Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Review - The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I, 1929-1964 edited by Robert Silverberg

Stories Included
A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum
Twilight by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Helen O'Loy by Lester del Rey
The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein
Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov
The Weapon Shop by A.E. van Vogt
Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett
Huddling Place by Clifford D. Simak
Arena by Fredric Brown
First Contact by Murray Leinster
That Only a Mother by Judith Merril
Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith
Mars Is Heaven! by Ray Bradbury
The Little Black Bag by Cyril M. Kornbluth
Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson
Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber
The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher
Surface Tension by James Blish
The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke
It's a Good Life by Jerome Bixby
The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin
Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester
The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny
Full review: During Robert Silverberg's tenure as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, the members decided to honor a selection of works of science fiction that had been published before the organization established the Nebula Awards. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame series was the result, and this volume was the first to be made. Consisting of stories selected by a vote of the then-members of SFWA that were both under fifteen thousand words and published before 1965, this volume puts on display what the established science fiction authors of the late 1960s regarded as the fundamental works of the genre. With the addition of some relatively light editorial selection by Silverberg, this book is essentially the cream of the science fiction genre as drawn from a thirty-five year period extending from 1929 to 1964.

Classic science fiction was heavily populated with stories about exploring Mars, and A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum is a fairly imaginative example of this type of story. Although science has overtaken the story - Mars' atmosphere is far thinner and colder than was believed when Weinbaum wrote the story, one can easily mentally transpose the action to a different, more hospitable planet without doing substantial violence to the tale. What makes A Martian Odyssey special is that for a story originally published in 1934, it describes a fairly imaginative cadre of alien life-forms, including one that might not even be considered to be "alive", so much as a mobile automaton. The story does have some issues though: It is told in retrospect as the protagonist recounts his adventures to his fellow explorers, which pretty much drains any real drama out of the account. Weinbaum also engages in a little bit of misdirection near then, as it turns out that a fair amount of the troubles faced by the protagonist are the result of his own perfidy, making him far less sympathetic of a figure. In the end, however, the story is saved by the diverse set of exotic aliens described.

It seems that using a narrator to recount previously occurring events was a common device used in science fiction in the 1930s, as Twilight by John W. Campbell also uses this device, but does so at an even further remove from the actual action by having the narrator tell a story that the actual protagonist told him. In Twilight, Jim Bendell tells the story of how he picked up an odd hitch-hiker who claimed to be a time traveler from a thousand years in the future who told him the story of how he had journeyed even further into the future to the twilight of man. Of the stories in this volume, this is one of the weakest, as it ends up being mostly descriptions of the empty cities and their mindless caretaker robots encountered by the time traveler. The time traveler does encounter some of the last vestiges of humanity in his travels, but as they have lost their curiosity and ambition, nothing much comes of this meeting, which more or less sums up the weakness of this story. Quite simply, not much happens. The time traveler goes five million years in the future, sees a dying world in which nothing much happens, and then comes back to tell a real estate agent about the nothing that happened. The imagined future is somewhat beautiful and somewhat depressing at the same time, but it amounts to a fairly limp story.

Helen O'Loy by Lester del Rey is ostensibly about two men who build a robot, but it really tackles the question of what it means to be human and what it means to fall in love. The titular character is the robot created by the narrator and his best friend, who are merely trying to create a responsive domestic robot that can learn how to cater to its owner's needs. Almost by accident, they create something much more - a construct that, if it isn't actually sentient, is so close as to be indistinguishable from sentience, and which falls madly in love with the narrator's friend, a development that frightens both of the android's creators. In lesser hands this story would have likely turned into a "robot gone mad" tale, but del Rey takes the next step, treating the love-struck android like a real character (albeit a fairly sexist depiction of a character by today's standards), and this is what sets Helen O'Loy apart from the run of the mill stories of its day.

Although I don't think The Roads Must Roll is Robert A. Heinlein's best work of short fiction, it is his most famous, and one of the ones that probably gives his libertarian fans fits. Heinlein was rather famously disdainful of automobiles, considering them to be wasteful and inefficient, and in this story he constructs an alternative: Moving highways that people can step onto and off of for their transportation needs. This massive infrastructure requires a massive labor force to maintain it, and unrest among this labor force is where The Roads Must Roll transforms from a description of possible technology to an actual story. The interesting thing about the way the story plays out is that Heinlein seems to condemn both labor unions and individual autonomy in favor of service to a corporate government. The workers, striking to claim a greater share of the economic wealth their services provide and also to claim overall political power, are forcibly put down by the protagonist, who extols the virtues of working for the common good - with order to be kept at gunpoint if necessary.

Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon is one of the few stories in the volume in which the protagonist simply cannot be described in any way other than as a monstrous villain. Actually, there are two central characters - a scientist and a banker - and both of them are horrible people. The primary character is a scientist who figures out a lazy man's way to come up with new discoveries and ends up being one of the wealthiest men in the world. The other central character is the scientist's banker, who decides that he would like to have a greater share of the money his client's inventions bring in. Lost in the conflict between the two are the scientist's creations, forced to labor for his benefit under the pain of death should they disobey. The story builds to a climax and then ends somewhat ambiguously, although the central moral question of whether it is ethical to create and enslave life for one's own curiosity is left entirely unaddressed, which gives the story more than a little bit of an unsatisfying feel.

Of all the stories in this volume, the most famous among science fiction fans is probably Nightfall by Isaac Asimov, which posits a planet with multiple suns that only has night come once every thousand years. I'm not sure if the physics works out entirely correctly - it seems from the description Asimov gives that night would only fall on part of the planet during the story, and not the entire planet as all of the characters state that it will. Leaving that aside, the story takes on the question of what a culture growing up in this sort of environment would be like - with natural light a constant in their lives, they appear to have never developed much in the way of artificial light sources. The planet's inhabitants seem to have also struggled to discover the theory of gravity, as the multiple suns make such calculations quite difficult. But the most important element of the culture in Nightfall is that everyone is terrified of the dark, and this terror drives the entire story forward. It should come as no surprise that the central characters are scientists, trying to pass on a better future to their descendants by applying reason to the problems they face, and their foils are a collection of religious cultists and the mob whipped up by the cultist's fiery rhetoric. As with many great works of short fiction, the ending is somewhat ambiguous, although it is at least somewhat hopeful.

Beloved by libertarian science fiction fans, The Weapon Shop by A.E. van Vogt is built around the phrase "the right to buy weapons is the right to be free". In the story, a loyal subject of the Empress is outraged to discover that a weapon shop has shown up in his town. He rages against the interloping business and raises the populace of the town against it, all to no avail, as the weapon shop is impervious and its wares are impossible to use for nefarious purposes. Despite his steadfast loyalty, our hero's life goes sideways and he ends up losing his life savings, his business, and his home before discovering that the weapon shops are merely a front for what amounts to a shadow government opposed to the tyranny of the Empress. In the end, the protagonist's life is restored to him by the influence of the weapon shops and his ability to purchase a gun for self-defense. The problem with the story is that even though it holds that the weapon shops offer freedom, they really don't. They just offer a choice of which unassailable force one can choose to align with. In the end, the story says far less that it thinks it does, and what it does say is not particularly reassuring.

Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (writing as Lewis Padgett) is one of the few stories in this volume that involved a female author. The story features the question of how an advanced culture can inadvertently, almost thoughtlessly, affect a less technologically developed one as a researcher from the far future tests his newly developed time machine by putting some of his son's discarded toys into it before sending it back to the twentieth century, and then moves on to deal with how children learn when a seven year old boy finds the box full of toys from the future. The only problem with the story is that it seems to be almost entirely set-up with very little payoff. The toys affect the two children who use them, but adults, having learned conventional logic, are unable to understand the alien logic the toys rely upon. One might expect that this would result in some sort of world changing development, but basically the kids pretty much vanish without any real impact. In a sense, the story felt like it was heading somewhere big, and ended up going somewhere small.

Huddling Place by Clifford D. Simak was later incorporated into his novel City, and details a story of how men lose their ambition. This story covers much the same thematic ground as Campbell's Twilight, but because Simak personalizes the ennui and helplessness into an identifiable character, this story is much more effective. Jerome Webster is a world-renowned surgeon who lives on his traditional family estate, where his ancestors have lived for at least three generations following mankind's mass exodus from the now-abandoned cities. But Webster has grown comfortable in middle-age, with the years of sedentary life in the familiar halls of his family home looming large in his mind. When a crisis occurs that requires that he travel to Mars to save the life of an old friend, he finds that he is unable to even contemplate leaving his cozy nest, no matter how much he wants to, and no matter how many others exhort him to. The story offers a possible glimpse into how mankind might die with a whimper, fading into small circles huddled around comforting campfires. Huddling Place is both deeply troubling and absolutely brilliant.

One of the more viscerally gripping stories in the collection, Arena by Fredric Brown posits a situation in which the fate of the entire human race depends upon the fighting skill and ingenuity of a single man. At the climax of a war between humanity an an implacable alien foe, a race of transcendent power intervenes and plucks a single human pilot and a single alien representative to fight one another in an extradimensional space, with the fate of each race at stake. The winner's race will survive. The loser's will be destroyed. The transcendent beings will move on to another universe. The story itself is framed as a puzzle solving exercise, as the hero has to figure out how to overcome the obstacles placed in his way and defeat his opponent with little more than his bare hands and ingenuity. One might note more than a slight resemblance between this story and the Star Trek episode Arena, which is not entirely accidental. Brown's story has some issues - the alien race is presented as being entirely hostile, with no possibility of peace between them and humanity, making the choice to kill them all one that entirely lacks any moral ramifications - but the struggle presented is riveting, and that raises Arena from merely average to quite good.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the topic of Murray Leinster's story First Contact is given away by the title, as humanity comes across a ship from an alien civilization for the first time. The crew of the Llanvabon, including photographer Tommy Dort, are exploring the Crab Nebula for scientific purposes when they encounter a ship crewed by an unknown race. After communication is established, the captains of the two vessels each realize that they cannot allow the other to leave if there is any chance that their counterpart will be able to track their ship to the other's home planet. Eventually, the Dort comes up with a solution to the dilemma, and the matter is resolved peacefully. First Contact is an enduring story because it is one of the few of the era that depicts an encounter with an alien race in manner that is both hard-headed and practical, and yet optimistic at the same time. There are some elements that seem to be glossed over a bit to quickly - establishing communication between humans and a trace that uses microwave emissions to talk to one another seems like it should have required more than an off-stage hand wave, and it seems odd that two races that are as different as humans and the depicted aliens would be able to intelligibly swap dirty jokes, but these quibbles aren't enough to really pull the reader out of the story. There is a rather nasty instance of anti-Japanese racism that is inserted into the story in an off-hand manner, but this could possibly be excused by the fact that the story was written in 1945, and emotions were running high at the time. It is, however, an unfortunate black mark on an otherwise excellent story.

It seems clear that Judith Merril intended That Only a Mother to be disturbing, and it is. However, I think that what is disturbing about the story to modern eyes is not what Merril intended to be the disturbing part. The central character in the story is a woman who is at first pregnant and later a mother. The hinted background suggests that there is a war going on that has turned nuclear, and newborn babies with mutations resulting from radiation are common. Throughout most of the story the child's father is away from home, presumably due to the ongoing war, but near the end he gets leave and returns to rejoin his wife and meet his daughter. Once there he discovers the truth - his daughter is brilliant, with the mental development of a four year old before her first birthday, but limbless. At the end of the story it is strongly implied that the child's father has decided to murder his mutant daughter, and this is the truly disturbing turn. Merril clearly intended for the revelation that the daughter was a mutant to be the terrible secret that would horrify the reader and the father's solution was merely a regrettable necessity, but looking at the story now, one has to gape at the casual dismissal of the humanity of an obviously bright child on the basis of a mere physical deformity.

Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith is an extremely quirky story that manages to cram more imaginative ideas into its relatively limited length than most novels do. Martel is a scanner, someone who has gone through the "halberman process" that disconnected his mind from all of his senses but sight so as to allow him to endure the pain of traveling in the "up and out" of outer space. Most of those who undergo the process are condemned prisoners forced into servitude, but Martel and the other "scanners" are men who volunteered for the process and are trained to fly the ships that traverse the reaches of space and oversee and care for the halbermans who serve as their crew. In the opening pages, Martel is in between voyages at home with his wife when he elects to "cranch", a process that temporarily allows him to experience human sensation again. Unfortunately, while he is in this state, he is called to an emergency meeting of the scanners, where those present debate what to do to deal with an apparent threat. As the debate continues, it becomes unclear as to whether the scanners are acting in defense of humanity and civilization, or merely in their own self-interest, and Martel's cranched status gives him a unique perspective on the issues not shared (or even understandable) by his fellow scanners. The story itself is fairly simple, and most of its length is dominated by what amounts to a committee meeting, but the world-building that underlies its straightforward narrative is what makes this a superior work of fiction.

Most people think of Ray Bradbury as a science fiction author, and he definitely is that, but I have come to regard Bradbury as first and foremost an author at his best when writing horror or psychological thrillers, with Mars Is Heaven! being one of the prime examples supporting this belief. Ostensibly a science fiction story in which seventeen brave explorers set out for Mars resulting in sixteen arriving at their destination, Mars Is Heaven! then takes an unexpected turn as everyone meets their dearly departed relatives in a landscape that looks much like a town plucked from the American Midwest. Bradbury takes this perfectly ordinary set piece set in an entirely incongruous location and sets about building an increasing level of unease while at the same time tempering that unease with the idyllic nature of the setting. Even though the final revelation requires some rather improbable deductions from the protagonist, it is still a brilliant piece of horror fiction.

In The Little Black Bag by C.M. Kornbluth first imagined the future he would describe fully in The Marching Morons, in which the vast mass of humanity had become stupid while overseen by a handful of intellectual elites. In this story, a medical bag designed to allow a not very smart future doctor still practice medicine is accidentally sent into the past, where an alcoholic down on his luck doctor named Full finds it. Full first thinks to pawn the unexpected find for some quick cash to fuel his liquor habit, but runs into some complications along the way and eventually turns his life around and establishes a successful medical practice using the fool-proof devices from the bag. Unfortunately, he is forced into a partnership with a rather unscrupulous young woman and things go awry, eventually resulting in murder and accidental suicide. The story has a version of time travel that has some fairly interesting implications which are not built upon, but otherwise is an exploration of the effects resulting from sending a piece of advanced technology to the past. It isn't as good as Mimsy Were the Borogorves in this respect, but the quirks in the story differentiate it enough that it is still a fun read.

At just under four pages, Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson is the shortest work in this volume. It is also one of the creepiest. Told from the perspective of an unnamed and mostly undescribed child kept locked away by its parents, the story details its curiosity and the abuse it suffers whenever it does something that displeases its parents. Most of the transgressions committed by the protagonist involve pulling its chain from the wall and letting itself be seen by others. Matheson never actually explains what is wrong with the narrator of the story, and never gives a full description of what it looks like, although it is clear that its parents regard it as monstrous. Even so, the figure is sympathetic enough that at the end when the story appears to be about to turn, one roots for it and hopes that it will be able to turn the tables on its parents. Despite this tale's brief length, Matheson is able to construct one of the most brutally effective horror stories that I have read.

Some of the stories in this volume have not aged particularly well. Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber is one of them. The strength of the story is in its world building, both explicit and implied, which creates a setting in which the mores of a strangely puritanical United States dictate that women should wear masks for modesty, but accepts the idea that they would also wear clothes putting their breasts on display. The United States has apparently become much more of a police state - as evidenced by the fact that obtaining the proper papers to leave the country is apparently nigh-impossible, a change possibly driven by the fact that a nuclear exchange had taken place some years prior to the events of the story. This element of the piece is quite good, but it is accompanied by a fairly thin plot involving a young American woman named Theda begging the British protagonist for passage to the United Kingdom to get away from an abusive situation. In the end, however, all of the events in the story turn out to have been a psychological con job intended to allow the "abused" woman to satisfy the proclivities of her violent boyfriend Zirk. In a sense, the entire story is a con job on the reader, first pointing one direction and then jerking away in the other, and it is a con job with misogynistic overtones to boot. Lieber created a beautifully atmospheric background for this story, I just wish he had come up with a plot more worthy of it.

Imagining a future run by the godless Technarchy, The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher follows the trail of Thomas, a devout Christian priest sent by the Pope to locate the body of Saint Aquin. To aid him in his quest, the Pope has secured the services of a robass - a mechanical donkey that Thomas can use as a conveyance and turns out to be intelligent as well. The robass serves as a counterpoint to Thomas, arguing with the priest on matters of theology and logic throughout the book, challenging Thomas' beliefs and assumptions as they travel. As the odd pair journey, Thomas' faith is tested, he strays from the path of righteousness, is rescued by an unlikely benefactor, and finally completes his quest, although the end result is not at all what he expected. The most interesting thing about the story is that the robass is entirely correct in every argument it makes, and yet completely wrong at the same time. Further, Thomas' completion of his quest is actually not particularly important for anyone except Thomas - he could have abandoned it at any time and no one except Thomas would have been any wiser. Overall, this is a beautiful deconstruction of what we mean when we say "truth" and "reality" that is sure to make the reader think long and hard about their own assumptions.

After crash-landing on an inhospitable planet, a crew of explorers has to figure out a way to complete their mission of seeding human life, all the while knowing they will not survive to see their creations come to life. And although these clever individuals are able to construct a version of humanity that can live in the watery environment they must cope with, the thrust of Surface Tension by James Blish is that despite their best efforts, even those with the best of intentions are blinded by their own biases. In short, although the designers spent much time thinking of how to best physically adapt their progeny to their world, they neglected to note that these changes would mean that the new humans would view the world in a very different way than their creators. Much of the story is dedicated to the efforts of the tiny aquatic humans as they struggle to understand the to them cryptic messages left behind by their designers, and then try to come to grips with the nature of the world, reaching beyond their parochial view of the universe. Along the way, the story touches on other issues, such as what hindrances an aquatic race might face in attempting to develop technology, and the fact that the wisdom of one set of humans might be entirely inappropriate for a mostly alien set of other humans. In the end, this story is a brilliant exploration of how alien a mind can be and still be human, as well as an example of how many commonalities we might still share with even as different as the microscopic denizens that populate the oceans of a faraway planet.

I first read The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke when I was about twelve years old, and it is still as sublime a piece of fiction now as it was then. As with many Clarke stories, it is built around a scene in which the characters stand about and gaze in awe at some amazing sight. In this story, a collection of monks in Tibet purchase a computer and hire the services of some engineers to set up a program aimed at printing out the nine billion permutations of letters that make up all of the names of God. About halfway through the story the engineers discover that the monks expect that once the project is completed, the world will end, and figure that they need to arrange to be absent at that time lest the outraged monks turn on them when their hopes are dashed. The entire story is a set up for the big reveal at the end, which is one of the great final lines ever used in any story, let alone a science fiction story. The Nine Billion Names of God is incredibly simple, with characters that are little more than props to push forward the thin plot, and yet it is almost a perfect example of the Platonic ideal of a "big idea" science fiction story.

A horror-filled story later converted into one of the best episodes of the Twilight Zone television series, It's a Good Life by Jerome Bixby details the lives of the inhabitants of an Ohio small town named Peaksville as they struggle to deal with the dangerous powers displayed by a young boy named Anthony. Except that Peaksville isn't in Ohio any more, Anthony moved it somewhere else, shut off all of the electricity, and reigns over the town in a manner that only a three-year old with godlike powers could. Through the story, Bixby conveys a sense of mounting horror, as the pervasive nature of Anthony's influence is seen, forcing the other characters not merely to say and think positive things lest Anthony become upset, but also prevent themselves from thinking anything should change for fear that Anthony might try to "help", and in helping, make things so much worse. And the fact that the source of the fear in the story is simply a child is what makes it that much more terrifying. The horror is not caused by some sort of evil force, it is instead caused by the almost unthinking whims of someone who doesn't even truly understand the consequences of his capricious and cruel actions, which makes the events in the story that much more horrific. And to put a capstone on the macabre, the characters feel compelled to put a happy face on and not even think sad thoughts, for fear that they will spark a reaction from their tiny tormentor. Filled with dread and hopelessness, It's a Good Life is simply one of the best examples of the horror genre that has ever been written. One thing is certain: The reader will never think about cornfields quite the same way again.

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin is perhaps the most famous classic work of engineering science fiction, and it succeeds admirably well at its apparent goals. The point of the story, hammered home time and again, is that humans are subject to the cold, harsh realities of the universe, and those laws are unyielding and implacable. The narrator is the pilot of an Emergency Dispatch Ship, launched in a drop-and-go maneuver from one of the great deep space cruisers to deliver a cargo of needed medications to the workers busy making a hostile planet fit for human colonization. Along the way, he discovers a stowaway, a teenage girl named Marilyn who only wanted to see her older brother who is working at one of the camps on the destination planet. But due to the limitations on carrying lots of liquid rocket fuel, the EDS ships are only provided with a bare minimum of fuel needed to get to their destination, and Marilyn's unexpected added weight throws off the calculations such that the ship will crash if she stays on board. Much of the story is taken up with first attempts to figure out a way to keep Marilyn alive, and then finding a way to allow her to say goodbye to her parents and brother before ejecting her out of the airlock. The story has been criticized on a number of grounds - one has to wonder how the pilot is to return from his journey as there seems to have been no provision for this. Is he expected to simply join the survey crew for a couple of years until the next time a cruiser is scheduled to stop by? One also has to question the safety procedures surrounding the launching of a ship built with such low tolerances for error that don't include a comprehensive sweep of the type that reveals Marilyn's presence before the ship is launched. And, of course, one may question the wisdom of building a ship with so little margin for error in the first place. As a polemic, the story is effective, albeit fairly heavy-handed, but it is flawed in some rather obvious ways that become painfully apparent once one sits and thinks about it for a while.

While It's a Good Life is a fairly straightforward, and almost cheerful tale of horror, Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester is a much more subtle, and in many ways more macabre work. Vandaleur owns an android, the only thing he inherited from his father. Lacking in any skills of his own, he hires his android out and lives off of the proceeds. Unfortunately, the android has developed a nasty tendency to engage in criminal activity, and by the start of the story has escalated to murder. Unwilling to part with his sole means of support, Vandaleur has gone on the run, changing his identity and setting up a new life every time the android commits a crime. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is more going on than merely a greedy man with a defective android that goes haywire when the temperature gets too high - and one begins to question whether the android committed the crimes attributed to it, or whether it was picking up on Vandaleur's desires. The story shifts rapidly from viewpoint to viewpoint, until it is difficult to determine who the narrator is, and which speaker is android and which is human. But it is not merely unclear to the reader which is the android and which is the man, which is more or less the point of the story: The horror contained in the story is the horror of insanity, and the loss of self-identity. By the end, it is impossible to tell who is the killer and who is the victim, or if there is even a victim and not merely two faces of a single serial murderer. As a frightening depiction of the ravages of criminal insanity, this story is beautifully and deliciously cruel with a perfectly proportioned  side-helping of paranoid confusion.

How does a society that has eschewed violence deal with a violent criminal in their midst? In The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight, the answer appears to be to ostracize the offender and allow them to do whatever they want, so long as they do not physically harm another human. In the story, the narrator is a murderer that has been excommunicated by society, free to do whatever he wants and only constrained from harming others by epileptic seizures that are induced whenever he turns his hand against them. He declares repeatedly that his freedom to vandalize, steal, and otherwise engage in any other kind of property crime he chooses to makes him the king of the world. But as the story moves on, it becomes clear that this is just the false bravado of a man desperate to elicit a reaction - any reaction, from anyone so they can join him in his rebelling against what he frames as the dull conformity of passive kindness, although one might find the connection the narrator draws between violence and art to be somewhat dubious. The cruelty of the "kindness" is highlighted in sharp focus, but the story doesn't sugarcoat the depravity and violence of the narrator making the whole story an unsettling experience.

Wile Nightfall may be the most famous story among science fiction fans, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is certainly the most famous genre fiction story outside of the genre fiction world. Told in the first person via a series of journal entries, the story follows the mentally retarded Charlie Gordon as he participates in an experimental procedure aimed at increasing his intelligence. The procedure works incredibly well, and the reader can follow along as Gordon's journal entries shift from simplistic sentences filled with misspelled words to erudite prose that becomes almost insufferably supercilious. But on the journey Gordon loses his innocence: He realizes people he thought were his friends were merely making fun of him, and the people he had regarded as perfect people and geniuses were really just flawed humans who were struggling to get by. What makes the story tragic is that after his meteoric rise, Gordon falls, and knows it is happening because during his brief period as a supergenius he did the research into his own condition. As he slides back from being the smartest man in the room to the dumbest, he empathizes with a mentally challenged boy working in a restaurant, but is also terrified at the prospect of losing what he had always dreamed of having. Things become darker and sadder, and when the laboratory rat Algernon dies, it is clear what is in store for Charlie, and that he knows it. The tragedy is that Charlie falls, but the sorrow that he knows he is falling and desperately tries to hold back the inevitable. In the end, Gordon's essential goodness comes through, but he breaks your heart with the final, haunting line, on its face a request for the departed Algernon, but in truth a plaintive plea that he be remembered as well.

Authors are fond of casting writers as the heroes of their stories, and in A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny, a poet named Gallinger is the central figure in establishing relations between humans and the denizens of Mars. In the context of the story, however, this choice does not seem either forced or artificial, but is the natural result of dealing with a Martian culture that is steeped in the poetry of its own mystical union of history and religion. Gallinger has been busy translating human poetry and scripture into the Martian language, and as a result of his efforts the Martian matriarch M'Cywie invites him into their temple to learn the deeper mysteries of their culture. There Gallinger is introduced to the fatalistic Martian religion and learns of their extensive tradition of religious dance, eventually faling in love with and starting a sexual relationship with the beautiful dancer Braxa. As a side note, there is something decidedly quaint and faintly ludicrous about the notion that species from two different planets would find one another physically attractive, would be sexually compatible, and would be interfertile. These elements are all critical to the development of the story, however, so one must accept them as facts, however improbable they seem. In an effort to bring beauty to the Martians, Gallinger has the expedition's biologist grow a rose, so they can see what a flower looks like. After he learns the awful truth, Gallinger makes a desperate gambit and flouts all Martian tradition to enter a temple service and harangue the assembly there while reading from a translated copy of the Book of Ecclesiastes, drawing upon his memories of his own father's evangelical zeal and inverting it, becoming, as the Martians call him, the "Sacred Scoffer". The story is beautiful and tragic, with duty colliding with love and producing both hope and despair.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964 is an essential collection of some of the foundational works of science fiction. While your favorite science fiction author may not be represented within its pages, the chances are fairly high that your favorite science fiction author cut his or her teeth on, and was heavily influenced by many of the stories contained in this book. This is not to say that the book is flawless: Out of twenty-six stories, there is only one by a woman and another co-written by a woman, and none of the stories were written by a nonwhite author, facts that often result in stories that have a moderately sexist and  paternalistic feel to them. Even so, these stories display an amazing panoply of ideas, tackling difficult and sensitive subjects and often cutting straight to the heart of what makes us human, and what sort of society we might shape for ourselves. The stories in this book form an important strata of the bedrock of modern science fiction, and are a must-read for any serious science fiction fan.

Note: The entire volume won the 1971 Locus Award for Best Anthology or Collection. In addition, this volume contains the following Hugo winning and nominated stories:

The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein, 1941 Retro Hugo Best Novelette winner
The Weapon Shop by A.E. van Vogt, 1943 Retro Hugo Best Novelette finalist
First Contact by Murray Leinster, 1946 Retro Hugo Best Novelette winner
The Little Black Bag by Cyril M. Kornbluth, 1951 Retro Hugo Best Novelette winner
Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith, 1951 Retro Hugo Best Novelette finalist
Helen O'Loy by Lester del Rey, 1939 Retro Hugo Best Short Story finalist
Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson, 1951 Retro Hugo Best Short Story finalist
Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber, 1951 Retro Hugo Best Short Story finalist
The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke, 1954 Retro Hugo Best Short Story winner
It's a Good Life by Jerome Bixby, 1954 Retro Hugo Best Short Story finalist
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, 1960 Hugo Best Short Story winner
A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny, 1964 Hugo Best Short Story finalist

1939 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette: Rule 18 by Clifford Simak
1954 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette: Earthman, Come Home by James Blish

1951 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: To Serve Man by Damon Knight
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)

1959 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: That Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1 and Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 116, No. 3 (March 2009))
1961 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: The Longest Voyage by Poul Anderson (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)

1976 Locus Winner for Best Anthology: Epoch edited by Roger Elwood and Robert Silverberg

Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette
Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

1941 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2016)
1943 Restro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2018)
1946 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 1996)
1951 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2001)
1954 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2004)
1960 Hugo Award Finalists
1964 Hugo Award Finalists

1971 Locus Award Nominees

Robert Silverberg     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. Hi, I like your reviews, especially the one for "Huddling Place". I disagree, though, with your impression that Judith Merril endorses the killing of the child at the end of the story as logical, necessary eugenics.

    "Merril clearly intended for the revelation that the daughter was a mutant to be the terrible secret that would horrify the reader and the father's solution was merely a regrettable necessity, but looking at the story now, one has to gape at the casual dismissal of the humanity of an obviously bright child on the basis of a mere physical deformity."

    IMO, the way the father of the child suddenly becomes aware of the child's deformity - and the way the mother has been psychotically denying it - depicts growing horror deepening toward an impulsive, fatal act. We are shown nothing in his mind of a logical process ending with the conclusion, "She's helpless, too bad, she's got to go."

    What we see is his mind repeating the same thought about his wife's unawareness of her daughter's condition, with increasing horror "She didn't know...oh my God, she didn't know..." while his fingers tighten convulsively on the baby's body. It's an impulsive murder based on emotion, and I don't think Merril could be considered as endorsing it as necessary, any more that she could be considered to be endorsing the mother's emotionally based psychotic denial. IMO, the story's more about the horror that's overtaken and twisted all three characters (the nuclear war and radiation fallout that twists assumptions about survival and posterity that's the basis of the concept of family).

    1. @Jayn S: I don't think I ever said it was a logical decision, but it is a decision that is presented as one that is merely a tragic necessity. This attitude is presented throughout the story, from the earliest paragraphs in which Margaret's mother worries about whether the baby will be born healthy since Hank had been "working around all that uranium", or the news report about the doctor that said that he had a test that could detect all mutations so that the worst cases, like a child with atrophied limbs, could be "predicted and prevented".

      Later in one of her letters to Hank, Margaret talks about the rash of infanticides, always done by fathers. Infanticides for which the fathers are never convicted. The whole story sets up the background of making the impending infanticide at the end normal and predictable. Mutant children are to be predicted and prevented - presumably by stopping the pregnancies of women carrying such children. Fathers kill mutated children and no one blames them. The deaths are merely accepted as something that is regrettable, but a normal fact of life.

      On the other hand, we have the depiction of the child: Bright, happy, and loving. Sure, the child has no limbs, but there's no indication that there is anything else non-normal about it. And the entire story has been built around the notion that murdering it is a completely ordinary part of life. That's the horror I see. It may not have been the horror Merril intended, but how we view stories depends on the world in which we read them. The world now seems to view physical disabilities differently than the world did in 1948, and so we react the story in a different manner than a reader may have at that time.

  2. I think that the fact that in the story infanticides are increasing and "they can't seem to get a jury to convict any of them" does not mean that the author is saying that the murders are the right thing to do under the circumstances of the story.
    At the time Merril wrote the story, lynchings were not uncommon, and it was usually the case that prosecutors "couldn't get a jury to convict" any of the perpetrators either. If Merril wrote a non-SF contemporary literary story depicting the lynching of a sympathetic innocent victim, forcefully presenting the horror of the act without editorial comment (as she does in the SF story) would you say that she is presenting lynching as a "tragic necessity"? I wouldn't.

    I mean, look at the rest of the story. Before the revelation of the baby's deformity, we see a skillful brief portrait of the world the mother lives in. The world is at war - nuclear war - and as the wife of a physicist who predicted how things would get worse and was ignored when he tried to warn people, she understands the significance of this better than most. The government is censoring the news to hide the worst of it. The woman is perfectly aware of this, but forces herself to believe the censorship, because accepting the way things are - the fact that she and her husband were exposed to radiation, both in the course of his work and when they drove past a bombed area - would break down the denial that keeps her functioning. And she must function for the sake of her child - as any mother must do. That timeless imperative collides head on in the story with the irrational mass horror her society has developed toward mutations. And IMO, in the story it IS depicted as irrational. Nowhere is there any REASON given in the story as to why the death of the child is a necessity, any more than it would have a necessity in 1948 when the story was written. Remember iron lungs? The capacity to keep children alive - even children who are completely paralyzed, as the child in the story is not - was there in 1948, as well as the societal imperative to do so. The fact that Merril depicts infanticide as an unbridled horror is not an endorsement of infanticide as a tragic necessity in a postnuclear world. IMO, it is an indictment of the way a world in denial - refusing to heed the doomsday warnings - has driven itself into a nightmare future where all the denial has led to the mass psychosis of a society needlessly demonizing and killing its weakest members instead of dealing with the cause of the nightmare.

    Judith Merril was the daughter of a suffragette, and was herself a Marxist and lived outside the bounds of what most of her society considered respectable for much of her life. I don't think someone who thought like that in the US in 1948 would accept the status quo as the way things ought to be - not even the status quo of an imaginary world. IMO, she violated the taboo of infanticide in the story as a means of raising horror against what a future nightmare dystopia would find acceptable, not as a means of saying it IS acceptable under the circumstances of that dystopia. The Way Things Are =/= The Way Things Ought To Be, even after the bomb has dropped.

    You may disagree. But I think her intentions were signalled in the story pretty clearly. Heck, look at this sentence:

    “Predicted and prevented.” We predicted it, didn’t we? Hank and the others, they predicted it. But we didn’t prevent it. We could have stopped it in ’46 and ’47. Now… "

    Merril's story was published in 1948. IMO, she meant it to be included as one of the warnings that started in 1945.

    1. @Jayn S: I don't really think the comparison to lynching helps your position much. In places where lynchings were common, they were regarded as not merely regrettable but normal and socially acceptable responses to those who were seen as disrupting those around them. They were tools used to enforce the social order, remind those at the bottom of the ladder of their place, and remove those who were seen as a threat to those in power. They weren't merely seen as regrettable necessities, they were seen as a positive good. I don't see how comparing the dehumanizing of those with deformities via socially sanctioned murder to the dehumanizing of large segments of the U.S. population on the basis of race via socially sanctioned lynchings really changes anything I have said about the story.

      In 1948, there were impulses to keep disabled children alive, but there was also tremendous social pressure to ship them off to institutions so they were away from "normal" people. Children with both physical and mental disabilities were warehoused as a routine matter, their basic humanity essentially denied as they were treated as lesser creatures. Perhaps Merril thought that was a disgrace, perhaps she didn't, but the fact remains that she has presented the reader with a society that treats the disabled child as something that should be disposed of as a matter of routine.

      The closing paragraphs of the story are, I think, the most telling. When the father realizes that Margaret "doesn't know" that her child is a mutant, that she has either ignored or hallucinated that her child is not limbless. The clear implication here is that if she did know, she would not love the child the way she does. That only by denying reality can she love the child, and if she were to face the truth she would have killed it as well. But to come to that conclusion, you have to be someone who does not see the child as fully human, and that is, from my perspective, the truly terrible and frightening aspect of the story.

      Every voice in the story that opines on the subject of mutations does so in a way that indicates that eliminating them is regrettable but necessary for the good of society. They are, in a way, like nuclear weapons themselves, or even the requirement of the men in the story to be away at war - things people don't like, but accept because they are necessary. Not even Margaret counters these voices. She doesn't say "My child is disabled, but she is still a bright, happy, loving child." No, she simply ignores the disability while accepting that disabled child - which her child isn't in her mind - are killed because they have to be. So when Hank comes home and sees that his child is limbless, he first utters in horror his realization that his wife cannot see what must be done, and then (it is implied) prepares to do it as a regrettable necessity knowing that it is socially accepted that he do so. Everything about the story points to this conclusion.