The Best Science Fiction Stories 1951 ed Everett F. Bleiler and T.E. Dikty. Frederic Fell Inc, 1951

I did have the UK edition (restricted number of stories and size), but I have just spent a little bit of cash on the US edition (signed by Dikty!)…

In the previous year’s edition the editors pondered the links between detective fiction and SF, and this year they ponder the links between anthropological/ethnological fiction and SF, going as far back as the ancient Greeks and getting very erudite on this reader’s sorry ass. So what of the fiction in this volume?

Frank M. Robinson. The Santa Claus Planet.

A story which appears in print for the first time in this volume, which is rather strange for a volume aiming to provide the best of the previous year’s SF. The story does very much relate to the topics discussed in the first part of the editorial introduction, and in the second part of the editorial introduction which looks at each story in the volume, the editors praise the extent to which the author has drawn on ethno/anthro research. I liked the initial cut of the story’s jib, but as it progressed, less so. The setup is that a solo space traveller has to make an emergency landing on a planet. Lucky for him, the terran-descended and terran-speaking denizens appear to welcome him with open arms. But it turns out that their gifts provide an existential threat, as he is required to destroy their gifts and furnish even better ones in return, which they then destroy, which is repeated until one party has no more gifts and is killed. Fortunately, one of the local women (who is topless!!!!) befriends him and using his cunning and guile, plays the game until he is able to win without fatality on either side. And even better than that, with his willing and fecund wife, he very much comes out on top as the daddy. Fifteen times over. Nice to see an early example of an ethnographic/anthropological SF story, but it is rather dated, and it is more from a historical perspective than an enjoying the story angle! [6th Nov 2021]

Reginald Bretnor. The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out.
Originally in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

According to Wikipedia, this story was a finalist for the 1951 Retro-Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, no less than John Clute called it “hilarious”. I found it rather too dated and broad in it’s approach to do much to my funny-bone, although the cavalry-obsessed Colonel Powhattat Fairfax Pollard took my fancy, as he could have come from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Somewhat like watching the 1940s film “Hellzapoppin'” nowadays, and realising humour has moved on in half a century (fortunately). Anyhoo, the story features a Swiss emigree to the USA, mit der funny vay of speaking. who iss a mad scientist unt who invents ein secret veapon which sends out furry little timetravelling rodent-like aliens vot can chew zer trousers off an enemy soldier in zeconds. [28th Nov 2021]

Cyril Kornbluth. The Mindworm.
Originally in : Worlds Beyond, December 1950.

Gosh, this is a strong, unsettling story now, I can imagine the impact it had on the reader 70 years ago! The post-war post-atom bomb enemy-within of the time is a strong element to the story, which sees an unwanted child, raised in an orphanage, affected in utero by the radiation from an atom-bom test, develop the ability to use his mind to read other minds, draw energy from those minds, and destroy those minds. As he grows older and the story progresses, we see less of him and more of ‘The Mindworm’ as a discrete entity, which has no qualms about the victims it chooses. We see into the many minds it reads, and there are a lot of dark thoughts there. However, at the end it realises, somewhat belatedly, that whilst it’s existence is due to the new horror of the atom bomb, it is part of much older horrors, and there are those attuned to those horrors. WAMPYIR! You can read the story on the Protject Gutenberg website. [21st Dec 2021]

Bill Brown. The Star Ducks.
Originally in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

I’m sure I must have read it at some point in the past, and the seasoned SF reader will be pretty sure what’s happening and what’s going to happen, but it’s still a neat little tale, full of dry humour, as a newspaper journo comes tantalisingly close to the biggest scoop ever. Unfortunately for him, he has just enough time to see the aliens who have landed out back of a remote farm, but not enough time to do anything else but observe as they head back home, with the farmer and his wife sadly not in any way equipped to do have been able to recognise the true import of what has been happening. [1 Jan 2022, yes 2022 FFS]

Roger Flint Young. Not to be Opened.
Originally in Astounding Science Fiction, January 1950

A lengthy (and somewhat overlong tbh) story that consists of a long flashback between an intriguing opening scene and the denouement. The protagonist, Ted, is an electric engineer with a knack, learnt from his dad, of being able to take an individual part and work out what exactly is the bigger thing it has come from. In this way, when he is surprised to find a new part in a toy laser, he is able to ascertain that it is from…. well, we don’t find out straight away, but we are told it’s clearly something dangerous and almost beyond man’s ken. The bulk of the story is Ted forensically investigating other manufacturers, shipping companies, and products to ascertain just what is going on and who is behind it. Pages and pages of it! The sfnal stuff kicks in over the final couple of pages, which are quite rushed, and come in the form of a conversation between Ted and ‘Del’ who is from the future, or rather whose mind is from the future, but is controlling a contemporary body. Ted leaps to a conclusion about the veracity of ‘Del’s’ story, strikes him and unintentionally kills him, leaving him in a bit of a quandary. And the ending ‘Animal? Vegetable? Mineral?’ brings the story to an odd conclusion. If you like forensic, procedural stories about manufacturing electonic parts and logistics theoreof, then this is the story for you. I don’t and this wasn’t. [9th Jan 2022]

A.E. van Vogt. Process.
Originally in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1950

I’ve been reading this volume concurrently with Jonathan Strahan’s ‘The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 2’ and in my summary of that book, I lamented the fact that 20 out of the 26 stories were near-future Earth stories, and most of which featured AI, technology or environmental issues, rather than SFnal elements. This story provides a clear indication of what that new volume was missing. Van Vogt posits a far distant planet in a far future. The protagonist of that story is a forest, a humongous forest that has developed a very slow hive-mind. We see it go to war with another similar forest, which it wins after an epic struggle. Then humans arrive on spaceships, and the forest remembers how it dealt with them in the past. But these humans are more of a challenge, and the forest is pushed to its limited, but it manages to repel them by going for the nuclear option. Except that the mighty forest hasn’t quite understand that the uranium it is pulling up from deep underground isn’t frightening away the humans, but is being collected by the humans…. Nicely told, and nice to get one’s head out of contemporary or near-future issues and out there into the deep dark. [18th Jan 2022]

William F. Temple. Forget-Me-Not.
Originally in Other Worlds Science Fiction, September 1950.

One of the authors whose name doesn’t conjure up the immediate recognisation of many others in this volume. A quick google finds a nice summar of Temple and his work by Mike Ashley that was an introduction to an anthology of his work published by Ramble House. Clearly a key figure in the early UK SF fandom and writing world, he’d been getting stories published for over a decade before this one. And this one is a good one that stands head and shoulders up there with any of the other stories I’ve read in this series so far by much more recognisable names. Young Direk goes for a walk around his world, and, as ever, finds himself back where he started soon enough, but arriving from the opposite direction. We clearly see the nature of the ‘world’ his people live in, but they have no idea, happy to live their simple lives out. But Direk feels there is more to be had, and his explorations lead him to escaping the small, constrained environment, and to get a glimpse of the much bigger world without, and, indeed to meet the benevolent (or not quite so benevlent) ‘god’ under who created them, their world and who feeds them, and who punishes them (somewhat arbritarily, as is the case with all gods of course). The title refers to a small flower that Direk returns to their world, to give him faith in continuing to see what is out there, even if his people are happy to retain the status quo. [20th Jan 2022]

Katherine MacLean. Contagion.
Originally in Galaxy Science Fiction October 1950 (and online on Project Gutenberg)

A female author, and a female protagonist, and she is a doctor to boot! I was pleased that a story about humans visiting a planet for the first time starts with them wearing spacesuits whilst exploring, and being ultra-cautious about potential infection by alien diseases. Too often this angle of space exploration is quietly ignored! And it’s necessary for this story, as it is all about alien contagion. The explorers and potential settlers are surprised to find a human on the planet, and it turns out there has been an un-recorded colonisation attempt in the past. The settler they meet is a handsome, strapping example of humanity, and when he returns to their spaceship he is a big hit with the ladies – not only has he got the build and the looks but he’s got charisma witha capital CH. He also has an impact on the men – turns out that their protocols didn’t spot him as a carrier, and he has passed on a fatal disease. The ending of the story is a doozy – it turns out that all of the remaining settlers look just like him, and the only way for the infected male crew members to avoid the fatal disease is for them to be genetically remodelled on him. When all the male crew come out of treatment not only genetically modelled on him, but also looking just like him, there’s a bit of a to do. But nothing compared to that when the women realise that in order to stay on the planet they too are going to have to be genetically remodelled and be female versions of him! Good to have a strong focus on relationships, love, longing and temptation! I’ve got a few more stories of hers to read in the backlog of 50s/60s/70s anthologies I’m working my way through and I’m looking foward to them! [20th January 2022]

Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson. Trespass!
Originally in Fantastic Story Quarterly, Spring 1950

Humorous time travel shenanigens involving a future traveller whose return to his time sees him stop off, much to his chagrin, in 2021, along with an Aztec temple. I found there was a mismatch between the length of the story and the humour, and couldn’t entertain yet more pages of the protagonists arguing with each other! Notable for being the prolific Dickson’s first published story. [20th Jan 2022]

Alfred Bester. Oddy and Id.

A millenia hence and young Odysseus Gaul goes through his charmed life evidently unaware of his innate ability that makes everything go right for him. When his college professors alert him to this, with a view to using him to end the imminent war, he cheerfully agrees to their plan, and, sure enough, the war is soon over. However, whilst he clearly consciously has wanted peace, his subsconscious, his Freduian ‘id’ has other plans, and he is soon esconced on the newly-established galactic throne. Young Oddy is seen at one remove throughout, either through the narrator, or the academics, and the essence of the story is Bester’s sly digs at the post-war time the story was written. [28th Jan 2022]

Damon Knight. To Serve Man.
Originally in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950.

A simple little story with a twist in the tail. The Kanamit have arrived on Earth, and the members of the United Nations need to be persuaded that they are indeed truly altruistic, and the technology that they have supplied, which will revolutionise life of Earth, and bring peace and prosperity, have no strings attached. Are they looking a gift horse in the mouth?? Turns out, as we find in the last sentence, they are indeed here to with a view to serve man. But it depends how you view that phrase! [7th Feb 2022]

L. Sprague de Camp. Summer Wear.
Originally in Startling Stories May 1950.

As a standalone story it’s an interesting, lightweight piece of fun. An American fashion trader is on a trip to the planet Osiris to get them to buy into Earth fashion, with a case full of samples. It’s a tricky task, as the Osirians have body-temperature control and no need of clothing, and are dinosaur-like in body structure. Tricker still, as there is a representative from a Parisian fashion-house on the spaceship as well, and the trip sees commercial espionage as the pair vie to present just their outfits to their potential customers. Having seemingly won the day, the protagonist returns to find the tables have been well and truly turned, as in the 22-Earth years that have passes since he set out, we have in fact embraced the Osirian custom of nudity and body paint. However, the story is more interesting as part of L. Sprague de Camp’s broader output, as it is in his extensive ‘Viagens Interplanetarias‘ series, which had a strong commercial and trading element, a series of which I knew nothing until 10 minutes ago. [7th Feb 2022]

Richard Matheson. Born of Man and Woman.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1950.

These early anthologies have quite a number of light, humorous stories. And they have a few stories like this. It’s dark, bleak and nightmarish, with nothing to make it SF – it’s pure horror. The story is in the form of a sort of diary entries, written in the simple language of the diarist (this story was some 8 years before ‘Flowers for Algernon’). The diarist is something born of man and woman, but is forced to live in the cellar, out of sight, due to their appearance. We don’t know exactly what they look like, but there’s a twist in the end with a little mention of something that makes it clear that they are, rather than being slightly deformed, somewhat further from baseline human. Far further. Matheson clearly had a lot of dark recesses in his mind. Not one to read just before going to bed. I’ve got almost four hours before beddie-byes, and I’m going to have to get this out of my mind before then! [24th Feb 2022]

Ray Bradbury. The Fox in the Forest.
Originally in Colliers Magazine

A married couple have travelled back in time to 1930s Mexico, hoping that their trip will never end. It’s not just that Mexico is so beautiful, but also that their home, some 200 years in the future, is a horrible, war riven world run by oppresive regimes. And, worse still, they are both employed in the permanent war effort. And this makes their trip back in time a risky one, for they are sure a Searcher will be after them. And, true enough, that happens. Having got rid of that one Search, the couple unfortunately fall into the hands of a larger group, and are returned home, very much against their will, to their bleak time. The ending, with Searchers turning up disguised as a film crew seemed a little random! [27th Feb 2022]

Fredric Brown. The Last Martian.
Originally in Galaxy Science Fiction

A lighter tone after some darker stories. A newspaper journalist chats to a man in a bar who is convinced he is the last Martian, somehow transported to Earth and into a human body, leaving behind three millions dead Martians. The journalist persuades him it’s for the best if he continues with the life of the human body he is in and heads home to his wife. But the journalist has been playing his cards close to his chest viz a viz the reader, and we turn the last page to find out that the guy in the bar was indeed the last Martian, a very late arrival after the trhee million have made their trip over to Earth and into human bodies. Just like the journalist. The ending is a very satisfying one, as I was afeared that we would up with the reader being given the option of deciding whether the man in the bar was who he said he was. [27th Feb 2022]

Charles L. Harness. The New Reality.
Originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories

Well, first thing first, a ‘thrilling wonder story’ it ain’t. Compared to a lot of the lighter stories of this time, this one is a mathematical and scientific and philosophical doozy. A knowledge of the history of science and maths would undoubtedly give further depth to the story, but without it, the story works well, albeit you need to have a bit of piece and quiet and brain space to get to grips with it. It explores whether reality can in fact be determined by observation : simplest example – when people assumed the world was flat because they could not observe that it was round, it *was in fact flat*, because that was what they observed. In addition to a lot of science and history thereof, and mathematical ‘shit and stuff’ (I’m no mathematician!) there’s drama, as humanity’s entire reality is under threat. Fortunately, the protagonist Adam, comes out of the story well, with one other person, as Harness gets all biblical on our asses. [28th Feb 2022]

Frank Belknap Long. Two Face.
Originally in Weird Tales

A spaceship from Earth lands on an alien world, and the small group who set out to explore are the first human to step foot on the green land. It looks almost too good to be true : rolling green hills, perfect atmosphere. However, there’s a chill reveal, as a misty valley clears and they see an enormous statue of a grotesque, aggressive alien creature. This gives them cause for concern, and there is some debate as to whether to retreat and leave the planet, or explore further (there’s quite a bit of debate throughout the story!). They then discover the natives – warm, welcoming, loving creatures. Almost too good to be true. And, of course, it is, for a further reveals indicate a dichotomy : these aliens can be Eloi, then suddenly turn to Morlocks! Run away! The drama is a little forced, and there’s *way* too much dialogue about the nature of love/hate, and the issue of being two faced. [7th March 2022]

Fritz Leiber. Coming Attraction.
Originally in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950

One of the stronger stories in the volume. It’s a dark one – post-WWIII, with Russia and the USA having dropped nuclear bombs. There’s damage done to buildings and to people from the radioactivity, with people having to wear devices to measure the radioactivity they’ve absorbed each day. There are societal changes too with a fashion for women to wear masks, as the female face has become the object of desire, resplacing the breasts rather more quickly than the breasts replaced the hips, Leiber wryly notes. The coy female character, and her abusive relationship with her boyfriend, which she is unwilling/unable to break, shows Leiber was willing to look into some of the darker shadows cast by the Cold War. You can read the story on Project Gutenberg here. [7th March 2022]

Conclusion

Well, it’s taken me fourth months to read this volume. Partly due to the limited time I spend reading these days, and partly that I didn’t want to rush through the volume and get overdosed on the early 1950s. I was pleased to find that most of the stories have stood the test of time well, and are not too anachronistic. Obviously it’s mostly men heading out to the stars, almost exclusively male writers, and the Second World War, the Cold War, and the nuclear bomb clearly weighed heavily on people’s minds back in the day.

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