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Edited by Isaac Asimov

Nelson Doubleday


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

As Isaac Asimov points out, he didn't have a choice when selecting the stories for The Hugo Winners.  The stories were selected by the members of the World Science Fiction Society at worldcons from 1955 through 1961.  This volume merely collects the first nine Hugo winners of short fiction and adds Asimov's own comments about the men who wrote them.

Walter M. Miller Jr.’s “The Darfsteller” is a story about the changes technological advancement makes in our everyday lives.  In this case, the focus is on Ryan Thornier, a former stage actor who must now work as a janitor in order to remain around the theatre.  Several years earlier, human actors were replaced by robotic simulacra who often took their personalities from recordings the actors made.  Those actors who were able to adapt managed to earn royalties on their tapes and those who couldn’t wound up in other lines of work, just as actors had to adapt to talking pictures.  To make Thornier’s situation worse, he is constantly at loggerheads with his boss, D’Uccia.  As the story progresses, Thornier comes up with a scheme to get himself back into theatre, although in order for it to work, he’ll have to overcome the unfair prejudices he has seen build up against human actors since the mannequins began to replace them.  Although Miller almost entirely presents Thornier’s point of view concerning the new technology, it is also apparent that there are reasons for other people to believe in different ways than Thornier, and others who have made different choices have gone on to greater success than Thornier.  The story culminates with a lengthy description of the play “The Anarch,” which Thornier had prepared for a decade earlier only to have the production aborted in the face of the automaton onslaught.  Although Thornier has been representative throughout the story as a force for conservatism, in the end, he is brought around to see the importance of change.  Some of Miller’s comments in “The Darfsteller” appear exceptionally prescient, from his ideas of bringing entertainment into homes via cable to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Eric Frank Russell’s “Allamagoosa” plays with the science fictional convention of giving objects standard names.  When the space ship Bustler receives word of an inspection, Captain McNaught runs his crew ragged to ensure that everything aboard the ship is in order and accounted for.  When an item listed on the manifest as an offog can’t be found, McNaught is concerned.  When it appears that nobody on the ship knows what an offog actually is, he becomes panicked as he and his crewmen try to figure out what an offog is and how to replace the missing one before the inspection.  The story works, even nearly fifty years after its first publication, because of science fiction authors’ penchant for coming up with nonsense names for the equipment found on their ship, a trend which continues to this day, if not so much in written science fiction, still in cinematic science fiction.

"Exploration Team" is a philosophical story in which an illegal colony is discovered and the sole survivor must come to terms with the consequences of the colony.  Murray Leinster turns this story into an examination of ethics and what it means to be human and rational.  Huygens, the self-professed criminal, refuses to permit others to die through his inaction even if he condemns himself by saving their lives while the government official he is dealing with refuses to accept Huygens's actions.

As with “Allamagoosa,” the strength of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” lies in the surprise ending that can only be most fully enjoyed the first time a reader finishes the story.  However, it is an ending which is powerful enough to be remembered for its effectiveness long after the details of the story about a Jesuit on a survey mission whose faith has been shattered by his discovery.  Clarke skillfully builds the story up to his denouement, offering clue after clue.  Where the story is weakest is the fact that Clarke, no friend to religion, fails to resolve his Jesuit’s conflict one way or the other, we are left with a character who has made a shattering discovery without any indication if he will recover from it or lead an altogether different life as a result.

Avram Davidson’s “Or All the Seas with Oysters” is another story which is interesting and charming, but which loses some of its punch once it has been read the first time.  The story of partners in a bike shop, their resentment over each others differing lifestyles grows until one day Ferd destroys a French racing bike Oscar uses for his liaisons with female customers.  When Oscar discovers the bike mysteriously repaired several weeks later, Ferd allows his imagination to apparently get the better of him as he tries to understand how the bike was repaired.  The science fictional element of the story is more subtle than many, and it could almost be considered fantasy, although the genre matters less than Davidson’s inimitable prose.

In many ways, Clifford D. Simak’s “The Big Front Yard” can be seen as a precursor to his Hugo Award-winning novel, Way Station (a.k.a. “Here Gather the Stars”), published a few years later.  The story of Hiram Taine is set in an idyllic Wisconsin community, about as far away from a “typical” science fiction story as possible.  Taine is an antiques dealer and repairman who begins to notice strange things happening around his shop one day.  A new ceiling suddenly appears, items he hasn’t had a chance to repair yet are fixed, and his dog, Towser, has developed the insatiable need to capture an elusive woodchuck.  Eventually, Taine discovers a portal between his family’s home and another world.  Before he can do anything about his discovery, word of it spreads around the globe and everyone, from his neighbor Henry Holton, to the United Nations, wants a piece of the action.  Simak briefly examines the security issues of the discovery, but in many ways “The Big Front Yard” has a dated feel as the world has changed since the story was first published.  Nevertheless, the aliens’ desire to trade with Taine is interesting as is the product they offer and wish to receive in return.

Deal with the devil stories revolve around how the devil can be outsmarted, and “That Hell-Bound Train” by Robert Bloch is no exception.  In this tale of the son of a dead railway man and a mother who ran off with her new husband, Bloch paints a portrait of a drifter whose only desire is to follow his father’s footsteps in the railroad industry.  While riding the rails, he comes across the devil who offers him a deal.  Bloch follows his life as he becomes more and more successful, knowing that he can stop time at the pinnacle of happiness.  Bloch’s focus is on the ephemeral nature of happiness and our inability to realize when we have achieved success for ourselves.  This examination of the human condition sets the story apart from other tales of outwitting the devil.

“Flowers for Algernon” is a story of experimental science which provides a less than successful conclusion.  What gives Daniel Keyes’s story such power, even after multiple readings, is the persona of Charlie Gordon, the first person narrator.  Told in the form of entries in a journal Charlie is keeping, the story begins with Charlie as a retarded man who is trying to be selected for an experimental surgery which has the potential of improving his intellect.  As the story progresses, so do indications of Charlie’s intelligence and the reader comes to root for the success of Charlie’s surgery as he learns more about the world around him and comes to see people’s reactions to him, both as the pre-surgery moron and the post-surgical genius.  Throughout it all, Charlie develops a complex relationship with many of the people he comes into contact with, but also with a small mouse whose own surgery predated Charlie’s own.  Initially seen by Charlie as a nemesis, he later comes to build up a friendship with the mouse, Algernon.  Eventually, Keyes would expand the story to a novel length and be able to provide more depth to both Charlie’s experiences and his relationship with Algernon, but the power of the relationship, although shown only on a basic level, exists in the short form of the story.

“The Longest Voyage” is Poul Anderson’s recasting of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the new world in science fictional terms.  Set on the moon of a large planet, Anderson’s characters have a strong cosmological understanding but are still given to superstitions, resulting in the near-mutiny which opens the story.  Anderson’s use of archaic language structure, something he would play with throughout his career, give the science fiction tale a historical or fantastic countenance.  Eventually, the story does take a science fictional twist with the discovery that the native’s legends of a god from the heavens is not only based on fact, but also of a recent enough genesis that the explorers have the opportunity to meet the god.  What sets “The Longest Voyage” apart from so many other stories is that Anderson provides strong motivation for both the explorers and the natives, along with different understanding of the world around them based on their location on their world and their experiences, demonstrating that levels of civilization are relative.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. The Darfsteller
Eric Frank Russell Allamagoosa
Murray Leinster Exploration Team
Arthur C. Clarke The Star
Avram Davidson Or All the Seas with Oysters
Clifford D. Simak The Big Front Yard
Robert Bloch The Hell-Bound Train
Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon
Poul Anderson The Longest Voyage

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