Bleak pictures of accepting our human state (5/5)
Groff Conklin was the editor of more than forty collections from 1946 to 1968, many of these with thematic concepts rather than the generic mill of “award winners” or “most popular” stories. If this collection and his co-editorship (with Isaac Asimov) of Fifty Short Science Fiction Stories (1963) are mere examples of his editing, then I believe Conklin surpasses many editors of more modern times… who, in my opinion, have forsaken the art of the “collection” in favor of heartless “Best of…” anthologies and pop culture chaff. Conklin furthers this notion in his introduction:
[T]his little collection of novelettes needs no sloganeering send-off; the stories, each one of them, encompasses not only plenty of tension and drama, but also much stuff for thoughtful consideration, sociological, ethical, historical, what have you. This is the hallmark, in my opinion, of all good science fiction stories: they offer an added dimension to melodrama or romance—the dimension of something worth saying. (7)
While the title and actual content differ slightly to the reader, the theme of “accepting our human state”, as mentioned in the title of the review, is found throughout and is exemplary for its time prior to Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1967). Worlds of When, without lamenting on its noir or fatalistic/humanistic content, precedes the era of Ellison’s vision for the future of science fiction.
Of the five stories, only one has been published throughout the year… of course, that’s Clarke’s own “Death and the Senator” (1961). Thankfully, Clarke’s story carries its own weight but there are two other stories which are equally paramount to the collection. The other four stories haven’t been as prolific as Clarke’s, but Chad Oliver’s “Transfusion (1959) and Margaret St. Clair’s “Rations of Tantalus” (1954) are just as great! “Transfusion” was included in Oliver’s own collection The Edge of Forever: Classic Anthropological Science Fiction (1971) and three anthologies co-edited by Martin H. Greenberg in 1983, 1985 and 1992. However, “Rations of Tantalus”, my favorite story in the collection and now one of my favorites of all time, is nearly completely without reprint in English; originally published in Fantastic Universe (July 1954), the only other reprint aside from Worlds of When is its inclusion with fur other stories in Three Worlds of Futurity (1964) in an Ace Double with her own Message from the Eocene (1964).
(Future)—Past = Chad Oliver: “Transfusion” (1959, novelette)
5/5 – Ben Hazard is a professor of anthropology at Harvard and a senior scientist of a temporal research project. Unable to change the past, the paradox-free time travel is an observer’s dream which the professor would love to test on the skeletons of some humans found in a dated cave. They should have been interred in 254,000 BC but recurrent observations find that the skeletons were buried in 24,571 BC under the most bizarre of circumstances. 38 pages
Returning to his pet theme, Oliver delves into a hypothetical conundrum in the future’s field of anthropology. The invention of the paradox-free time machine allows anthropologists to journey back to Mankind’s pre-historic times and observe their culture, language, and habits; however, no one can be found, anywhere (until 24,571 BC, that is). Oliver makes an exaggerated posit on what happened to the humans or where did the humans come from? The result is an eerily sympathetic story which humbles the protagonist and soothes the reader. Oliver surely packs a large “What if…” factor with his hook, line, and sinker. Are you as human as you think?
Approximately the Present = Fritz Leiber: “Bullet With His Name” (1958, novelette)
4/5 – Ernie Meeker is everything his surname suggests; he’s just a guy living with his sister and his idea of good conversation is idly talking about his razorblade’s lifespan—one blade for every five days. A dubious pair from the Galactic Citizen Committee decide to use humble Ernie for their citizenship test by giving him Gifts, the first of which is the eternally sharp razor blade, which Ernie throws away with suspicion. His week only gets stranger with speed reading, mind reading, and glowing eyes. 31 pages
Leiber provides a more humorous story after the sobering addition from Oliver. Good ‘ol Ernie disbelieves his good fortune with the steadily sharp razor so throws it away; he finds his new skill of speed reading to cram his brain with too much nonsense; his “aqueous fuel catalyst” (51) is too troublesome to keep hidden from other’s suspicions; and his glowing eyes are too alluring to the opposite sex, finding him in conversation with the beautiful and the beasts. He finally finds himself aging at a slow rate and, so, finds this last gift a burdensome. Clearly, the humble Ernie is too habitual, like most humans, to make use of exotic gifts be they concrete or abstract. Honored by the Galaxy for a gifted life, Ernie squanders the opportunity because of his human nature, resulting in a rather melancholy story. Could you adjust to the change?
Decade After Tomorrow = Arthur C. Clarke: “Death and the Senator” (1961, shortstory)
5/5 – Senator Steelman has only months to live due to his failing heart and now all he wants to do is spend quality time with his children-in-law. With no earthly reprieve for his ailment, the senator is surprised to learn of recent advances in the same field by the Russians in their Mechnikov Station satellite hospital. However, his cure is tainted with politics and the senator must make a choice. 20 pages
Continuing with the melancholy tone, Clarke foregoes his YA science fiction full of hope and wonderment for a tale of a man facing death. The story starts as one would expect, the senator accepting his fate with his head high and his hopes realistic but, rather bluntly, his expectations are raised when he hears of the Russian hospital satellite. Here Clarke indulges in his own pet topic of very progressive and seemingly easy technological change with satellites, but all the senator is concerned about is his fate… or so it would seem until his American government grows fangs over Russia’s help with his sickness. Who would you appease: yourself, your family, your government or your humanity?
Twenty Year From Now = Mack Reynolds: “Farmer” (1961, novelette)
3/5 – A vast tract of once arid desert spans Africa from Mali to Egypt and from the Mediterranean to mid-continent. Now, along the Niger River around Timbuktu, America has altruistically established a reforestation project with saplings being fed from groundwater by thousands of pumps. Derek and Johnny, nearly all alone at the desert station, discover sabotaged pumps at the same time as a high profile journalist comes to report on the project’s progress. 28 pages
Reynolds has the weakest of all the stories in the collection, perhaps because his name is a stigma with stories which I haven’t found all that interesting, which is odd because I used to read a lot about socialism. In “Farmer”, Reynolds doesn’t include much humanism or melancholy, unlike the other four stories, and falls flat with its reliance on a spy and their sabotage. The setting of aerating the Sahara is curious and the involvement of the meddlesome American hand is suspicious, thereby creating tension thousands of miles away from the supposedly benevolent homeland of Derek and Johnny. Whether the intentions of the Americans are for their own good or for the greater good, some prosperity is being brought to the lifeless wasteland in Africa, and still, someone has a problem with it. Would you support the good intentions of your enemy without fear of reprisal?
A Far-Off Tomorrow = Margaret St. Clair: “Rations of Tantalus” (1954, novelette)
5/5 – Six days; three euph pills left. Having exceeded his monthly quota of the ubiquitous turquoise pill, Harvey must confront his day with the chance of developing a shameful Rage. Platonically leaving his wife at home, Harvey experiences a strange day of shame, guilt, and intrigue before succumbing to the lulls of rhythm from another woman’s guitar; her words aren’t the only thing to inspire his newly found sense of humanity. 34 pages
A pill for this and a pill for that; rather than cure what a foreign body inflicts upon us, St. Clair has taken the exact opposite position—cure what we are. There are ubiquitous pills for the suppression of hair growth, sweating, and menstrual cycles but the one pill most revered is the euph pill which calms, placates the user; without the euph anger arises from the most common of problems. I could easily write 1,000 words to exalt this work, but to truncate the praise I will simply say that, though written in a piecemeal manner, the story reflects one man’s struggle with posing socially awkward questions and overcoming the taboo placed upon him. This victory isn’t a hero’s triumphant conquest, but a simple man’s personal growth toward challenging a system which exists in the shadows of rhetoric and complacency. Excellent.