GOLDEN AGE SF: TALES OF A BYGONE FUTURE
Edited by Eric T. Reynolds
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Science fiction fan Peter Graham famously observed that "the golden age of science fiction is twelve." While it may be true that many are at their most susceptible to science fiction at or around that age, it is also true that there was a twenty year period from the late thirties to the late fifties when the genre did enter a golden age, viewed through a hazy mirror of positive memories. It is the sense of stories from this period that Eric T. Reynolds has commissioned for Golden Age SF: Tales of a Bygone Future.
Tobias S. Buckell opens the collection with “The Last Twilight,” a story of a man on a planet far distant from his home. Living out his last days, what gives this story its impact is the very monotony of the man's existence as he waits for his eventual death.
James Gunn provides a reprint story from 1951 which is a little reminiscent of Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" from the previous year. “These Things Are Sirius” have aliens inhabiting the earth and providing trade goods for mankind, although they won't accept anything in return. The unbalance of trade is such that it is causing catastrophic events on the planet, but no one has been able to figure out how to rectify the situation until Gil Davis figures out how to turn one of humanity's weaknesses into a strength.
Stephen Baxter recalls some of the negative aspects from the Golden Age in “Harvest Time.” Set on an almost Bradburian Mars, Baxter recounts the first meeting between Martian settler Kieran McGuire IV and an apparent native Martian. The encounter causes McGuire to reflect on his own ancestors and how their expansion through the solar system mirrored mankind's general expansion, making it clear that his Mars and Venus (and other planets and moons) were the stuff of pulp fiction rather than science. While the story is quite reminiscent of many of the tales from the period the book recalls, it also points out the casual attitude towards genocide which was prevalent in so much of the science fiction written at that time (and, in fact, since).
Terry Bisson has an indigent time traveler in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” After stealing a watch from a man who gave him a dime in Depression era Chicago, Caleb finds himself in the far future, hob-nobbing with robots and scientists. However, his discovery of the history of the future makes him realize it is necessary for him to return to his own time to make sure things happen the correct way, even as he comes to the realization of his own importance. However, Bisson, and fate, have a final surprise waiting for Caleb upon his return to his own time.
Justin Stanchfield portrays a reasonably typical survey team in “Which Yet Survives,” although the native guide they have hired is, in fact, one of the humans whose ancestors settled the planets a couple of centuries earlier. Rather than be a simply story of what the survey team finds, Stanchfield gives them a seer, Alyssa, who is a senstive. Alyssa's position, as an outcast within the small survey team and as a possible mentor to Tev, the native, adds a layer to the story which would otherwise have been a typical tale. Stanchfield adds to this a natural danger which the natives are unaware of (even after multiple centuries) and creates an interesting, if bittersweet, story.
Will McDermott begins “On the Off-Ramp of the Intergalactic Superhighway” as if it is an orientation for a new employee at an orbital diner where it becomes quickly apparent that in addition to cooking and cleaning grease traps, the employees serve a secondary function on the space station. Much as Mike Resnick's later “Catastrophe Baker and the Cold Equations” is a response to Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," McDermot's story also calls Godwin's classic to mind, although not in quite as directly a fashion. While Fred's adventure as a stowaway may have ended better than Amanda Cross, although the mood of McDermott's story is lighter than Godwin's throughout.
There was a time, not to long ago, when getting a computer was a fabulous and much anticipated thing instead of simply a commonplace trip to the corner Computer-Am-We. There was also a time when science fiction authors tended to take the fantastic and try to shoehorn it into a mundane existance. This is what Tom DuPree appears to do in “Installation Day,” when a rural family, and their neighbors, are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new computer, much as in an earlier time such a family would await the delivery of new farming equipment. However, as the story progresses, DuPree introduces more and more of his world's back story and it becomes clear that the arrival of the computer will effect much more than the family at whose home it is being installed.
Terry Bramlett presents a dream-team baseball line-up in “Retirement.” Just as in W.P. Kinsella's Field of Dreams, Mickey Mantle can play alongside Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Ralph Kiner for eternity. However, while in Field of Dreams, Kinsella used the set up to focus on the living, in "Retirement," Bramlett looks at the way these extremely competitive men would view their situation, especially when it comes time for them to finally retire to make way for their replacements.
Trent Walters has written a story which he clearly wants to link with the Golden Age. “Waiting for the Pointer to Stop” has a title and four chapters, all of which are taken from stories first published in the 1940s. The chapters are the titles of works by Heinlein, Williamson and Shiras, while the title of the whole comes from a line from Leinster. The longest story in the book, "Waiting for the Pointer to Stop" is also the most complex, bringing in a variety of tropes which were typical from the period writing which Walters is emulating. The story is set in the years immediately after World War II and starts in a small town and ends on a distant planet. Along the way, Walters looks at conspiracies, aliens-among-us, creation and uplift of the human race and other themes. He crams so much into the story that it really could have been lengthened even more in order to give all the ideas the space needed to fully explore them.
A recurring theme in science fiction of the period is that the moon or the asteroids are just like the old west, where it is every man for himself and claim jumpers abound. Max Habilis plays with this retro-concept in “A Bit of Science,” focusing on a rivalry taking place on the moon. While the setting requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, the story works within its confines, eventually pointing out that even if everything else is like the American West, knowledge of rudimentary science is very important for survival on the high frontier.
G. David Nordley plays with time travelers from the future in “Voices of Ages,” which lets Winston Churchill know the future of his world in 1936. The time travelers who visit Churchill explain why it is safe to let him have the knowledge they are imparting, even as Churchill begins to doubt their own understanding of history. That aspect of the story works well, although what works less well is the idea that humans from a millenium in the future wouldn't be able to find anyone other than Churchill to go to for advice.
Despite the title of his work, Paul E. Martens perfectly captures the feel of the social science fiction of the period. “Almost” tells the story of a girl, Mildredd Ker, who is almost everything, but never quite what she wants to be. A chance, or potentially chance, encounter, causes her to rethink her life and goals. Martens plays with the idea of the super-race in this tale which appears to owe much to the slannish concepts of van Vogt, although it doesn't follow van Vogt's style or ultimate ideas.
Rudy Rucker's “Inertia” initially looks like a typical from the Golden Age story of men creating a super scientific device in their basement, and there is certainly that aspect of it. However, as Rucker follows the adventures of Joe Fletcher and Harry Gerber, it becomes clear that there is more to the story than initially appears. Once the characters try to set right the inadvertent danger they have created, Rucker begins to spin the story off in unexpected, but welcome, directions. His characters, including Joe's wife, Nancy and General Moritz, are likeable and Rucker hints throughout that these characters have a past and a future. It would be nice to see him turn them into recurring characters.
While McDermott and Resnick harken back to Godwin for their inspiration, Alan Purestem looks to the classic SF writing of Cyril Kornbluth for “Marching in Place,” his homage to Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons." In this case, Purestem points out that the morons don't see themselves in that light. However, the story is so heavy in its moral that there is little sympathy for the characters Purestem displays as the Morons, who are also his viewpoint characters.
“Catastrophe Baker and the Cold Equations” is one of Mike Resnick's tall tales of the spaceways and a response to Tom Godwin's classic story "The Cold Equations." As with many of Resnick's tales, this one is written for the humor factor firmly in mind. The story is actually told in two parts, which don't really seem to relate to each other. In the first part, Catastrophe Baker must deal with an irate father and the law in a small frontier planet town. In the second, Baker must come to a resolution for Godwin's Cold Equations which is much less traumatic than Godwin's solution.Robert Sheckley's “Simulacrum” does an excellent job of channeling Abbott and Costello in its opening sequence and goes on to ridicule and scorn the legislative process. Johnny Slade discovers the benefits, and the drawbacks, of being a simulacrum, not only in the look at the legal ramifications, but as he plays a game which appears to be virtual reality gone wild. The story could easily have been longer, which would have strengthened it and allowed Sheckley to look at the legal aspects of virtual reality in more depth.
|Tobias S. Buckell||The Last Twilight|
|James Gunn||These Things Are Sirius|
|Stephen Baxter||Harvest Time|
|Terry Bisson||Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?|
|Justin Stanchfield||Which Yet Survives|
|Will McDermott||On the Off-Ramp of the Intergalactic Superhighway|
|Tom DuPree||Installation Day|
|Trent Walters||Waiting for the Pointer to Stop|
|Max Habilis||A Bit of Science|
|G. David Nordley||Voices of Ages|
|Paul E. Martens||Almost|
|Alan Purestem||Marching in Place|
|Mike Resnick||Catastrophe Baker and the Cold Equations|
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