Sunday, November 17, 2013

Three selections from Moskowitz's Modern Masterpieces of SF: Bloch, Hamilton, and Kuttner


In 1965 Sam Moskowitz, SF historian and superfan, published Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction, a book he intended to provide “superior examples of the actual fiction of the twenty-one most influential practitioners of modern science fiction,” and act as a companion piece to his book of biographies of SF writers, Seekers of Tomorrow. I checked out a library copy of the 1974 reprint edition. This anthology contains several stories I read in the past and enjoyed, including Heinlein’s “…We Also Walk Dogs,” Van Vogt’s “Enchanted Village” and Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God,” but I got it with an eye to reading stories I had never read before by Robert Bloch, Edmond Hamilton and Henry Kuttner.

"The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" by Robert Bloch (1939)

This is a gimmicky and unbelievable story, the trick ending of which is pretty obvious from the beginning. Scientist Clayton hires a team of experts and spends piles of money building a spaceship so he can travel to Mars. The ship has no windows, and Clayton crews the ship all by himself. The ship has no room for books or paper or even a pocket watch, just food and other vital supplies. The trip will take ten years.

On lift off the instrument panel shatters, so Clayton has no way to keep track of time or tell where he is. Luckily, the ship will land on Mars automatically; Clayton need only wait the ten years. With nothing to do Clayton starts going insane. The long lonely trip takes a toll on his body as well as his mind – looking into the mirror Clayton can barely recognize himself, he has become an old man! Finally the atomic engines shut off, and Clayton staggers to the door, opens it to find the ship has been stuck on the launching pad the entire time; the blasts from the atomic engines kept his team from rescuing him. How long has he been trapped in the ship? One week!

One wonders why Moskowitz thought this a “masterpiece.” Bloch is an important writer and so certainly worthy of inclusion in a book like this, but surely a better piece could have been found.

"Requiem" by Edmond Hamilton (1942)

This story takes place like 4000 years in the future. Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, but Earth lies in ruins. A few thousand years ago Sol became a white dwarf, and the Earth was abandoned just before it froze over. Recently a rogue body passed through the solar system, drawing the inner planets toward the sun. The ice covering Earth has melted and historians, scientists, and TV journalists have commissioned a space ship from the government to take them to Earth to see the birthplace of mankind. They only have a few weeks to explore, however, before Earth follows Venus and Mercury in being swallowed up by the sun.

This is more like what I expected from a book of SF “masterpieces,” a thought- and emotion- provoking story that invites you to stretch your mind to encompass a strange scenario – human beings who know nothing of Earth setting foot on it for the first time, and soon after watching their ancestral planet annihilated. There is also a sort of elitist tone to the story: Hamilton severely denigrates the TV journalists, depicting them as crass and phony philistines. The historians and scientists fare better, but in the end it is only the gruff no-nonsense captain of the space ship, who would rather be on a serious mission than babysitting a bunch of “sentimentalists,” as he calls them, who truly feels and mourns for the doomed Earth.

"We Guard the Black Planet!" By Henry Kuttner (1942)

The narrator is a young man who has just completed training to be a space man. Tomorrow he lifts off from Newark Spaceport (yay New Jersey!) on his first trip into space, and his father, Nils Esterling, summons him to the ancestral family home on a fjord in Sweden to say good bye. Dad has a falcon he loves to watch fly and he talks romantically about the Viking past of his people. Then, he tells his son the story of the reason why he never returned to outer space after returning from his own first space trip, forty years ago....

A few years after beginning his space career, Esterling is shanghaied by ruthless, murderous space pirates. Esterling has a bracelet handed down through his family for generations, and the pirates have heard rumor of it, and know its significance. It is a map to a secret planet, hidden within a “negasphere” so that it is virtually invisible. Only two pirates, and Esterling, survive a space naval battle with the authorities, but the three of them make it to the black planet, which behind the black negasphere is a beautiful utopia of beautiful flying people (“Valkyries.”) Esterling, it turns out, is descended of such people, and in the radiation of this world grows wings himself and experiences the ecstasy of flight.

Kuttner, to make the Valkyrie planet seem even more like a paradise, describes life elsewhere beyond Earth as dreadful; space flights are dangerous, and the other inhabited planets are just places where spacemen get poisonously intoxicated on alien liquor and drugs, or fight in terrible wars. Space men lead short unhappy lives, Kuttner assures us. Kuttner’s story is also less gung ho about science than some of the stories I have been reading lately; not only are the Valkyries living in a post-science world, but one of the pirates is himself a scientist with “a string of degrees after his name.”

The space pirates, being pureblooded Earthmen, don’t grow wings, and the planet is no paradise for them. They contrive to escape, dragging Esterling and one of the natives with them. Esterling manages to overpower them, but away from the black planet his wings, and that of the beautiful Valkyrie, the narrator’s mother, wither and will never grow back, so they remain on Earth. The story ends with the narrator, half Valkyrie himself, receiving the bracelet so he has the opportunity to go to the black planet and grow wings, should he so wish.

This is a decent adventure story, incorporating Norse mythology.  It didn't affect me emotionally as much as Hamilton's "Requiem" or Gallun's "Old Faithful," but you can see Kuttner is making an effort.

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It is easy to recommend Moskowitz's Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction; most of the stories included are good and/or important, and Moskowitz's introductory essay on what "modern" SF is and who deserves credit for making SF "modern" is interesting.  
 

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