Tuesday, November 15, 2016

1955 stories by Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson & Jack Vance

My copy from '72, front
Because I have a poor memory I have two copies of 1955's Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3, a 1962 printing and a 1972 printing.  Both have very good covers, Richard Powers providing the cover illo for the '62 edition and John Berkey the '72, so I can tell myself my money wasn't wasted. (The very first edition of this anthology of all-new never-before-published stories was a hardcover with a different Powers illustration.)

Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3 includes a page-long intro by editor Frederik Pohl, who calls science fiction "the freshest and most hopeful area of writing in the world today."  Let's see if the included stories by Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and Jack Vance, writers I already like, deliver the hope and freshness!

"The Strawberry Window" by Ray Bradbury

The Prentiss family are pioneers on Mars.  They have been on the red planet, living in an ugly soulless quonset hut for a year, and they miss their creaky old wooden house in America's Middle West.  Almost every day they consider giving up, returning to Earth.  But the man of the house, William, is driven by a fire within his soul, a fire he believes burns in every living thing--the need for the race to expand, to grow, to settle the universe so that no single catastrophe can extinguish the species.  The Prentisses are taking part in the human quest for racial immortality, so there can be no turning back!  To ease the burden of fulfilling this destiny, William spends all the family's savings having old furniture and architectural fragments from their Ohio house shipped up to Mars, including a door with colored windowpanes: emerald windows, lilac windows, lemon windows and strawberry windows.  Looking through the colored windows gives one a different, perhaps more beautiful, view of the world, in the same way that looking at one's life through the lens of destiny gives one a different, more heroic, image of that life.

This is Bradbury doing what we expect of him, and meeting or exceeding our expectations.  Sentimental speeches, homey images sprung from small town American life, metaphors about the value both of tradition and of progress and about the role of ordinary people in making history.  I like it!

"Dance of the Dead" by Richard Matheson

This one feels like a denunciation (or a prediction?) of mid-20th century American decadence--consumerism, drug use, promiscuous sex, the triumph of lowbrow culture. It is 1987, World War Three is behind us, and four college kids are driving a convertible down the highway, singing advertising jingles and songs from Popeye cartoons (one of the kids is taking a college course on cartoons and comics.)  As the car recklessly takes turns at 120 mph, the couple in the back seat has loveless sex and indulges in hypodermic drug use.  Eighteen-year old Peggy, a freshman, sits nervously in the front passenger seat, not sure she should be hanging with this fast crowd, the warnings of her parents echoing in her ears.

The kids drive to the ruins of St. Louis, where they have to wear air filter masks due to lingering remnants of WW3 germ warfare agents.  In a smoky underground club her "friends" get Peggy drunk, apparently for the first time, and the four kids watch a "show" in which a plague victim, a sort of zombie, staggers spastically on stage in a perverse caricature of a dance.  By the end of the story nice girl Peggy is on course to be a drug-addicted, alcoholic good-time girl, her body up for grabs to any male.

And back
In the same way that the Bradbury story, despite the SF touches, is partly about missing your old home after a move, Matheson's story is largely about the fears parents have about sending their daughter off to college, where they assume everybody spends their time getting drunk, getting high and getting laid, and where the college professors teach a lot of useless trivia.

Throughout history, middle-aged and elderly people have detected in the younger generation a dreadful cultural degeneration.  Horace in the sixth ode of his third book of odes says "Our grandfathers brought forth feebler heirs; we are further degenerate; and soon will beget progeny yet more wicked" (trans. Shepherd.)  If you watch 1950s TV shows on youtube you'll see educated people like Steve Allen and Bennett Cerf complain about how terrible rock and roll is and how ridiculous it is for women to wear pants in public.  I myself certainly feel that the movies, TV shows and pop music of today are insupportably horrible, far worse than the pop culture I enjoyed as a kid.  Matheson seems to be writing in this tradition in "Dance of the Dead." It is interesting to see this kind of doom-and-gloom conservatism in a science fiction collection whose editor tells us SF is about "hope," and I found it a little jarring after having just read that Sturgeon novel and Heinlein essay; however old they got, Sturgeon and Heinlein were always advocating sexual liberation.

This story is OK; the problem with it is that there are no surprises, we know right away its point of view and what it is all about, that the college partiers are going to drag Peggy down into their cesspool of inebriation and sex.  The exploitation of the zombies is interesting, but doesn't really add to the story's impact, in my opinion--I guess you are supposed to think that the booze- and drug-addled kids are like zombies, and their sex lives are like the zombie's dance, a sickening, soulless perversion of an act that can and should be a beautiful affirmation of life.

"The Devil on Salvation Bluff" by Jack Vance

Brother Raymond and his wife, Sister Mary, are pioneers on the planet Glory, two of seventy-two thousand colonists who have built themselves an orderly town not unlike an American suburb back on Earth.  But Glory is anything but orderly; in fact, it is a planet of chaos.  Glory's erratic orbit and the numerous stars in the close vicinity mean the darkness of night and bright of day come at unpredictable intervals, and Glory is also subject to essentially random weather patterns and surprising tectonic shifts.  And then there are the Flits, human descendants of the survivors of a starship crash five hundred years ago.  The Flits have evolved in strange ways since the crash (we Jack Vance fans know that Vance's work is full of human societies which have evolved to be quite different from Earth stock) and live as primitive goat herders.  The Flits, lazy, dirty, and sexually promiscuous, find order offensive, considering it unnatural, and regularly sabotage the laser beam straight irrigation canal dug by the recent colonists, introducing bends and curves into it so that it more resembles a natural river.

The chaos of planet Glory drives many colonists to the psychiatric hospital or to abandoning the colony, while the well-meaning efforts of the colonists to civilize the Flits (building them modern houses, for example) drive many Flits crazy.  We follow Raymond and Mary as they try to "help" the chief of the Flits and his people; their aggressive intrusion drives the exasperated chief to destroy the colony's main clock, which feeds information to all clocks in the colony.  With no clocks to tell them what time it is, the colonists must follow the natural (if erratic) rhythms of Glory's nights and days, just like the Flits.  This cures their mental problems, and soon the colonists abandon civilization and its artificial rules and become as messy and slothful, and as happy, as the Flits.

This story is OK; it is a little gimmicky and contrived, and lacks much of the charm of Vance's later work; the style in particular is not as distinctive and delightful as in Vance's more famous productions.  There are recognizable Vancian themes, however, like the conflict between cultures, the overturning of an established order, skepticism of organized religion and a sort of rough "leave me alone" conservative anti-authoritarianism.

Reproduction dust jacket of the first edition which you can buy at the very cool website
Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The Bradbury is the best story--it shifts effortlessly from the smallest possible scale ("I miss my house!") to the largest possible scale ("Our species must conquer the universe!") and both facets of the story feel totally human, absolutely real, and move the reader.  "The Strawberry Window" doesn't feel like a story about other people, it feels like a story about us, about the human race of which we are all part.

Though they look a little weak next to the Bradbury, the Matheson and Vance stories are also worthwhile.  So far it seems like Fred Pohl and his colleagues put together a fine anthology in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3.  In our next episode we'll sample some more stories from its pages.      


  1. Matheson routinely underwhelms, at least in my experience -- and this seems to fit into that pattern. He isn't good enough at prose, or posses the wit of Sheckley, or the vision of William Tenn or Leiber (another one of the petter 50s short story authors)....

  2. I think Matheson has done lots of good things, like "Prey" and I am Legend and the screenplays for Duel and two of my fave Twilight Zone episodes, "Nick of Time" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," but among the hits are also the near misses, like this one. Matheson produced a huge body of work, after all, and presumably wasn't in a position to only pursue his best ideas and to polish each story until it was just right.