EDITED BY: Damon Knight
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
PUBLISHER: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis/New York, 1975
FORMAT: Hardback, 1st Edition, 464 pages


  • Foreword by Damon Knight
  • “Out Around Rigel” by Robert H. Wilson (1931)
  • “The Fifth-Dimension Catapult” by Murray Leinster (1931)
  • “Into the Meteorite Orbit” by Frank K. Kelly (1933)
  • “The Battery of Hate” by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1933)
  • “The Wall” by Howard W. Graham, Ph.D. (1934)
  • “The Lost Language” by David H. Keller, M.D. (1934)
  • “The Last Men” by Frank Belknap Long, Jr. (1934)
  • “The Other” by Howard W. Graham, Ph.D. (1934)
  • “The Mad Moon” by Stanley G. Weinbaum (1935)
  • “Davey Jones’ Ambassador” by Raymond Z. Gallun (1935)
  • “Alas, All Thinking” by Harry Bates (1935)
  • “The Time Decelerator” by A. Macfadyen, Jr. (1936)
  • “The Council of Drones” by W. K. Sonnemann (1936)
  • “Seeker of Tomorrow” by Eric Frank Russell and Leslie T. Johnson (1937)
  • “Hyperpilosity” by L. Sprague de Camp (1938)
  • “Pithecanthropus Rejectus” by Manly W. Wellman (1938)
  • “The Merman” by L. Sprague de Camp (1938)
  • “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey (1939)

What SF Master Damon Knight has done for Science Fiction of the Thirties is to plough his way through hundreds of classic “pulps” from the 30’s, mining them for a few of the forgotten gems from that era, and picking out the best of them for this anthology. He has reappraised the best of the tales from the 1930s SF magazines, with the added condition that his choices are stories which have rarely, some of them never, been published before in SF anthologies. And it’s a real thrill to read these stories, particularly for a jaded old fan like me who thought he’d read all the good old stuff worth reading.

Reading the short but fascinating Foreword to this anthology, we come to understand that Knight had been a life-long critic of the stories in the pulps, but had undergone a recent change of heart. Sturgeon’s Law (“Ninety Percent of Everything is Crud”) applies to the pulps just as much as it does to everything else, and it is the ten percent of stories which are not crud which make it worth persevering, and wading through the crap, to find the diamonds in the rough. And these stories are all good ‘uns. Damon Knight, former unrelenting critic of the “pulps”, is a hard taskmaster, and his standards are VERY high.

So, given that I’ve read a LOT of vintage SF, how has he done? The good news is that I’m totally unfamiliar with at least six of the authors in this anthology. The rest of them are names that I know, but the real surprise is that I have never read most of these stories before. I’m familiar with only THREE out of the eighteen stories – Weinbaum’s “The Mad Moon”, Campbell’s “The Battery of Hate” and Bates’ “Alas, All Thinking” (all of which I read many, many years ago) – which is a pretty amazing strike rate for Knight and the stories that he has chosen here. He has really come up with the goods, producing an anthology of stories that few SF readers will have seen before.

Most modern SF anthologies showcasing stories from “the old days” have long since started to reprint the same classic stories over and over again, so an avid SF fan would very likely have read most of them before. As good as many classic SF stories are, it becomes a bit tiring and disheartening to see them in every other anthology – “The Cold Equations” and “It’s a Good Life” are two examples of classic SF stories that come to mind. I have these two in so many old anthologies that I could scream every time I see them in yet another. I love these stories to bits, but too much of a good thing, etc…

Which raises the question: if Damon Knight could find these forgotten gems, surely there are many, many more in those SF magazines, just waiting for some adventurous researcher and editor to find them? And now that Damon has sadly passed on from us, to that great everlasting Science Fiction Convention in the Sky, who is willing to step into his giant shoes and continue to unearth these hidden treasures of the past? Or do hardcore fans like me have to continue ponying up exorbitant amounts of money for the old SF magazines or rare, out-of-print anthologies from the dim and distant past, in order to unearth more forgotten SF gems?

SF editors need to start using a bit of imagination and initiative, as in “Great story, but it’s been published a zillion times before. How’s about something that hasn’t been published before?”. I know that great editors of the past (and present) have produced many excellent anthologies of vintage SF. Editors like Groff Conklin, Terry Carr, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Gardner Dozois, Brian W. Aldiss, Mike Ashley, and many others have produced some amazing anthologies over the years. But many of the classic editors/anthologists have now sadly passed on, and we have a dire need for newer editors to come forward and take up the gauntlet, to continue the great work that Damon Knight and the other great editors of the past have done to unearth the forgotten SF treasures of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Sure, I’d be the first to say that we need new authors producing great new SF. But we should also never, EVER forget the old masters.

So what’s my verdict of Science Fiction of the Thirties? Overall, I think this is an excellent anthology. Taking into account that these are NOT modern literary SF masterpieces, and that the stories are 1930s pulp SF tales, churned out at a few cents per word, it’s amazing that ANY of them were any good. But some were real beauts. Even for as low grade a market as the “pulps”, many talented writers took extreme pride and joy in their work, and went way beyond the line of duty, producing something much more than the miserly word rates they were being paid could ever merit. Damon Knight has uncovered a few of those forgotten gems for us and put them together in this very nice anthology. For someone like myself, who is a huge fan of finding good old SF stories that I haven’t read before, this type of book is just right up my alley.

I wish there were a few more volumes of anthologies containing similarly rare old SF magazine stories out there. Here’s hoping that someone will continue on with the good work of finding classic stories from the “pulps” that we haven’t read before. I, for one, will be eagerly watching out for more.

Sci-Fi Cinema (Part 1)

I’ve always loved all kinds of sci-fi cinema, starting with the “silent” movies, and going right up to the big-budget blockbusters of the modern era. It’s hard to believe that’s it’s over a century since the very first sci-fi film was produced. When Georges Méliès unleashed Le Voyage dans la Lune upon the unsuspecting world in 1902, it was the beginning of a new era.

That film may have been very primitive and very short by modern standards, but it was unique, the first movie of its kind. It must’ve been mind-boggling for the earliest cinema-goers to watch something like this. I reckon that even Méliès, visionary that he was, could never in a million years have dreamed how things would turn out. Imagine the poor man, taken forward in time and sitting in a modern cinema, watching any modern sci-fi blockbuster movie, with all the incredible SFX and pyrotechnics. He would been in complete shock. 🙂

From this point on, the film-making skills and technology improved at an incredible rate, through the earliest efforts of the first decade of the twentieth century, including the impressive Frankenstein (1910), produced by Thomas Edison (yes, THAT Edison), through the glory days of silent European cinema during the second decade of the century, in particular German gothic horror cinema, to the 1920s, when we were beginning to see much more sophisticated “silent” classics like Willis O’Brien’s classic The Lost World (1925) and Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis (1927).

Jump forward another decade to the 1930s, the beginning of the era of “talkies”, and things had taken a quantum leap forward, improving beyond all recognition. Two of the greatest sci-fi movies of that decade, and two of my personal favourites, were Willis O’Brien’s classic King Kong (1933) and Things to Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies, possibly the first two true great sci-fi film classics of the “talkies” era. Let’s not forget that this was also the decade that first gave us the great sci-fi movie serials with heart-stopping cliffhangers at the end of every episode. Starting with Flash Gordon (1936) and its sequels, it mushroomed and spawned an entire industry of movie serials. Kids (and grown-ups) flocked to the cinema every week, to catch up on “The Next Thrilling Installment…” of their favourite adventure serial.

The 1930s also saw the start of a new breed of horror films produced by Universal Pictures, beginning with Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), and stretching out over fifteen years until the movies petered out in the mid-1940s with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). In between those years, there was a wide range of Dracula and Frankenstein sequels and other new additions such as Werewolf of London (1935), the first (relatively unsuccessful) werewolf film, soon joining the fold. The next werewolf film, The Wolf Man (1941), featuring new lead actor Lon Chaney Jr, was much more successful, leading to several sequels (usually co-starring with the other Universal monsters), and culminating in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), although he did pop up again in the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

These films made superstars out of B-movie actors Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.. And even though Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man were the three big stars of the Universal monster movies, there were other classics, such as The Mummy (1932) and its sequels and The Invisible Man (1933) and its sequels. The Universal monster movies were a phenomenon lasting almost two decades through the Thirties and most of the Forties. Actually, they were more like a separate industry within Hollywood itself. I loved those old monster movies. It’s been far too long since I’ve watched any of them.

Aside from the Universal monster movies, a few B-grade horror films, some of the daft comedies, and a very few occasional decent flicks such as Dr. Cyclops (1940) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), the 1940s were a barren wasteland for real sci-fi cinema. The Twenties had Metropolis, the Thirties had Things to Come and a plethora of sci-fi movie serials like Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), and Buck Rogers (1939). But aside from maybe Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and King of the Rocket Men (1949), I don’t think there was anything produced in the Forties that remotely qualifies as real science fiction (heck, even these two barely qualify either).

The Forties was easily the worst decade for science fiction films. I guess that’s not really surprising, as the entire world was at war for the first half of the decade, and trying to piece things back together again in the second half. Lack of budget during those rough years mitigated against spending money on films with too many technical special effects, plus there was maybe a not-inconsiderable anti-technological, anti-science bias among the movie-going audiences (which is quite normal during wartime). Science fiction on the Big Screen was no longer in vogue. Sure, Hollywood did continue to pump out the films, but there were no real sci-fi classics of note. If I was to write out a list of my favourite classic sci-fi movies of the twentieth century, I think the Forties would be the only decade that I’d have real trouble finding something that I really liked.

It wouldn’t be until the start of the 1950s that things would really start to pick up again. And what a decade that was. The first true Golden Age of sci-fi films, in which real science fiction movies (as opposed to horror) started to predominate. But we’ll leave that until next time.

To Be Continued…

Yet Another “Sci-Fi Sunday”

Sundays at our house have become a favourite of mine in recent months, so much so that I’ve taken to referring to the day as “Sci-Fi Sunday”. The reason for this is that the local UK television channels almost always air one or more sci-fi films in the late afternoon and evenings. Then, at night, my friends pay a visit and we always finish off Sundays by watching two, maybe three more sci-fi movies on DVD. Well, yesterday was no different.

Beginning with television, by hopping between two channels, Channel 4 and Channel 5, I managed to find three sci-fi films in a row. We started off with Barry Sonnenfeld’s fun 1999 steampunk western Wild Wild West, based on the rather strange 1960’s sci-fi TV series of the same name. It’s not exactly a masterpiece, but is definitely a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Next up was Simon Wells’s 2002 reimagining of George Pal’s classic 1960 film The Time Machine. I recall when I first watched this one that I wasn’t very impressed, and considered it a poor remake of the original. But I’ve mellowed over the years, and the film has definitely grown on me with each subsequent viewing.

Finally, we were treated to a real classic, George Lucas’s epic 1980 Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. As far as I’m concerned, this one was EASILY the best of the original Star Wars trilogy, by the proverbial country mile. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I still enjoy it every single time.

That was it with the sci-fi films from the television channels, but there was still more to come, as the DVDs came out. The 1998 Alex Proyas-directed noir-sci-fi classic Dark City has always been a particular favourite of mine. It’s moody, atmospheric and simply gorgeous visually. I hadn’t seen it in quite a while, so it was an absolute pleasure to sit down to this one again. This film was probably the highlight of the evening for me.

Finally, to round off the night, we had the classic 2001 first film of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. This one is a gorgeous Big Screen classic in every way. I really enjoyed all three films in the trilogy, which is the height of irony, as I absolutely hated the books (I dislike Tolkein and that particular brand of fantasy immensely). The films work for me visually, and distill everything that was good in the novels, while cutting out all the endless padding and rambling (in other words, most of the novels). I find it weird that I’ve always liked fantasy onscreen, but not in books. Very strange indeed.

That’s a few classic movies and many hours of fun movie-watching for one day (more than the rest of the week combined). Roll on the next “Sci-Fi Sunday”! 🙂

Doctor Who: 50 Years in Space & Time (Part 10)

Here’s the next part of my look back at the Best of the Bunch from Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary:

  • The November DVD release of Scream of the Shalka

10. Scream of the Shalka

This November DVD release almost slipped by unnoticed in the midst of the 50th Anniversary celebrations, but is worth a place on any Doctor Who fan’s shelf.

Originally produced during the “wilderness years” when Doctor Who had been off the air for quite a long time, Scream of the Shalka was intended as a celebration of Doctor Who’s 40th Anniversary (there was little else happening to celebrate it).

Using then state-of-the-art flash animation, and first broadcast in six parts on the classic BBC’s Doctor Who website from 13th November – 18th December 2003, Scream of the Shalka was the first true Doctor Who web animation. Up until the surprising return of the live TV series, web animation was generally accepted by many to be the future of Doctor Who.

The return of Doctor Who to television in 2005 relegated Scream of the Shalka to the level of a mere historical curiosity. But Doctor Who fans just love that kind of thing, and this DVD is worth getting for the excellent extra features on the disc alone.

The main story, written by Paul Cornell, is also pretty good, and the excellent performance of Richard E. Grant as the Doctor showed that he’d have been perfect for the role, if he’d been selected for the live series. It’s a great pity that he only had this one bite at the cherry. I bet he thought he’d last a little longer as the Doctor!

To Be Continued…