SCIENCE FICTION OF THE THIRTIES edited by Damon Knight

TITLE: SCIENCE FICTION OF THE THIRTIES
EDITED BY: Damon Knight
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Anthology
PUBLISHER: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis/New York, 1975
FORMAT: Hardback, 1st Edition, 464 pages

CONTENTS:

  • 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.

In the Beginning… My Earliest Days on the Internet (Part One)

I’ve been online for a long time now, almost twenty years, in fact. My love affair with the internet started when I first came online on Christmas morning, December 1995, and has continued ever since. I can now barely remember what life was like before the internet, and it’s so much part of my daily existence nowadays that I simply couldn’t picture how my life would be without it.

Back in those days, the internet had been up and running for a while, but the World Wide Web was still in its infancy, and only a relatively few people were brave enough to venture out into the “wilds” of the Web, using nothing but one of the primitive web browsers available at the time. Besides, that early on in the Web’s existence, there weren’t really very many good websites out there anyway. So most of the fledgling web denizens tended to hang out in the safe online enclaves provided by the large commercial online services such as AOL, CompuServe and GEnie, which dominated the internet during its first couple of decades. And it was on CompuServe, otherwise known as CIS (CompuServe Information Service) that I was to spend my first few years on the internet.

In the heyday of CompuServe and AOL, every UK household used to get AOL and CompuServe CDs regularly in the mail. They bred like rabbits! I had dozens of them lying around the house, so many that I was never short of beer mats. 🙂 Early on Christmas morning, I unpacked my latest, most anticipated Christmas present, a shiny new US Robotics Sportster 28.8k modem, connected it to the computer, popped a CompuServe CD in the drive, and I was off and running. I was about to enter the online world for the very first time.

I was a huge Doctor Who, Babylon 5 and Star Trek fan at that time (I still am), so the very first thing I did after joining CompuServe was to become a member of the SFMEDIA forum, a busy, bustling community full of nice, friendly sci-fi geeks, who all just happened to love the same kind of television series and films that I did. After living my entire life in almost complete isolation from other sci-fi fans, I was now in geek heaven. I had literally thousands of like-minded geeks to converse with online every single day. I made my first posting in the Babylon 5 section of SFMEDIA at 4.55am on Christmas morning, and never looked back.

As I was also a big fan of written SF, I moved on to join the SFLIT forum a day or two later, and I liked that forum even better than SFMEDIA. Then, after a few weeks finding my feet in the two SF forums, and as I was also a comics fan, I joined the COMICS & ANIMATION forum, then the SCIENCE forum, the SPACE forum, the HISTORY forum, and quite a few others. But it was the SFMEDIA, SFLIT and COMICS & ANIMATION forums which always remained my main hang-outs, my central “base of operations”, so to speak. From 1995, up until about 2002, my entire online existence, both on CompuServe and elsewhere revolved around those three forums.

These were the days before everyone and their dog had their own webpage/website, when anyone who was anybody had a presence on CompuServe. Big companies like IBM, Microsoft, Lotus and Borland had their own communities there, and ran their online business from CompuServe. Many of the big SF authors and fandom figures hung out on SFLIT (Mike Resnick, Ray Feist, Catherine Asaro, David Gerrold, Jeff Carver, Gardner Dozois, Jon Stith, Dave Truesdale and many others come to mind), the likes of Joe Straczynski (yeah, JMS himself) hung out on SFMEDIA, and Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Steve Gerber and many other big comics writers and artists hung out on COMICS & ANIMATION.

Having notable media figures like this all in one place, interacting directly with fans and other members in the forums every single day, made CompuServe an absolutely incredible place to be back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

To Be Continued…

It’s a Geek’s Life… (Part Three)

This one has been a long time coming, far too long. But better late than never, I suppose… 🙂

The Barren Years – The Near-Death of Geekery During the Eighties

All throughout the first half of the 1970’s, I was in geek heaven, having seemingly unlimited time to spend on my obsessions with comics, sf literature, telefantasy and sci-fi films. But by 1977-78, things began to change considerably.

I began my A-Levels at college in September 1977, two years of brutal, non-stop studying, followed immediately by another four years of more of the same as I pursued an Honours Degree at university. This intensive studying at college and university during the 1977-83 timeframe drastically curtailed my free time. Except for a few short weeks over the summer breaks, I had no free time at all.

Added to this, there was the rapidly declining health of my father and the ever-growing responsibilities that I had looking after both him and my disabled brother. My father was being increasingly crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating health problems, and within a few short years, by the time I was in my first year at university, he was a wheelchair-bound invalid. I was now responsible not only for looking after two disabled adults, but for also somehow trying to miraculously find the time to study for an Honours Degree as well.

The result of all this was that my geek hobbies pretty much died in the early Eighties, or were put on life support for quite a few years, at the very least. This prolonged period of sheer, relentless drudgery totally broke two out of three of my longest-standing geek hobbies – reading comics and SF literature. Only the sci-fi television and film obsession escaped relatively unscathed, and my sci-fi TV and film watching habit has remained relatively constant over the years.

It took me a long time to recover from those years, particularly when it came to reading SF. Sure, I still read a fair bit of SF today, but, even now, my SF reading habit hasn’t quite recovered to its former frequency, and is certainly nowhere near the obsessive marathon levels it had been at during my teens. Unlike back then, I rarely read novels at all these days, although I still read short fiction regularly. I used to be an obsessive reader of novels back in my teens, but that all ended back in the early-1980’s, and I no longer have the time, the patience, focus or powers of concentration to devote to reading novels on a regular basis. I guess I just fell out of the habit. Maybe I can get back into it again.

These days, when I do occasionally read a novel, I focus only on a very narrow range of sub-genres, usually Classic Space Opera, Hard SF, and their mutant offspring, New Space Opera. Even back when I was an avid SF novel reader, I was never as fond of softer, more sociological, political or anthropological SF as I was of Hard SF and Space Opera. With the exception of a few Alternate Histories and anything to do with Time Travel or Temporal Paradoxes, I rarely read any Soft SF at all these days. My novel reading consists mainly of the latest novels by the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Linda Nagata and a few other similar authors.

For the past two decades or more, at least ninety-five percent of my SF reading has been short fiction, usually multi-author anthologies, although I do read the occasional single-author short fiction collection. I did read the SF magazines circa 1997-2003, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone and SF Age, but SF Age folded, and Interzone changed hands and I didn’t like the new direction it took after David Pringle gave it up. And even worse, the US magazines Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF were all dropped by my local newsagents, which meant that I no longer collected ANY science fiction magazines. These days, I collect the various “Year’s Best” SF anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Rich Horton and a few others. These, plus a few interesting “theme” anthologies, allow me to keep up to date with the cream of modern short SF. However, by far the vast majority of the SF anthologies that I read are collections of classic and vintage SF, pre-New Wave (I did NOT like most of the fiction from the New Wave era), and mainly material from the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As for comics, I actually gave up reading them altogether for a full decade, from 1982-1991. I’d been reading comics continuously since I was about three or four years old (1964-65), starting off with the British weekly comics such as Lion, Valiant and Eagle. Then, in late-1972, I discovered the Mighty World of Marvel, followed soon after by Spider-Man Comics Weekly and the Avengers, and became a fanatical reader of the black and white Marvel UK reprints throughout the rest of the 70’s. I also started reading the colour Marvel US comics (which I bought via mail order) about a year or two afterwards, and all through the 1970’s I read both US and UK Marvel comics side-by-side. But by the end of the 1970’s, in my opinion, both Marvel UK and Marvel US had gone into decline (or maybe I was just getting fed up with or “growing out of” them), and once I began my A-Levels (1977-79), followed by university (1979-83), the immense pressures of study meant that I had to give up on reading all but a handful of my favourite comics.

I had given up on the Marvel UK titles altogether by about 1979, and stopped reading all but three or four of the US Marvel titles, dropping them altogether by about 1980-81. My final comic of that era was the classic UK comic Warrior, and when it folded in 1982, and with 1982-83 being the year of my “finals” at university, I stopped reading comics altogether for a long, long time, the first period in my life that I hadn’t read comics since I was a very young child. I came back to them sporadically during 1991-1992 and 1994-1995, but I only really became a serious comics collector again from about late-1997 onwards. However, the good news is that my comics reading habit has actually grown again in recent years to a level that greatly surpasses what it was even back in my teens.

I’m still a hardcore geek, and always will be. But those dark years back at the end of the 1970’s and during most of the 1980’s almost totally ruined it for me on a permanent basis. Luckily I’ve now pretty much fully recovered most of my geek cred and activities. Mostly.

But as much fun as being a geek still is today, the one thing that I can regretfully never rediscover is that wide-eyed innocence, enthusiasm and sense of sheer joy that I experienced way back in my early teens, when I first became a serious geek. It’s like being a virgin. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. 🙂

It’s all just not quite as wondrous and pure any more when you’re a middle-aged cynic. 🙂

It’s a Geek’s Life… (Part Three)

The Barren Years – The Near-Death of Geekery During the Eighties

All throughout the first half of the 1970’s, I was in geek heaven, having seemingly unlimited time to spend on my obsessions with comics, sf literature, telefantasy and sci-fi films. But by 1977-78, things began to change considerably.

I began my A-Levels at college in September 1977, two years of brutal, non-stop studying, followed immediately by another four years of more of the same as I pursued an Honours Degree at university. This intensive studying at college and university during the 1977-83 timeframe drastically curtailed my free time. Except for a few short weeks over the summer breaks, I had no free time at all.

Added to this, there was the rapidly declining health of my father and the ever-growing responsibilities that I had looking after both him and my disabled brother. My father was being increasingly crippled by severe rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating health problems, and within a few short years, by the time I was in my first year at university, he was a wheelchair-bound invalid. I was now responsible not only for looking after two disabled adults, but for also somehow trying to miraculously find the time to study for an Honours Degree as well.

The result of all this was that my geek hobbies pretty much died in the early Eighties, or were put on life support for quite a few years, at the very least. This prolonged period of sheer, relentless drudgery totally broke two out of three of my longest-standing geek hobbies – reading comics and SF literature. Only the sci-fi television and film obsession escaped relatively unscathed, and my sci-fi TV and film watching habit has remained relatively constant over the years.

It took me a long time to recover from those years, particularly when it came to reading SF. Sure, I still read a fair bit of SF today, but, even now, my SF reading habit hasn’t quite recovered to its former frequency, and is certainly nowhere near the obsessive marathon levels it had been at during my teens. Unlike back then, I rarely read novels at all these days, although I still read short fiction regularly. I used to be an obsessive reader of novels back in my teens, but that all ended back in the early-1980’s, and I no longer have the time, the patience, focus or powers of concentration to devote to reading novels on a regular basis. I guess I just fell out of the habit. Maybe I can get back into it again.

These days, when I do occasionally read a novel, I focus only on a very narrow range of sub-genres, usually Classic Space Opera, Hard SF, and their mutant offspring, New Space Opera. Even back when I was an avid SF novel reader, I was never as fond of softer, more sociological, political or anthropological SF as I was of Hard SF and Space Opera. With the exception of a few Alternate Histories and anything to do with Time Travel or Temporal Paradoxes, I rarely read any Soft SF at all these days. My novel reading consists mainly of the latest novels by the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Linda Nagata and a few other similar authors.

For the past two decades or more, at least ninety-five percent of my SF reading has been short fiction, usually multi-author anthologies, although I do read the occasional single-author short fiction collection. I did read the SF magazines circa 1997-2003, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone and SF Age, but SF Age folded, and Interzone changed hands and I didn’t like the new direction it took after David Pringle gave it up. And even worse, the US magazines Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF were all dropped by my local newsagents, which meant that I no longer collected ANY science fiction magazines. These days, I collect the various “Year’s Best” SF anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, Rich Horton and a few others. These, plus a few interesting “theme” anthologies, allow me to keep up to date with the cream of modern short SF. However, by far the vast majority of the SF anthologies that I read are collections of classic and vintage SF, pre-New Wave (I did NOT like most of the fiction from the New Wave era), and mainly material from the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As for comics, I actually gave up reading them altogether for a full decade, from 1982-1991. I’d been reading comics continuously since I was about three or four years old (1964-65), starting off with the British weekly comics such as Lion, Valiant and Eagle. Then, in late-1972, I discovered the Mighty World of Marvel, followed soon after by Spider-Man Comics Weekly and the Avengers, and became a fanatical reader of the black and white Marvel UK reprints throughout the rest of the 70’s. I also started reading the colour Marvel US comics (which I bought via mail order) about a year or two afterwards, and all through the 1970’s I read both US and UK Marvel comics side-by-side. But by the end of the 1970’s, in my opinion, both Marvel UK and Marvel US had gone into decline (or maybe I was just getting fed up with or “growing out of” them), and once I began my A-Levels (1977-79), followed by university (1979-83), the immense pressures of study meant that I had to give up on reading all but a handful of my favourite comics.

I had given up on the Marvel UK titles altogether by about 1979, and stopped reading all but three or four of the US Marvel titles, dropping them altogether by about 1980-81. My final comic of that era was the classic UK comic Warrior, and when it folded in 1982, and with 1982-83 being the year of my “finals” at university, I stopped reading comics altogether for a long, long time, the first period in my life that I hadn’t read comics since I was a very young child. I came back to them sporadically during 1991-1992 and 1994-1995, but I only really became a serious comics collector again from about late-1997 onwards. However, the good news is that my comics reading habit has actually grown again in recent years to a level that greatly surpasses what it was even back in my teens.

I’m still a hardcore geek, and always will be. But those dark years back at the end of the 1970’s and during most of the 1980’s almost totally ruined it for me on a permanent basis. Luckily I’ve now pretty much fully recovered most of my geek cred and activities. Mostly.

But as much fun as being a geek still is today, the one thing that I can regretfully never rediscover is that wide-eyed innocence, enthusiasm and sense of sheer joy that I experienced way back in my early teens, when I first became a serious geek. It’s like being a virgin. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. 🙂

It’s all just not quite as wondrous and pure any more when you’re a middle-aged cynic. 🙂

Books, Books and More Books

The books keep on rolling in (mostly SF), faster than I can keep up with reading them. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get to read even half of them (I’ll be lucky) before I die of old age. But it won’t be for lack of trying on my part.

Lessee – over the past two or three weeks I’ve amassed somewhere in the region of 50-60 new books. A few of those have been computer and web design books. Some have been science books – I started hunting down every Stephen J Gould and Robert Zubrin book that I could find – and several have been history books.

However, at least 70% of the books have been SF, split fairly evenly between novels and collections or anthologies of short fiction. I’ve bought a whole bunch of more recent Alastair Reynolds novels, a stack of Dan SimmonsHyperion/Fall of Hyperion, Endymion/Rise of Endymion and Ilium/Olympos, several Mike Resnick novels – Santiago, The Return of Santiago and Dark Lady, and a list of others too long for me to bother typing up.

But, as I’m a huge fan of short fiction, I get most excited by the collections and anthologies of short stories. Some of the best of my recent haul are:

  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction 23rd Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois
  • The Best of the Best Volume 2, edited by Gardner Dozois
  • One Million A.D. edited by Gardner Dozois
  • The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan
  • Cities, edited by Peter Crowther
  • Starlight Volumes 1, 2 and 3, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • Galactic North (collection) by Alastair Reynolds

There’s a whole bunch of other stuff, but these gems alone will keep me going for ages. I know I’m a book addict, but maybe I’m going a little overboard, eh? Talk about a junkie needing a fix…