Saturday, June 6, 2009

The best of science fiction

Nope -- not shameless self-promotion.

I recently acquired a vintage anthology, copyright 1946, titled The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin with a foreword by John W. Campbell. And what a blast from the past it was!

Conklin was one of the early, premier SF anthologists. His anthos, more than any other single source, hooked me on SF as a boy. (These books were old already when I encountered them in my elementary-school library.) Campbell, of course, was the longtime editor of Astounding Stories magazine (renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact on his watch). Campbell not only nurtured the careers of such Golden Age greats as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, but was a great SF author in his own right.

Setting aside a few really vintage stories (like those by Poe, Conan Doyle, and Wells), the entries in this antho are from the 1930s and early 1940s. The science, of course, is quaint by today's standards. Attitudes toward some races, genders, and ethnicities make the modern reader wince. Aliens all too often are fixated, without explanation, on conquering Earth and destroying humankind. The prose style is, by today's conventions, often melodramatic and overblown (with too! many! exclamation points!!).

So why am I writing about this book? Because so many of the stories, when put into the context of when they were written, are brilliant. Classics.

Yes, the science is dated -- but sometimes it was cutting edge for the time.

Robert A. Heinlein -- sometimes writing as himself, sometimes as Anson MacDonald -- is a standout. The opening story in the book, "Solution Unsatisfactory" (copyright 1941) was an astonishing look at the implications of nuclear weaponry and its meaning to geopolitics. "Universe" (copyright 1941) is, to the best of my knowledge, the first story based on the concept of interstellar generation ships.

Campbell, writing as Don A. Stuart, had a great piece called "Atomic Power" (copyright 1934!) dealing with multiverse theory. Cleve Cartmill's "Deadline" (copyright 1944), when first published, brought the FBI to Analog's editorial office in search of a leak from the Manhattan Project. Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (copyright 1945) took the first steps away from the notion that any encounter with aliens is necessarily kill or be killed.

And many more ...

All in all, it was a most enjoyable step back in time. What more can any SF fan ask?


Crotchety Old Fan said...

Excellent selection of "golden oldies" - many of those stories I'll re-read any chance I get.

Edward M. Lerner said...

The next golden oldie on my list (before I return to new stuff) is a newly acquired copy of The Tyrant of Time, by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. I've been looking for an affordable copy for many years. As a kid, the lead story blew my mind.