Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book #2 2012

My second book of 2012 is an abridged paperback edition of a previously-published hardcover anthology, consisting of a mix of pre-Golden Age and Golden Age short stories and novelettes. The anthology was edited by August Derleth, one of the co-founders of the legendary Arkham House.

This anthology is a bit of a mixed bag, but turned out to be a neat vehicle of discovery for me, providing my first encounter with two influential writers: Clark Ashton Smith and Donald Wandrei.

"The Long Watch" (1949) by Robert A. Heinlein
This tale of Johnny Dahlquist's attempts to prevent a plot that may lead to nuclear armageddon is both gripping and poignant. Peak Heinlein.

"Minority Report" (1949) by Theodore Sturgeon
Thoroughly enjoyed this one, though I'm not sure it's primo Sturgeon, and it hasn't aged as well as much of his other work.

"Colossus" (1934) by Donald Wandrei
Let me quote the premise for this story from Bleiler's magnificent The Gernsback Years:

"Against a background of impending war, Duane Sharon has built the White Bird, a space vehicle that is powered by the energy of space itself and should be able to travel thousands of times faster than light. Since the universe seems limited telescopically and not infinite, it is possible, as he and his friend Dowell agree, that the White Bird might break out of our space and enter a supposititious macrocosm in which our universe
is a matter of atoms."

There are isolated moments in this story that work quite well, but on the whole it's a mess, with creaky transitions, stiff writing and under-cooked ideas. Kudos to Wandrei for evoking wonder with his depiction of Duane, aboard his ship, travelling faster and faster until he eventually punctures our universe and discovers that yes, truly, our entire universe exists only within an atom of a super-universe. (So in a way this story is like the flipside to the Hamilton piece; see below). Kudos also to Wandrei for referencing Einstein, if only to dismiss the central tenets of special relativity with a few quick wand-waves. Anti-kudos to Wandrei for the uber-preposterous ending. Bleiler sums it up perfectly:

"He [Duane] lands on Valadom, which is a beautiful, elfin planet, where he immediately meets a pleasant, nude female who reminds him of the dead Anne."

Ugh. Apparently, there's a sequel, too. I'm in no rush to read it.

"A Voyage to Sfanomoƫ" (1931) by Clark Ashton Smith
A touching piece, with a delicate ending. I'm delighted to have discovered this "Weird" writer, and look forward to dipping into his huge catalog of short fiction over the years to come. I didn't mind at all that the story veered off from its initial SF-sounding setup, because it was unexpected, refreshing, engagingly-written.

"The Seesaw" (1941) by A. E. van Vogt
I discussed this story in detail in my Strange Horizons review of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 3. A second re-reading hasn't really changed my opinion. Since my comments are somewhat buried in that longer review, I'm going to re-paste them here:

Practically all of the comments I made about A. E. van Vogt's "Vault of the Beast" could apply to "The Seesaw," too, which causes me some trepidation—will all his remaining stories in these volumes be like this, wild birds jammed to excess with delicious stuffing, but sorely undercooked, ever more akin to turkeys? Still, "The Seesaw" has wings enough to get off the ground, even if it ends (literally) in a vast collision of forces, and it does mark the beginning of the famous Weapon Shops of Isher series, so I suppose I can't entirely dismiss it. Oh, what the heck, it's entertaining enough. It opens with a newspaper extract that tells of a building that materialized in a spot normally occupied by other shops, mysteriously advertising "THE FINEST ENERGY WEAPONS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE." Then we find out what ensued when reporter C. J. McAllister entered the building to discover that it's no ordinary shop, and no longer 1941, but rather "eighty-four of the four thousand seven hundredth year of the Imperial House of Isher." McAllister, naturally, has become embroiled in a struggle of cosmic proportions, becoming a "weight" at the end of a "crowbar" which will fling him five thousand years into the past—and so on.

As the ideas pile on and the action explodes in fits and bursts of ever-escalating unpredictability, one is easily disoriented—but this effect almost enhances the story, lending it a sort of surreal charm. In a 1980 interview van Vogt describes his working method at the time of writing this story, and reflects: "I was—so I thought later—unnoticingly tapping my subconscious mind.” I hope that for modern readers experiencing "The Seesaw" for the first time, it holds their attention long enough to not unwittingly tap into their subconscious mind or, said more simply, put them to sleep, because it really is worth sticking around to for the very last line, which inflates Rocklynne's closed time-loop notion to mind-staggering proportions. Arthur C. Clarke wrote of it: "Si monumentum requires, circumspice indeed! I defy anyone to find a more awesome last line in the whole of fiction."

There's also another upside. The idea of the "seesaw" effect, or time-travel-conservation, for lack of a better term, in which forward traveling must be compensated with backward traveling, may have inspired at least two stories superior to van Vogt's: William Tenn's "Brooklyn Project," and Robert Silverberg's novel Project Pendulum (1987). Both are worth seeking out, if only to see that good things can come from muddled beginnings.

"The Flying Men (Excerpt from Last and First Men)" (1950) by Olaf Stapledon
Far-out. Compelling, utterly unique. I was surprised at how well this worked as an excerpt.

"Fessenden's Worlds" (1937) by Edmond Hamilton
The brilliant, eccentric largely amoral Arnold Fessenden builds a miniature Universe and experiments on its worlds and inhabitants. Conceptually this is a forerunner to Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God," which is far superior in most regards. But this has Hamilton's signature storytelling charm, specially in the opening setup scenes. It's the same charm that makes other stories by him, like the much earlier "The Man Who Evolved," more memorable than perhaps they have a right to be, if one were to assess them purely based on craft and  subtlety or lack thereof.

"Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" (1948) by Frank Belknap Long
Didn't care much for this one. A couple of fun moments, but it seemed overlong, and a tad predictable. Perhaps I'm not much of a fan of fantasy worlds that take after children's stories, etc., and the inclusion of this story in the anthology felt a bit jarring, since despite the "parallel dimension" trappings it is quite unabashedly fantastic.

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