Visions of Paradise

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Galactic Empires, Vol 1

In March, 2008, I reviewed Gardner Dozois’ original anthology Galactic Empires, which offered modern interpretations of far-future interplanetary federations. This book was not the first sf book with that title though. In 1976, Brian W. Aldiss–one of the better anthologizers of vintage science fiction as well as a major writer and historian of the field–edited two volumes of Galactic Empires, collecting stories from the 1940s through the 1960s on that theme. The two volumes were short enough that today they might have been published as one 600 page volume. The two books contained a lot of well-known sf writers. In volume one were novelettes by Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov (“Foundation”), Clifford D. Simak and James White (one of his Sector General stories). Volume two had John D. MacDonald (an underrated author), James Blish and Harry Harrison. There were also short stories by R.A. Lafferty, Arthur C. Clarke, Cordwainer Smith, Algis Budrys, A.E. van Vogt and Poul Anderson.

Not surprisingly, the stories in Volume 1 ran the gamut between pulpish adventures to serious, thought-provoking stories. In spite of Aldiss’ literary leanings, he is still fond of the occasional rousing adventure, including two from the early 1950s: Poul Anderson’s “The Star Plunderer” and Alfred Coppel’s “The Rebel of Valkyr”. Anderson’s was an early story of his, more interesting for its ideas than for its execution. It tells the story of a group of human slaves being taken on a slave ship to the homeworld of a planet-sprawling Baldic League which has conquered Earth fairly easily. Except the aliens are unbelievably stupid for intergalactic conquerors, and the small group of humans are able to seize control of the ship and initiate the overthrow of the conquerors with minimal effort. Not a story to be taken seriously, a rarity for Anderson.

Coppel’s story was set during the early years of a reunited galactic empire after an interregnum when barbarism and warfare dominated. Upon the death of the beloved emperor who reunited the worlds, his despised wife and weakling son seize power away from his warrior daughter who is beloved by the other star-kings who supported her father. A rebellion is brewed by them against the new emperor, but one of the star-kings has suspicions about who is actually pulling the strings in the rebellion. Like Anderson’s story, “The Rebel of Valkyr” does not stand up to deep thought, nor does it offer much beneath the surface, but it is fun reading.

H. B. Fyfe’s “Protected Species” starts out as a typical story about humans expanding into space and establishing a colony on a world dotted with ancient remains and one non-intelligent race of aliens which the humans use for target practice. Until an inspector arrives and proposes the theory that the aliens are the degenerate descendants of the builders of the ruins, and thus deserve to be protected as an endangered species. A fairly cliche concept, but what makes the story successful is a surprise ending which is much more intriguing than I expected, and likely could have been the beginning of another story rather than just the ending of this one.

Three novelettes are the highlights of the book. The best story by far is Clifford D. Simak’s “The Immigrant,” one of his typically-low-key stories about an alien world which is so idyllic that only a few select humans are permitted to emigrate there, needing to pass a series of difficult IQ tests to do so. All humans who succeed send back tantalizing letters about the quality of life there, but the protagonist of the story migrates to the planet and quickly learns that what is hidden between the lines of the letters is sometimes more telling than what is actually stated. This story is typical of Simak at his best, a very thought-provoking story about the possible relationship between humans and the first aliens they encounter, a story whose protagonist thinks his way through the story rather than reacting to all circumstances physically. It reminded me of why Simak has always been one of my favorite sf writers and why I still enjoy reading his fiction as much as ever.

I haven’t read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy–or much else Asimov-in nearly forty years. He was a writer I enjoyed in my teens at the same time Clifford D. Simak was my favorite writer. But when I moved on to more sophisticated writers such as Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, and Samuel R. Delany, Asimov faded away. I considered him simple, entry-level sf which I had passed beyond.

But included in Galactic Empires is “Foundation,” one of the earliest stories in that series, and I decided to read it to see how it held up. I was pleasantly surprised that it was still very enjoyable reading. The story was typical Asimov in that it was basically a problem to be solved interwoven with a mystery, as the scientists in charge of writing the exhaustive Encyclopedia on the planet Terminus struggled with the mayor against the inevitable invasion by breakaway worlds from the crumbling empire. The story was mostly talk, similar to the Simak story and so many sf stories I enjoy, since intelligent and provocative talk is generally more interesting than mindless action, and it all served to forward the mystery and the solution to the problem.

By the time I finished “Foundation,” I realized that Simak still appeals to me moreso than Asimov, but “Foundation” intrigued me enough that perhaps I will go back and reread the entire Foundation Trilogy when I finish this book.

Finally there was one of James White’s always-enjoyable Sector General stories about a huge hospital floating in space which serves beings of many species. This time a comatose being is brought there who is considered almost god-like by some of the hospital’s staff but a cannibal by the military. The protagonist Conway has the dual task of healing the being and learning whether it should feted for its goodness or put on trial for its crimes. These medical mysteries are always interesting reading.

Overall, Galactic Empires was a fun book, and recommended reading. Of course, I am not sure how several stories have anything to do with galactic empires, but I enjoyed most of them so why quibble about their inclusion in the book, especially since far-future off-Earth settings appeal to me too much to care whether there were any empires or not. I’m looking forward to reading Volume 2 soon.


  • This is an interesting coincidence, because over at the ClassicSciFi discussion group - - we're reading Foundation for the November book, and we've started discussing the idea of galactic civilizations. Bob, maybe you'd like to join us. Last month we read Way Station by Clifford Simak. From reading your blog I think you might enjoy the group.


    By Blogger Jim Harris, At 5:34 AM  

  • Does this bring back the memories. I remember reading the Aldiss anthology when it came out in paperback.

    I just found your blog. I like your taste in authors. After a sabatical from SF, I have recently returned. Among the authors I have been picking up at the used book stores are Vance, Clarke, Anderson, and Asimov. I am enjoying reading through your postings.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 9:30 PM  

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