Friday, February 14, 2014

Three more stories from the Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Van Vogt, Aldiss, and Ballard

Cover of a later edition

Three more selections from Tom Shippey's Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

“The Monster” by A. E. Van Vogt

This 1948 story is one of many examples of a Van Vogt story about a transcendent human with mental powers. I think this story is a little more coherent and easy to follow than much of Van Vogt’s work.

Far in the future, a race of aliens comes upon the Earth. All animal life is dead. These aliens are able to replicate living creatures from even small fragments. Curious as to how Earth life was wiped out, since they want to colonize the Earth, the aliens start revivifying humans. An Egyptian mummy, then a 20th century man, are unable to provide any clue, and the aliens vaporize them with ray guns. A human from thousands of years later, however, is not only able to explain what happened to humanity (a nucleonic storm swept the Earth with deadly radiation) but turn the tables on the aliens, as he has mental abilities which make him immune to ray guns or nuclear bombs. When the story ends the aliens are doomed, and we know that the human will use their technology to bring the human race back to life and conquer the universe.

A fun story.

“Who Can Replace A Man?” by Brian Aldiss

I suppose this 1958 story is an effort to show the absurdity of human traits like the lust for power, class distinctions, belligerence and servility by having robots exhibit these traits, but I found the whole thing to be ridiculous and boring.

Because of overpopulation, the nutrients in the ground are depleted, and the human race dies of a vitamin deficiency. The robots that have been doing all the work stop getting orders, and because this is a story and not real life, instead of just stopping, some of the robots go crazy, and some of them strike off on their own initiative. Even robot tractors and robot steam shovels get anthropomorphized in this story, and express joy at their freedom or ambitions to dominate others. The robots make alliances, argue, go to war with each other, cry out in agony and fear when abandoned, and when humans reappear immediately abandon all thoughts of independence.

This story is pretty lame. The jokes (one of the robots has a lisp) are not funny. The environmentalist, population scare, and anti-war sentiments in the story are just perfunctory; this story reminded me of a cloying children's book, like maybe one of Dr. Seuss's more irritating efforts.

Not good.

“Billenium” by J. G. Ballard

This is probably the most satisfying of the stories I have yet read in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. It is full of vivid images and human feeling, and the style is quite fine. "Billenium" first appeared in 1961.

Ballard considers how society would respond and what everyday life would be like in an overpopulated world, and depicts for us a brief period in the life of one of the denizens of such a world. The story is engrossing and believable, and I really enjoyed it.


Even though I thought the Aldiss story poor, these three stories all constitute good representative samples of major themes and styles in science fiction and so are good selections for a book like this.  We've got homo superior and mental powers in Van Vogt's sensationalist pulp tale of wicked and hideous aliens armed with ray guns, overpopulation in Ballard's more sophisticated and literary story, which you might consider early "New Wave" in its focus on the everyday citizen, and Aldiss brings the robots and misanthropy.  


  1. Brian Aldiss' “Who Can Replace A Man?” is not one of his better 50s short stories. Although critics and others seem to think it is... Strange visions such as ‘Judas Danced’ (1958), ‘Outside’ (1955), ’Not For An Age’ (1955), 'Dumb Show' (1956) are all so much better.

  2. As a teen I really enjoyed his novel The Malacia Tapestry; I still own it and plan to reread it.

    As an adult I've read the first two Helleconia books and The Primal Urge, and thought they were OK, good ideas but somehow lacking in fun or feeling.

    So I am not uniformly against Aldiss. I will probably spend time at a university library tomorrow; maybe I will see if any of the stories you mention are in anthologies there.