Sunday, 30 August 2015

the far-out worlds of a e van vogt; the end of summer - science fiction of the fifties

For holiday reading, when not travelling by car, I often take books which I can discard when I've read them, so as not to have to carry them home (with the reasonable anticipation that I'll have acquired an additional couple of books during my time on holiday). The discardable books are generally fiction, and ones that Bethan has read or won't want to read - I would take more crime novels were it not for the latter, but as it is the discardable books are therefore often science fiction.

I've finished two, so far, on this holiday, two collections of science fiction short stories. The first was The Far-Out Worlds of A E Van Vogt, a collection from 1973 which annoyingly doesn't give the original dates of publication of the stories, which is always a black mark against a story collection; I'd guess they were 40s/50s (amusingly - to me, anyway - two apparently authoritative lists, here and here, on the same site apparently, give different dates for most of the stories; in any case they range into 30s and 60s too). The second, The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties ('An Analog book', published by Ace in 1979, edited by Barry N Malzberg and Bill Pronzini), does give a lot of publication details, and an introductory essay and afterword to each story.

I think perhaps the most striking - and saddest - thing about these two books (and the collection by Fredric Brown which I'm now reading) are the references to other stories, and novels in particular, by the authors which are said to be assured of a perpetual place in the science-fiction pantheon and which I've never heard of. Sometimes I don't even recognise the author's name, although doubtless I've read stories by them in other anthologies.

I hold pretty much to my generalisation that science fiction was largely spoiled by scientific progress. So many stories crushed at birth by 'no, that couldn't happen'; but all those early stories are no less interesting or entertaining now that the scientific impossibilities are evident. I've never been a fan of the science fiction which goes into great detail to explain or justify the technological progress, development and invention - indeed for some authors, those details seem to be the whole purpose of the book. I like the old style of 'what if', most often encapsulated in short story form, in which one 'what if' idea is picked up and run with for a story, rather than the 'what if' which is all about how a particular technology might work.

(I remember one of the odd things about I Am Legend by Richard Matheson - and one of the things which made it a much more tedious book than it might have been - was how much of it was spent on the scientific explanation for the 'vampire zombies' in the book.)

Anyway, AE's stories were okay, but not sufficient to make me want to seek out more. I read an interesting couple of articles about him on Wikipedia and David Langford's SF Encyclopedia, which made me interested to pick up Voyages of the Space Beagle, a set of stories turned into a novel (common in those days) including one said to be the basis of Alien. Seen as a forerunner of Philip K Dick in having stories both dreamlike and paranoid; interesting, and plausible, to read that a lot of his stories were based on things he dreamt.

The End of Summer interesting in that it didn't claim to be a 'Best Of' collection of the 1950s, but one telling a story about the rise and fall of science fiction magazines of the time. Again, the stories were fine, but nothing very grabby.

I see that I bought the former this July, and the latter in December 2005. I see a  charity shop in their future.