THE MEN AND THE MIRROR (1973) by Ross Rocklynne

Rocklynne, Ross - The Men and the Mirror-03

This time out, we have a single author collection of short fiction by SF Pulps stalwart, Ross Rocklynne (real name Ross Louis Rocklin, February 21, 1913 – October 29, 1988). Rocklynne was very active in the SF magazines from the early-1930s up until the mid-1950s, when he disappeared off the scene for more than a decade (supposedly because of his interest in Dianetics), only returning in the late-1960s, when he wrote a small number of highly regarded stories, including “Ching Witch!”, which appeared in Harlan Ellison’s classic 1972 anthology, AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS.

But it’s Rocklynne’s classic 1930s, 1940s and early-1950s stories that he is most remembered for. And this is a nice little collection, spanning 1936-1952, another fairly short book, only 208 pages and six stories, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get through.

TITLE: THE MEN AND THE MIRROR
AUTHOR: Ross Rocklynne
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Single Author Collection
FORMAT: Paperback, 208 pages
PUBLISHER: Ace Books, First Ace Printing, New York, 1973
ISBN: 0 7278 1221 1

CONTENTS:

  • Introduction by Ross Rocklynne
  • “At the Center of Gravity” (Astounding Stories, June 1936)
  • “Jupiter Trap” (Astounding Stories, August 1937)
  • “The Men and the Mirror” (Astounding Science Fiction, July 1938)
  • Robert D. Swisher letter from Astounding Stories, November 1938
  • “They Fly So High” (Amazing Stories, June 1952)
  • “The Bottled Men” (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1946)
  • “And Then There Was One” (from Astounding Science Fiction, February 1940)

Ross Rocklynne was one of those writers who seemed to pop up regularly in the SF mags during the 1930s-1950s, and who was very popular, but was sadly underappreciated compared to his more famous contemporaries (Heinlein, Van Vogt, Asimov, Del Rey, etc), and so he never achieved the same level of fame as these authors. Perhaps this was because many of the stories were very unusual for that era, less mainstream commercial SF, and in many ways quite a bit ahead of their time. He was certainly a very powerful writer, almost avant-garde, and in many ways was a precursor to the New Wave of the 1960s. Maybe this explains why he was never as big as the likes of Heinlein or Van Vogt.

My own first encounters with Rocklynne’s work came through reading some of his short fiction in various anthologies of Golden Age SF (I’ve never read any of his novels). The two that I remember best, and which stick in my mind, are “Into the Darkness” (Astonishing Stories, June 1940) and “Time Wants a Skeleton” (Astounding, June 1941). “Into the Darkness”, which spawned several sequel stories, is a fascinating tale with no human characters at all. The main characters are a bunch of ancient, sentient nebulae (not many writers could pull that one off)! “Time Wants a Skeleton” is a very clever time paradox/time loop story, which was quite unusual and complex back in 1941, although this type of story has become quite commonplace in recent years.

I’ve never read any of the stories in this collection before, and all of them are considered classic “scientific puzzle” or “scientific problem” stories, which were so much in vogue during that era. The first three stories, “At the Center of Gravity”, “Jupiter Trap” and “The Men and the Mirror” were all published in Astounding in June 1936, August 1937 and July 1938 respectively, and were part of the “cops and robbers” Colbie and Deverel series, featuring Interplanetary Police Officer Lt. Jack Colbie, and his long time adversary, space pirate Edward Deverel. The third story and title story of the collection, “The Men and the Mirror” is followed by a very interesting letter published several months later in Astounding from one Robert D. Swisher, arguing that the calculations in “The Men and the Mirror” were completely wrong. Just the kinda thing that John W. Campbell Jr loved to publish, and guaranteed to cause much controversy and discussion! 🙂

The fourth and fifth stories were originally intended to be part of the Colbie and Deverel series, but for some reason Rocklynne changed the names, backgrounds and personalities of the main male adversaries. But in every other respect, they are still the same “cops and robbers” space stories. The final story of the six, “And Then There Was One”, is a variation on the classic “Ten Little Indians” theme. It breaks (slightly, but not a lot) the trend of the “cops and robbers” theme in the previous five tales, and was obviously written to show that the premise of the first story, “At the Center of Gravity”, was scientifically incorrect. Rocklynne sounds like a right screwball – quite obviously my type of guy! 🙂

The edition of THE MEN AND THE MIRROR that I have is the Ace Books 1st Paperback edition, and apparently Rocklynne himself was VERY unhappy about how Ace Books handled the publishing of his short story collection. And who could blame him? The stories were published out of chronological order, and, if that wasn’t bad enough, the break between the fifth and sixth stories was completely omitted, leaving out altogether both the title of the story and the author’s introductory comments to the final story in the collection, “And Then There Was One”. It is so bad that there are many readers who are convinced that there are only five stories in the collection. I’ve seen comments on Amazon.com complaining about this very thing. But trust me. There are six stories, not five. Just go to page 168 and check it out.

You have to look very carefully to even find where “And Then There Was One” begins, as the final paragraph of the previous story, “The Bottled Men”, ends about half way down page 168, there is a single paragraph break, and then straight into the first paragraph of “And Then There Was One”. There is no title nor any author’s comments (as there were with the previous five stories) to show where it begins. And this was compounded even further by the fact that there are only five stories listed on the Contents page – “And Then There Was One” is omitted from that as well, although, strangely enough, it IS listed on the preceding Copyright/Credits page. All in all, this was a complete printing/publishing cock-up by the Ace Books editors, which, sadly, spoils the enjoyment of this nice collection somewhat. No wonder Ross Rocklynne was absolutely livid.

Just as an addendum, and through judicious use of Google, I’ve tracked down Rocklynne’s author comments to “And Then There Was One”. They were published for the very first time in a reference book, The Work of Ross Rocklynne: An Annotated Bibliography & Guide**, and I’ve reprinted the comments here, just in case anyone else has read the collection and might be interested:

“Sir Isaac Newton provided the idea. He already had Worked out the problem of the hollow planet before I approached it in “At the Center of Gravity”. My answer was wrong. A decision was made to set the record straight, even though no complaining remarks about my ancient error had come through. The ten little Indians implied in the title became six big businessmen having a bit of a go at each other under rather strange and, in a manner of speaking, revolutionary conditions. Again, a planet was tailored to fit the problem.”*

*The Work of Ross Rocklynne: An Annotated Bibliography & Guide p.59

**The Work of Ross Rocklynne: An Annotated Bibliography & Guide
by Douglas Menville
edited by Boden Clarke
Borgo Press, First Edition December 1989
Hardback: ISBN: 0-8095-0511-8 $19.95
Paperback: ISBN: 0-8095-0511-3 $9.95

CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION – THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE edited by Terry Carr

Classic Science Fiction - The First Golden Age

Here is yet another SF anthology edited by one of my favourite SF anthologists, Terry Carr. It’s a nice, beefy one this time, at 445 pages, with twelve stories, plus an introduction by Carr.

I know most people usually dive on into the stories first, but take may advice, and do NOT skip the Introduction. It is a fascinating, lengthy, detailed 17-page thesis by Carr, which serves as an excellent historical background to the First Golden Age of Science Fiction. This one is an absolute must for anyone, like myself, who is as much a student of the history of science fiction as I am a fan of the literature itself.

TITLE: CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION – THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE
EDITED BY: Terry Carr
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Anthology
PUBLISHER: Harper & Row, New York, 1978
FORMAT: Hardback, 1st Edition, 445 pages
ISBN 10: 0-06-010634-4
ISBN 13: 9780-06-010634-8

CONTENTS:

  • Introduction by Terry Carr
  • “The Smallest God” by Lester del Rey (Astounding Science Fiction, January 1940)
  • “Into the Darkness” by Ross Rocklynne (Astonishing Stories, June 1940)
  • “Vault of the Beast” by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1940)
  • “The Mechanical Mice” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding Science Fiction, January 1941)
  • “-And He Built a Crooked House-“ by Robert A Heinlein (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1941)
  • “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941)
  • “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1941)
  • “By His Bootstraps” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science Fiction, October 1941)
  • “Child of the Green Light” by Leigh Brackett (Super Science Stories, February 1942)
  • “Victory Unintentional” by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, August 1942)
  • “The Twonky” by Henry Kuttner (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1942)
  • “Storm Warning” by Donald A. Wollheim (Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1942)

Intriguingly, and in addition to the fantastic main Introduction, each of the twelve stories has its own multi-page introduction, each of which which gives detailed background information on the author and the story itself. How I wish that every anthology would do this. And then there are the twelve stories themselves. And what stories they are.

This anthology contains some of the greatest short stories from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and I’m familiar with most, but not all, of them, as they’ve appeared in other anthologies or single-author collections. Just looking at the roll-call of authors, it’s like a who’s-who of the biggest SF names from that era. Of course, eight of the twelve stories are from Astounding Science Fiction, which is unsurprising, as it was by far the biggest SF magazine of the Golden Age.

We have two of the best of the early stories written by Isaac Asimov, as well as one of the best and probably the most famous story written by Henry Kuttner, and likewise absolute gems by Eric Frank Russell, Theodore Sturgeon and Lester del Rey. I’ve always been a huge fan of Leigh Brackett, and her story “Child of the Green Light” is also a cracker. Even the two stories that I was totally unfamiliar with, “Storm Warning” by Donald A. Wollheim and “Into the Darkness” by Ross Rocklynne, are excellent stories.

A. E. van Vogt’s story “Vault of the Beast” easily ranks up there alongside “Black Destroyer”, “The Monster” and “Dormant”, as one of my all-time favourite van Vogt short tales. And the two Robert A. Heinlein short stories, “By His Bootstraps” and “-And He Built a Crooked House-“, well, what superlatives can I heap upon them other than to say that they are two of the greatest SF short stories ever written?

As this is an older book, and has been out of print for a number of years, I guess anyone looking for a copy will have to haunt the second-hand/used books stores. And if you spot one, snap it up right away! This is a fantastic anthology of Golden Age SF short fiction. I enjoyed every single story, which is something that I rarely say about most anthologies, as there are usually at least one or two stories which aren’t as good as the rest.

Terry Carr very rarely disappointed with his anthologies, and with this one, he came up with the goods yet again. This is an absolute gem of an anthology, and I’d recommend it without any hesitation to all fans of Golden Age SF.