Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alpha One

The science fiction field has a long history of original anthology series, including Frederik Pohl’s Star series for Ballantine Books in the 1950s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s came Damon Knight’s Orbit, Terry Carr’s Universe and Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions, the three most renowned series.

What the field does not have though is a long history of reprint anthology series other than best-of-the-year series. And while I have enjoyed several best-of-the-year series (especially those devoted exclusively to science fiction by Terry Carr, Gardner Dozois and David G. Hartwell), it would be nice to have a series devoted to the entire history of science fiction, rather than being restricted to a single year’s stories.

Apparently Robert Silverberg felt the same way, since in 1970 he released Alpha One, the first volume of 9 devoted to stories he felt were either neglected, or deserved renewed attention. He also released many stand-alone volumes of reprinted sf, my favorites being the immense The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction and its companion The Arbor House Treasury of Great SF Short Novels. But for some reason, the Alpha series hold a special place in my heart.

Ironically, one of the best stories in Alpha One is also one of Jack Vance’s finest novellas, “The Moon Moth.” In it he sets up one of the strangest societies in science fiction, a world where people wear masks in public constantly, since to not do so is the ultimate obscenity. They also speak exclusively with musical accompaniment, which requires them to learn how to play a variety of different instruments, since each one portrays a different mood and attitude.

The new ambassador from Earth struggles to fit into Sirene society, upsetting more people than he impresses. Then he receives an urgent message that a violent criminal is landing on Sirene and must be apprehended and imprisoned. But how is he to catch somebody whose face is always hidden? This is an excellent story, from its fascinating society to its clever and believable interactions between people, and even the denouement of the mystery. Anybody who has never read it should consider that a worthwhile reason to seek out Alpha One.

Equally good is Roger Zelazny’s “For A Breath I Tarry.” I think it is safe to say that Zelazny’s burst of stories from 1965 through 1968 are as outstanding a four-year creative period as that of any sf writer ever. This story takes place in the distant future when humans are extinct, and two ancient machines continue their task of maintaining the Earth. But they are competing for the role of being sole guardian, a struggle which involves Frost, another machine which was created by one of the competing machines named Solcom during a period of unprecedented solar flareup which made it temporarily mad. Frost develops a deep interest in the extinct humans, and sets out to learn as much about them as possible in the hopes of understanding them. This story has all the mythic overtones which Zelazny did better than anybody else, while also being an absorbing story.

There are other excellent stories as well:

● two stories about time travelers struggling to survive in ancient times: Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early,” set in 10th century Iceland, and Ted Thomas’ “The Doctor,” set during prehistoric times;
● R.A. Lafferty’s “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne,” which examines the difficulties of altering the past;
● Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man,” which examines a man obsessed with balancing all the asymmetric events which happen in the world;
● and others by C.M. Kornbluth, J.G. Ballard, Barry Malzberg, Brian W. Aldiss, James Blish, Larry Eisenberg and Charles L. Harness, a worthy group of authors.

This is a highly-recommended anthology, which makes me wonder why nobody is editing such a reprint series now.


  • Unfortunately I never found many of this series. I only picked up 1 or 2 of them. The next time I have credits at Paperbackswap I will have to get them.
    "The Moon Moth" sounds like classic Vance. The setting and plot sound perfect for his style of writing.
    The series you mention were all favorites of mine. Universe seemed to be the one that was always on the shelves in my area.
    I recently picked up copies of some later anthology series I had read years ago that I plan on re-reading to see how they hold up. They are Roger Elwood's Continuum, Judy Lynn-Del Rey's Stellar, and Roy Torgeson's Chrysalis.
    Did you read any of the New Worlds paperback collections?

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 7:47 PM  

  • My copy of "Alpha One" just arrived from I can't wait to start reading it.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 10:03 AM  

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