Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Forgotten SF Anthology: Great Science Fiction Adventures, edited by Larry T. Shaw

A Forgotten SF Anthology: Great Science Fiction Adventures, edited by Larry T. Shaw

A review by Rich Horton

It was once common for SF magazines to occasionally put out anthologies of the best stories from their pages. There was a very long series called The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, and shorter series from Galaxy and Analog. The more obscure magazines were perhaps less likely to explicitly publish a book with their name in the title, as their brand wouldn’t necessarily sell books, but there were many examples of anthologies drawing exclusively from such magazines. This book is arguably an example, though its title does in fact reflect its source magazine.

Science Fiction Adventures was a fairly short-lived digest. It was edited by Larry T. Shaw, the first issue dated December 1956, the last June 1958. There were 12 issues in all. (At the same time Shaw was editing the fine magazine Infinity.) It was preceded by an unrelated magazine that ran between 1952 and 1954, edited by Lester Del Rey. There was also a UK incarnation, that for five issues reprinted stories from the Shaw incarnation of Science Fiction Adventures, but continued for a total of 32 issues between 1958 and 1963. This magazine was edited by John Carnell, and was a companion to New Worlds and Science Fantasy. The Shaw magazine was, naturally, specifically devoted to adventure-oriented SF, and also to longer stories, typically featuring two long novelettes or novellas (billed as “novels”) each issue. Carnell’s incarnation had a similar focus and length mix.

The anthology at hand was published by Lancer Books in 1963, with an Ed Emshwiller cover, and if it’s not necessarily a “Best of”, it is a quite representative selection. The four stories are all long, and all certainly adventure stories. All the authors are quite prominent, though three of them are represented by early work, published before they had made their names.

The TOC is:

“The Starcombers”, by Edmond Hamilton (December 1956, 17500 words)
“Hunt the Space-Witch”, by Robert Silverberg (January 1958, 18000 words)
“The Man from the Big Dark”, by John Brunner (June 1958, 19500 words)
“The World Otalmi Made”, by Harry Harrison (June 1958, 13000 words)

Edmond Hamilton was the veteran of this group, a favorite of SF readers since the 1920s. “The Starcombers” is a rather dark story in which a somewhat unsavory star travelling band, mostly a mix of a couple of families, that makes its living scavenging, finds a nearly dead planet with signs of massive ancient structures. There is a curious deep rift on the planet, and in it they find the remains of a once impressive human civilization. The few devolved survivors offer to trade their high-tech relics for food, but their real goal is betrayal. The main character is a cynical drunk, already disgusted with the way the slatternly wife of the captain is throwing herself at him. But he is forced to attempt to save the captain and others when they are taken by the nasty locals … leading to a desperate rescue attempt, and more betrayal … as I said, quite dark and cynical. Just an OK piece.

“Hunt the Space-Witch” was originally published as by “Ivar Jorgenson” – Silverberg was the most prolific contributor to Science Fiction Adventures, under his own name, as well as “Ivar Jorgenson”, “Calvin M. Knox”, "Ralph Burke", and “Alexander Blade”. Most of his contributions were novellas or even novels, and some ended up as Ace Doubles. He also did some book reviews. This story is a bit better than the Hamilton, if in the end about as dark and cynical. Barsac is a big dumb starship crewman, who comes to the planet Glaurus determined to rescue his blood brother, who missed the ship on their previous stop there. But he soon learns that his friend has joined the Cult of the Witch. Barsac blunders around trying to find him, but runs afoul of the local authorities (some of whom are also cultists), and eventually ends up captured by a circus owner, and works for him for some months. This interlude has some noticeably Vancean moments. Eventually Barsac is able to return to his quest, and eventually find his blood brother, and confront the Witch. There are some colorful passages here, though the plot is never really surprising.

The best of these stories is Brunner’s “The Man From the Big Dark”. It’s still pretty conventional, but it grabbed me. It’s one of three pieces set in the same loose galactic future, eventually collected in the book Interstellar Empire. (The other two are “The Wanton of Argus”, one of Brunner’s first stories, originally published in Two Science Fiction Adventure Books for Summer 1953 as by Killian Houstan Brunner, and later as an Ace Double under the title The Space-Time Juggler; and The Altar of Asconel, a 1965 If serial also published as an Ace Double.) This story opens with a pirate’s starship coming to the planet Klareth, just this side of the “Big Dark”. The pirate disappears before the authorities find a murdered girl on his ship. We then follow the pirate, Terak, who, we learn, is out for revenge against the man really responsible for the girl’s murder, his former boss, Aldur. He is trying to find Janlo, who has been leading the local effort to suppress a rebellion. Terak ships on a ship captained by a beautiful woman, and soon finds himself entranced by her and her world … but still wanting revenge on Aldur, who has plans to take over this world. Nowhere does this story surprise, and in the end it doesn’t make too much sense, but it’s effectively told and I like it.

Finally, the weakest story is “The World Otalmi Made”. It’s about a member of the “Profession”, who has been hired to stop a man named Otalmi from his control of his planet. Otalmi seems to be using some sort of mind control. Our hero, Brek, in the company of a beautiful doctor, accomplishes this, of course, in pure thriller fashion. The SF elements here are not really important, and the story never makes much sense.

All in all, a not inappropriate representation of Science Fiction Adventures. I might have included Thomas N. Scortia’s “Alien Night” or C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Slave” instead of the Harrison, or indeed Algis Budrys' “Yesterday’s Man” or one of a couple of Harlan Ellison novellas. But the book is what the magazine was: adventure-oriented long SF stories, not terribly great but often decent fun.


  1. A nice hadn't occurred to me to look for a Best-of or Taste-of SFA, but certainly that title is hiding the nature of the book in utterly plain sight. The only things I might add to the factual load here is that the Shaw version of SFA was a companion to INFINITY SCIENCE FICTION, which was a pretty innovative if also short-lived sf magazine (arguably GALAXY to this one's IF in IF's lesser years, or NEW WORLDS to the UK SFA), and that Larry Shaw had gone on from his magazine work in the 1950s to being Lancer's editor in the 1960s, moving on to Dell Books and founding editor of the low-budget Major Books (Shaw was also one of the numerous and better editors of IF, before it was bought out by the Galaxy Group). And Edmond Hamilton was already a notable "weird-scientific" writer for the early WEIRD TALES, by the latter '20s, being their chiefest sf writer, ahead of Lovecraft and FB Long, albeit C.L. Moore was also in that game in the early '30s.

    1. Thanks, Todd. I made a couple of updates to the post following your suggestions.

  2. Oh, and Lester Del Rey would hand off the first SFA to Harry Harrison to edit for its last three issues...coincidentally enough!

  3. And, of course, Sol Cohen put together a reprint magazine in the 1960s which had as one of its titles SFA, which reprinted from the AMAZING STORIES and FANTASTIC ADVENTURES and FANTASTIC magazines as they had been published by Ziff-Davis...where the pseudonyms "Alexander Blade" and "Ivar Jorgensen" (and variations on that) were born...Blade used by all sorts of people...including me, in a rather different context.

  4. Typo! Cohen's magazine became simply SFA in the mid '70s, vs. such other titles as SCIENCE FICTION CLASSICS....

  5. Wow, you brought back a lot of memories with your review of GREAT SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES! The cover attracted me as a kid so I bought it and read the whole book the same day. Fun SF!

  6. For my money, even minor SF by any of those four writers was great SF. SF ADVENTURES was a far more readable mag than some of the others out there in the fifties.

  7. For my money, even minor SF by any of those four writers was great SF. SF ADVENTURES was a far more readable mag than some of the others out there in the fifties.

  8. Great stuff Rich. As a young pup, I don't remember these mags and haven't heard of most of subjects of your reviews, but I get a real kick out of reading them. Would love to see a post on 10 books or shorts you feel were lost to time and deserve a revival!!