THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME
THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME VOLUME TWO A appeared in 2005 (reviewed in VECTOR 241) and now its companion is here. I thought that this volume would contain novelets, since the first volume contained novellas (the difference is in word length), but although mentioned in Ben Bova’s short introduction the distinction disappears in the contents. Selected to recognise works of power written before the Science Fiction Writers of America introduced the Nebula Awards, this volume collects classics such as Algis Budrys’s “Rogue Moon” (1960), James Blish’s “Earthman, Come Home” (1953) and James H. Schmitz’s “The Witches of Karres” (1949). Those three, of course, all became novels. Among the eight others are Asimov’s “The Martian Way” (1952) and Jack Vance’s “The Moon Moth” (1961), and authors including Frederick Pohl, Theodore Cogswell and Clifford D Simak. The magazines Astounding/Analog and Galaxy produced most of these works but the SFWA membership (whose selections were then edited by Ben Bova) also recognised a non-genre classic in E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1928). Two authors I did not know, T. L. Sherred and Wilmar H Shiras, published in 1947 and 1948 respectively, also made the cut.
While these stories are very different in subject and location, a couple of things are noticeable by their absence: there are no bug eyed monsters, but also no shape changing aliens. In fact, hardly any aliens at all. If humans have enemies it is other humans. In “The Martian Way” the Martian settlers find themselves being vilified and rejected by the politicians on Earth. In Theodore Cogswell’s “The Spectre General” (1952) the galactic commonwealth has collapsed into feudal planets while the remainder of the space fleet has split into two rival cliques, each riven by backbiting and murder. James Blish’s spindizzy city has settled on a planet whose – again semi-feudal – leadership is intent on driving it off, while back on Earth the lower classes of Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954) find that they must consume or else be punished as if the classes are Dante’s descending circles of hell. “The Moon Moth” remains fascinating because it features a society so heavily ritualised that the wrong gesture can lead to duels and lawful death in which Edwer Thissell must capture an escaped criminal.
The other thing noticeable by its absence is resolution. In the strange blocks on Algis Budry’s moon men die because they cannot know what the alien blocks want. In Clifford Simak’s “Big Front Yard” (1958) a typical American home suddenly becomes another of Simak’s gateways to another world. Yet in exploring that world Hiram Taine cannot rely on the men from the government or military; only Towser the dog can be trusted. In fact, authorities – family, school, government – even in the works of authors not known for satire (such as Frederick Pohl) - have been dubious in these characters’ pasts, and are usually malignant in their present. Few people are interested in certainty, and fewer in truth. In T.L. Sherred’s “E For Effort” political parties and the churches all try to destroy a time viewer because it conflicts with their partial views of history, while on the personal level Budrys’s Edward Hawks and Wilmar H. Shiras’s Timothy Paul in her “E For Effort”, for example, are the products of teachers and relatives as unpleasant as any met by Dorothy in Kansas before she left for Oz.
“Rogue Moon” is a fascinating example of another aspect of SF because in part it ignores its background – there are huge givens, principally that the USA and USSR are in the space race and the Soviets are slightly behind in exploring the moon; the second is that the US Navy and Army are still running their own space missions (this two years after NASA had been formed, partly because of the problems caused by this division); and thirdly – and this is huge – that the Navy would allow men to be teleported to the moon (this has arrived before space ferries) and then leave alone a project in which many men are killed exploring the mysterious blocks. So who knows what the Navy might be doing of greater interest that they pay no attention to homicide?
Discussing “Rogue Moon”, though, is an introduction to something else important in a genre such as SF: precursion. On the one hand, Shiras’s “In Hiding”, about an apparently normal boy whose psychologist discovers he is the first of the forthcoming super-intelligent mutants, shows little recognition that counter-works such as Wyndham’s THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS would soon be coming. On the other, readers cannot read of, say, alien blocks on the moon and not think of Kubrick and Clarke’s later 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, while Budrys’s teleporter, which works by creating a duplicate, will be remembered in a Victorian manifestation in Christopher Priest’s THE PRESTIGE..
SF seems destined to be a Cassandra – warning of the need to be prepared and collaborate to meet the future – yet destined never to be paid heed to. Asimov had the paranoia of the McCarthy era in mind when he wrote “The Martian Way”, but he then found that no one noticed. The containerships filled with Chinese plastics crossing the Pacific Ocean to North America might have been foreseen in “The Midas Plague”, while one could read “The Spectre General” about collapse and think of the economic blackhole of a country such as Zimbabwe. Is it a palliative placebo to find some reassurance in Cogswell’s fiction of resurgence written long before the need became obvious? In this further volume of the Hall of Fame questions such as that lie just beneath the surface. That is why it should be explored.
Note:Rich Horton responded unfavourably to this review. Niall Harrison and Kari Maund permitted me to make this response:-
Thanks for letting me see Rich Horton's analysis and response to my review of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume IIB. Vector readers will find his corrections and expansions useful. He is correct that this volume is a new edition, not a first edition, something I pointed out when I reviewed Volume IIA in issue 241. Why the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America (I think they had not then added "and Fantasy" to their name) chose the stories they did thirty five years ago is now unlikely to be solved.
I'm sorry that Rich Horton did not find my examples interesting. However, if he wishes to study how I have looked at matters such as precursion in SF, and in one of his preferred works, Think Like A Dinosaur by James Patrick Kelly, he will find my 1998 Foundation review reprinted on my website: http://www.hurstportal.net. That goes into more depth than I can here.
I am sure, though, that like me Rich Horton will agree that these classics deserve to be read and re-read because that re-reading reveals them not to be static, but continuing to enhance new works, constantly opening new trains of thought and investigation, constantly revealing new depths. I think one of the responsibilities of a reviewer is to make that clear.
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© L J Hurst 2009