Monday, 6 February 2017

Selections from The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology

John W. Campbell (editor)
Selections from The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1956)

Isaac Asimov said of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, that the man was the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely. By agency of his magazine, Campbell was first to publish many of the greats - Asimov himself, Heinlein, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, and of course the mighty A.E. van Vogt. It's therefore probably inevitable that the stock of his name has lost some of its currency in recent years, just as has that of Hugo Gernsback, arguably Campbell's spiritual forebear in the field. Campbell popularised a very specific strain of science-fiction - two-fisted, deeply conservative men having space adventures whilst reeling off lists of scientific statistics, the sort of thing which led to Star Wars, Alien, and the rest. I can't be arsed to dig out my copy of Brian Aldiss's Trillion Year Spree, but I expect he will have said something along those lines; and assuming he did, he will have had a point.

Campbell was unfortunately of his time in the sense of Oswald Mosley and senator Joseph McCarthy being of their time, with all kinds of unsavoury views regarding race, socialism, and the institution of slavery, as Michael Moorcock reported in an editorial piece entitled Starship Stormtroopers, essentially a brief history of authoritarian currents in science-fiction literature:

He also, when faced with the Watts riots of the mid-sixties, seriously proposed and went on to proposing that there were 'natural' slaves who were unhappy if freed. I sat on a panel with him in 1965, as he pointed out that the worker bee when unable to work dies of misery, that the moujiks when freed went to their masters and begged to be enslaved again, that the ideals of the anti-slavers who fought in the Civil War were merely expressions of self-interest and that the blacks were 'against' emancipation, which was fundamentally why they were indulging in 'leaderless' riots in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

The more I know about Campbell, the less I like, and yet I'd nevertheless rather not see him chucked down the same oubliette as Gernsback. Whilst I agree that his talent and reputation may be historically overplayed, and that as a person he sounds absolutely ghastly - as I'm sure Sir Kenneth Clark would agree - for better or worse, his influence upon the genre is undeniable, and his legacy is not entirely lacking in redeeming qualities. Just like Gernsback, Campbell's vision was arse, but it was populist, bestselling arse, and providing you keep in mind that it was arse, there's nevertheless some pleasure to be gained.

The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology came out in 1952 as a mammoth hardback assemblage of twenty-two short stories by what were then the biggest names. I gather it was one of the first anthologies of its kind, and as such left an indelible stamp on the genre as a whole. This collection is one of several paperbacks reprinting just eight of those stories, because paperback technology of the time was supposedly not quite up to reprinting the whole thing; and I picked it up, still buzzing from reading a Murray Leinster collection and hoping to keep the magic going.

Leinster's fiction very much ticked all of the Campbell boxes, but as with A.E. van Vogt, I nevertheless find the atmosphere and peculiar narrative twists compelling and often so odd as to actively undermine the square-jawed subtext; which isn't to say that they're anything deep, just immensely enjoyable. That said, I've noticed a peculiar quality of Leinster's view of the alien entirely in keeping with what Moorcock regards as the authoritarian tendencies of Campbell's lads. First Contact is a variation on The Aliens from the collection of the same name, in which humans encounter extraterrestrials in deep space. Whilst the encounters are not overtly fraught with hostility, they seem informed by the paranoid cold war politics of the time, and bizarrely so. Both tales spin upon the supposed inevitability of alien species who really want to be able to trust each other but somehow know this to be impossible, and so they must destroy each other.

Well duh.

It makes for odd reading in 2016, but it helps that Leinster reaches an amicable conclusion, in part revealing the folly of xenophobia; which makes a pleasant change from the alien as foul bug-eyed Communist and, I suppose, might even get its message to those needing it with greater efficacy than would a more overtly liberal tale. Although that said, The Aliens seems particularly weird for having an out and out declared xenophobe on the crew of its ship, and one stated as having been chosen specifically so as to provide a variant perspective to that of the ship's more reasonable captain - all seeming very pertinent right now, of course...

Ugh... yeah - getting back to this book, the first story is Asimov's Nightfall which I read in 2008 and thought was amazing. Almost everyone I know who has read Asimov, read and enjoyed his work as teenagers then later came to regard his writing as big on ideas but otherwise piss poor and very much overrated. I didn't actually read anything by him until 2008, by which point I would have been in my forties, and I thought he was fucking terrible, particularly those Susan Calvin stories; until someone pointed me in the general direction of the good stuff, or what seemed to be the good stuff, and thus was my opinion revised, or at least modified. Yet reading Nightfall now, it too seems horribly clunky - an admittedly nice big idea somewhat lost beneath thirty pages of dreary conversation amounting to a couple of one-dimensional characters describing the story to us.

Protons, you say? So what kind of properties might one of those have?

Anyway, I picked this from the shelf thinking I could hardly go wrong given the names on the cover, but ultimately, aside from a half decent Leinster, an averagely pleasant - and conspicuously well written Simak - and A.E. van Vogt's eye-wateringly peculiar Vault of the Beast, it's all a little underwhelming. Possibly excepting the slog of Nightfall, there's nothing terrible here, but it fails to live up to the promise of Paul Lehr's wonderful cover painting, and dammit - this collection really should have been better.

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