by Bud Webster
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
On a cool autumn day, I say in New York’s Madison Square Park, the prow of the Flatiron Building jutting out to the west and the shadow of the Metropolitan Tower falling across the park. It was the perfect place to read Bud Webster’s Past Masters, a series of essays focusing on the forgotten authors of the science fiction genre. To the west, on the fourteenth floor of the Flatiron Building, the editors of Tor were busy charting the future of the genre. To the East, the clock tower represented Murray Leinster’s 1919 classic “The Runaway Skyscraper.”
Webster’s articles originally appeared in a variety of venues, ranging from Helix to Baen’s Universe and briefly in Black Gate. Beginning with looks at aspects of science fiction’s history, Webster quickly settled on biographical articles examining the works, influence, and lives of some of the great science fiction authors who seem to be forgotten by modern day readers. Fortunately for the reader whose interest is piqued by Webster's chatty discussions of these authors, many of them have their works in print from NESFA Press, such as Zenna Henderson, Murray Leinster, C. M. Kornbluth, Judith Merril, Phil Klass, and Hal Clement. Others, including Nelson Bond, Henry Kuttner, and Clifford D. Simak may be a little harder to track down, although Webster does provide a lengthy bibliography of authors' works at the end of each article.
Each article discusses both the author's work and career and their life. In some cases, as with Stanley G. Weinbaum, who died in 1935 at the age of 33, both their lives careers were short. Others, like C. L. Moore, had longer lives, but their careers were cut short by their circumstances. Some of the authors Webster covers don't really seem "forgotten," such as Hal Clement, who only died in 2003 and was a fan-favorite up until his death, publishing and attending conventions. Nevertheless, all of the authors Webster covers, and several he doesn't, are worthy of remembrance and with luck, Webster will find another venue to continue publishing these biographical and bibliographical love letters.
Although the nearly three hundred pages of Past Master articles are certainly enough for the book, Webster includes other articles as well. The last page of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction often includes a brief column called "Curiosities," and Webster has contributed several columns to it. These columns document strange books and ideas which may be of interest to the magazine's readers, but have been lost to general awareness. These short pieces fit the theme of Past Masters quite well.
The next section of the book contains three dialogues between Webster and Jerry Pournelle. Originally published in the SFWA Bulletin, they offer opposing views, and sometimes seem to be between a master and a student, on e-books, research, and history. At times they seem a little dated, particularly when discussing technology, which is more an indication of how quickly technological change is occurring. They do, however, lead nicely into the final historical piece in the collection, a history of the Bulletin itself, which puts the magazine's purpose, both initially and currently, into perspective.
For a genre that purportedly is about the future, since its earliest days when fan Jack Speer wrote Up to Now in 1939, science fiction has had a tendency to look back at its history. Past Masters is an excellent addition to this tradition with its look back at the individuals who helped build the genre and its culture. The biblio-biographies Webster has written belong on any science fiction fan's reference shelf, right next to the collections by NESFA Press which collect so many of the works Webster has covered.
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