The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian W. Aldiss
The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus (1973) is a compilation of three short story anthologies: Penguin Science Fiction (1961), More Penguin Science Fiction (1963), and Yet More Penguin Science Fiction (1964), all edited by Brian Aldiss. Presenting an all-star lineup of established Silver Age and burgeoning New Age writers, most all are well known names in the field, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, J.G. Ballard, James Blish, William Tenn, John Brunner and many others. Aldiss having thematic aims for each of the three, overall story quality is better than the majority produced in the era as, generally speaking, the more intelligent side of the genre is presented — not always, but generally. Containing thirty-six stories, it’s not a collection to be devoured in one sitting, rather many. As is typical of such large collections, readers will probably find that amongst the variety some stories appeal, while others fall flat.
The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus creates a fair amount of expectation given the names of the writers included and the house publishing the collection. By and large, it does not disappoint. The earliest published in 1941and the latest in 1962, the remaining stories pepper the years between, providing an excellent overview of the transition from Silver Age to New Age sci-fi in short story form. Another aspect is the candy shop effect brought about by Penguin’s backing the project; Aldiss was able to peruse nearly the entire selection of sci-fi magazines of the time in making his choice. Given Aldiss’ more literary aims (as compared to those of entertainment), a spectrum of the more intelligent short stories of the era was selected. Religion, autonomy, psychology, social commentary, the effect of technology, Darwinism, ecology and several other interesting topics fall under discussion. Plotting and presentation may not always satisfy the reader, but most often the stories selected have weightier content.
As stated, The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus contains a variety. There are stories that could be mistaken for realism, a few stories that have not aged well, stories that seem just for fun’s sake, adventure and drama stories with interest-building storylines, mystery and thriller stories that may draw the reader in, several thought-provoking — or at least thoughtful — stories, stories that are just plain unique and cannot be pigeon-holed, and stories that have become classics. In short, the collection contains a mix of styles, modes, and objectives, most having at least one notable element, though several are one-offs. The following is a brief summary of each story in the collection, the header indicating the anthology it was originally published in:
Penguin Science Fiction
“Sole Solution” by Eric Frank Russell – Less a story more a prologue, this three-page piece describes a man’s struggles in darkness, and is a perfect opener to the collection.
“Lot” by Ward Moore – A borderline obsessive-compulsive attempts to escape L.A. with his family after an alien “they” have invaded the US. In the story, Moore plays with the circumstances which preceded Lot’s wife being turned to a pillar of salt, paralleling the oft-neglected first part of the biblical tale. Remotely similar to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, the story captures perfectly the mental state of a man who appears normal outwardly, but is dealing with serious issues internally — and doesn’t know it.
“The Short-Short Story of Mankind” (aka “We’re Holding Our Own”) by John Steinbeck – A short (as advertised) and humorous piece that nicely sums up the evolution (or lack thereof) of mankind.
“Skirmish” (aka “Bathe Your Bearings in Blood!”) by Clifford Simak – Originally published in Amazing Stories, this selection has all the elements of a cheesy Golden Age story. Perhaps interesting in 1950 when it was first published, the machines come alive.
“Poor Little Warrior!” by Brian W. Aldiss – A brief respite for existential dinosaur hunting. ‘Nuff said.
“Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz – Look before you leap; life on a barely explored jungle planet may be more than meets the eye, making for a quiet thriller of a story.
“The Half Pair” by Bertram Chandler – Darwin Awards are also awarded in space; what happens when material obsession goes beyond the limit. A short, sweet piece.
“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller Jr. – Despite being intelligent, cultured, and having a life most would consider complete, Lisa feels an emptiness inside. After a strange encounter with a man in the rain one evening — a man who seems to be inside her head — she seeks out a psychologist for answers. Ohh, the places the mind will take the body…
“Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov – Later revised into a novella, and even later revised into a novel, Asimov’s take on cosmos, religion, and science deserved lengthier treatment. Imagining a planet that never goes dark, one by one its six suns disappear. What happens when the last fades is convincingly human.
“The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean – In fact a realist piece that involves scientific speculation, when a dean challenges one of his professors to find practical value for the social theories being researched, the result is beyond expectation.
“The End of Summer” by Algis Budrys – A Philip K. Dick tale before Philip K. Dick, this story of a man 10,000 years old pre-dates the mad-master but has all the pieces. Reality mixed with surreality, memory editing, and irregular plot motives, this story examines the idea of infinite and malleable recall. An ambitious story that just about gets it right.
“Track 12” by J.G. Ballard – Acoustics technicians play a game with one another: guess the everyday sound when amplified. One, however, goes too far. The language used is the most evocative of the Penguin Science Fiction section of the omnibus.
More Penguin Science Fiction
“The Monkey Wrench” by Gordon R. Dickson – Two men discuss the mechanics of the lonely weather station on Venus in which they find themselves. Things get really interesting when they make a bet regarding said mechanics. This story poses minor but interesting question regarding computer intelligence.
“The First Men” by Howard Fast – A story told via exchanged letters, a researcher examines children raised amongst animals, ultimately with the hope of discovering why mankind does not use 85% of its brain.
“Counterfeit” by Alan E. Nourse – Men returning from a seemingly fruitless mission to Venus discover strange biological symptoms in one of the crew. But the B-movie plot really comes to life when one of the crew turn up dead.
“The Greater Thing” by Tom Godwin – A man and a woman run from the law across a land laid to waste by nuclear war. None are aware, however, of the AI living in the town they all converge upon. A simple but effective story that gives (short) pause to reflect.
“Built Up Logically (aka “The Universal Panacea”) by Howard Schoenfeld – A tiny but fascinating gem of a story that plays with the idea of writing in witty, interesting fashion. Certainly one of the most unique pieces in the collection.
“The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn – Earthlings think they are alone until the Dendi arrive to set up defenses they claim are necessary for the imminent invasion of the Troxx, an aggressive interstellar worm-like species. Their arguments convincing, humanity sets to helping the aliens set up their powerful weaponry. A nice blend of satire and realism, it is a story with more than one layer to ponder.
“An Alien Agony” by Harry Harrison – On a lonely, wayward planet, a man trades books and technology with the passive, knowledge-thirsty aliens who call it home. He is the lone human on the world until a priest arrives to spread Christianity. Despite the resulting theological discontinuity, things goes smoothly, that is, until the aliens try to come to terms with Biblical arguments.
“The Tunnel under the World” by Frederik Pohl – At heart a mystery, Guy Burkhardt wakes up one morning having had terrible nightmares of a huge explosion. As his day begins, he notices little differences to his normal, everyday life. The man who normally sells him cigarettes is different; advertisements for products he’s never heard appear on the airwaves; and his colleagues seem to have forgotten certain important work matters. Things eventually escalate into what has become a typical sci-fi story — but at least a well-written story. (This story bears closer relationship to The Space Merchants that Pohl penned in conjunction with C.M. Kornbluth.)
“The Store of the Worlds” (aka “The World of Heart’s Desire”) by Robert Sheckley – Truly a short story, a man contemplates the option of going on a 10-year mental vacation.
“Jokester” by Isaac Asimov – A one off, Asimov attempts to come to terms with humor and the human condition.
“Pyramid” by Robert Abernathy – An alien group visits Earth, taking humans as a new species back to its home world to be introduced as mitigation of past zoological experiments. An interesting story which examines the food chain and humanity’s position and behavior within.
“The Forgotten Enemy” by Arthur C. Clarke – A scholar lives alone in a land blanketed with snow. Hearing great booming noises, he sets out to investigate.
Yet More Penguin Science Fiction
“The Wall Around the World” by Theodore R. Cogswell – Porgie, a restless student at a wizard’s school, dreams of topping the 1,000 foot glass wall that surrounds his world — much to his teacher and parent’s chagrin. A short, sweet little adventure, science and fantasy are neatly divided in this mini coming-of-age.
“Protected Species” by H.B. Fyfe – Predating Ursula Le Guin’s forays into anthropological science fiction, this short tells of humanity as it uncovers the archeological treasures of a planet inhabited by a quiet group called the Torangs.
“Before Eden” by Arthur C. Clarke – The first scientific mission on Venus explores the planet’s barren surface, looking for life. They find it, or at least something resembling it, but what happens after humanity leaves is the most telling of all. A poignant, ecological tale — one of the best in the collection.
“The Rescuer” by Arthur Porges – Two scientists stand trial for destroying an immense, costly matter machine. Their reasons are extremely unpredictable but most interesting, proving the title apt.
“I Made You” by Walter M. Miller Jr. – A man and the machine he created go head to head at a lunar mine site. A very different story than the earlier Miller entry in this collection, and one with echoes of Frankenstein.
“The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight – A peculiar, mercurial story that never quite settles in the mind, Damon Knight’s tale is of a man isolated from the world by his anti-social (to put it lightly) behavior. Wanting more in life, his efforts simultaneously invoke empathy and hatred. A most unique story.
“MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” by C.M. Kornbluth – An odd, eccentric piece that defies description, except to say the mind of writer may be craziest of all.
“The Cage” by Bertram Chandler – A group of humans are stranded on a distant planet. Not the most coherent of stories, it is nevertheless deliciously pointed.
“Eastward Ho!” by William Tenn – The wild west comes east, this is reverse Manifest Destiny in a post-apocalyptic future. Like the other Tenn piece in this collection, it is brilliant satire.
“The Windows of Heaven” (aka “Two by Two”) by John Brunner – The first lunar landing would seem interesting, but what happens on Earth while the astronaut Arkwright is away is unfathomably more relevant.
“Common Time” by James Blish – The solitude of space travel has never played so many tricks on the mind… and time. If the story is anything, it is a thoroughly and satisfyingly unwrapped idea.
“Fulfillment” by A.E. van Vogt – An artificial intelligence meets its match and attempts to preserve its autonomy.