The Best Science Fiction Stories 1950 ed Everett F. Bleiler and T.E. Dikty. Frederic Fell Inc, 1950.

The dust jacket of my volume is somewhat faded and tattered, but I remember the excitement of buying it about 25 years ago. Charmingly, the front cover of the book itself is debossed (opposite of embossed) with tiny little stars. Time to start reading it now! (October 2021).

One Vincent Starrett, according to wikipedia ‘a Canadian-born American writer, newspaperman, and bibliophile.’ provides ‘A Sort of Introduction’ and ponders the relationship between detective stories, and science fiction, considering that the former may have reached the end of it’s road due to all story options having been exhausted! Editors Bleiler and Dikty provide a similar analysis of the two genres, and then head into discussions of the stories in the volume, which I skipped to avoid spoilers.

Henry Kuttner. Private Eye.
Originally in Astounding Science Fiction, January 1949 (using the pseudonym ‘Lewis Padgett’)

An interesting SFnal element to what is essential a detective/crime thriller. The sfnal element predates Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’ which was written five or so years later. Kuttner posits the use of technology to draw from solid objects the images and sounds that they have absorbed over the years, providing the forces of law with the capacity to review in fine detail crimes and their antecedent incidents. The story starts with a murder – Sam Clay stabs a colleague through the heart with a sharp blade. Surely an open and shut case? But no, for in this future, the prosecution has to provide predetermination and malice aforethought. So the story involves the investigating team trawling back through Clay’s life to see what might have lead him to plan this. And the reader gets to accompany Clay’s thought processes throughout, in what becomes tbh a somewhat overlong forensic psychological journey. There are some neat touches throughout, and it certainly didn’t feel like a 70year old story (there weren’t any ‘dames’ and the main female character certainly gives as good as she gets), and fans of classic detective fiction will enjoy it hugely. I did have a short-lived dalliance with a couple of James M. Cain novels back in the day, but not enough to fully enjoy this story. [21st Oct 2021]

Murray Leinster. Doomsday Deferred.
Originally in The Saturday Evening Post, September 24, 1949 (using the pseudonym ‘Will F. Jenkins’)

A nicely written, but not terribly satisfying for the SF reader, tale of an American who has headed deep into the Brazilian interior in search of an ultra rare butterfly. He doesn’t find it, but comes across what he believes to be a chilling threat to humanity : soldier ants who have developed a hive mind intelligence far beyond what is normal. Using a bit of basic chemistry, he foils any plan (or just delays it???) by tricking the army of ants into eating poisoned food. [25th Oct 2021]

Theodore Sturgeon. The Hurkle is a Happy Beast.
Originally in The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949

A short, light piece in which a very alien alien, the titular Hurkle, which is very, very blue, and multi-legged, finds himself on planet Earth, which, it transpires, is not good news for humanity, especially after a dose of DDT from the human he makes First Contact with enables the alien to multiply. Light in tone with a few neat turns of phrase, especially the opening pages on the planet Lirht. I particularly enjoyed “So on Lirht, while the decisions on the fate of the miserable Hvov were being formulated, gwik still fardled, funted and fupped. The great central hewton still beat out its mighty pulse, and in the anams the corsons grew…” [27th Oct 2021]

Clifford Simak. Eternity Lost.
Originally in Astounding Science Fiction, July 1949

I thought I’d check how early on in his career this Simak story was. Turns out it was 18 years and 35+ published stories into his career! It’s a lengthy musing on the topic of longevity and immortality, with the protagonist’s internal monologue giving Simak the opportunity to discuss various issues around the topic. The story revolves around World Senator Homer Leonard, who is some 500 years old. He’s one of the few beneficiaries of longevity treatment, due to him being partly responsible for their availability, as he was on the World Senate Committee which agreed the treatments. The novelette does include excerpts from the committee meeting transcripts throughout, a device which gives the story a modern feel. But Leonard is beginning to feel his age, and is getting forgetful, a sure sign that he is due a new course of longevity treatment. The thing is, he finds out he is now deemed to be past his political usefulness, and those who have greater political power than he have decided it is time for him to stop receiving the treatments. Like any good politician his schemes to get his treatment despite this. But he fails, and finally comes to terms with his mortality. Throughout the story Leonard has been aware that the limited amount of space that humanity has available is a constraint on the global roll out of longevity and immortality, and at the end of the story the discovery of habitable planets other than Earth does indeed come to pass, but with a delicious irony: in his forgetful state he has neglected to spot the letter with his invitation to move on from longevity and onto immortality and to reach for the stars, and that invitation has been withdrawn! An enjoyable read, the story is not in many ways anachronistic, and wouldn’t look too amiss amongst the covers of a contemporary issue of Analog. [28th Oct 2021]

Robert Spencer Carr. Easter Eggs.
Originally in The Saturday Evening Post, September 24, 1949.

Unlike the preceding story, this one does rather show it’s age. Written and set in the immediate post-Second World War Cold War Red Peril Panic, the story sees a pair of Martian spaceships land on Earth. One on the White House lawn, one outside The Kremlin. The Martians are brothers and are seeking friendly relations with humanity. The White House team, after failing in their attempt to destroy the ship, are able to communicate with the Martian inside, through the good offices of a secretary, a cute gal who has not only excellent dictation skills, but also is a dab hand at water colour painting, and as she has both her dictation notepad and her paintset to hand, she is able to act as their communication channel. The Russians, obvs, are doing their dirty russky scheming in their deals with their alien, whilst the Yanks are now being open-harmed an honest. And the contrasting approaches by the two representatives from humanity drive a wedge between the two Martian siblings, who duel to the death. Which one will survive, and will it be the pro-US or pro-USSR Martian??? (We don’t find out!) As an interesting sidebard, Carr had his first story published at 15, and his first novel at 17, became a communist, lived in Russia, then turned his back on communism and returned to the USA, and then in the 70s claimed knowledge of a Roswell alien autopsy! [28th Oct 2021]

Wilmar H. Shiras. Opening Doors.
Originally in Astounding Science Fiction, March 1949

A sequel to ‘Hiding’ which appeared in the previous year’s anthology, which I enjoyed. It picks up the story of young teen Thomas and his psychologist friend Dr. Welles, as they set upon a search to identify other children like Timothy, who parents were subjected to radiation poisoning that led their children to have off the scale IQs. They start to have success, and the bulk of the story revolves around Dr. Welles rescuing a girl from an asylum, and getting her alongside Tim. As with the previous story, not much happens, and we do get a full blow-by-blow account with lots of dialogue, it very much feeling like you are reading a serialised novel. [31st Oct 2021]

Robert W. Krepps. Five Years in the Marmalade.
Originally in Fantastic Adventures, July 1949.

A droll little tale, in which two human spacefarers meet up with a Martian traveller, and are amazed at his claims that the superior Martian brain enables them to travel not only across time and space, but to lands that only exist in fiction. One of the humans plays a trick on the Martian, describing the wonderful fictional place of Marmalade, and the Martian immediately sets off on 5 year trip there. Of course it only exists in the human’s mind, and the Martian finds the human’s mind quite a pleasant place (they have the technology to shrink down to the scale of the destination), and so the microscopic Martian settles down to build himself a little home for his stay…. [31st October 2021]

Ray Bradbury. Dwellers in Silence.
Originally in Planet Stories, Spring 1949

As with his story in the previous year’s anthology, Bradbury provides a bleak tale set on a near-deserted Mars. Dr. Hathaway and his family were left behind amongst the ruins of the old Martian civilization quarter of a century ago when the spaceships returned to Earth. He searches the skies looking for signs of humanity’s return, wondering if there is indeed anyone left there. A ship does return, but they, and the reader, find out that the family are merely automata he has built, admittedly perfect replicas. (Imagine just how even more awful the story would have been (and a bit more realistic) if the automata had been ghastly, half-formed replicas (as has probably been done many times in horror fiction)!!) [31st Oct 2021]

Fredric Brown. Mouse.
Originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1949

Bill Wheeler, research biologist, has a flat which overlooks Central Park. He and his cat watch the alien spaceship land there, and he is called upon to help with the investigation. Turns out the sole occupant of the six foot long vessel is something akin to an Earth mouse. But clearly it can’t have had the intelligence to pilot the vessel. Hmm, a bit of a mystery. When some bad things start happening across the globe, Bill Wheeler realises that the mouse must have been a host for a far greater, and evil being, who must have made a species leap upon arrival. But where can the alien intelligence be lurking?? No sooner has he realised where it is residing than it has made him forget…. A nice enough story as far as it goes. The story is available online on the Baen Books website. [31st Oct 2021]

Robert Moore Williams. Refuge for Tonight.
Originally in The Blue Book Magazine, March 1949

A story that stands out in the volume as being so similar to current SF. It really wouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes editing a couple of sentences to leave the reader having absolutely no idea when the story was written. It starts with a vibe like any contemporary post-apocalyptic story/game, with Sam Jones ekeing out the last miles in a car before he is reduced to walking on foot. He meets a young girl, who appears to be alone, but it’s a trap as she has three colleagues with her, who are after his car. (I think exackerly that happened in ‘The Last of Us’). What has happened is this : a ‘yellow flu’ (!!) has decimated the US population, and under the guise of offering aid, foreign powers have moved in. It transpires that it’s a cunning new strategy for war – biological war followed by moving in under guise of providing aid. Turns out Sam knows his would be attackers and they join forces to seek out a nuclear weapon silo, with plans to hit back against the enemy. When they find there way there, turns out Sam knows one of the scientists there, and it’s not a nuclear weapon silo, but a secret interstellar spaceship silo, and it’s time to get aboard to seek pastures new, rather than staying and fighting against impossible odds. Leaving aside the couple of co-incidences, the story works well after all these years. I hadn’t heard of Robert Moore Williams before this, and it seems he was a proflic author at short and long length, and FWIW this story doesn’t get a mention in the list of his top dozen short stories on that site! [31st Oct 2021]

Murray Leinster. The Life-Work of Professor Muntz.
Originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1949

Professor Muntz’ life work comes to a limited degree of posthumous fruition in helping the somewhat coarse Mr. Grebb, delivery driver for the Ajax Brewing Co., avoid being framed for fraud by his unscrupulous supervisor. We don’t get to meet Professor Muntz, as he is posthumous by the time the story opens, but we follow Mr. Grebb through several days of fustrating, unknowing experience of the very localised multiversal effects of the machine that Professor Muntz had left in their landladies’ cellar. Nicely written. [31st Oct 2021]

John D. MacDonald. Flaw.
Originally in : Startling Stories, January 1949

A sad, downbeat little story, in which the girlfriend of one of the first astronauts laments his loss, and waits for the world to find out what she has surmised, that the universe isn’t expanding, but shrinking. The science in the story is a little dubious – having headed out to Mars, the spaceship is no longer subject to the constraints of the force that is causing everything to in fact shrink, and so the ship grows in size and returns to Earth much quicker than anticipated (they have developed a technology for an atomic powered spaceship, but have not developed radio communication between the ship and Earth). [5th Nov 2021]

Ray Bradbury. The Man.
Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1949

The volume closes with another Ray Bradbury story. He goes a bit further than Mars for this one, with humanity’s representative’s landing on a heterfore-uncontacted world. But the captain isn’t best pleased as the locals are singularly unmoved by their arrival. It transpires that they have had another visitation, just the day before, and are in thrall to the man who cured the ill, and talked of peace and love. The ship’s captain is convinced this is a trick being played by a rival human spaceship’s captain, and vows to set off back into space to chase him down. But for the others it is a moment for pause and reflection upon what they set out into space to find, and on the nature of faith. [5th Nov 2021]

Conclusion

I enjoyed the three lighter stories, by Leinster, Sturgeon & Krepp, especially for their language and turns of phrase. Bradbury’s ‘Dwellers in Silence’ and Robert Moore Williams ‘Refuge for Tonight’ stood the test of time well.

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