality.

Captain Nemo's Last Adventure by Josef Nesvadba
A Czech SF writer, Nesvadba is similar in style to Campbellian era golden age SF. Borrowing Verne's Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea and the Nautilus name as well, Nesvadba provides us a heroic astronaut willing to throw himself and his crew into danger in true Batmanesque style. A space drama in the truest sense.

Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven
Niven is one of the writers to which the term "science fiction" can truly be applied. While not a literary or stylistic author, Niven's stories always highlighted scientific postulations against problems. Exacting in his placement of technological notions and imagery, Niven's work always shows clever use of knowledge. Inconstant Moon is a wonderful story that explores the possibilities of galactic catastrophe and pits this against the forward thinking players in the tale. Its problem-solving slant is very reminiscent of Mysterious Island or Robinson Crusoe.

The Gold at the Starbow's End by Frederik Pohl
Pohl is most well-known as the editor of such pulp SF magazines as Galaxy and If. He also served as consultant to Balantine Books, who's leadership in the SF and fantasy genres would force such other companies as Ace Books and Bantam later into the fray - both of these companies had him as editor for some time as well. He however kept up well his own writing, collaborating with such other authors as Cyril M. Kornbluth and continued into the 1980s to define post-New Wave hard SF for the genre. The Gold at the Starbow's End is not even close to an action story. It is however greatly rewarding, if a bit confusing and intellectually advanced. The story itself looks into the "if you put a million monkeys into a room for a million years they'll eventually write Shakespeare" myth, placing people on their own to do nothing but think and postulate, devising everything from dialects before their time to mathematical problems that couldn't be solved elsewhere.

A Sign in Space by Italo Calvino
Calfino was an Italian writer that occasionally dipped into, yet usually just barely, the literary genre of hard SF. A Sign in Space is a confusing collection of verbiage that slowly outlines evolution from a very backwards start. It's difficult to follow, but somehow rewarding in its reading. I can't even begin to explain this one, really.

The Spiral by Italo Calvino
Again Calvino brings us another of his short fiction works. And again we touch upon the growth of evolution from a truly philosophical standpoint. A must-read for fans of philosophical and theological ramblings.

The Dead Past by Isaac Asimov
I love this story, as much for the fact that it was written by hard SF great Isaac Asimov as much for its look into time-space matters. I truly adore stories that involve time travel or time peeking, finding the overall subject quite fascinating. In The Dead Past, we are given to a world where scientific research has advanced so far that everything is horrendously controlled. All scientists find themselves having to choose such a niche that they become near-ignorants to other forms of science. I don't mean physics not understanding biology because they chose to specialize - I mean physics of a particular type of matter not knowing much about other types of matter. Specializations have become so stringent that science is advanced by something near idiot savants. This is the story of one man's curiosity leading him into an area of research he shouldn't be (it is considered unethical to follow a line of research not directly related to your own), and closes with such a fascinating ending that I recommend this piece to virtually anyone even vaguely interested in reading.

The Lens by Annemarie Van Ewyck
A Dutch story by post-New Wave writer Van Ewyck, The Lens looks into religious beliefs of a future time and distant planet. Interesting even if a little dull, The Lens is a rather short piece that you'll breeze through quickly.

The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast by Theodore Sturgeon
Sturgeon, contemporary American writer he is, shows us again his playful SF side in the short story of the pretty blue hurkle. He doesn't bother to explain much, instead concentrating on the actions of a Seuss like creation of his. It was a refreshingly happy story, well placed after the depressing crush of The Lens.

Zero Hour by Ray Bradbury
One of the 1970s greatest writers of SF, Bradbury is known most for his Martian Chronicles and, of course, Fahrenheit 451 collection. Zero Hour is a highlight to The World Treasury of Science Fiction and I enjoyed it immensely. Taking another look at the alien-invasion genre of fiction, Zero Hour touches lightly on the idea of innocence, ignorance and usage of such to bring about the destruction of mankind. Wonderfully told.

Nine Lives by Ursula K. Le Guin
Hugo-award winning author for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin is a feminist both in stature and within her fiction, including her SF writings which put her in the forefront of contemporaries of the genre in the 60's. In this book her story Nine Lives shines as a brilliant example of an off-world and cloning plot together, exploring the nuances of multiples in a future time. Each taught a specific specialty to create a functional team, what happens when only one is left to fend for itself? Somewhat slow moving and probably not one the action-adventure types will enjoy, it nonetheless carries a deeper look into the psyche.

The Muse by Anthony Burgess
Burgess is well known in contemporary SF and literary circles, most notably for his spectacular novel A Clockwork Orange made famous by the notable Stanley Kubrick on the silver screen. He began in the 50s and 60s spearheading the New Wave SF movement in Britian. The Muse is a time travel story, though it doesn't surround the plot with technical details. Instead it is quite twisted and not unlike the surrealistic Orange. An awesome ending.

The Public Hating by Steve Allen
Yes, that's right, Steve Allen. The actor, talk show host and comedian wrote a single SF story, and this is it. The writing is, admittedly, under par with the literary examples of Burgess, Bradbury and others within this book, but The Public Hating indeed turned out to be an interesting look at paranormal abilities of a future human culture. A very quick read.

Poor Superman by Fritz Leiber
Leiber is popular in Lovecraft fiction circles and indeed corresponded with the enigmatic H.P. himself back in the day. He eventually got pulled into the circle of writers that surrounded Campbell and the New Wave SF movement. Leiber, in Poor Superman, takes us to a utopian culture future of humankind where all of the world's biggest questions are entrusted to a group of people called The Thinkers. This group is said to be the greatest creative minds of all time, advising presidents and generals in their endeavors. As it turns out, it's all just business and string pulling. Conspiracy theorists will love this one.

Angouleme by Thomas M. Disch
A writer within both the US pulp magazine and Britian's New Wave movement after living there for a while, Disch's wrote a number of serial style pieces. Angouleme is a stand alone short fiction, rare with Disch's work. It's more a "childhood journey" story than science fiction and it doesn't seem to fit within the confines of World Treasury, but whatever man.

Stranger Station by Damon Knight
Damon Knight is a name you will see frequently within SF, in many forms. A heavy translator of European work, editor and encouraging teacher to new writers in the scene, he spent more time editing and teaching than writing his own work. Stranger Station is a hard SF piece with theological and philosophical depths. What happens when two alien races, both of which are a blasphemy of vision to the other, see for the first time their likenesses? And why do they do it? Wonderfully written and a definite thinker's piece.

The Dead Fish by Boris Vian Frenchman
Boris Vian was also a translator of contemporary SF in the 40s, and never really wrote much at all within the confines of the genre. They wanted to represent him within World Treasury nonetheless and did so with a strange, surrealistic piece called The Dead Fish. It's murder in the constraints of a Picasso painting. Fucking weird.

I Was the First to Find You by Kirill Bulychev
SF in the Soviet Union is few and far between, but they do have their few notables including Kirill Bulychev. A far-off space mission is excavating a site on another planet when they find an anachronism that doesn't match what they expected to find. Where could it have been, when they were supposedly the first to arrive from Earth on this far-off world?

The Lineman by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
After winning the Hugo Award for A Canticle in the 1960s, Walter stopped writing fiction. The Lineman is a short piece that is usually put near or next to his award winning novel. Delving into an off-world lifestyle, The Lineman touches on loneliness, brooding men as they attempt to make it through their mundane and hazardous existences far from their homeworld. It's not an action packed story by any means, but it is a slower paced and interesting read. Miller excels at building characters to true dimensions.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges
Argentinian writer Borges is weird. His story found here is weird. The backdrop of the story is weird, the plot is weird, the understanding of the story is strangely out of reach. Highly intellectual and taking the "I think therefore I am" posturing further to create something of an "I think therefore it exists" mass-consciousness level, do NOT read this story while under the influence of, well, anything. It's very in-depth, difficult to follow, but closes in an amazingly thought-provoking end. And, at the beginning, Tlon was one of my hated stories in this book. But by the end, it is suddenly placed near the top. And I'm not sure why - it's damn weird.

Codemus by Tor Age Bringsvaerd
Norway's Bringsvaerd is one of the few from the Scandinavian area involved in writing SF. Plenty of American SF has been translated here, but until Bringsvaerd it only had an audience with little participation. Technology and sociology meld to form a rather disturbing version of a utopian extreme in Codemus. It's one of the best stories in this anthology and I recommend it highly.

A Kind of Artistry by Brian Aldiss
Aldiss is a follower of the H.G. Wells camp of British SF from the 50s. Stylistically his writing is similar in vein as well. Mixing fantasy with a hero-driven space-drama plot format, A Kind of Artistry also throws in a good dagger of angst along with the cultural boundaries as cause. Not the best story in the collection, but a fun drop from the seriousness of Codemus.

Second Variety by Philip K. Dick
Everyone even remotely aware of contemporary SF has heard the name of Philip Dick, creator of the cyberpunk anthem movie Bladerunner - or at least a book called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the movie is based. Robots are of course one of Dick's favorite subjects, along with all the considerations that might go along with this morally, philosophically and theoretically. Second Variety is a story set in a similar war-torn universe as you have seen in The Terminator, but just prior to the robot's movement up the food chain. I had figured out the twist ending before I got there, however…although the implications of it came to light better after it. But knowing something that the major character hasn't figured out through half the story was kind of disappointing.

Weihnacht-sabend by Keith Roberts
Unfortunately, Weihnacht-sabend was another "what if?" scenario story. It touches on mind control and manipulation, but not in depth and not to my liking. I'm not a big fan of "what if?" style SF and consider it more Alternate-Historical or something like that to begin with, so I didn't enjoy this one much at all.

I Do Not Love Thee, Doctor Fell by Robert Bloch
Bloch was another Lovecraft correspondent and, strangely enough, the author of the classic Psycho. In similar vein is I Do Not Love Thee, Doctor Fell. Not really SF and more what I would consider psycho-horror better placed among Silence of the Lambs, as one example. But I loved the story. Great ending. Excellent mindfuck style psycho-drama. It was weird to come across it in this anthology, but it is good fiction.

Aye, and Gomorrah… by Samuel R. Delany
Delany is a well known author of the more modern 60s/70s SF genre, and successfully pushed the bar up on literary excellence within the community. His writing swiftly carries you along, but in this example leaves you stranded at various points around. Much of this short piece is left to your own decision, but you pick up enough through the work to be able to begin defining a strange and deviant world that will have you thinking for a while.

How Erg the Self-Inducting Slew a Paleface by Stanislaw Lem
Lem is fairly well known Polish writer of SF. This piece is an another-realm story filled with drama and surrealism. His other story in this book is very similar to the make-up of this fantastic piece. Taking on a completely mesmerizing alternate reality fairy tale stance, it's one of the highlights of this collection. Much like his other piece here.

Nobody's Home by Joanna Russ
Beginning her career while a student of writer Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Russ became another stroke of feminism in the genre. Slow moving and delving into sociological territory, it moves very slowly. Nobody's Home wasn't a highlight. I must admit the utopia-as-nude-beach idea isn't bad though.

Party Line by Gerard Klein
Klein has put much into contemporary SF, first starting as a Bradbury-influenced writer at the age of 19. He has also done (and may still be?) editing for a magazine that concentrated on French translations of new SF. In Party Line, a man is faced with a strange and portent-laden decision to make. And suddenly the story ends without the resolution. Boy, that pissed me off…

The Proud Robot by Lewis Padgett
From Campbell's stable of 1940's writers, Lewis Padgett is the pen name of pulp hack Henry Kuttner. This is my first encounter with his work, including writings under the Kuttner-Moore team which he is more well known for. And I really enjoyed The Proud Robot. It's a silly, warped story of an intellectual eccentric genius and the most beautiful can opener in the world.

Vintage Season by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore
And yet another example of the work of Henry Kuttner following his pseudonym. While most people like the work he did with his wife C.L. Moore moreso than his work as Padgett which he did alone, I found The Proud Robot a better read than the poor example of a time travel story given here.

The Way to Amalteia by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Brothers Arkady and Boris close this anthology with the fairly long The Way to Amalteia. Not one of my favorites here and moves quite slowly, this piece is reminiscent of Robin Carusoe's classic story of being stranded, only with an SF background. The technology is discussed in something of detail and is quite well done, however.

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