Into the void…
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.
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.