Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
New Horizons: Yesterday's Portraits of Today
edited by August Derleth
Arkham House, 299 pages


Art: Stephen E. Fabian
New Horizons: Yesterday's Portraits of Today
August Derleth
August Derleth was born in 1909 in Sauk City, Wisconsin and died there in 1971. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1930. He worked at Fawcett Publications as associate editor (1930-31) when he moved on to be a co-founder of Arkham House, where he worked as its publisher, and as literary editor of The Capital Times in Madison until 1971. He also spent some years as a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin. As a writer, he sold his first story to Weird Tales at age 15.

ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

Advertisement
Billed as Arkham House's first ever SF anthology, this is also Derleth's last, assembled sometime in the 60s and only discovered in manuscript after his death in 1971. Readers familiar with Derleth's previous anthologies and Arkham House's usual "weird" output won't find the territory all that strange. This should not be surprising, since, as Joseph Wrzos points out in his introduction, Derleth defined science fiction "as part of something broader, as a subdivision of fantasy writing."

Wrzos himself has plenty of pulp SF experience, first as an editor with small press publisher Gnome Press in the 50s, and later with both Amazing Stories and Fantastic. He also has the good sense and sensibility to leave Derleth's editing intact, neither updating or otherwise "correcting" the early 1900s era scientific premises at the heart of these stories.

Derleth loved a kind of Golden Age science fiction he called "durable" -- stories which could stand as a real, living tale of wonder and lively characters, not just "scientific speculation disguised as narrative." As readers, our job here is not to point and say, "Oh, how quaint!" so much as it is to view this collection as a time capsule to the so-called Golden Era of science fiction -- the prime days of "skiffy," if you will, when men were men, women (if they were fortunate) were plucky sidekicks, and intrepid engineers and scientists were intellectual and moral kings.

Which brings us to the first story, Murray Leinster's "The Runaway Skyscraper," first published in 1919. Our hero is civil engineer Arthur Chamberlain, whose lackluster business success stems from the fact that his life offers no challenges worthy of his talents. The words are no sooner said than Chamberlain, his lovely secretary Estelle, and everyone else in their busy office building, suddenly find themselves -- and the building -- carried back to a time when Manhattan is nothing but trees, wildlife, and Indians. Fortunately Chamberlain is there to calm his fellow time-travellers and organize them into a competent workforce -- all long before the days of corporate management and leadership training. "What Nature can do, we can imitate," is our hero's clarion cry, and of course they ultimately succeed in returning to their own time.

In keeping with his own darker philosophies, H.G. Wells' 1929 story "A Dream of Armageddon" doesn't let humanity off so easily. An old man's all-too-realistic dream of Utopia ends in tragedy and loss on a world-spanning as well as personal scale. That in and of itself is arresting, but Wells ups the ante by having the narrator, who is the audience for the dreamer's sad tale, recognize enough of the dream world's background to fear the future.

"Willie" by Frank Belknap Long first appeared in 1943 and does an impressive (if somewhat disconcerting) shift from barbarian adventure to a 29th-century city restored and kept waiting for an errant time traveller. An interesting side point of the story is its shift from the point of view of the human time traveller to the city's loyal robot watchman, who is more than slightly reminiscent of Asimov's positronic 'droids.

"The Purblind Prophet," last of the time travel stories here, is a tale of paradox begun decades ago by Golden Age writer David H. Keller and finished ultimately by Keller-scholar Paul Spencer. Here the time traveller is one Paul Howard, wealthy eccentric and inventor, who constructs a device which will show him scenes from the future. After using the time viewer to place sure bets on the horses and then to help the police catch a dastardly gangster, Howard finds himself at wits end when faced with the image of the woman he loves being murdered 24 hours into the future. According to Wrzos, Keller had written himself into a corner and set the unfinished manuscript aside; decades later Spencer found it and worked out the tricky ending.

The collection's next section looks at the humorous side of invention. Imagine a time when radio and telephone were the biggest technological marvels this side of the assembly line. Jacque Morgan's "The Feline Light and Power Company" (1912) is a charming (if technologically inaccurate, even for its time) tale from the pages of Hugo Gernsback's magazine Modern Electronics. A sentence in a textbook about how to generate static electricity by rubbing resin (a.k.a. plastic) with fur leads inventor Jason Q. Fosdick to create a power plant worthy of P.T. Barnum.

Ellis Parker Butler's "Solander's Radio Tomb" from a 1923 issue of Gernsback's Radio News was likewise meant to give home hobbyists a laugh. A wealthy Fundamentalist arranges to have all his sermons recorded and broadcast, with appropriate liturgical music, from his tombstone after his death -- an idea which makes the cemetery even more respected and very popular, until a government snafu reassigns radio frequencies.

In "The Perambulating Home" (1928) by Henry Hugh Simmons, the house of the future includes furniture which folds into the ceiling and an ability to change its location at the homeowner's whim. Unlike the previous two in this section, this story attempts humour but instead drags through its recital of character whims and the house's many wonders. Also, its characters, mostly male, translate far less successfully across the decades.

The rest of the collection is a fair amount darker. In "The Countries in the Sea," (1931) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer, human civilization on Earth is forever set back by the return of ancient Atlantis and Mu. As a tale of global catastrophe, this one gets off to a slow start but quickly picks up momentum. It's interesting how the only thing that's changed over the years about disaster novels is the method of destruction, not humanity's reaction to it.

"The Ultra-Elixir of Youth" (1927) is a straight-forward recital of a disastrous experiment to reverse the aging process, delivered by a narrator reading nearly word-for-word from the scientist's notes. This story is especially notable for its casting of a woman as the lead researcher, although not the story's narrator.

Miles J. Brown's "The Book of Worlds" (1929) gives us another time-viewing machine, this time with a less hardy inventor. The poor scientist is rapidly driven mad by his inability to change the awful futures he sees. No matter what action he takes, doom is just around the corner, again and again and again.

Staton A. Coblentz's "The Truth about the Psycho-Tector" (1935) is a worthy precursor to many modern stories of the mores of genetic modification. Here our narrator creates a device which analyzes the "hidden bents and probabilities of the human mind," to help people by telling them what jobs they are best suited for. Of course no one is satisfied with the answers they get. In order to evade a jail sentence, our hero decides to "Give the public what it wants." Only by telling them what they want to hear -- by lying about what his machine sees -- can he make people believe he's telling the truth.

The final two stories are alien invasion pieces. Donald Wandrei's "Raiders of the Universes" (1932) is a work with all the hallmarks of Golden Age SF, from powerful aliens demanding radioactive ores as Earth's ransom, to plucky human scientists and starships travelling the length and breadth of the galaxy. "The Planet Entity" (1931) by E.M. Johnston and Clark Ashton Smith is a Mars invasion of an unusual sort. Despite the story's slow pace and excess narrative, even modern readers can find a few chills here with an alien whose devastating powers are nearly incomprehensible to the human mind.

For SF readers (like me) who came of reading age with or after the New Wave work of the 60s and 70s, these stories are surprising not only for showing what has changed in SF over the years, but also for what has not changed: the scientist as hero, and technology portrayed as essentially neutral, only assigned good and evil according to the nature of the people who wield it. Wrzos notes in his introduction that when Derleth put New Horizons together, he must have been looking back in time, "At the way science fiction used to be... before the Birth of the Bomb, lunar landings, and the creation of the Internet. At a time when yesterday's 'futures'... still seemed possible." If the field has changed this much in just 50 years, imagine what today's most popular stories will look like to readers a few generations down the timeline from us.

Copyright © 1999 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.


SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to editor@sfsite.com.
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide