Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review - Tales from Super-Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg

Stories Included
Catch 'Em All Alive by Robert Silverberg
Who Am I? by Henry Slesar
Every Day Is Christmas by James E. Gunn
I'll Take Over by A. Bertram Chandler (as George Whitely)
Song of the Axe by Don Berry
Broomstick Ride by Robert Bloch
Worlds of Origin by Jack Vance
I Want to Go Home by Robert Moore Williams
The Tool of Creation by J.F. Bone
Hostile Life-Form by Daniel F. Galouye
The Gift of Numbers by Alan E. Nourse
First Man in a Satellite by Charles W. Runyon
A Place Beyond the Stars by Tom Godwin
The Loathsome Beasts by Robert Silverberg (as Dan Malcolm)
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: It seems somewhat odd to think of it now, with only as handful of dedicated fiction magazines still publishing, but in the 1950s there was such demand for pulpy tales that publishers with no experience in genres like science fiction were moved to start their own science fiction magazines to capitalize on the market. In 1956, Harlan, a company whose experience in publishing included titles like Trapped and Guilty - magazines that specialized in juvenile delinquent tales - decided to throw its hat into the science fiction ring with the magazine Super-Science Fiction. Luckily, W.W. Scott, the editor of all three magazines, knew both Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg who had previously submitted stories of juvenile mischief and punishment to his other magazines. With the two of them helping him out (and earning themselves steady money by submitting stories to him), the result was a fun, if short-lived, magazine. In Tales of Super-Science Fiction Robert Silverberg takes the reader on a chronological journey through the three year history of the magazine, starting with the stories published in its earliest issues, and concluding with some monster oriented stories representative of those that made up the bulk of its later "SPECIAL MONSTER ISSUE" installments.

The fourteen stories included in this retrospective anthology are pretty much exactly what one would expect would be in a collection drawn from the pages of a pulpy magazine published in the late 1950s. Lantern jawed heroes, dorky scientists, and damsels in distress make up a substantial portion of the population of the stories, and they are opposed by bug-eyed monsters, computers run wild, or monomaniacal tyrants. As an aside, the cover picture is hilarious in its depiction of 1950s science fiction sensibility. A buxom woman threatened by a horde of aliens is clad in a leotard and space helmet, with the outfit, of course, prominently highlighting her breasts. But the outfit doesn't cover her legs. What sort of environment is she supposed to be in where she needs a space helmet, but can walk around with bare legs?

The first story, Catch 'Em All Alive by Robert Silverberg, is a classic tale of the hubris of human explorers who come across an alien planet that they think offers them everything they could ever want and consequently don't bother to investigate before they get themselves into trouble. The twist at the end of the story is somewhat predictable, but the story is well-executed. A second story about the dangers of human hubris is found in I'll Take Over by A. Bertram Chandler, in which the mechanical "brain" controlling a star ship tells the ship's crew that the craft is experiencing a malfunction, whereupon they land on an prohibited alien planet and have to deal with the comparatively primitive natives. The story has some twists and turns, including a hint of supernatural influence, but ends up as a fairly standard tale of technological paranoia. Broomstick Ride by Robert Bloch is almost exactly the opposite, taking place on a planet where witches are real. The explorers try to convince the local authorities that magic cannot be real while at the same time trying to find some logical explanation for the apparently supernatural phenomena. While I'll Take Over expresses man's fear of technology, Broomstick Ride expresses man's fear of the night and the supernatural horrors our imaginations have filled it with. A "space exploration" story with a twist, The Tool of Creation by J.F. Bone, is a variant on the "engineering puzzle" story. In the story a ship traveling at superluminal speeds suffers a malfunction that threatens to drop the ship into "normal" space, which would be fatal to the crew. They have to solve the problem of shedding enough speed to avoid this fate, with the added wrinkle of using the super science in the story to solve the mystery of where solar systems come from.

Several of the stories amount to mysteries with an exotic added element. Who Am I? by Henry Slesar is the first of these, as a pair of space traders rescue an unknown individual drifting in a space-sled. The simple act of getting the man they rescued to identify himself proves to be the central mystery of the story, as it seems that he doesn't really know himself. as it is a science fiction story, the answer turns out to be somewhat exotic. Song of the Axe by Don Berry is probably the most archetypal example of 1950s era science fiction. A disgraced (but still lantern jawed and manly) star ship captain is given another chance by his superiors when they ask him to try to locate the lost records of a dead civilization. The story includes a beautiful alien princess, exotic alien rituals, an invading alien army, and a hero who uses an axe in a battle where others are using high tech weaponry. The story is basically mindless action adventure, but it is fairly good action adventure. Worlds of Origin by Jack Vance is a mode sedate mystery centered on a murder at a space resort housing vacationers from various planets. Vance's recurring character Magnus Ridolph just happens to be on hand when the murder occurs and the resort owner asks him to investigate. Ridolph decides that unraveling the mystery will depend upon examining the worlds the various guests hail from (hence the title), and sets about solving the crime. The story is decent, and the mystery is intriguing, but the stereotyping of the aliens - effectively assuming that everyone from a given planet, or who has a given profession holds the same mind set - robs an otherwise good yarn of some verisimilitude.

A couple of the stories use the science fiction as a vehicle to comment very explicitly with the concerns that were hot topics in the 1950s, and Every Day Is Christmas by James E. Gunn is the most didactic of these. In his story Gunn posits that advertising had been perfected "scientifically" to the point where the populace has become mindless purchasing drones acquiring and hoarding massive piles of products that they have no real use for. A deep space explorer returns to this culture of insane consumption and struggles to fit in. The passage of time has made the story somewhat unintentionally humorous, but it is still disturbing and effective. Another story exemplifying this style of story First Man in a Satellite by Charles W. Runyon that takes place almost entirely aboard a tiny one man satellite housing man's first space explorer as it orbits the Earth: a dwarf from Vaudeville recruited to the the job because of his small size. A malfunction in the craft leads to those on the ground talking the protagonist through the landing procedures, a task made more difficult by the lousy communications between the ground and orbit. The story is one of the more thoughtful ones in the collections, and has a sad yet also triumphant conclusion.

One of the best stories in the book, I Want to Go Home by Robert Moore Williams is a strange story about a seemingly insane youth who believes he is actually an alien from another world. The story is told from the perspective of a scientist brought in by the police to examine the boy, but by the end the reader is left wondering who has a handle on reality and who does not. As with most really good science fiction stories, the ending is ambiguous and slightly disturbing. The Gift of Numbers by Alan E. Nourse, on the other hand, is a blackly humorous story in which a hapless accountant is duped into accepting a gift from a somewhat colorful character who calls himself the Colonel. The "gift" is a seemingly inexplicable affinity for numbers that is accompanied by an ulcer and an uncontrollable (and unconscious) desire to use the newly acquired mathematical talents to commit petty larceny. The "gift" is a decidedly mixed blessing, and the protagonist is keen to get rid of it, but in the end it turns out that the tables are turned. The story is both creepy and darkly funny. Possibly the best story in the book is Tom Godwin's A Place Beyond the Stars, a tale possibly more relevant today than it was when written. A space scout tasked with preparing way stations for the following emigration fleet to resupply at lands on a planet controlled by a fascist government that strictly regulates everything, including scientific inquiry. The inimical government has banned all research of no seeming practical value, but seizes upon the scout as a potential source of technologically advanced weaponry. Using their own scientific myopia against them, the scout manages to turn the tables and secure a safe port of call for his fleet. The story is engaging, and in a world in which governments increasingly seem to disdain "blue sky" science, it is also a cautionary tale.

Late in its run, Super-Science Fiction began focusing heavily on "monster" stories in an effort to retain readers, hyping every issue as a "special monster issue". Hostile Life-Form by Daniel F. Galouye is a story that fell into that category. Human explorers on an alien planet find themselves besieged by monstrous alien beasts until they are apparently saved by the arrival of another species that preys upon their tormentors. As usual, the story takes a dark turn as the situation is not exactly what the explorers assumed it was. The story is somewhat predictable, but it is still fun to read, and does a good job at conveying a rising sense of horror and tension. The final story in the book is The Loathsome Beasts by Robert Silverberg, who wrote the story under the pen name Dan Malcolm to help disguise the fact that he had contributed so many stories to the magazine. The story itself is one of the weaker stories in the volume, with mindless alien monsters serving more or lass as ravening beasts that exist to fight and eat the colonists on a distant planet. The story starts with some (for the 1950s) salacious scenes of teenagers swimming naked and then getting eaten by giant sea monsters. The rest of the story details the colony's increasingly desperate battle against the encroaching horde until the final denouement that would have conservationists and xenobiologists howling. The story is a classic case of "kill the monsters" science fiction, and being a Silverberg story it is competently written, but it isn't anything more than that.

With the switch in focus to repeated "special monster issues", the writing was on the wall. Three years and eighteen issues after Super-Science Fiction was first published, it folded. But as this collection shows, what it left behind was a legacy of enjoyable science fiction stories, albeit stories that are firmly rooted in a 1950s mindset. Filled with an eclectic cross-section of the best stories the magazine had to offer, Tales from Super-Science Fiction offers a fun romp through science fiction history and should find a place on the bookshelf of any fan of classic science fiction.

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  1. I love this! I need to find some of these retro sci fi anthologies!

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I have a pile, and I'll probably be reviewing them all at some point. In the meantime, you could always get this one. :)