The Best Science Fiction Stories : 1949 (ed Everett F. Bleiler and T.E. Dikty, Frederic Fell Inc, 1949)

A book so old, that it is 11 years older than I am, that is how old it is…

My copy has a slightly tattered and torn cover, but, gentle reader, just how beautiful is it?! And it’s the first ever Year’s Best SF volume. The first ever.

I’m going to savour this one, starting September 26th 2021, and I’ll put the date each story is read at the end of each review.

The book starts with an introduction by one Melvin Korshak aka Erle Korshak, an early SF fan turned publisher. I was going to frame this anthology as piece of ancient history, so imagine my surprise when researching Korshak to find out that he only left us a matter of weeks prior to my writing this, dying at the age of 97 in August 2021! Well, I never knew him when he was alive, but bon voyage Erle and many, many thanks for your role in getting SF as a genre up and running.

His preface looks at trends in modern science-fiction. You can tell it does that without reading it, as it is entiled ‘Trends in Modern Science-Fiction’. Actually it’s in caps, so it’s entitled ‘TRENDS IN MODERN SCIENCE-FICTION’. He looks back at stories that were based on imaginative science, starting with utopias dating back to Plato and Euhemerus (I’m happy to own up to having no knowledge of the latter). Then he trots through Gilbert Murray, H. Rider Haggard, George Chesney (‘Battle of Dorking’), then Verne and Wells, and then Gernsback, leading into an analysis of American SF magazines, and the beginning of the book market.

Editors Bleiler and Dikty’s own preface starts off with the old saw – what is modern science-fiction? Read the book and then decide for yourself, is their initial answer, but conclude that science-fiction often may be a respectable form of literature and of value for four reasons : historical precedent, prediction value, educational value, and insight into one of man’s most pressing problems. The second part of the preface looks at the stories in the volume, but best to read that after reading the stories, as the first summary does include a bit of a spoiler. So what of the stories? Here we go (starting 26th September 2021)

Ray Bradbury. Mars is Heaven! Originally published in Planet Stories, 1948.

A good start to the volume by Bradbury, in a story that feels like something from The Twilight Zone. The first mission to Mars lands on the planet (we need to bear in mind that this is almost 20 years before the first probes went to Mars and gave us a proper indication of what the planet is like). The planet has breathable air, but, unaccountably, they soon find a township that looks straight out of small-town America, picket fences and all. And not only that, the residents are long-dead relatives of the crew, who of course welcome them with open arms! The ship’s captain enjoys his reunion, but in the small of the night he lies awake working out what just might be going on. And he does in deed works out just exactly what is going on (you don’t really need me to tell you, do you??) And then the story gets chilling, quickly. Very quickly. He gets up out of bed but his brother asks him what he’s doing. Going to get a drink of water, he replies. But you’re not thirsty. Yes, yes I am. No, you’re not. “Captain John Black broke and ran across the room. He screamed. He screamed twice. He never reached the door.” Chilly stuff. According to wikipedia Algis Budrys said that the story was “Beautifully written, poetically effective, excellently designed”, but “There is no fulfillment here … this stuff simply evokes the empty stuff of nightmares” the first part of which I would agree with entirely, the latter part, not. [26th Sept 2021]

Lewis Padgett. Ex Machina. Originally published in Astounding SF, 1948.

Lewis Padgett was one of several pseudonyms used by husband and wife team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, and this is one story in a humourous series featuring the protagonist Galloway Gallegher. He is a scientist, but one with a drink problem. The problem is twofold. Firstly, gets drunk a lot. Secondly, he *needs* to get drunk to go into full ‘Gallegher Plus’ mode, which is when his inspiration appears. In this story his robot sidekick Joe is busy doing a lot of philosophical theorising, which is no help to Gallegher who has a helluva hangover, cannot remember yesterday’s events, and, worse still cannot drink the alcohol his house ‘liquor organ’ is supplying – some unseen creature is drinking it before it gets to his lips. Joe knows what is happening, but won’t tell, so the reader has to follow Gallegher on a journey to discover what exackerly happened, and how to put it right. There are some neat touches in the story, and some good tech-forecasting, but the story is quite lengthy so the extent to which you enjoy it fully will be dependent on how much your sense of humour is in tune with the authors several decades ago. Well, I got through to the end! There’s a cute illustration by Edd Cartier someone has put on Pinterest here. [29th Sept 2021]

Murray Leinster. The Strange Case of John Kingman. Originally in : Astounding Science Fiction, May 1948

As with the previous story, some nom de plumage taking place, as Murray Leinster was one William Fitzgerald Jenkins, FWIW. Here he posits an unusual First Contact story. The visiting alien has been amongst us for a long, long time, but no-one has realised. He has been residing all that time in a mental hospital as a patient. Outwardly human, with only six fingers being an indication of his otherworldly origin, oh, and the fact that he’s been living there for a long, long, long time, a fact which only comes to light following some investigation by a doctor at the institution, through whose eyes the story unfolds. Kingman doesn’t speak, and spends all day with a superior smirk on his face. Only when the doctor explores his history, comes to the correct conclusion as to his origin, and is able to understand the importance of the diagrams that Kingman draws when given paper, does the full extent of his alienness become apparent. And the nature of those diagrams! Is humanity on the edge of a brave new world with the science and technological advances being offered to us? Well, you will have to read the story to find out. Actually, that’s a bit unfair, so I’ll tell you that sadly for Kingman it becomes apparent just how dangerous his knowledge could be, and a psychiatric intervention using a drugs combo turns him into just a person with normal intelligence. Frustratingly, we have to wait until close the end to get an insight into Kingman’s mind, why he has refused to lower himself to learning our language (which surely would have enabled him to achieve the status he yearned for) and why such a superior being would be so passive for so, so long, and allow treatment that so fundamentally affects him for the worse, remains a mystery. [29th Sept 2021]

Erik Fennel. Doughnut Jockey. Orginally in Blue Book Magazine, May 1948.

A light-hearted exploration of rocket science needed to get to Mars (remember this was published back in 1948!). The Doughnut in question is a ring-shaped rocket which helps boost a Mars-bound rocket into orbit and onto it’s journey. It’s a tricky thing to pilot, and our protagonist is the best at the job, so he is, to his frustration, limited to take offs to low Earth orbit and return, whilst lesser pilots get to fly to Mars. He dreams of getting the trip to Mars. And he dreams of marrying one of the female staff team. One day it looks like his dream of the Mars trip will be fulfilled, but it doesn’t. However, he does get the gal. An interesting historical perspective on the technology being envisaged at the time, but that’s about it! [30th Sept 2021]

Martin Gardner. Thang. Originally in Comment, Fall 1948.

An ultra-short. There’s a reference to the Chinese that will make you wince, and Earth falls foul to the mighty god Thang, who is a bit peckish. However, Thang finds out quickly that there is always a bigger fish in the sea… [30th Sept 2021]

J.J. Coupling. Period Piece. Originally in

The editorial “Do only men have human feelings?” introduction does rather give the game away somewhat. Smith is a time traveller from the 20th century, spending his time in the future attending social soirees chatting amiably about life back then. However he begins to suspect that something is not quite right – the conversations are all very amiable, but shallow, and his replies seem to spring to mind fully formed, as if scripted… And sadly his suspicions are confirmed after he defenestrates from a high building. Worse still, the fall hasn’t damaged his ‘brain’ as that resides elsewhere, connected to his automaton body by “tight beam” rather than residing in his cranium. It’s a story that stands the test of time well. [2nd October 2021]

Fredric Brown. Knock. Originally in :

The knock, as Brown informs us in the opening lines is the two sentence horror story : “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door….” And our protagonist, Walter Phelan, is indeed the last man on Earth and the room he is in is in fact a zoo cage, although the aliens have made it look and feel like home. (He appears to be quite sanguine about the fact that the Zan have wiped out all of humanity – he was widowed two years ago, so he doesn’t have to mourn his wife, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned about the rest of humanity!) He finds out through his conversations with the Zan that they are incredibly long-lived, and they themselves are rather put out to find that Earth creatures have a much shorter lifespan. When one of the other exhibits, a rattlesnake, dies, Walter seizes the moment to test something out. And indeed his ploy is successful, as the Zan, confronted by their own mortality decide to leave, with Walter and the last woman on Earth left to start again (she is a bit reluctant at first to embrace this, but quickly appears to come round to the idea). It’s a charming little story of it’s type. [2nd October 2021]

Poul Anderson. Genius. Originally in : Astounding, December 1948.

Evidently Anderson’s first short story, and it’s an impressive one, albeit not without issues. It’s a longer story than the previous ones in this volume, and it’s breadth and scope is similarly much larger. Anderson has created a setting three thousand years hence, with humanity having spread to the stars. Many stars. There are threats from without, which our military strength confront. But there are far fewer challenges from within, as the empire has reached an enforced stasis with regard to society and structures. The story has two characters, the military, simian Goram, and the social scientist Heym (I don’t think I spotted any reference to how enhanced simians have come to exist). The conflict is based around a visit to a social experiment on a remote planet, which had been seeded with geniuses, and observed for many centuries as an experiment to see what a planet full of geniuses would be like. Goram is concerned that such a planet may be a threat to the stability of the empire. Heym believes it may be the saving of the empire. However, their visit to the planet is for Goram to assess whether there is a threat from the planet, which would mean the planet would be destroyed. There is some great writing in the story. I particularly liked this : “Monstrously the ship drove through a night of mind-cracking empty distances, outpacing light in her furious subdimensional quasivelocity, impregnable and invicible and in human in her arrogance.” There’s also a very neat twist in the tale. On the other hand, the supposably less intelligent military man gives Anderson through the scientist, free rein to expound at length on the nature of empire, of mankind and of social science, and much more. SPOILER! It turns out that the crude, simian Goram is in fact one of the people from the planet of geniuses, and the inhabitants of the planet are in fact so clever that whilst being observed by the humans who set up their planet, they have themselves, unobserved, got out into space and have infiltrated the empire! [6th Oct 2021]

Ray Bradbury. And the Moon Be Still as Bright. Originally in : Thrilling Wonder Stories June 1948.

A second Mars-based tale from Bradbury in this volume. The story appeared, slightly changed, in his fix-up novel ‘The Martian Chronicles’. In this original story, this is the first crew to land on Mars, a Mars whose inhabitants are no more, but whose cities and art, literature and music are still intact. The ship’s archaeologist, Spender, is mortified at the crass behaviour of most of his fellow crewmembers who celebrate their planetfall on that first night. He sees the future despoilation of the planet as inevitable, and wanders off into the Martian cities. Returning some time later, he has immersed himself in the Martian culture and marvels at how they were able to blend religion, culture, science and philosophy, and decides to take arms up against his fellow crew members to prevent them returning to Earth and starting the process of colonisation and ruin of the planet. It’s well told, elegaic in places, with the reading of a Byron poem at one point, and paints an altogether bleak picture of humanity, which, some 70 years on from the writing of the story, still stands as a valid concern. [6th Oct 2021]

Isaac Asimov. No Connection. Originally in : Astounding Science Fiction, June 1948.

I have read this story before, but have no recollection of ‘No Connection’. I know that I’ve read it, as it appears in the anthology ‘The Early Asimov’, which I read. But, then again, I did read it in about 1974, so no shame in not remembering it…

In fact, it appeared in Volume 3 of the UK Panther paperback edition, which I know by dint of popping downstairs to consult my ‘Initial SF Collection’, which sits proudly above the TV in the living room. The discrete collection of SF books I bought in my teens.

This story is set on Earth some millenia hence, which we surmise as the clearly non-human (very large, hairy) protagonist is an archaelogist, and he is studying the very, very few traces of what clearly were homo sapiens which are left on the planet. It is a very human-like setting, with schools, museums and so forth, but it’s a quite idyllic, sparsely populated North America, with people choosing to do what job they like doing, and the jobs that people don’t like doing are done on a rota. However, their peaceful existence is going to come under threat from creatures the other side of the world, from lands unknown to them. Asimov teases out exactly what is happening until the end, when we find out SPOILER ALERT that the protagonists are evolved bears, the oversea threat is coming from evolved chimpanzees, who are more advanced technically and see North America as virgin territory inhabited by little more savages… And, that homo sapiens met their fate through their discovery of nuclear fission (which Asimovs covers in other stories, notably the one where slowmo footage of the first atomic bomb shows the very devil himself laughing amongst the flames, and the one where humanity is entered into the galactic record of civilisations after discovering nuclear fission, only to be scratched out of the ledger when the record keeper finds out we haven’t colonised other planets yet.) [15th October 2021]

Wilmar H. Shiras. In Hiding. Originally in : Astounding Science Fiction,

The story stands out from most others in the volume as one that feels quite contemporary, as it has no sfnal elements in it to date it, and the focus on psychological elements of the story would not be out of place today. In fact, Nancy Kress revisited the same theme in the early 90s with her classic ‘Beggars in Spain’. The story features an educational psychiatrist working with a young teenage boy who appears to be very bright, but who might be hiding something. The psychiatrist finds out that the boy is indeed bright, and as their relationship develops, we find out just how very, very, very gifted the boy is. Is he an alien or something else?? Shiras tips the reader a wink as one of the boy’s hobbies is breeding Persian and Siamese cats, looking for the perfect genetic combination. And we find out, right at the end of the story, that the boy is not an alien, but indeed, a genetic mutation, caused by his parents having taken in doses of radiation in an atomic factory accident before he was conceived. And it may be that there are other offspring from other workers at the factory who might be at large in the community… It is well-written, and intriguing, with well drawn characters, but I did find it did go on just a bit too long, as more and more and yet more examples were given of the boy’s super intelligence. I did find it a tad disappointing that the story ended when it did, but was pleased to see, when researching the author, who was unknown to me, that she did go on to write two sequels, which were novelized as ‘Children of the Atom’. It appears that these were her primariy contribution to the SF pantheon, but they were recognised at the time. [16th October 2021]

Henry Kuttner. Happy Ending. Originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1948.

The volume ends with a cute, neat story from Kuttner, an author who I’m not at all familiar with. The story starts at the end, the bulk of it is the middle bit, and it ends with the start. And there’s a good reason for that, which is worth the price of admission alone. The Happy Ending at the beginning comes to one James Kelvin, a journalist, who is successful in achieving his fame and fortune. We then follow his journey to achieving that aim, which features him coming into contact with a rogue robot from the future, being chased by one evidently evil android called Tharn, who he sidesteps through matter transportation thanks to a device gifted to him by the robot. And he is able to achieve his wealth through mental pickpocketing of future scientist Quarra Vee. It’s a jolly tale in itself, but the ending, in which we find that quite definitely all is not as it seems, and that James Kelvin, which he has succeeded in gaining wealth in the 1940s, has in fact, unbeknownst to him, come a long, long way to achieve that, but has lost a lot more in doing so. [19th October 2021]

Conclusion

A good set of stories, with not too many suffering too much at the hands of the passing decades.

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