Monday, March 24, 2014

Science Fiction Hall of Fame 2A Strikes Again: Campbell, Del Rey, and C. Smith

Having decided that I should be familiar with every story in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A, over the last few days I read three of the included novellas, "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr., "Nerves" by Lester Del Rey, and "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" by Cordwainer Smith.  I had never read these stories before.

"Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

I've known about this famous 1938 story, the basis of several films, almost all my life, but I've never read it.  I was relieved to find it more sophisticated than the two space operas I read by Campbell, The Ultimate Weapon and Invaders from the Infinite (links lead to my 2011 Amazon reviews of these epics of space naval warfare, reviews which are not exactly brimming over with love.)  The story includes some level of suspense and human feeling, and doesn't feel long and repetitive.

"Who Goes There?" is a pretty traditional hard science fiction story.  It stars a bunch of scientists and a hostile alien with telepathy and other powers, contains lots of science lectures and experiments, includes a puzzle the scientists have to figure out using logic and their lab equipment, and in the end the human race is not only saved from extermination, but technology captured from the alien (including anti-gravity) will change human life forever, opening up to us a brilliant new future.  There is some brutal fighting, both with guns and hand to hand (hand to tentacle?), but the emphasis of the story is on the suspenseful puzzle: some of the scientists are in fact aliens in disguise, so the real humans have to figure out a way to identify each other and the monsters, and they have to do it fast, before the aliens outnumber the humans.

I like the Heinlein, Anderson and Kuttner & Moore inclusions better, but this is a solid piece of work and I don't begrudge its presence in the Hall of Fame.

1976 edition of Nerves
"Nerves" by Lester Del Rey

I started "Nerves"with some trepidation.  For weeks or months there was a copy of the 1976 paperback of the novel Nerves on the collectible paperbacks spinner rack at the Half Price Books I frequent, and I became pretty familiar with the cover.  The cover illustration makes Nerves look like a medical drama, and medical dramas do not interest me.  When I hear somebody say "50 ccs" or "STAT" I fall asleep. 

The version of "Nerves" in Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A is the 1942 version, and is over 60 pages long.  It tells the story of middle-aged Dr. Ferrel, who was once the finest surgeon in the world and is now getting a little fat, and the young new doctor, Dr. Jenkins.  Ferrel and Jenkins work at an atomic factory whose products include atomic insecticide (the boll weevil doesn't stand a chance!) and fuel for atomic vehicles.  There is an accident at one of the converters, an uncontrolled reaction that continually sprays magma and radioactive debris everywhere and threatens to blow up everything in a fifty mile radius.  Ferrel, Jenkins, and the nurses, who include Jenkins's wife, fueled by tobacco, booze, and caffeine tablets, work for untold hours on the scores of casualties, injecting curare, salving radiation burns, stitching up wounds, extracting radioactive fragments, etc.  When the genius Japanese scientist who is managing the accident scene gets appendicitis, Ferrel has to put on armor and hop into a tank and drive into the radioactive inferno to help rescue Jorgenson, the only other scientist in the country who can figure out what has gone wrong and how to fix it.

Ferrell hacks open Jorgenson's chest and then he and the Jenkins couple spend page after page massaging Jorgenson's heart.  When Jorgenson is revived he only has enough energy to provide a brief clue...luckily Jenkins is a sort of amateur expert on atomics because his father ran his own atomics factory.  Jenkins deciphers the clue and saves the factory, the atomics industry, and the U S economy.

This story feels long and slow, and failed to excite any feeling in me for the doctors, scientists or factory workers.  In many ways it is like those Campbell space operas I mentioned above, the best scientists in the field figuring out how to solve a complex problem in a race against the clock.  The big difference (for me) is that I find space war inherently interesting, and being a surgeon in a factory inherently boring.

"Nerves" is just an average melodrama, which is one reason why I wonder how it got into the Hall of Fame.  The other reason I don't understand why "Nerves" is in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame is that its science fiction content is pretty light.  One hears complaints that many "science fiction" stories are just war stories or westerns or detective stories set in space or on another planet.  I think "Nerves" is vulnerable to the charge that it is just a medical drama set in an atomic factory.  Couldn't a very similar medical drama have been set in a munitions plant or an automobile factory? 

"Nerves" is an OK story, but I don't think it really belongs in Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A.

"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" by Cordwainer Smith  

I'm not at all familiar with Cordwainer Smith's work.  I know I read "Scanners Live in Vain" in college for the class I took on science fiction (Spring 1990), but it made little impression on me.

"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" takes place on Earth in a building 25 kilometers tall, far far in the future.  Mankind has colonized the universe, and created a society so affluent that crime, war, and poverty, among humans, are virtually unknown.  But living on Earth are also the "underpeople," people much like humans, but derived from animals.  The underpeople must work to make money to pay for food, shelter and so forth, like people of "ancient" times, and are subject to summary, arbitrary justice and oppression at the hands of humans.

C'Mell is a beautiful woman whose ancestors were derived from cats, who works as a sort of hostess or geisha, making visitors to Earth comfortable and welcome.  The plot of this 18 page story from 1962 concerns C'Mell's relationship with one of the rulers of the universe, Lord Jestocost.  Jestocost believes the underpeople should be on an equal legal footing with true humans.  C'Mell becomes a telepathic conduit between Jestocost and the leader of an underpeople revolutionary movement; Jentocost hopes by working with this leader that he can help reform human-underpeople relations without resort to violence.  C'Mell falls in love with Jentocost, but this is a love that cannot be consummated.

This is a good story, the setting and characters interesting and satisfying.  The story is also economical, conjuring up arresting images and feelings without superfluous verbiage.  There have been many SF stories about oppressed minorities or underclasses with special powers, but to me this one felt fresh.

It appears that most or all of Smith's SF work is set in the same universe, and that Smith (real name Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) had an exciting career in academia and in various parts of the US defense establishment.  I will definitely seek out more of his stories; hopefully they will be as good as "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell."

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As of today I have read every novella in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A.  (I read Wells' Time Machine, Williamson's With Folded Hands, and Russell's ...And Then There Were None years ago.)  I am certainly glad to have more knowledge of what the pro SF writers of the early 1970s thought were the "classics"of their field.  And I am looking forward to becoming better acquainted with Cordwainer Smith's work.   

1 comment:

  1. I have yet to read any of Cordwainer Smith's works -- one of the big holes in my knowledge. I have read an entire collection of Del Rey's SF shorts -- they were vaguely "ok." One of two were good...

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