Now Begins Tomorrow – Damon Knight (Ed) (1963)
This fascinating paperback presents the first printed stories from some of the most famous names in the genre. The majority of them appeared in John W Campbell’s ‘Astounding ‘ with the exception of the Merrill & Aldiss stories which were published in ‘Space Science Fiction’ and ‘Nebula Science Fiction’ respectively.
Knight has arranged the stories chronologically so that we see not only the chosen author’s first published story but also a rough overview of the development of the SF short form (in particular the Astounding story) and the growing level of depth and sophistication over almost twenty years. Unsurprisingly, there is only one woman represented, since the sexism which was immanent within the publishing houses and the literary texts themselves did not begin to break down until the Nineteen Fifties and Sixties, at least in the US.
Many of the stories feature no females at all, and of those that do, they appear as only minor characters, such as Mrs Garfinkle in ‘The Isolinguals’ or the doomed young wife in ‘Life Line’.
‘The Isolinguals’ – L Sprague de Camp (Astounding 1937)
‘The Faithful’ – Lester Del Rey (Astounding 1938)
‘Black Destroyer’ – AE Van Vogt (Astounding 1939)
‘Life-Line’ – Robert E Heinlein (Astounding 1939)
‘Ether Breather’ – Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding 1939)
‘Loophole’ – Arthur C Clarke (Astounding 1946)
‘Tomorrow’s Children’ – Poul Anderson (Astounding 1947)
‘That Only A Mother’ – Judith Merrill (Astounding 1948)
‘Walk To The World’ – Algys Budris (Space Science Fiction 1952)
‘T’ – Brian Aldiss (Nebula Science Fiction 1956)
‘The Isolinguals’ – L Sprague de Camp (Astounding 1937) is a compact and humourous tale of an outbreak of genetic race memory. The people of New York are unaccountably struck with a strange malaise in that they begin to be possessed by the memories of their ancestors. An engineering officer of the XXXIInd legion of Rome finds himself in the body of a fruit vendor, a package dispatcher becomes a sergeant in Cromwell’s army, Mrs Garfinkle – a new York native, suddenly starts talking in the language of the ancient Goths, and the numbers of the affected are rising dramatically.
The logical thing happens of course in that people from the same era who speak the same language begin to band together into gangs of isolinguals.
Professor Lindsley and his son-in-law Pierre solve the mystery, which turns out to be a dastardly scheme by an extreme right-wing would-be dictator, which, in 1937 would have been a bit of a topical element.
‘The Faithful’ – Lester Del Rey (Astounding 1938) is a pastoral, somewhat romantic tale redolent of the work of Clifford D Simak who published stories based on a similar premise in Astounding which were fixed up as ‘City’.
Men have surgically and biologically modified dogs, increasing their intelligence and awareness, but shortly afterwards have destroyed themselves with war and biological weaponry.
Hungor Beowulf XIV sets out to collect the dogs together and they embark on a quest to find any men that remain. The last human, who is fighting off the plague with the help of longevity drugs, is discovered and leads the dogs to Africa where they find similarly engineered apes who become the hands of the dogs and ultimately, the dogs hope, will replace Man as their masters.
‘Black Destroyer’ – AE Van Vogt (Astounding 1939) is probably Van Vogt’s best-known short story and is often touted as the original inspiration behind ‘Alien’.
On the barren single planet of a star nine-hundred light years from its nearest neighbour, an Earth scientific expedition is discovered by one of the last remnants of an intelligent race, the Coeurl.
The Coeurl – desperate for the scarce and life-giving phosphorus which it drains from its victims – pretends to be harmless, but betrays itself as an intelligent being.
The most interesting aspect of this story is the discussion between the scientists in which they pool their expertise in order to deduce the nature of the beast.
By logical deduction (the rational man of logic is a frequent protagonist in Van Vogt novels) they deduce that the creature is not a descendant of the builders of the abandoned city, but one of its former residents, and therefore highly intelligent and practically immortal.
The story was later revised and expanded in order to comprise the first few chapters of Van Vogt’s fix-up novel ‘Voyage of The Space Beagle’. The rather inhuman ending of the original story, in which the crew plan to return and exterminate the Coeurl race is amended to a decision where the creatures are left to their own fate, presumably to die out from lack of essential phosphorus. It was not, however, a humane decision as much as one which presumably allowed the ship to continue its journey to other worlds unimpeded.
In ‘Life-Line’ – Robert E Heinlein (Astounding 1939) Heinlein grasps the opportunity to take a side-swipe at the scientific community who refuse to believe that Dr Pinero has developed a process by which he can measure a man’s lifeline, i.e. the length of his existence in the temporal dimension, and thus predict the date of his death. Heinlein explores the logical extrapolation of this, in that insurance companies, whose existence depends on statistical probabilities of mortality rather than certainties, would go out of business.
The actual science or mechanics of the process in unimportant, and indeed, Pinero refuses to discuss the nature of his invention. The notion forces one to ask oneself questions, such as ‘Do you really want to know the exact date and time of your death?’
‘Ether Breather’ – Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding 1939) is a slight but humourous tale in which mentalities who can perceive and manipulate wavelengths begin to interfere with experimental colour TV transmissions. Although the story, seen from our perspective in an age where Colour TV is a reality, seems somewhat dated, the characterisation and dialogue is excellent and even today says a lot about the attitude of Americans regarding what they find acceptable for broadcast.
Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Loophole’ (Astounding 1946) is an interesting example of a story written in the form of communications between individuals, in this case between High Level Martian officials, concerned as to Humanity’s recent developments in atomic power.
Unusually for Clarke, the solution is one of decisive military action which destroys the Martian civilisation threatening the Earth and seems at odds with his later, more pacifist work.
Another example of this literary technique (with a much cleverer twist ending) is AE Van Vogt’s ‘Dear Pen Pal’
Poul Anderson’s ‘Tomorrow’s Children’ (Astounding 1947) is the first of two consecutive stories which reflects America’s then paranoia of the consequences of Nuclear war and the ethics of dealing with Human Mutation. It is interesting to contrast this story – which is a male-perspective overview of the possible future of society as a whole – with the following story by Judith Merrill which focuses on one woman’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth in a world suffering from radiation poisoning, although both stories pose the question of whether mutation affects the integrity of the Human Race.
Judith Merrill’s ‘That Only A Mother’ (Astounding 1948) gives us a very personal and moving account of a mother’s story from late pregnancy (in a time of atomic radiation) through to childbirth and beyond, interspersed with correspondence to her husband, on active service in the Armed Services.
The daughter is a prodigy and learns to talk at an early age but it is only when the father eventually arrives home on leave that the true state of affairs is discovered.
It is refreshing to finally see a female perspective, and indeed a main female character, and particularly within the pages of ‘Astounding’.
Interestingly, Merrill seems to imply that fathers would not be so accepting of their mutant children as Anderson suggests, rather optimistically, in his tale.
Walk To The World – Algis Budrys (Space Science Fiction 1952) is another pastoral tale, this time of wanderlust, told by a the son of a retired Space Captain, now running a farm on a colony world.
It’s notable for its vivid and detailed descriptions of the characters involved, and though superficially a simple tale, is actually a fairly complex portrait of a man’s relationship with his wife, his son and his home as well as ultimately questioning the American way of doing things. It’s a subtle piece, well-written and again redolent of the work of Simak.
Brian Aldiss’ ‘T’ (Nebula Science Fiction 1956) is, surprisingly, rather weak in its premise, although very creatively constructed and well-written.
The denizens of another galaxy have seen Man spread out to colonise our own galaxy and now are invading theirs, so they create a fleet of twelve ships containing genetically-engineered beings (composed of merely an arm and a simple brain) which are sent off on a path back through Time and Space to destroy Earth before Man has even evolved.
Due to an elementary error on the part of the aliens, the wrong planet is destroyed and Earth is left to evolve as destined.
Although simplistic, the concept of the ships and their guiding hands are creatively and ingeniously conceived and described and foretell some of the brilliance and originality of Aldiss’ later work.