What I really fancied reading over the weekend was some good old-fashioned science fiction. Remember when SF meant bizarre new planets to explore, and monsters and space ships heading off on impossible missions? I thought what I wanted to read was a bit of naïve tat from the 1950s, say.
But then, hunting through the stacks of books at home, I came across this wonderful 1961 Penguin anthology edited by Brian Aldiss, the first of three that he published just before the Beatles got big.
I guess it’s poised somewhere between what they called the Golden Age and the period when it all went batshit crazy and New Worldsy.
And what I found when I spent the weekend with these stories was that they are all, just about, still completely startling today. They were sparkling and alive. The ideas – which maybe seemed new then – are properly mind-bending and peculiar right now. The language is crunchy and rich and brimming with invention. Aldiss’ own story, ‘Poor Little Warrior!’ is a kind of prose-poem about a time-traveller shooting a Brontosaurus. It sings straight off the page – ludicrously! – all chomped-up crustaceans and dripping pondweed and misgivings.
There are some lovely stories here. Katherine Maclean’s ‘The Snowball Effect’ is a seeming parody on a very contemporary-sounding Research Assessment Exercise in Academia. A sociologist is called upon by his Vice Chancellor to justify his subject’s usefulness – with disastrous results, as he accidentally turns a ladies’ sewing circle into a fascist state through the application of a simple formula. JG Ballard contributes a horrifying piece about a very sophisticated stereo system that can kill someone, and Algis Budrys’ ‘The End of Summer’ does stuff with selected memory-editing that I’ve seen trotted out in numerous recent blockbuster movies and treated like something new.
My favourite pieces are the oldest-fashioned, though. They both seem a bit Twilight Zoney and sweet. Bertram Chandler’s ‘The Half Pair’ features a very cultured pair of married astronauts who dress for dinner aboard their rocket and what happens when one loses a cufflink in space. And Clifford Simak’s ‘Skirmish’ is a wonderful tale of a journalist who’s feeling got at. He sees strange silvery creatures at the office. Some random person phones him to say they’ve seen an escaped sewing machine buzzing down the city street. And at home, on a deadline, his faithful typewriter starts clacking out extraterrestrial messages. It’s a properly surreal tale, and one that could only have been written at that exact time, I think. It wouldn’t be the same with word processors or laptops. It’s truly state of the art, as all of these stories are, in their own ways, and we’re so lucky to have had Brian Aldiss and Penguin there, to gather them up in such a classy fashion.
There’s just so much SF, and so many acknowledged classics and received wisdom about the genre. A spangling orange paperback, slim and peppery-smelling with age is a very reassuring point of re-entry into the future.
To me, this collection is a kind of turning point. It’s when the ideas are all still jazzy, new-fangled and fab, but the real focus is on the people in the stories – perhaps more than before. It’s the lady in charge of the sewing circle who starts to take over the world. It’s the journalist who argues with his typewriter. It’s the couple who are thrown together as the next stage in mankind’s evolution – even though they can’t stand to be together. It’s the people who are so interesting. It’s when SF (or any other genre, come to that) forgets this that my mind starts to wander.
But this anthology kept the balance beautifully. I need to find more in this vein, I think.