December 20, 2013

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964

The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time.

So I finished this a while ago, and I wanted to make a post about it, but the holidays keep me pretty busy. Then throw NES Remix into the mix. Who has time for anything?

This book was awesome. The title speaks the truth. The stories are presented in chronological order, starting with A Martian Odyssey (1934) and ending with A Rose for Ecclesiastes (1963). It would take far too long to go through all of these stories and explain why they are all fantastic reads. Just rest assured that they are.

The SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) was founded in 1965 "to inform science fiction writers on matters of professional interest, to promote their professional welfare, and to help them deal effectively with publishers, agents, editors, and anthologists." They also started handing out Nebula Awards around this time. The main purpose of Volume One is to recognize the best stories that pretty much would have won Nebula Awards had they been around at the time. The stories for the collection were chosen by SFWA members' votes. Nominations were open for over a year. Eventually, 132 stories by seventy-six writers were on the final ballot. SFWA members then chose ten from this list. The only restrictions were only one story per author, and historical perspective had to be kept in mind. The editor of Volume One, Robert Silverberg, included the fifteen stories with the highest votes, and used various methods to determine the rest that would be included. These various methods are stated in detail within the Introduction. All in all, there are twenty-six stories present, all superb.

I love science fiction. But in the past, I always found it hard to decide what "classic" science fiction to pick up and read, because there's just so much. One author could have a myriad of stories/novellas/novels. I might like it, but what if there was something even better that I was missing out on? And there are a ton of anthologies out there too. I guess it might have been chance that I picked this one up. Maybe the credentials had something to do with it too. Whatever the reason, it turned out to be a good choice, and I have a better idea of what authors I would like to investigate further.

I found it very interesting how different the perspectives were as time passed. The early 1930's stories were adventures. Tales of extraordinary places with queer beasts all around (A Martian Odyssey). Sprawling, beautiful landscapes, mysterious and alluring all at once (Twilight). I think the word "fantastic" in its imaginative sense is pretty accurate. Looking forward with unbridled anticipation.

During the 1940's, they spoke of the future in a much more somber tone. They took a more "realistic" view of how things would work. No fantastic adventures here. Much was focused on the advances made in scientific research (Microcosmic God), industrial engineering (The Roads Must Roll), the always interlacing triangle of technology, government, and war (The Weapon Shop), the fight between science and religion (Nightfall), general fear of the future (Huddling Place), generational gaps (Mimsy Were the Borogroves), and fear of extraterrestrial life, as opposed to benevolent curiosity (Arena, First Contact). It was much a more down-to-earth (and negative) view of what the future held. They often had delightfully depressing endings. Even when some humor managed to sneak in, it was quite black. I think this decade was my favorite out of the entire collection.

As the 1950's drew close, I found myself reading what I had already been exposed to through The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and others. Stories that still had central themes as serious as the decade prior, but with a little more lightheartedness. An ending twist pervaded most of these stories (Mars is Heaven!, The Little Black Bag, Scanners Live in Vain, The Quest for Saint Aquin, The Nine Billion Names of God). And more often than not, a critical bit of information was held back from the reader until the very end, for if it was revealed right out of the gate, the story would lose pretty much all of its momentum (That Only a Mother, Fondly Fahrenheit). Others were presented as factual, written almost as a non-fictional account, even though everything in it screamed strange, weird, or unsettling (Born of Man and Woman, Coming Attraction, It's a Good Life, The Cold Equations). They were probably the ones I was most looking forward to reaching the ending, because I knew I would most likely have a smile on my face by the time I got there. Most of these caused me to laugh more than once while reading.

The late 1950's through the end of Volume One took a more tenderhearted turn. There were only three stories present from this time period, and all of them had a central protagonist who was alone. Not physically alone, but rather socially alone (A Country of the Kind), mentally alone (Flowers for Algernon), and the like. It was a view of humanity from an isolated perspective, and the struggle to understand/comprehend from the outside. I would say these would be the most relatable stories to most readers, because these themes are pretty applicable regardless of time period. On a side note, it was nice that A Rose for Ecclesiastes had a throwback to the 1930's adventure feeling visually, despite the central themes still focusing on that aloneness factor.

Naturally, all of the stories were great, and I know this is a book that will be worn out in the years to come. It's hard to pick favorites, because each one has its own strengths. And the fact that they're spread out over nearly forty years doesn't make it any easier. If I had to limit myself to a list of five, they would be:

A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum (1934)
The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein (1940)
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov (1941)
The Little Black Bag by Cyril M. Kornbluth (1950)
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1959)

Definitely worth picking up, and less than $5 on Amazon if you don't mind a used book. $12 new if you're a big spender.

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