Review: Men Against the Stars

Martin Greenberg, editor
1950

My high expectations of Martin Greenberg’s ‘Adventures in Science Fiction Series’ continues to be met.  Published in 1950, this is the very first in the six volume series, and the best of the four I have read so far.  I haven’t reviewed the 1953 installment The Robot and the Man yet, but you can read the Reviews for 1951’s Journey to Infinity and All About the Future from ’55.  I also have Travelers of Space sitting in the library waiting for me.  I’ll get around to it.  Come to think of it, I’m going to make a promise here in writing, I will read again and Review ‘Robot & Man’ before I get into ‘Travelers’.  There.  It’s been too long and I must do it.

As I have always done in the Reviews for these books, I mention the concept behind them, and because this book is the very first I’ll go into it in a little more depth.  Gnome Press co-founder and editor of the series, Martin Greenberg, came up with the idea of a collection of short stories that reflected a certain set of ideas or progression of ideas.  From the perspective of the modern SF reader, this is nothing new.  It could even be considered ‘old hat’ with themed collections for everything imaginable, from SF crime to gay vampires.   However, it was new 60 years ago and this particular book represents perhaps the very first published ‘theme anthology’ in SF history.  This is a view reinforced by Eshbach:

Probably Marty’s [Martin Greenberg’s] greatest contribution to the SF field (other than Gnome Press itself) was his concept of theme anthologies which began with Men Against the Stars.  So far as I have been able to determine, this and the others that followed were the first collections of this nature to appear, setting a pattern for future anthologists.  These were the most successful of Gnome Press books, their sales figures only approached by Asimov’s Foundation stories.

Eshbach, p 210

I’ve reproduced here both the Foreword by Greenberg and the Introduction by science writer and space commentator Willy Ley.  The Foreword sets the tone not only for this book but for it’s companions to follow, and is an excellent guide on how to read this collection – not just as a simple collection of stories, but in a broader sense as a progression of themes, ideas and issues that future spacefarers might have to consider, be challenged by and eventually surmount.

Ley gives us an excellent ‘in a nutshell’ history of the rocket and a glimpse into a possible future with regards to our first steps to the moon and beyond.  It is really a fascinating piece.  Here they are.  Enjoy.

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Well, it’s about time we get into the stories that make up this anthology.  The title of this tome is of course ‘Men Against the Stars’ and it really is.  Contained therein are stories of men.  Men who face challenges from the first flight around the moon until the rejuvination of a stagnating Mother Earth by her children from the stars.  Men who face problems ranging from public resistance, to mutiny, to economics, to politics, to time and even being locked out.  All in the quest to push succeeding generations further from home.  There are twelve tales, and I’m not going to address them all, I’ll just pull out  three or four to talk about.

I’m not going to touch on the opening and closing stories, suffice to say they are well chosen and represent very suitable, natural ways to begin and end this collection.  Nor will I mention the penultimate tale ‘Bridle and Saddle’ with which Foundation fans should be very familiar, and for which reason I didn’t read.  A not-well-known fact about that story though; ‘Bridle and Saddle’ in this volume is the very first occasion an Asimov story was in published in book form.

The second and title story “Men Against the Stars’ by Manly Wade Wellman describes the courage, daring and mortal sacrifice of the men who rode the very unreliable rockets to Mars from their base on the moon.  By taking chances with dodgy technology, the tale invokes the character of such long-haul aviation pioneers such as Lindbergh, Kingsford-Smith, Earhart and Batten.  The principal action takes place on the moon, but the main thread of the story is punctuated by short vignettes of the crews that are making the Mars shot, often immediately before their spectacular demise in transit.  As I mentioned, this is the title story and also provides the beating heart of this anthology.

A.E. van Vogt’s ‘Far Centaurus’ is a familiar tale along the lines of Starman’s Quest.  Space travel is much safer now, and four men set out for the distant stars on a centuries-long journey in stasis only to be overtaken by technology long before arriving.  Greeted at their destination, they discover a civilization that has passed them by.  It’s an interesting situation to ponder…

Hal Clement is renowned for his hard science fiction.  He performs up to his considerable reputation here with ‘Cold Front’.  Men attempt to forge a trading relationship selling global climate control to a newly discovered alien civilization.  They do this on a planet with extremely complex weather patterns that aren’t fully understood by the non-natives.  Their poor grasp of the situation and subsequent embarrassment however, leads to another opportunity that is adroitly taken advantage of – testimony to the wiles of inter-species human traders.  Clement is at his best – some extremely convincing (if somewhat dated) speculation on cause and effect in planetary and solar meteorology here.

Having not long completed Murray Leinster’s The Forgotten World, I was amused that his installment was about fugitives from piracy, crash-landing on a planet dominated by… flowers.  ‘The Plants’ tells us of how three parties – fugitives, pirates and semi-sentient flowers – interact after an almost-bungled heist.

Some very, very famous names from early science fiction are represented here.  Asimov, Clement, Leinster, Hubbard, van Vogt and Padgett make up about half of the contributors.

If you are a SF fan, especially of classic SF, this book should be in your collection.  It’s not expensive, you could pick up a resonable copy (if you can find one) for much less than $50.  I’m going to make a prediction: In the fullness of time, this book will become a real sought-after and valuable collectors item.  I guess given enough time anything will be, but what I mean is though maybe not in the league of Gnome titles such as Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, it will certainly be elevated far above the obscurity it is in now.  This book represents a genuine piece of SF publishing history.  Aside from that, it is a fantastic collection.  From Edd Cartier’s magnificent cover art to the full circle arrived at in the final story by L. Ron Hubbard, I can find very little negative to say, and that’s really saying something for a bunch of twelve very early SF tales.

If you appreciate SF, if you have an interest in SF history, you need this book.

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