In 1979 Ace Books published The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, an anthology edited by MPorcius fave Barry N. Malzberg and his frequent collaborator Bill Pronzini. In his long (thirteen pages!) introduction to the volume, Malzberg picks out Algis Budrys for special praise, saying Budrys "might have been the best of them; he certainly had the most profound, subtle mind, the best insight, the deepest perspective." Wow!
That 1979 anthology takes its title from the Budrys story it reprints, 1954's "The End of Summer." I recently purchased the 1960 Ballantine collection The Unexpected Dimension, which also includes "The End of Summer;" let's check out that story and two others from The Unexpected Dimension and get a deeper acquaintance with the writer Malzberg saw fit to laud with such vigor.
In a "Prefatory Note" at the start of The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, Malzberg and Pronzini argue that the merit of Astounding in the 1950s is underrated; the critics, they say, feel John W. Campbell's magazine peaked in the 1940s, but Malzberg and Pronzini feel this was "not quite so," and present the stories in their anthology as evidence of Astounding's quality enduring into the Fifties. "The End of Summer" was an Astounding cover story, and would go on to be selected for 1961's Penguin Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss, by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg for the Great Science Fiction Stories volume dedicated to 1954, and by Budrys himself for 1984's Writer's Choice II ("More Top Writers' Own Favorites.")
It is the year 11958! Mankind has achieved immortality, and all the people walking around in the 120th century were alive in 1973--in fact, they look about the same as they did back in 1973, with the five-year-olds of 1973 still physically and mentally five years old! Women who were pregnant in 1973 are still pregnant 10,000 years later! Nobody ever grows or gets older, and, if they are careful not to fall off a cliff or drink anti-freeze or something, they never die!
Budrys gives us a sort of tour of this strange future world, exposing us to its various weird cliques and classes of people, each of which responds to immortality and its side effects in different ways, and in the end of the story explains the genesis of this bizarre milieu. In 1973 a guy set up a generator that promulgated a radiation across the entire Earth; this radiation gives everybody a sort of super healing ability; under the influence of the radiation, cells quickly reverse any changes they experience, so people don't get sick or get old. But one troublesome side effect of this absolute resistance to alteration is that the changes in your brain that are the physical basis of memory are "healed," so everybody loses every new memory after eight hours or so--when people wake up in the morning, they think it is still 1973! The solution to this problem is that every evening people have their brains scanned and a record of their memories recorded into a computer, and then this record is rewritten on to their brains in the morning. A side "benefit" of this system is that if something crappy happens to you, like say your dog gets run over by a car, you can edit the record of your memory to remove any reference to the dog and thus the heartache its absence may cause you--you won't even remember ever having had a dog! Many people's memories are a carefully crafted fiction that bears little resemblance to what other people remember about them!
The plot of the story follows one Kester Fay, a man whom we eventually learn is the guy who invented that generator. Fay runs over a kid's dog and this traumatic event triggers a thought process that culminates in his decision to turn off the generator and put an end to this stagnant, sterile, artificial society of immortals who can customize their memories and never grow or have children.
In "The End of Summer" Budrys addresses his typical themes of the lonely man somehow alienated from his surroundings and the question of what constitutes a real man--is a real man somebody who refuses to just take it easy but instead embraces risk, makes decisions, and then lives with the consequences of those decisions? As the story begins, Kester Fay is returning to America from Europe, and it is made clear to the reader that he doesn't really belong in either place. For example, he finds that his old American friends have forgotten him, for example. Fay is also a member of one of the minority social groups, the Dillies (short for "dilettantes"), who use their long lives to travel and experiment, who drive cars and fly aircraft manually, when most people prefer to use much safer automatic guidance systems or to just stay home (there is a whole demographic of people called "Homebodies.") Fay is also one of the few people who refuses to edit his memories.
I like immortality stories, and I usually like these sorts of stories in which utopian conditions turn out to be more of a curse than a blessing because to be at his best man must face challenges and for societies to be worthwhile they must evolve, and this is a solid example of those SF subgenres.
"The Distant Sound of Engines" first saw print in an "All Star/Every Story New" issue of F&SF. The very next year it was reprinted in a magazine I have to admit I had never heard of before, Harvey Kurtzman's Help!, in the same issue in which was also reprinted Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 "The Yellow Wallpaper," which I read in 2015.
This is a brief, clever little story. Our narrator is in the hospital because his legs were severed in a highway accident. Damn! In the bed next to him is a guy covered in bandages who apparently fell from a burning plane, though they never found the plane. This guy will not live much longer, and is kept under sedation most of the time, but when he is lucid he tells our narrator all kinds of important formulas for stuff like superalloys and how to overcome the speed of light. Presumably he is an alien or time traveler come to give us this valuable information, but our narrator, of course, can't understand or remember all the formulae so the outsider dies thinking, erroneously, that he has succeeded in giving 20th century Earthman a boost when, in fact, all his efforts have been in vain.
"The Distant Sound of Engines" is well-written, with lots of ancillary stuff, like the narrator's descriptions of his careers as a truck driver and as a waiter at a diner, that holds the reader's interest the way such stuff would in a good mainstream story.
"Never Meet Again" was first printed in Infinity, and would later appear in an anthology of stories that speculate about what would happen if the Axis powers had won WWII. The title is presumably a reference to the famous 1939 song, "We'll Meet Again."
It is 1958 in a Europe ruled by Germany, and old Professor Jochim Kempfer eats his lunch on a park bench in Berlin as he does almost every day, watching the happy young people and thinking. He thinks about the war--the Germans conquered Britain in 1940 and ended the war by conquering the USSR in 1942; Canada and Australia are hopelessly blockaded by the Kreigsmarine and the current Chancellor seems able to maintain peace with the USA (Hitler died in a car wreck shortly after victory in Europe.) He thinks about his scientific work on radar for the Hitler government, a major contribution to German victory in the war. He thinks about his wife, who died of tuberculosis in a concentration camp. And he thinks about the machine he has been secretly building in his basement for fifteen years!
Later that day Kempfer activates his secret machine and is transported to an alternate time line, one where the Allies won the war. Kempfer emerges from his basement to find to his dismay that he is in the drab and depressing, ugly and oppressive, Soviet-occupied zone of Berlin! (It sounds like this universe is the one you and I live in, dear reader.) Kempfer by chance meets his wife on the street--in this universe she survived the war and he was killed in a U.S.A.A.F. bombing raid. The lovers are reunited! But Kempfer's sense of relief doesn't last--his wife runs to the communist authorities to tell them about his machine, and the Bolshies immediately place an order for another such machine, which they feel will be useful in their project of achieving worldwide revolution. Whatever universe Kempfer finds himself in, tyrants use his genius to enlarge the scope of their evil!
This story is alright, no big deal; its ideas feel less fresh than those in "The End of Summer" and it isn't as engagingly written as "The Distant Sound of Engines."
Three decent stories. "The End of Summer" is a story in the classic SF mold, all about paradigm shifts and how technology changes society and people's lives. It is also fundamentally optimistic--mankind may have got off on the wrong course, but a single intelligent and moral man has the ability to set things to rights. "The Distant Sound of Engines" and "Never Meet Again," on the other hand, are a little more literary (especially by John W. Campbell, Jr.'s definition of "mainstream literature," which he called "a literature of defeat"); they are smaller in scope, and fundamentally pessimistic, their protagonists unable to figure out a way to escape or overcome the terrible fates that confront them, their efforts to improve their own lives or the lives of others coming to nothing.
We'll read more from The Unexpected Dimension next time.