In the 1950s, Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013) edited collections of new science fiction stories. Pohl, an established author and familiar to the writing circles, managed to get the VIPs and MVPs of the science fiction world to include in these anthologies. I read the first anthology and enjoyed it immensely. That edition has a story by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) that still hammers at my soul from time to time. My favorite story in this second anthology is probably the one by Algis Budrys. I really ought to have read this anthology much sooner after reading the first because these are such high quality collections. Both the first and this second anthology were published in 1953. I read the Ballantine Books editions for both.
Something needs to be said about the overall quality of these anthologies. Usually, it seems, anthologies can be hit or miss. More likely, the reader will find one, maybe two, excellent stories and the rest are just filler. The difficulty with short stories is that the writer himself does not have a whole lot of freedom. The story has to work with so many fewer pages than any full-length novel. By “work” I mean that the story has to feel relatively completed and polished after having engaged the reader nearly immediately.
In this particular anthology every story feels polished. The reader feels intellectually stirred and/or stimulated even if only momentarily. The stories are engaging, unique, and have that ever-necessary spark of wonder or awe that is frequently talked about in science fiction, and less often demonstrated. In a word, these are good polished stories by strong, polished authors. These Star Science Fiction anthologies that Pohl edited really are somewhat of a standard and I am afraid a lot of anthologies cannot compete on this level.
All of this being said, that does not mean that a reader’s personal preferences do not matter. So, my rating for each story is probably more about my personal enjoyment of the story than about any critical rating. To a point, anyway. Its murky to be objective and subjective about fiction all the time; feels messy as heck. In this collection, I will say that, for me, the high watermark is easily the Budrys story and the low watermark is the del Rey. Maybe the others are aligned and assembled on my rating scale in accordance with those two stories.
Disappearing Act • Alfred Bester – (4 stars)
The Clinic • Theodore Sturgeon – (2 stars)
The Congruent People • Algis Budrys – (4 stars)
Critical Factor • Hal Clement – (3 stars)
It’s a Good Life • Jerome Bixby – (4 stars)
A Pound of Cure • Lester del Rey – (2 stars)
The Purple Fields • Robert Crane – (2 stars)
F Y I • James Blish – (2 stars)
Conquest • Anthony Boucher – (3 stars)
Hormones • Fletcher Pratt – (2 stars)
The Odor of Thought • Robert Sheckley – (3 stars)
The Happiest Creature • Jack Williamson – (3 stars)
The Remorseful • C. M. Kornbluth – (2 stars)
Friend of the Family • Richard Wilson – (2 stars)
Well, fourteen stories is a good number and if I ramble on about each, this will be a never-ending review. So, let me just speak briefly about the ones I found a bit lesser. The Robert Crane entry was given two stars because I felt it was not very original, although the emotion and impact it carried was very good. The Blish entry was probably just a bit too far out there for me to enjoy. Hormones by Pratt was kind of a throw-away in that it was not super unique, but still well-written. Like the Crane story, the presentation was top-notch writing. The Clinic is a story that if anyone cared, they would fight with me about. I can see other readers giving it four stars. It just is not for me and I took it out on the story. Finally, A Pound of Cure just annoyed me a lot, but I might see other readers rating it higher. Like I mentioned, a lot of these ratings are very personal preference.
In my opinion, the best story of the lot is The Congruent People by Algis Budrys. I find, generally, Budrys to be a difficult author. Please do not ask me to expand on that, but when I think Budrys, I also think “difficult.” I say this so you know that I am somewhat inclined to not love his work. This story, however, had everything I want in a science fiction story: tension, surprise, the unexplained, rational considerations, etc. It is one of those stories that shifts reality and is so interesting and fun for the reader. At least, for me as a reader. Others can and will roll their eyes at it, I guess. The story does not give you answers and plod along through a full explanation. Like reality, the reader is left to puzzle and wonder and engage with the story intellectually instead of being handed a platter-full of obviousness. So, yes, after I read it and still to this moment, I am enjoying thinking about the story. Other readers, I think, might be frustrated by the lack of answers/closure or something. Its quite open-ended and yet, maybe that is the greatness of it – it was not overwritten nor underwritten. Dexter Bergenholm is the main character in a great short story. He tells us:
All days begin like other days. Colored by half-remembered dreams and half-visualized anticipations though it may be, a day is a day are days like the rest of them, until the first thing happens to mark this off as (a) the Day the Shoelace Finally Broke, or, (b) the Day the Rent is Due, or, (c) etcetera. – (pg. 38)
As a reader, you’re probably asking, subconsciously even, “OK, so what is the thing about today that is going to make it a Day?!” So, Budrys nabbed you by the third paragraph. And the story has a bunch of surprises and fun moments that are going to, hopefully, be an engaging existence-shifting story of perception and reality. No answers, though, OK?
Bester’s story opens this anthology and he is sarcastic and sardonic and witty. Disappearing Act is four stars because it has, unlike a lot of science fiction, a snarky sharp jab at society and its values – while maintaining just enough lightness to not seem sour and caustic. Though Bester is not the first (nor the last) to sarcastically criticize society, I think his presentation is absolutely top-notch. There is a war going on, of course there is. A particular American General is point for the zeitgeist of the culture. Propaganda and “brainwashing.” To some extent.. you know, whatever needs to be said to get whatever you want to keep the overarching Machine rolling. The General gets whatever he needs “for the war effort.” He gets, and needs, Dr. Bradley Scrim, who is released from prison at the request of the General. Scrim is either a philosopher or a historian – though I would bet on the former. Obviously, without a doubt, this philosopher sees through the nonsense and can see the solution to the General’s/society’s problem, but he also sees that society has lost the ability to get the solution. This is a really good commentary on society. I also think its quite accurate that the philosopher will not solve your problem, but he will tell you what it is. There is so much I could unpack from this little story. I do not love satire or sarcasm, but this story plays well and its presentation is excellent.
The Hal Clement story, Critical Factor, is quite good, however some readers might struggle through it. Its hard science and Clement makes the reader think. There is something esoteric and intangible about how Clement anthropomorphizes and develops characters that you always would know if its his story or not. His characters are always so thoughtful and almost always seem to have tendencies to be better and move toward the good. Anyway, it is not an easy read because Clement’s science meets up with his imagination and honestly, it is so beyond the human experience that its tough to figure out what the heck the characters are or are trying to do. I dropped a star in my rating because Clement did not fully immerse the reader because he had to make the characters use nouns/language that would be a referent for the reader, but at the same time, the characters would have zero referent for those words and therefore would not really use them. I certainly do not have a way around this, but it feels awkward. After you finish this story, a reader might not fully understand it, but I think they know they read a helluva story. Clement’s imagination was extreme, this is mighty.
It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1923 – 1998) is the “famous” story in this anthology. I had never read Bixby before, so I was glad to read such a famous story. Its worth, I think, all of the hype and discussion. The reason for the story being famous is that it is the story for the eighth episode of the third season of The Twilight Zone (1961). I do not know if I have seen that or not. The story did not feel familiar when I read it, so I want to say I probably have not seen the episode. Anyway, this is probably a must-read story for science fiction, horror, fiction fans. Its not super long, there is really no reason why readers cannot pick this up and get through it. The things that make it so good are that the frustration, fear, and immensity of the situation are palpable. These sensations are presented with an economy of words, an undercurrent of sympathy, and a subtle huge concept lurking throughout. Peaksville… population 46. A young boy with some major impact named Anthony is a massive creation by Bixby and even though the story might seem vaguely unsurprising, it is still disconcerting and disturbing. In other words, this story, like so many in this book, is good for the reader’s brain. Readers enjoy, as much as that makes sense, this harrowing tale.
Overall, my rating for the book is three stars. I think this is probably because there are some stories in here that are not to my personal preference and taken separately, the stories, while excellent, do not seem to equal to the whole book – oddly able to be greater than its parts. Unlike so many anthologies and collections – the stories in this are not really forgettable. I find that that most anthologies contain stories that occupy one’s attention only briefly and then are forgotten almost immediately. These stories are impactful, mighty, sometimes shocking, and definitely engaging. Saying the book is three stars makes it seem oh-so-average. But this is misleading and readers are really doing themselves a disservice to not read this book. Excellent reading for science fiction fans.
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