This is a book of 26 science fiction short stories.
I’d read very little science fiction in my life prior to picking up this book, so it’s surprising how many of the stories in this anthology were familiar to me, sometimes in considerable detail. Some I’d read in childhood, and some I’d seen versions of on TV. Clearly many of these are stories that have transcended their genre and become part of the culture more broadly.
There are so many stories that I’m not going to try to write about all of them, even though just about all of them made a decent impression on me.
Since this collection covers stories published from 1929 to 1964, they’re all at least several decades old. What’s interesting about having the perspective of looking back on them is that in spite of their being set in the future, on other planets, etc., and in spite of their allegedly being the very best of their genre, many of the stories feel strangely dated. Not necessarily in terms of the technology and the weapons and such–you can’t expect them to get all the guesses write as far as how those things were to develop–but more in terms of things like gender relations and social behavior.
The settings and the gadgets and such change, but too often the people don’t. Is that simply because that’s an accurate reflection of reality–human nature only changes at a glacial, evolutionary pace, so naturally people in the future will be pretty much the same under their metallic spacesuits as people of any other era?
I don’t think so. At least it doesn’t feel realistic to me. Many of these stories read like tough guy movies of the 1940s, say. Robert A. Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll strikes me that way the most. Despite all the fancy futuristic technology, the males are still macho, the females are still housewifey, and the conflicts are the sorts of political and labor strife expressed in the kind of language that would have been more familiar to people in 1940 than to people today, let alone to people in some vastly different speculative future.
It’s like watching Star Trek reruns from the 1960s, and the way they reflect a certain social and political mindset of that era, where a kind of affirmative action tokenism was used to deal with racial and gender issues–the crew consisting of one Asian, one woman, one black, etc., even one alien, though of course with a white male still in charge. At other times and places in human history these issues have been addressed otherwise, and presumably centuries in the future, things will look even less like some liberal compromise arrangement of the 1960s, but not on Star Trek.
So nearly all the stories are about men, and almost all the women in the stories are frivolous dames, or some other “type” that feels like it’s from fifty to a hundred years ago. And not even necessarily from the reality of that time period, but more from the movies and other pop culture of back then.
Some stories have intriguing premises, though they don’t necessarily play out all that well. In Surface Tension, astronauts seed a planet with some sort of combination of microscopic life forms and human DNA, so it’ll evolve into intelligent humanlike beings, but the size of bacteria. The bulk of the story takes place when these “people”–who live under water–have developed a fairly advanced civilization, and does a good job conveying how their perspective leaves them barely able to contemplate what it would mean to leave the water, and unable to comprehend just how little of the universe they occupy. But the action’s only OK and the dialogue is sometimes stilted and B movie-ish (as in many of the stories), plus I don’t really get the part about the protozoa or whatever they are who seem to function as talking pets.
A Martian Odyssey, the earliest of the stories, is especially good in terms of having several different alien species that are remote from the kinds of beings that evolved on Earth, and from each other for that matter. There’s so little similarity, so little overlap, that communication is impossible in some cases and minimal in others. I have to think that’s more like how it would be in real life, compared to all the movies and TV shows where bipedal aliens have some kind of magic device that translates languages, or all use some kind of telepathy, so that everyone can easily talk to each other. (Several stories in this collection, by the way, use the telepathy gimmick.)
I enjoyed the stories that seem psychologically insightful about how worldviews and such could develop differently in different circumstances. Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall is an example. The story depicts a planet that has perpetual sunlight. That seems so obviously essential to them that in contemplating whether there might be life on other planets, they assume they can rule out any world that isn’t perpetually light like that. How could anything survive if it were blinded a certain percentage of the time, after all?
The Country of the Kind depicts a society that at first I wanted to say is vaguely Gandhian in that it seeks to deal with miscreants nonviolently. But moral systems like Gandhi’s aren’t just a matter of non-cooperation with evil, which this society has in spades, but also active love for all, including wrongdoers, which this society utterly lacks.
But it’s still an interesting treatment of how lonely it would be to be a bad person if no one wanted to be bad with you, and no one gave you positive reinforcement for being bad. That’s been one of my pet peeves for much of my life, that so much wrongdoing is rewarded with money, power, sex, etc. After all, how many people would bother pursuing a thug lifestyle or selfishly manipulating the economy and the political system in a way that Ayn Rand would admire, if everyone else with a conscience shunned them rather than rewarded them?
That Only a Mother is the story that perhaps least strikes me as science fiction, but it’s also one of the most chilling stories in the book. It’s about a mother who goes insane in order to maintain a state of denial that her baby was born horrifically deformed. It’s about deformities caused by radiation, which I guess is what makes it science fiction, but the general idea is about birth defects and could apply in the real world.
Anyway, I could go on and on about many of these stories, but the one that hit me the hardest is It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby. This is familiar to many people as one of the all-time classic Twilight Zone episodes, the one with Billy Mumy as the little boy Anthony with near-omnipotent powers that everyone must strain to stay on the good side of. The original story is even better, and even more unnerving.
Everything about this story works for me. Just enough is revealed so that you can really appreciate what a hellish existence people suffer in this small town, yet there’s a great deal left open to speculation. It creeps me out more than any other story in the book, yet it also makes me think.
And the more I think about it, the more I like it. Things that might seem inconsistent or implausible (“But why would that person do that? If it were me, obviously I would do this instead”) turn out not to be on reflection. There’s always some little tidbit elsewhere in the story–easily overlooked on a quick reading–that makes sense of anything that might seem off.
When I say it’s a hellish world, I mean that literally. This little town is a more imaginative and more frightening place of torture than any lake of fire with devils sticking people with pitchforks.
For example, when Anthony tortures someone or alters them in some hideous way (the specifics of which are left almost entirely to the imagination in the story), and then accedes to the pleading of others and wishes the person “into the cornfield,” if you think about it the implication is not that the torture necessarily ceases, but just that it is taken out of the sight of the people who were so horrified by seeing it. Whatever state the unfortunate person was placed in that was too excruciating to even be described, and was so traumatic to anyone who saw it, it may well be he is still in that state, and perhaps even in it for eternity, out in the cornfield.
Also, don’t think you can escape by committing suicide. A brief anecdote in the story indicates Anthony is capable of raising the dead. If you try to get out of the terrible position these townspeople are in by taking your life, you may well simply anger him, and provoke him to bring you back for some sort of unspeakable torture.
What does Anthony look like, or especially what did he look like at birth? It’s not specified, but what raises the question is the flashback incident when as soon as the doctor saw Anthony being born, he reacted with horror and frantically sought to kill the newborn. What could an infant possibly look like–especially since later the implication is he looks at least pretty much like any little boy–that a person would instinctively know that it is such a threat that it must be killed immediately?
Not to mention, the fact that at the moment of birth Anthony could already defend himself by magic against someone seeking to kill him pretty much tells you how hopeless it would be today to somehow catch him unawares and do him in. Evidently he could strike very close to instantaneously even back then.
Nor of course could you simply slip out of town. One of the many, many chilling aspects of the story is that in every direction once you reach the outskirts of town there is simply emptiness. Not a wall or some impediment that perhaps in principle you could figure a way past, but the essence of bleak nothingness. As is noted in the story, evidently either Anthony wished the town away from the world into some other dimension or somewhere completely isolated, or perhaps he obliterated the entire universe except this, so this living Hell now constitutes all of reality.
Anyone who likes truly unnerving stories should read and reread this one. Off the top of my head, I don’t know that I’ve ever been more affected by a short story. Or at least ever been more creeped out by one; I’m sure there are stories that I learned more from, or felt more inspired by, or gained more moral insight from, etc. But in terms of just the most memorable, most emotionally effective short story, this may well top my list.