Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen ! Bonsoir Mesdames et Messieurs ! Welcome back on the board of the I.S.S. Rover once again as it´s getting ready to set out on another journey after quite a while. “So where do we venture tonight ?” – you ask. Oh well after so much Black Company, and a dash of history, after Barbara Tuchman´s Guns of August I would say it´s time for some science fiction and a bit of an anthology, right ?!
OK, so which one ? About a year ago I stumbled across an anthology put together by none other than Isaac Asimov – the renowned author of the robot and Foundation stories – that piqued my interest as it was titled “Before the Golden Age” (as Golden Age refers to the time after publisher or editor Campbell joined the industry ). So Asimov compiled some early science fiction stories that he grew up on, and ispired him. This is a rare chance to glimpse into the past, into the beginnings of the blooming of a genre that shaped much of my life too so much later, and being interested in history, and past of my interests, hobbies, well I thought appropriate to examine this record left behind by one of my favourite authors. So here we go.
The first story is Stanley G. Weinbaum: The parasite planet. It takes place on Venus and tells the story of hardships that befell a young explorer turned trader. The writer describes a lush life befitting those of earthly jungles, though a bit more dangerous to human life. It might be unfortunate, that the increasing knowledge of our Solar system makes this setting unbelievable, but the description of extraterrestrial life is still magnificent, and it makes for a nice frontier adventure story. And I don´t know if it was an expactation in that age, but there is a romantic side to the story too. At least it feels to me like if it was consensual at that time that an involving story needs to have it´s romantic part too.
And so we arrive to the next story: Proxyma Centauri from the pen of Murray Leinister ( yeah I first read it Lannister, God bless you G. R. R. Martin ! ). This is a story of a long term expedition to the nearest star system to us: the Proxyma Centauri. It is, or was a nice surprise to see that the trip to Proxyma didn´t take only hours, but several years – seven to be more precise. But the main part of the story is not that one of travel – the problems that come with such a long journey and the isolation of the group is being described only briefly – but the first contact with the sentient lifeform of Proxyma system. And what a first contact it is. It is a horrendous experience. the Centaurians are a carnivorous plant-like life form, and they massacre the whole crew except for three persons. Two, a man and a woman – lovers by the way – are isolated on a planet of Proxyma system that can sustain earth´s lifeforms, and the captain, who should teach the Centaurians how their ship´s systems work, to introduce them to human technology. In the end only the two on the isolated planet survive. I ask again: “Is it compulsory to have a romantic thread in the story of this age ?” – as till now in two out of two stories there were. Otherwise it is a captivating, and well written story even if the characters are somewhat sketchy, but damn me that I live an age where I can indulge in much more complex and involving storytelling. Thank you Murray Leinster ( and others not mentioned now ) for inspiring a whole generation of those writers, who have perfected the trade !
The third story in the book is The Accursed Galaxy by Edmondon Hamilton. And first I need to say that there ain´t an ounce of romance involved in this story, so my theory might be overthrown, but about that I will actually decide when I finish the book. Once again we have a story that starts out as a contact with alien species of third kind, but soon it develops into a wild speculation abaout how our universe became an expanding one and the galaxies became receding. And the explanation given here is the most dramatic, and quite compelling even though it might be outdated, or might even be labeled unscientific.
And so we have arrived to the end of the year of 1935 – apparently, as before the next story there is a page with the number 1936 on it, and also saying. “part seven”. But that is of little relevance here. The next story is He who shrank written by Henri Hasse. The beginning is something like straight from a H. P. Lovecraft story. Rambling about the incomprehensibility of the universe etc. And then the story turns into an adventure that is kind of a mix of Gulliver´s adventures and that of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A shrinking man shrinking as much as to perceive the molecules as galaxies and atoms as star systems, and then landing on them, and finding sentient life forms. And then continuing the shrinking and the cycle of hopping into the subatomic layers of that world, and so on, and so on. There is a notion of many ideas, among others that of sentient artificial intelligence waging war on it´s creators ( Terminator anybody ?). But the end of story arrives as the narrator “arrives” to Earth and in the end tells his story to a writer, who records it, and as a result we can read it right here. An interesting idea, of sequential universe structure I must say, and some sound storytelling, with that spicy nineteen thirties feel to it, a bit sensationalist, a bit too pulp, just like those old Superman cartoons.
I will remember the next story for it being one of the first in the genre written by a woman, Leslie Frances Stone, than for it´s qualities. The Human Pets of Mars is a story of abducted man and women escaping from their captors. It is quite unbelievable even that they managed to take over an alien vessel, and learn to handle it. But they outrace, outmaneuver and outgun the aliens. I mean, that ship is native to the aliens, they have experience which the humans don´t, but they get their asses kicked by the humans, who learned how to control the ship just hours earlier ?! Gimme a break ! And we also see the return of the obligatory romantic strand in a sci-fi story of the nineteen-thirties.
And so we arrive to the next story: The Brainstealers of Mars. Penned by a true giant of the science-fiction: John W. Campbell. To those who are avid fans of science-fiction and are somewhat knowledgable of the history of the genre, especially in the first half of the twentieth century in the USA I don´t need to introduce him. But to rest: John W. Campbell Jr. was the most influential editor of science-fiction magazines in the thirties all through the fifties. And he also happened to write some good stories too, among others the “Who goes there ?” which served as the base for the movies The thing from outer space and it´s 1982 remake –starring Kurt Russel – The Thing. But now here we have a different story. A space-opera like adventure of two “rogue” scientists. They being on the run from law enforcement forces of Earth are on a journey through the solar system. At the time we join them they are exploring Mars, where they run into mind reading shapechangers. And that brings up the problem of how do ypu know who is standing in front of you, or beside you. Yes it is a similar story to that of The Thing, but with a much happier ending.
And so we get to Devolution, the next story. Written by Edmond Hamilton. A story in which two biologists are in a search of strange creatures that have been sighted by a pilot when he flew over an unpopulated area. And they found more then they bargained for: telepathic “mutant” blobs, and discovering the truth behind the “human evolution”, namely being the descendants of the same kind of blobs, and the evolution being actually a devolution. A quite short story, resembling in much the feel of the H. P. Lovecraft´s stories as the protagonist looses his sanity after being confronted with the above described “truth”.
And here ties in a short story by Asimov himself, never published anywhere else: Big Game. It was written in 1941 and might have been inspired by Hamilton´s Devolution. It follows a similar idea, only the plot is not about the human evolution, but about the extinction of dinosaurs. And the answer to their extinction being that they have been hunted down by some intelligent biped saurians. Nice touch to the anthology.
And so we move to year 1937 with yet another writing by John W. Campbell Jr.: Other Eyes Watching. It´s a piece of non-fiction. A contemporary musing on Jupiter: it´s chemistry, physics etc. Ofcourse there are speculative parts like what kind of life is possible on the planet, and what kind of vehicles are they driving. Sounds laughable today, but the intention was to entertain and educate at the same time. And I must say that Campbell´s style is suitable for this purpose. And why is non-fiction amongst all the fiction here ? Well apparently this is the writing that inspired all the non-fictional work that Asimov produced in his lifetime, and this a book containing the works that inspired him, and in the end made him into a writer.
And then we return to fiction with John D. Clark´s Minus Planet. A story involving anti matter, actually a big clump of it on a collision path with Earth. Two scientists devise a plan to divert it, which includes hijacking the Moon and steering it into the antimatter´s way. Quite dramatic, yes. And to heighten the drama: we have worshippers waiting for the end of the world, God´s judgment. Those same worshippers turning terrorists, trying to sabotage the execution of the aforementioned plan. In the end our heroes save the day. I don´t know why but I found this story to be very annoying.
But I was very delighted by the next story: Past, Present, and Future penned by Nat Schachner. A story that starts out as a peculiar time travel adventure of a young officer of the armies of Alexander the Great and an Indiana Jones like adventurer of our times, who stumbled across the “resting chambers” of the aforementioned greek. And not a minutes sais by introducing the two protagonists, we change to a future resembling much the later novel of A. C. Clarke, namely the City and the Stars. There the protagonists awake in a city that is secluded from the outer world, not that many people know about it´s existence. And the order of the city rests on this ignorance, which the “old” newcomers are threatening. But it´s just a glimpse of a story that develops fully in Clarke´s novel, yet it is intriguing. Especially for someone like myself, who dabbles in RPG-s too, as it is a perfect starting point for a role playing adventure, and it sparks ideas. And so we arrive to the end of year 1937.
The end of 1937 means the beginning of 1938, but as I was shortly to discover, there is only one story included from that year: The Men and the Mirror by Ross Rocklynne. It starts off as an episode of Tom & Jerry cartoon: a cat chasing a mouse. But the cat is actually a policeman, and the mouse a notorious criminal, and the chase is happening all over our Solar system. But soon the story puts the two into a situation where they have to rely on, and trust each other if they want to survive. They happen to land on an artificial celestial body that contains a huge reflector mirror ( huge meaning the diameter of it is about 1000 miles, with an approximate depth of 300 miles ), actually a bowl with an almost frictionless surface. And to survive, and reach a happy ending they use some basic ideas from physics, to be more specific: kinetics. Though the solution is somewhat flowed I would include this story in teaching of the subject of physics. It might be a bit far fetched, but it is a good example for practical application of the knowledge otherwise deemed unnecessary. I mean I´m tired of hearing the line:”Why do they teach us this ? When in my life will I need this ?”.
And well that concludes our adventures here. I enjoyed the book, though sometimes it was hard to read it. It is interesting, and not only because I got to read science fiction from authors I never heard of before, but also because it includes many biographical references to the early life of Isaac Asimov, a writer whose work I came to love. And those are some details I wouldn´t find anywhere else I suppose, or at least I haven´t found them till now. And as this was the volume 3, I will try to find the preceding two volumes and read them too, for some more fascinating adventures in the mind of the young Asimov.
But till then I hope to have many other adventures too. So come back soon, and join me in the other excursions I make to th edifferent domains of enjoyment ! Captain of I. S. S. Rover over, and out.