Visions of Paradise

Friday, February 11, 2011

Galactic Empires, vol. 2

Another sf reviewer recently commented on his blog that while he enjoys modern science fiction, part of him misses the sense of wonder and big ideas of the 1950s and 1960s in magazines such as Galaxy and IF. I agree with him completely. While I would never stop reading new sf, and mostly enjoying it, I also enjoy reading sf of 40-50 years ago as well.

Apparently, Brian W. Aldiss felt much the same way in the 1970s when he edited a series of reprint anthologies of traditional sf mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. Part of that series was two volumes of Galactic Empires. The two volumes were short enough that today they might have been published as one 600 page volume. The two books feature many well-known SF writers. Volume One (which I reviewed here in November, 2008) had novelettes by Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov (the original “Foundation”), Clifford D. Simak and James White (one of his Sector General stories). Volume Two has novelettes by John D. MacDonald, James Blish, Harry Harrison, Poul Anderson and F.L. Wallace. There are also several short stories, the best being by Mack Reynolds and a typical Fredric Brown punchline ending.

In spite of his reputation as part of the literary end of the sf spectrum, in these volumes Aldiss shows a predilection for traditional adventure stories, running the gamut from simple pulp adventures to more thoughtful stories. But what is never lacking in any stories in these two volumes is high concepts and sense of wonder.

John D. MacDonald is well-known for his Travis McGee mysteries, but he is an underrated sf author who appeared regularly in genre magazines in the 1950s and wrote two acclaimed novels Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies. His novelette “Escape to Chaos” has a tangled plot which he manages to untangle in the end. The third son of a tyrannical galactic emperor rebels against him and, although greatly outnumbered and beaten in almost every battle, manages to escape almost miraculously each time. It turns out that a group of advanced beings overseeing what we now call the “multiverse” (a term developed by Michael Moorcock) has decided the emperor needs to be overthrown and his son is the one to do it. But when they eventually decide that too many miraculous escapes is counterproductive, and order the female agent assigned to the rebel to let him die, they inadvertently open a can of worms which causes more trouble than they imagined.

James Blish’ short story “Beep” is a fairly well-known story about the development of an instant long-range communication device (similar to Ursula K Le Guin’s later ansible) and how one of its side effects proves more important than the original intent. This story, like much by Blish, is very slow-paced and consisting primarily of dialogue, but it was a gripping, satisfying story nonetheless.

Mack Reynolds was not a major writer, but a reliable journeyman who always understood the true nature of humans and the real foundations of their civilization. In “Down the River,” a spaceship lands and an emissary of a galactic empire informs all the world’s leaders that his empire has traded possession of Earth to another empire for other considerations. The leaders protest that they had no idea we were supposedly “owned” by other aliens and what gives them the right to “trade” us anyway? What happens next is both chilling and absolutely true, but I dare not say more lest I give away the story’s considerable impact. This was my favorite story in the book.

Harry Harrison’s “Final Encounter” details the adventures of a mismatched exploration team which believes it has finally made the long-dreamed of discovery of a truly alien race. This story is typical Harrison, well-plotted and intriguing.

Poul Anderson had novelettes from early in his career in both volumes. Both stories show some of Anderson’s strengths, although they are also simpler than much of his later works. “Lord of a Thousand Suns” shows the influence of Planet Stories and Leigh Brackett’s science fantasies in its tale of a member of the galactic empire fighting against powerful insurgents trying to overthrow it. He discovers the remnants of an ancient civilization far more advanced than humans, but which destroyed itself in a similar war against insurgents. However, some of their artifacts are more powerful than any human weapons, if he can only reach them and learn how to use them in time. What he finds is much more than he had bargained for. Fun stuff.

F.L. Wallace is a forgotten writer who did some very good stuff in the 1950s. His story “Big Ancestor” bears a resemblance to Harry Harrison’s story in that it tells of a group of scientists in the future seeking the alien race which hundreds of thousands of years ago apparently seeded numerous planets with the ancestors of humans who have been found on numerous worlds. Similar to “Final Encounter,” what they find is both more and less than they expected.

This was a fun volume, with more thoughtfulness than might be expected from its title and intent. I hope to seek out more Aldiss anthologies in the future.


  • This was one of the books I used to have. It was one of the ones I no longer have. I had forgotten about it until you reviewed it. It will be on my list of books to pick up.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 7:50 PM  

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