Archive for the 5:COSMIC! Category

Review: The Robot and the Man

Posted in 1953, 5:COSMIC!, Adventures in Science Fiction Series, Review with tags , on September 7, 2009 by Aaron

Martin Greenberg, editor
1953

I first read this book way back about 9 months ago. For some reason I never got around to doing a Review, so I decided to read it again. The Close Up was done back then, you can view it here.

This is the fourth in the superb ‘Adventures in Science Fiction Series’ put together by Greenberg.  Every time I do a review of one of these I am always in glowing admiration for Martin Greenberg’s concept, along with the construction and execution of these anthologies.  I feel no different on this occasion.  As I have done for all anthologies in this series I’ll reproduce the Foreword Mr Greenberg uses to outline the intent and structure of the book.  Here it is:

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The stories contained within the book are somewhat unusual. Mr Greenberg made some very interesting and eclectic choices to illustrate the history of the robot.  Many of the tales are a little more cerebral than one might expect and as a whole The Robot and The Man is a surprisingly refreshing and thought provoking anthology and a superbly applied take on the history of the robot.  I could even admit to being a little emotional at times.

On the critical front, the vision of the robot in the later stories is very ambitious.  To the modern reader (a point of review I apply often and is actually worth discussing in it’s own post sometime) the portrayal of the more advanced robots seems a little naive.  Especially as they are almost without exception described as having very human emotive ability – sadness, joy and so on.  To have robot’s sighing, for example, does seem a little silly.  Also, the physicality of these robots is invariably described as very… mechanical.  Coils and pistons are quite strange components with which to fashion robots at a time thousands of years in the future.  But personally I embrace these kinds things in stories penned in that Golden Age of Science Fiction.  They serve to remind us of the romantic no-limits-to-contemporary-technology vision these writers had of times to come and part of what makes all these books extremely endearing and such a joy to read.

The anthology traces the evolution of the robot from it’s beginnings in artificial intelligence and powered prostheses, through self awareness, industrial and social integration, ultimately outliving humanity in the final poignant irony to take the role of God in the re-population of the Earth.  My particular favorite was ‘Rust’ by Joseph E. Kelleam.  A touching tale of three aged, lonely, frustrated and rapidly deteriorating killing machines contemplating their nature as agents of destruction and finally facing their mortality as the only sentient beings remaining on the Earth.  Of course, unbeknown to them they aren’t the only ones as subsequent later and unrelated tales testify.

Just a comment about the title to finish with.  The theme that develops throughout this anthology is that without Man there can be no Robot, but what finally hits home or ‘bears fruit’, is that despite at times being light years apart in time and space, our existences remain inextricably entwined and we are led to the inevitable conclusion that without the Robot there will be no Man.

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Review: Space Lawyer

Posted in 1953, 5:COSMIC!, Review with tags , on July 9, 2009 by Aaron

Nat Schachner
1953

I never thought I’d say it, but I really enjoyed reading about a lawyer!!  The author, Nat Schachner, was a lawyer himself, though probably not a bona fide space lawyer like this chap here.  This was the only book he ever had published – albeit like many GP books, it was put together from a couple of his shorter stories.  He did however, contribute to pulp magazines in the 30s and early 40s.  I found Space Lawyer to be a surprisingly good read, but for some quite unusual reasons.  Reasons that I could have taken as negatives.  Indeed probably would be negatives to more than a few modern readers.  But before I talk about those reasons, what’s it about??

Our hero Kerry Dale, bright, young super-hotshot space lawyer, gets himself dismissed from Kenton Space Enterprises, Unlimited by the irascible Simeon Kenton (an adjective used to describe him three times in the first two pages) after being employed for a year with no promotion or advancement to show for it.  No longer a practicing lawyer, he busts out on his own, plying the space-ways of the solar system looking for opportunities and legal loopholes to thwart his old boss and advance his own ends.  Being quite successful – out-smarting ‘Old Fireball’ Kenton, making a fortune and winning the affections of his ex-employers beautiful daughter along the way.

So, what was unusual about it all??  Well, I had an inkling that this would be a little different when on the very first page, author Schachner chose to express ‘Old Fireball’ Kenton’s annoyance by employing the ejaculation “Har-r-rumph!”  In fact, a whole panapoly of outrageously quaint expressions of abuse and aggravation are variously employed throughout the book.  Let me give you a taste:

On page 14:

Old Simeon found tongue at last. It had swelled with indignation until it protuded from his mouth. “That goddasted blitherskite – I mean dadgosted slitherblite – did he dare call me Old Fireball?”

page 31:

“Is he really back on your payroll, father?” Sally asked innocently.
He glared at her. “Quiet! Of all the insufferable impudence, the ratgosted, blatherskited ripscullian!”
“Father, your language! It’s not even English!”

page 97:

“Dadfoozle it!” shouted Simeon.

page 209:

Old Simeon came hurtling over. His eyes blazed, his hair flared, he danced around the young man in a rage. “That’s right dingburn ye for a dimscullion, Dale. I expected almost anything else of ye, but not this. You forced my daughter along on this blamefoozled, scarumharum trip o’ yours!”

I just pulled a couple out at random, but I could go on and on.  I understand that it might not be to everyone’s taste, but to me, it’s brilliant.

Dale’s modus operandi is to do some reseach on a subject, execute a carefully conceived plan and when all and sundry are telling him he can’t possibly get away with it, he trumps them as to why he can by quoting from the law books obscure articles and sections with precedents.  As a reader we aren’t enlightened as to the exact nature of the trumps until he plays them.  It’s very entertaining.

To draw a comparison with another Gnome Press book, Space Lawyer brings to mind Lewis Padgett’s Robots Have No Tails. While they are different in that ‘Robots’ is penned as a comedy and ‘Lawyer’ isn’t (though it’s certainly lighthearted), they are very similar in the way they read.  Both are light and easy, reading them is a breeze.  I want to contrast this with another book I have finished recently – Renaissance by Raymond F. Jones.  It’s so complex and heavy that I can’t even get a review off the ground.  Though perhaps that’s more a testimony to my abilities as a reviewer…

Anyway, both ‘Robots’ and ‘Lawyer’ allowed me to enjoy them with nothing grand and heavy to consider.  This is the other element that I think the typical modern sf reader might have problems with.  Books these days seem to need to be so… for lack of a better term, meaningful.  This one isn’t.  Look, I’m not sure that I’m expressing what I feel too well here, perhaps it’s best just to say that when I finished the book, I could look back, smile and feel a genuine sense of simple pleasure – Space Lawyer is fun.

I can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.

Review: Men Against the Stars

Posted in 1950, 5:COSMIC!, Adventures in Science Fiction Series, Review with tags , on May 20, 2009 by Aaron

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.

Review: Robots Have No Tails…

Posted in 1952, 5:COSMIC!, Review with tags , , , on March 4, 2009 by Aaron

Lewis Padgett
1952

I have never read anything like this in scifi before.  But before I talk about the book, a little background on the author. Lewis Padgett was a pseudonym for the husband and wife collaboration of Henry Kuttner and Catherine Lucille (C.L.) Moore, taken from their mothers’ maiden names according to Wikipedia.    As a team they wrote three books for GP (I have two of them so far – this and Mutant), and C.L. Moore wrote an additional three.  ‘Wrote for Gnome Press’ is really the wrong turn of phrase, GP collected the stories from the earlier pulps (as they did for so many of their books) and published them as collections or, as in this case, a coherent set.  These stories, there are five in this book, were all penned in the 1940s.

All stories revolve around one character – Galloway Gallegher.  This man is an inventor.  A very good inventor.  A genius, in fact.  Well… his subconcious is.  But only when Gallegher is drunk.  Very drunk.  So drunk in fact, that Gallegher can never remember exactly what his subconcious (Gallegher Plus) invented, or why.  This device is the lynchpin around which all these stories are constructed.  However, though all five stories employ this situation, it doesn’t get tired.  As you have probably guessed by now, this is comedy.  A risky combination that – science fiction and comedy.  It works here though.  You could almost call it a sci fi sitcom.  In fact I would.  This is a science fiction sitcom series.

Gallegher recovers from being drunk and discovers a robot with narcissistic tendencies in his lounge that Gallegher Plus has invented – he must find out why.

Gallegher recovers from being drunk and finds an earth eating, monofilament manufacturing contraption that Gallegher Plus has invented – he must find out who for and why.

Gallegher recovers from being drunk and discovers a machine of unknown purpose, a deadly heat ray, three small furry aliens and his own dead body repeatedly showing up in the garden…

Gallegher recovers from being drunk…

You get the picture.

Other elements in these stories are the characters that are either a) wanting an invention that they paid an advance on that Gallegher can’t remember, b) trying to do away with or otherwise interfere with Gallegher but he has no idea why or c) his equally lush, crotchety Grandfather.

He also has this wonderful invention called a ‘liquor organ’ that dispenses all manner of alcohol while he reclines on the couch.  He employs this to great effect throughout the book.   He has no idea how he made this liquor organ. Indeed, he is always in search of a drink, being drunk helps him think and brings Gallegher Plus to the fore to solve his problems.  Must get me one of those…

The stories are well paced and the puzzles are well constructed, and genuinely funny.  Gallegher’s inventions are hard to fathom, they seem to be a mixture of Heath Robinson, Rube Goldberg, scientific genius and pure fantasy.  In fact, if I was to level a criticism at the book, it would be on these grounds.  The contraptions defy logic.  I know this is a little unfair – it is science fiction after all – but one doesn’t really expect to encounter extreme incredulity.  For example, after bombarding a locker with gamma rays it turns into a device within which the universe has stopped expanding, and leading to time travel.  Well, it was either the gamma rays or the paint, Gallegher explains.  But however, on the other side of the coin, this is part of the comedic charm of a book that doesn’t at any stage take itself seriously.  And it never stood in the way of my enjoyment.

As an aside, the 1973 Lancer edition is credited to Kuttner only.  Ms Moore writes the introduction in which she states ‘…not a word of any of them is mine’.