The Giant Anthology of Science Fiction edited by Oscar J. Friend & Leo Margulies
For the past five years, all the books that I have read, be they novels or short-story collections, and whether in the field of sci-fi, fantasy or horror, have had one thing in common: The were all written during the period 1900 – 1950; a little self-imposed reading assignment that I have often referred to as Project Pulp. But all good things must come to an end, and to bring this lengthy series of early 20th century genre lit to a close, I have chosen a most fitting anthology, incorporating as it does no fewer than 10 of the greatest authors of that period. The collection is entitled The Giant Anthology of Science Fiction, an apt name considering the hardcover volume’s near-600-page length, and was released in 1954. Compiled by editor and anthologist Leo Margulies and pulp author, anthologist and literary agent Oscar J. Friend, with the full cooperation of all the authors selected for inclusion, the book brings together 10 novella-length pieces (the shortest story here is 43 pages in length; the longest, 81 pages) that, for the most part, because of their awkward word count (too lengthy for short-story collections and too short to qualify for stand-alone novel release), had, by 1954, not been reprinted before.
So how, you may wonder, did I ever come across this 69-year-old volume that has never been republished? Well, as has been the case with so many of my other vintage literary finds, this one was sitting on the shelf in the NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand, in its original dust jacket, and selling for the remarkable price of only $7! I should have bought it on the spot but did not feel like carrying around the weighty tome all that afternoon and evening. And naturally, when I returned the following day … it was gone. But I never forgot the book, or the great list of stories in its Table of Contents, most of which I’d never encountered before. A few years later, I was happy to acquire the volume for $15, and sans dust jacket (oh, well), but overall in very fine condition, nevertheless. And I am so glad I did! Spanning the period 1919 – 1950, every one of the 10 selections included, as it turns out, is a winner, giving the reader a nice overview of sci-fi’s Golden Age (and, in the case of the 1919 selection, a nice sample of the earlier Radium Age). Simply put, this is one helluva collection, dust jacket or no dust jacket, that would make a fine addition to any sci-fi buff’s shelf.
As for the stories themselves, the anthology kicks off in a tremendous way with the so-called Queen of Space Opera, Leigh Brackett, and her now-classic novella “Enchantress of Venus” (which was, deservedly, the cover story for the Fall ’49 issue of Planet Stories). I have already written at some length here about this wonderful tale, which depicts Brackett’s single greatest character, Eric John Stark, in his travails as a slave under the gaseous Red Sea of Venus, and will limit myself now to just remarking again that this is one of Brackett’s most accomplished pieces of work. Combining sci-fi with fantasy and sword-and-sorcery elements, the story is colorful, exciting, and wonderfully – at times poetically – well written. It gets this collection off to a rousing start. This was the third time that I have read “Enchantress of Venus,” and with undiminished pleasure.
Up next we find the shortest entry in this collection, “Gateway to Darkness” (from the Nov. ’49 issue of Super Science Stories), written by Cincinnati-born Fredric Brown, one of the greatest of all the pulp writers. Here, Crag, a hardened criminal, is given two options: the penal colony on Callisto or a complete personality and brain wipe. But as Jon Olliver (no, not John Oliver!), his corrupt judge, tells him, there is a third option: go to Mars, infiltrate a high-security compound, and steal a new weapon that “collapses matter into neutronium” to earn Olliver enough money to start a new political party. Thus, to earn a million credits of his own, as well as his freedom, Crag agrees, in this highly imaginative, very tough, and nicely detailed outing. A bravura climax on a rapidly shrinking asteroid is a wonderful capper here. Despite this tale’s downbeat ending, which sees Crag facing almost certain destruction, I’ve read that Brown did come out with another story featuring the character, entitled “Gateway to Glory” (Amazing Stories, Oct. ’50). Could it have been a prequel? Does anybody know? I’m really very curious…
Ray Cummings’ classic story “The Girl in the Golden Atom” (cover story, All-Story Weekly, March 15, 1919) immediately follows. This, of course, would ultimately prove to be merely the opening section of a full-length novel after Cummings penned a sequel, “The People of the Golden Atom,” the following year that was four times as long as the first part! In 1922, the two tales would be cobbled together to make for the novel-length classic The Girl in the Golden Atom. Again, I have already written at some length regarding that novel, so will just say now that the novella-length opening section is a wonderful tale of one scientist’s exploration of the microverse that exists inside the depths of his mother’s golden wedding ring. In this tale, the scientist, known only as The Chemist, discovers the hidden world of the Oroids, and aids those peaceful folks in their war against the belligerent Malites. Truly, some groundbreaking work here, and a true Radium Age marvel.
One of my favorite sci-fi authors of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton, is up next, with his terrific novella “Forgotten World” (cover story, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Winter ’46). The “forgotten world” in question here is Earth, to which a “cosmic engineer” named Carlin, suffering from too much time spent on starships, is sent for a rest cure, of unlimited duration, by his company’s Arcturian psychotherapist; Earth, the worn-out, much-derided mother planet. While on Terra, Carlin stays with a kindly family in upstate NY, learns to appreciate the peaceful nature of the environment, and gets involved with that family’s highly illegal – and highly dangerous – attempt at sun-mining, to acquire the copper that the energy-starved planet desperately needs. Beautifully written, and with several sequences of nail-biting suspense, this was one of my favorite discoveries in this entire collection. It is certainly the most emotionally involving and touching story here, too. Bravo, Mr. Hamilton!
One of the authors who helped to jump-start sci-fi’s Golden Age, Robert A. Heinlein, is up next, with his now-classic tale “By His Bootstraps” (cover story, Astounding Science-Fiction, Oct. ’41). This story has been called one of the finest explorations of temporal paradox ever written, and it really is a doozy. In it, aspiring metaphysicist Bob Wilson is hurled over 20,000 years into the future when a “Time Gate” appears in his apartment. He finds himself in an era that has come after the departure of the High Ones, an alien race that had subjugated the planet for millennia. And, head-spinningly, he also encounters multiple versions of himself back in the 20th century as well as in the future. Heinlein’s tale is an ingenious one, and oh-so cleverly thought out, that poses questions regarding causality and time loops, and its surprising final twist is a real stunner. But a capsule description cannot possibly convey the intelligence, wit, and sense of alien strangeness that Heinlein manages to incorporate into his story. “By His Bootstraps” is a classic for good reason. But shouldn’t Heinlein have known that the title of that Dale Carnegie book is How to Win Friends and Influence People, not How to Make Friends and Influence People?
One of my favorite all-time sci-fi writers, Henry Kuttner, follows with his wonderful novella “Sword of Tomorrow” (cover story, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Fall ’45). Here, American pilot Ethan Court, while being held in a Japanese POW camp, learns the secret of mystical deep sleep from a fellow Mongolian prisoner. And with this tool, and a goodly dose of opium, sleep Ethan does … for the better part of 1,000 years! (And if you can get past that unlikely setup, you’re home free.) Court awakens in a postapocalyptic scenario, in which his saviors, the Lyrans, are on the brink of war with their archenemies, the Deccans. Court is pressured by the Lyran queen, Irelle, to help in their campaign, and finds himself drawn inexorably, and much against his will, into the conflict. A psychedelic sequence in a sort of prison holodeck highlights this swift-moving and colorful tale. Surprisingly, this story also features a rather pronounced antiwar sentiment; surprising, at least, given the WW2 era in which it was written. Some bravura work here from Mr. Kuttner!
Murray Leinster’s “Things Pass By” (cover story, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Summer ’45) gives us a tale of hard science and a primer on the bizarre manifestations of faster-than-light (FTL) travel. Here, an alien armada is zipping across our solar system at such a velocity that its resultant increased mass is causing “cosmoquakes” all around our planet. Inventor Dirk Braddick, an amnesiac woman who has turned up on his property, and two officious overseers from the Atomic Power company employ Braddick’s newly built space cruiser to intercept this armada and, hopefully, urge it to alter course before more seismic events occur. This tale features some wonderful scenes of worldwide destruction, some Einsteinian palaver that I was just barely able to keep up with (in the main, Braddick’s ship, in its “mass time field,” moves at a rate 3,600 times that outside of it … or something), some nice action bits as Braddick counters those Atomic Power weasels, and, sadly, something of an improbable and anticlimactic denouement. And, oh … a few points off for the statement that Polaris is 40 light-years from Earth, instead of something like 320!
Another tale depicting the outre manifestations of FTL travel follows, and it is A.E. van Vogt’s “Rogue Ship” (Super Science Stories, March ’50). In this one, astronomer/physicist Averill Hewitt has predicted Earth’s imminent demise due to an upcoming solar phenomenon, and has outfitted a colonizing starship to make its way to Alpha Centauri. But when that colonizing craft mysteriously returns to Earth, crashes into the Rockies at 1,000 mph, causes multiple earthquakes as a result, and zips off back into space, Hewitt pursues the craft and attempts to force his way in. And once he does, he is thrust into a phantasmagorical setting, in which the FTL contraction effects predicted by the Lorentz-Fitzgerald theory come into full play, and Hewitt finds himself existing in a different state as the ship’s mutinous crewmen. (Those who have seen the Star Trek episode “Wink of an Eye” might appreciate what I’m trying to get across here.) A very solid story, this, but a bit too similar in theme to the Leinster one just preceding; a possible misstep on the part of the editors here, putting two such similar stories in one volume, and in such close proximity.
But this collection rebounds in a very big way with its next selection, Manly Wade Wellman’s “Island in the Sky” (cover story, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Oct. ’41), another of my favorite discoveries here. This novella, the longest in this volume, finds convict “Blackie” Peyton released after a 20-year stretch of working on an atom smasher 15 miles below the Earth. He emerges to a world he’s never known, a postwar world in which the planet’s conquering Airmen rule, their mile-long Flying Island keeping tabs on the populace below. Peyton is forcibly taken by the Airmen, compelled to perform as a gladiator in their bread-and-circus-style entertainments, and eventually becomes embroiled in a revolutionary plot to bring the Airmen (quite literally) down. Wellman’s descriptions of a completely rebuilt NYC are marvelously convincing, Peyton’s set-tos in the arena (versus man, elephant, peccaries and gorilla!) are thrilling, and the novella’s airborne battles against that Flying Island are tremendous. Filled with wonderful secondary characters and some quite hissable villains, this really is a splendid piece of Golden Age sci-fi.
And this collection is brought to a close by an author who has never let me down, Jack Williamson, and his novella “The Sun Maker” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, June ’40). In this one, the remaining populace of Earth has lived, for some 30 years, beneath the planet’s surface. For three decades, our solar system, it seems, has been passing through the Blot: an area of space that negates all light and heat, and even the effects of gravity, thus turning our world’s surface into a frozen wasteland. During the course of this tale, 22-year-old excavating “mole-man” Jeremy Cord desperately searches for new sources of power, mulls over the possibilities of creating a new sun, and, most remarkably, discovers an unsuspected, reptilian civilization living in an even deeper cavern system. His sojourn with the reptilian people of Yogroth is both tense and exciting, but merely one section of a novella filled with ceaseless wonders. Mr. Williamson here manages to impress yet again, in a tale that brings this generous collection to a close.
Today, The Giant Anthology of Science Fiction should prove a snap to procure utilizing the various Interwebs search engines available to modern-day customers. It seems to be selling now for around $30, I see – about what you’d expect to pay for a brand-new hardcover book – a very reasonable price for a volume of this size, age and quality. Trust me: You’re not going to find many Golden Age sci-fi anthologies too much better than this one! It comes more than highly recommended!