More Penguin Science Fiction – Edited by Brian Aldiss (Penguin Books 1963)

Another lovely old Penguin paperback. This one has a nice painting by Kandinsky on the cover and a superb, but slightly startling photo of Brian Aldiss on the back cover. Used to more recent photos I was a little surprised to see he looked a little like the Verger from Dad’s Army in the past.

Short story collections are often hit and miss, hopefully more good stories than clunkers. I did wonder at the outset whether the passage of time would affect my appreciation of the stories. I shouldn’t open a book with apprehension but it is difficult not to do so with vintage science fiction.

Brian Aldiss’ introduction to the book is entertaining. He points out that many of the tales deal with the extinction of humanity and that science fiction has domesticated the appalling. He also makes the reader question whether they are real or living some false Matrix existence. “When you hold this book, you are not feeling the paper that came from the Penguin establishment in Harmondsworth, you are feeling the neural response to what your fingers touch. A work of interpretation has been carried out between head and brain. An identical work of interpretation might be carried out if the hand were made of a silicon-based substance or the brain an affair of printed circuits and electronic scanners”. I suppose the lesson from that is, if you don’t like what I write, remember that I may be silicon based life-form.

Brian Aldiss mentions the writers of each story in his introduction. He is quite brief on the first story, The Monkey Wrench by Gordon R Dickson. I too do not have a lot to say other than the twist at the end is entirely predictable and the irritation caused by the pompous, melodramatic characters and the tortuous histrionics they subjected me to in getting to the end was not worth the effort.

The First Man by Howard Fast (writer of Spartacus) is much better. The story begins with a series of letters between a brother and a sister as they search for children displaying the characteristics of genius so they can be nurtured to become ├╝bermensch, the next stage of human evolution. The exchange of letter format works well and it’s a pity it wasn’t used throughout. The attempt to inject tension right at the end of the story was not really necessary.

Counterfeit by Alan E Nourse (you’ve got to have a middle initial to write sci-fi) kicks off with “The spaceship plunged through the black starways towards the orbit of the third planet. It’s trip had been long. It was homeward bound”. It does not really recover from this dreadful start and the story about a shape-shifting alien is the stuff of bad B movies. I almost stopped reading at this point in the book.

Tom Godwin’s The Greater Thing reads like a Western. A man and a woman are pursued through a ghost town by a bunch of bad cops. Only, in this town there is a sentient being spawned by a nuclear blast that learns to distinguish between right and wrong. Again, it’s not great but it is readable.

The next story, Build up Logically by Howard Schoenfeld is one of the strongest in the book. It is a clever, funny and strange tale in which the main character is also the writer, determining the events that affect him as a character in the book as he goes along. A time machine is introduced which moves the entire universe through time so everything remains the same. The writer finds himself in the position of being invented by one of his characters. This was a delight to read.

William Tenn’s the Liberation of Earth is. An extremely tongue in cheek, witty tale of several liberationist of Earth by two warring alien races. Tenn’s understated, dry humour is superb. Humankind’s collective ego is destroyed as they are caught between two seemingly benign and heavily armed alien races.

An Alien Agony by Harry Harrison is another good tale in which a human trader on an alien planet inhabited with intelligent but over-trusting aliens, is dismayed by arrival of a religious missionary from home. The result is a stand off between science and religion. The aliens, called Weskers, try to find the truth by attempting to apply logic to the missionary’s claims leading to a grisly result. I suspect most readers will have some sympathy with the Weskers and their questioning of faith.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl feels of its time, even though it is set in the far future. Guy Burckhardt, the main character and his wife Mary feel as if they have been cut from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The story, however gets quite strange and has a bizarre Philip K Dick quality to it at times. Guy Burckhardt is not what, or who, he thinks he is and the big reveal at the end was unexpected and brought to mind Scale by Will Self.

Robert Sheckley’s The Store of the Worlds is one of the shortest storeies, but also one of the best. A man called Tompkins has discovered a way to extract a person’s consciousness and inject it into any of the infinite alternate realities that exist. We see a timid man, Mr Wayne, approach cautiously. He wants to undergo the procedure but is scared and worried about the high price and consequential reduction in life expectancy. Mr Wayne’s choices are surprising and at the end we see why he is willing to consider such a high price. This story may make readers reassess their view of their own lives.

Jokester by Isaac Asimov sees him pursue his love of the groan inducing gag
in a story where we find one of the basic human creative activities Isis actually the result of experiments by outside entities. It’s not a brilliant story but, being Asimov, it’s enjoyable.

Pyramid by Robert Abernathy is an ecological disaster story where man, inevitably, is the cause but the scene of the crisis is another planet entirely. I enjoyed this story very much. The main character, Zilli, is a highly intelligent academic from an alien culture that values the ecological balance above all else. Her attempts to use humans to prevent one catastrophe has far reaching effects, which Zilli with her entirely logical and consistent philosophy does not see coming until it is too late. This story still has a lot to say today.

The final story The Forgotten Enemy by Arthur C Clarke is an environmental disaster tale and follows the lone endeavours of Professor Millward (they always seem to be professors or chief scientists in Clarke’s world) as he struggles through a London that appears to have entered the ice age. It’s very much a period piece.

After a poor start I ended up liking this collection. Whilst this book is no longer in print, you should be able to pick it up quite cheaply online, or maybe from a second-hand bookshop like me. Penguin Books won’t make any money out of it but maybe they will if you are tempted by other titles by the writers who contributed to this