Transwarp Tuesday! Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

Into the void…

four and a half green

The latest of the themed anthologies in the British Library’s excellent Science Fiction Classics series, this one takes as its theme living in space, either on space stations or ships. As always there’s an informative introduction from the series editor, Mike Ashley, in which he gives a short history of the development of the ideas of how man might make the colossal journeys around the solar system and beyond. The nine stories in this collection date between 1940 to 1967, so late enough for the scientific difficulties of space travel to be well understood, but early enough for the full play of imagination still to have plenty of scope.

There are some well known names among the authors although, since I’m not very knowledgeable about science fiction, several of the authors are new to me, or only familiar from other stories having featured in some of the earlier anthologies in the series. Anne McCaffrey is here – often thought of as a fantasy author but her story here is undoubtedly science fiction. James White, a star of one of the earlier books for me, shows up with another story about his hospital in space, a place designed to deal with all kinds of alien lifeforms. John Brunner, whose stories about The Society of Time the BL recently reissued, finishes the collection with an excellent novelette-length story about a generational starship.

Because of the theme of this collection, only one of the stories involves aliens and the characters rarely land on a planet, but the authors show how varied stories can be even when they share similar settings. A couple of them depend too much on technical problems for my taste – as soon as widgets break down and need to be repaired by ingenious scientific methods my brain seizes up and my eyes glaze over, but that’s simply a subjective issue. The other seven stories are all about the side of science fiction that interests me much more – examining how humans react when placed in unique situations.

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Spaceworlds

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (1961) – in this society, space ships are manned by a team of two. One is an ordinary human, the other is human too, but integrated entirely into the ships system so that she becomes its brain and controls everything that happens on board. Helva is our ‘shelled’ human here – a child born with such deformities that her only hope for life is to be merged into the technology that will allow her to live for several centuries and become a ship’s “brain”. But underneath it all she is still a female human, and her team-mate – the ship’s “brawn” – is a young and attractive man. Highly imaginative and with quite a bit of emotional depth, although some aspects of the treatment of children born with disabilities sit a little uncomfortably in today’s world.

O’Mara’s Orphan by James White (1960) – During the construction of what is to become a space hospital for all lifeforms, an accident happens that leaves a young alien orphaned. O’Mara, a human man, is suspected of being responsible for the accident, so while they wait for the investigators to arrive, he is told to look after the alien baby until more of its species can come to take it home. The baby is enormous and very little is known about its species, so O’Mara has to work out how to feed it and look after it. And then the baby gets sick. This has a couple of incidents in it that jarred me a little – again changing attitudes in changing times – but otherwise it’s great. These space hospital stories give White so much opportunity to develop imaginative life-forms and have fun with all the strange features he gives them and with the way his human characters have to deal with things they’ve never come across before.

The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox (1940) – A spaceship has been sent to colonise a far-away planet, but since the voyage will take 600 years, many generations will live and die before it gets there. So our narrator, Professor Grimshaw, has been sent along as the Tradition Man – he will spend most of the voyage in suspended animation, coming out once every hundred years to remind the voyagers of Earth’s traditions and values and the purpose and importance of their mission. Things don’t go to plan! This is great fun – every hundred years society has changed radically, from out-of-control over population, to civil wars, to dictatorships, to feuds between families that last for generations. Grimshaw has to come up with ways to get the mission back on track each time before he goes back into his freezer, and each time is harder than the last. And an amusing, if rather obvious, twist in the tail…

I rated four of the stories as five stars, with the others ranging between three and four, so another very good collection overall.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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27 thoughts on “Transwarp Tuesday! Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

  1. Your three chosen stories all pass my SciFi selectiveness filter! They each have potentially interesting ideas about the human condition. I’ve managed to find copies of the McCaffrey and Wilcox ones and will read them once I’ve finished my focused reading of The Silver Darlings.

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    • Two excellent ones and very different. The McCaffrey is more serious and quite thought-provoking, while the Wilcox is a lot of fun, with plenty of humour in it as he gallops through 600 years of social change! The John Brunner story, Lungfish, is also excellent but my post was getting too long. It’s a much more serious take on a generational spaceship, with an added mystery thrown in. The editor is very good at picking stories I like… 😀

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  2. Oh, this really looks interesting, FictionFan! I’m not sophisticated when it comes to science fiction, but I’ve heard some of those names. And I know my husband resident scifi expert will be interested in this one. I’ll have to say something about it. It does make me wonder what it would really be like to live in space…

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    • The way these anthologies are themed is great for “compare and contrast” – seeing how the different authors approach basically the same subject. I think your resident scifi expert would enjoy these! They’ve just sent me the next one, which is a collection of mysteries in scifi settings – should be fun!

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  3. Wow. I haven’t read anything by Anne McCaffrey in ages (since the Dragonriders of Pern series that I think her son took over). So it’s nice to see her listed here. Glad you found some enjoyment in this collection.

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    • I don’t think I’ve ever read her before, mainly because I thought she was strictly fantasy, but Ashley makes a good case for her being far more SF than she gets credit for. I may have to read more of her… when I find time!

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  4. This sounds like a fun collection! There is a Canadian astronaut who made a bunch of videos during his time on the International Space Station that the kids and I watch sometimes. Pretty mundane things made more interesting by being in space like how to brush your teeth or make a sandwich!

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  5. You know this one will have to go on my list. It sounds good! I had to set aside Born of the Sun when my last library hold became available. It’s waiting patiently for me to come back to it. 😁

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    • They’re bringing them out fast and furious now – I can’t keep up! I still preferred Born of the Sun, but this is very good too. The next one is based on the them of mysteries set in sci-fi settings – it arrived the day after I finished this one… I need a time machine! 😂

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  6. I’m intrigued by these! As a child, I soaked plenty of time into reading science fiction, aliens, etc., but now that I’m … ahem! … older, I’ve turned more to mysteries. I guess when one writes mysteries, one really should read mysteries, don’t you think? Anyway, who says one can’t write in one genre and read other genres, too?!!

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    • I used to read a lot of SF too and then stopped for decades, though I still always enjoyed Star Trek and Stargate on TV. I’m enjoying dipping back into it now. Funnily enough, the next one of these anthologies has just arrived and guess what? It’s a theme of mysteries set in sci-fi settings! So you’ll have no excuse… 😉

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  7. Ok O’Mara’s Orphan sounds really interesting-what a premise! taking care of a huge alien baby; whatever could go wrong??? Aside from jarring old-school opinions, I can see why this book would be so appealing!

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