Thursday, June 5, 2014

Last of the Novelets: Blish and Clarke

At this here blog we've been reading Novelets of Science Fiction, a paperback anthology of early 1950s stories published first in 1963 (I have the 1967 printing.)  In a spirit of friendly competition we will be crowning the writer of the best novelet, and so far Poul Anderson is in the lead.  But we have high hopes for today's contenders, James Blish, my fellow Jersey boy and Rutgers alum, and Arthur C. Clarke, writer, explorer, and TV and film icon.

"Testament of Andros" by James Blish (1953)

If you've been following my investigation of Novelets of Science Fiction you won't be surprised to learn, despite claims on the front and back cover of the book, that "Testament of Andros" appeared in a paperback collection of Blish stories in 1961 entitled So Close to Home.

"Testament of Andros" is the craziest and most experimental of the stories in Novelets of Science Fiction.  It consists of five first-person narratives, each told by a male with a name that is a variant of "Andrew," and each in part about the narrator's relationship with a female whose name is a variant of "Margaret."  These narratives all take place on an alternate Earth (among other things, it has 12 continents and its version of Wagner wrote an opera titled Tristan and Messalina) which is devastated by a solar flare that kills the majority of life on the planet.

Each of the stories details human unhappiness, and most of them feature some kind of injustice or depravity.  A scientist believes a grad student is taking credit for his research and having an affair with his wife, so he murders the student.  A working class orphan grows up to be a rapist and murderer and dies in prison when the solar flare hits.  An eight-year-old child who fantasizes about being a space hero tries to come to terms with his unhappy family and school life as well as the solar flare.  Some of the narratives take a dim view of religion, suggesting that organized religion has failed to comfort and guide people, while one of them is written by an insane person who claims to have seen God and has started his own religion.

This is a good "literary" story that reminded me of the kind of experimental work we associate with the New Wave of ten or more years later.  It tackles religion, psychology, gender relations, the family, economics, all that heavy stuff.

"The Possessed" by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

This six page story in which Clarke ponders why lemmings sometimes jump to their deaths en masse is gimmicky and forgettable.   It was included in a 1956 paperback, Reach for Tomorrow.

A non-corporeal life form, parasitic in nature, is floating through space, looking for an intelligent species to serve as its host.  After millions of fruitless years of searching it lands on Earth during the Age of Reptiles.  With no intelligent hosts available, the creature opts for a desperate expedient: it will split in two parts, one portion remaining on Earth, the other half continuing the search.  Should the space-going half find an attractive host species somewhere else in the universe, it will return with the good news.  The two halves agree on a meeting place, which the Earthbound portion of the creature will return to periodically.

The Earthbound portion of the alien colonizes the minds of small mammals in hopes they will evolve intelligence.  Instead, they evolve into lemmings.   Millions of years in non-intelligent hosts takes a toll, and the parasite creature grows weaker and weaker until it is essentially dead.  The lemmings, however, retain an instinctive need to periodically return to the meeting place, an instinct which overrides any thought of safety, and the fact that the meeting place is now underwater.

This story is inoffensive, so I would grade it "OK" or "acceptable," but it has zero feeling and no characters or plot--it is just an odd speculation.


It's time to rate the eight "superlative" stories found in Novelets of Science Fiction and crown a King of the Novelets!

James Blish put in a good showing, but I have to judge him our rummer up--which means Poul Anderson, with his story, "The Chapter Ends," is King of the Novelets!  "The Chapter Ends" has multiple interesting SF ideas, emotional content, characters who make big decisions, and memorable images, and actually made me consider what I would do and how I would feel in the situations he describes.  So, congrats to Poul.

Simak and Clarke's stories are sort of one note idea tales, lacking in plot or feeling, and so they bring up the rear.  Frank Belknap Long's "Night Fear" is also vulnerable to the charge that it is just an idea and not really a story, but I found the idea interesting and I think Long's piece had some added human drama.

Our three violent adventure stories, by Del Rey, Lesser and de Camp, make up the middle of the pack.  Each has its own charm; Del Rey has his ponderings about politics and free will, Lesser his hard-boiled stylings, and De Camp has his mediocre jokes.

Here are our rankings:

Winner                        Poul Anderson              "The Chapter Ends"
Runner Up                  James Blish                   "The Testament of Andros"
3rd place                     Frank Belknap Long     "Night Fear"
4th place                     Lester Del Rey              "I Am Tomorrow"
5th place                     Milton Lesser                "'A' as in Android"
6th place                     L. Sprague de Camp     "Ultrasonic God"
7th place                     Clifford Simak              "...And the Truth Shall Make You Free"
8th place                     Arthur C. Clarke           "The Possessed"  

Novelets of Science Fiction is a good collection; none of the stories were bad.  A worthwhile purchase for those, like me, interested in 1950s SF!    


  1. I know this was iconoclastic, but I've never been a huge fan of Clarke. Although some of his short stories are fine, such as Rescue Party (1946) (one of the better 40s SF works I've encountered).

    1. I think Clarke is like Asimov, a genius with an astonishing store of knowledge, but lacking when it comes to putting together a story, characters, and other components I look for in fiction. I think Clarke is better than Asimov, though; Imperial Earth and Childhood's End were worth reading.