Monday, September 12, 2016

An Old SF Anthology: Space Service, edited by Andre Norton

Old Anthology: Space Service, edited by Andre Norton

a review by Rich Horton

I had not known Andre Norton had edited anthologies, but actually she did three in the 1950s for World Publishing. (And a couple later in her life.) These early ones were Space Service (1953), Space Pioneers (1954), and Space Police (1956). All were, it seems, aimed at the YA market.

I found a copy of Space Service at an antique mall on the near South Side of St. Louis, for $6.95. It's ex-lib, with a taped spine, no dj, only fair to good condition otherwise. The value of a really nice copy is illustrated by one I saw at Worldcon: very good to fine condition, with a dust jacket: $110. I've included a not very interesting picture of my copy, but there's a very nice image of the book, complete with Virgil Finlay cover, at the SF Encyclopedia: here.

The book includes the following ten stories:

"Command", by Bernard I. Kahn (9500 words)
"Star-Linked", by H. B. Fyfe (5500 words)
"Chore for a Spaceman", by Walt Sheldon (6900 words)
"The Specter General", by Theodore Cogswell (23,000 words)
"Implode and Peddle", by H. B. Fyfe (12,800 words)
"Steel Brother", by Gordon R. Dickson (10,000 words)
"For the Public", by Bernard I. Kahn (12,500 words)
"Expedition Polychrome", by J. A. Winter (8500 words)
"Return of a Legend", by Raymond Z. Gallun (6000 words)
"That Share of Glory", by C. M. Kornbluth (13,000 words)

A couple of notes about the composition of the TOC: the stories date from 1946 through 1952, and 8 of them are from Astounding. (The Sheldon story is from Thrilling Wonder, and the Gallun from Planet Stories.) This highly skewed ratio seemed normal in Adventures in Time and Space from 1946, but in a 1953 anthology, drawing from years when Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories in particular were much improved, as well as from the first couple of years of Galaxy and F&SF, it seems a bit ASF-heavy. I also note that two authors appear twice each, one of them the very obscure Bernard Kahn, who only published three SF stories (and who was only ever reprinted by Norton), the other the not so obscure but hardly major H. B. Fyfe.

The stories are each briefly introduced, presumably by Norton, and headed by the name and role in the "space service" of the main character. (Some of these seem a bit of a stretch, but some fit quite neatly into the concept of focusing on the individuals who have regular jobs in space, such as "Chore for a Spaceman"'s steward Ben Harlow.)

The anthology is very uneven -- several of the stories are quite weak, but there are some very good ones as well, and one story I hadn't read that really surprised me.

The first story is "Command", by Bernard I. Kahn. Kahn, as noted, is very little known. He published only three SF stories, all in Astounding: the two in this book and "A Pinch of Culture". I couldn't find out for sure who he was, but I suspect (as both stories here turn on medical issues) that he may have been a psychiatrist who was at the University of California San Francisco in the mid-50s. This story concerns Nord Corbett, and his first tour as commander of his own ship. What seems a smooth run turns dangerous when his "air officer" turns out to be a psychopath, and poisons the air supply. Corbett and his doctor have to come up with a solution (which ends up being planting a garden on the ship to generate oxygen). Pretty minor work.

H. B. Fyfe (1918-1997) published a few dozen stories in the SF magazines (mostly Astounding/Analog) between 1940 and 1967. There was one very slight novel, D-99 (1962). Because of the odd resemblance of his name and that of H. Beam Piper, and the fact that both published a lot in Astounding, some people used to wonder if one name was a pseudonym for the other, but of course that was not the case.

"Star-Linked" concerns a communications officer on Phobos, Harry Redkirk. It's a sort of "day in the life" story: one shift for Redkirk, as he arranges calls on Luna, Pluto, and a planet of Wolf 359, as well as a spaceship in transit: he has to work through some minor difficulties, but nothing much happens. The burden of the story is why he's "flying a desk", as it were: it's clear he was a spaceman, but for some reason can't do that any more. The answer is not too surprising -- the story, all in all, is OK work, not trying to be much, but worthwhile in its small scope.

Walt Sheldon (1917-1996) published about three dozen SF stories in the decade 1948-1958, and nothing else in the field but a 1980 novel called The Beast. There's a French Wikipedia page for him that suggests he also wrote in other pulp genres, particularly Westerns, and published a number of non-SF novels. He may also have written mysteries (including an Ellery Queen book), and apparently he wrote a fair amount of war stories and novels. It seems, then, that he was a professional writer who wrote for a variety of genres.

"Chore for a Spaceman" is about Ben Harlow, a steward, a bit discontented with his low-prestige job, who has to deal with a mismatched bunch of passengers during a war between Earth and Jupiter, including a Earth soldier who hates the Jovians and an unpleasant Jovian POW. Then Harlow is left to act decisively when the ship is holed by space debris. Competent but not special work.

Theodore R. Cogswell (1918-1987) is another writer who published just a few dozen stories and no novels (save for a collaborative Star Trek book). But he is remembered fondly, for a couple of major stories (the one reprinted here, "The Specter General", and "The Wall Around the World"), and for his editorship of a really wonderful "fanzine for writers", Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies, or PITFCS.

"The Specter General" was his first published story, and remains probably his most famous. It was oen of the novellas selected for the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, by vote of the members of SFWA. It's set on a long-forgotten planet, where the remnants of the 427th Light Maintenance Battalion of the Imperial Space Marines have maintained a tradition of educating their children to understand the maintenance manuals that remain, even though the defunct Empire has not returned for centuries. The commander of the battalion maintains the fiction of the Empire by staging a periodic visit from the Inspector General. The action here is driven by the typically energetic young marine, Kurt Dixon, who ends up hiding in a space armor suit and accidentally blasting off into space; and by Commander Krogson of the corrupt successor to the Empire, the Galactic Protectorate, who ends up around Dixon's planet while trying to keep his nose clean among another of the periodic house cleanings in the Protectorate's military. Dixon is rescued by Krogson's ship, and is able to use his maintenance abilities to both help repair their ships, but also threaten them enough to allow Dixon's commanding officer to negotiate a reasonable accommodation between Krogson's force and his own valuable maintenance crew. The story is plenty of fun, despite a fair amount of silliness (the space capabilities of the suit of armor Dixon ends up in being one of the most obviously absurd notions).


Back to Fyfe with "Implode and Peddle". Some of his most popular stories concerned an organization called the Bureau of Special Trading (or, colloquially, the Bureau of Slick Tricks), that used commerce to exert Terran influence. (The ISFDB has the novel, D-99, listed as a Bureau of Slick Tricks story, which is incorrect.) "Implode and Peddle" is a BST story, however, concerning a trader named Tom Ramsay, who has built up a successful business in the Delthigan system, but is worried that the Communistic natives government on the one inhabited planet will start to cause trouble. Then he gets a call from J. Gilber Fuller of BST -- they want him to negotiate a trade deal with the Delthigans -- even if they want weapons and offer mostly trash. What could be up with that? The answer, of course, is that BST will get to sneak in some cheap TV sets, which will advertise the prosperity of Terran planets ... Ramsay resists the whole way, not understanding the plot, and still ends up smelling like a rose, and unconvincingly getting the girl too. Not a great story, but kind of OK fun.

The next writer is of course a major writer, though that may not have been clear when Norton picked this story. "Steel Brother" may have been the first solo Gordon Dickson story to make a lasting impact. It's about a Solar System Frontier Guard, Thomas Jordan. The Frontier Guards man a somewhat implausible series of station at the edge of the Solar System, which each control a phalanx of robot ships that attack the aliens that periodically try to invade. Thomas Jordan has just taken his first command, and he's convinced he's a coward. He's also afraid of the implanted connection to the stored memories of all his predecessors (the "steel brother"): he's heard stories of people losing their identity and being overwhelmed by the memories. So when his first attack comes, he funks it, and almost lets the alien ships through, until he finally allows the "steel brother" to help -- and learns a lesson about, well, comradeship. There's a typically Dicksonian ambition, and a sort of ponderousness, to the story -- which nonetheless didn't really work for me, it seemed strained.

The other Bernard Kahn story is "For the Public", which posits a Moon-based quarantine system, in which heroic doctors enforce quarantine of incoming spaceships that may have been exposed to alien germs. The doctors act "for the public", risking their lives. Dr. David Munroe, who is just about to marry another doctor, is required to take an extra shift as the lead quarantine doctor when another man dies in the service. We see him encounter a couple of dangerous incoming ships: one a poorly run freighter with an obvious washout of a medical officer, and the other a rich man's yacht. When he offends the rich man, the latter pulls strings to get Munroe assigned to investigate a derelict suspected to harbor a mysterious disease. The story is OK if obvious until that point, but then lost me with the silly nature of the terrible disease on the derelict: "energy bacteria", not to mention the miraculous survival of Munroe.

The next story is also by a physician, J. A. Winter, M.D. Winter published just two stories and four articles, all in Astounding between 1948 and 1953. But he is probably much better known for writing the introduction to L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the book which launched Scientology; and then for breaking with Hubbard, and publishing the first book critical of Dianetics: A Doctor's Report on Dianetics, in 1951. Winter's two stories seem linked: "Expedition Mercy" (which was anthologized by Groff Conklin) and "Expedition Polychrome" (anthologized twice by Norton). "Expedition Polychrome" features an exploartion team on a new planet, and a sudden medical crisis. Several of the characters are doctors, expecially the nominal protagonist Dr. Edwards, who opens the story opining that there can be no new diseases; and that for example the body could never turn a bright blue. After which a crewman comes back to the ship, having turned a rich aquamarine. The plot is, of course, about the mystery of the color change, and the concomitant oxygen deprivation problems the crewman develops, and the rush to try to save his life. Fortunately, they discover unsuspected intelligent creatures on the planet, who communicate by color, and they are able to hint at a cure. I thought it a pretty silly story.

The last two stories are rather better. Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the few Hugo Gernsback discoveries to continue to produce work after Campbell's revolution. That said, he was mostly silent after the mid-50s. His most famous story is probably still "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, which featured a sympathetically portrayed Martian. "Return of a Legend" is also set on Mars. A small human research station is the only Earth presence on mostly uninhabitable Mars, but there are stories about one old "wilderness tramp" who survived on the land for a few years. Then a man and his young son show up, and the two end up going native for long stretches. The father dies inevitably, but the boy is never discovered. It is assumed that he must have died, but then he is found. His father's younger sister shows up and tries to make a relationship with him, but the boy misses "real" Mars too much and escapes again, and so his aunt, now married to one of the long time Mars regulars, goes on a trek to try to find him, and they too end up required to find a way to survive on the surface. It's not really that plausible, but Gallun works pretty hard to make it at least a bit believable, and their eventual struggle to make a family and to become "real Martians", even as the research station is abandoned, ends up pretty moving.

And finally there is "That Share of Glory", one of C. M. Kornbluth's better known stories, though a somewhat atypical one. It lacks the bitterness of much of Kornbluth's most famous work -- indeed, it's downright Campbellian. It's about Alen, a novice in a quasi-religious order of linguists. He is assigned to his first mission, to help a somewhat rascally trader deal with the natives of Lyra. Alen does his job fairly well, using his knowledge of languages and customs to help foil some space pirates, and to help with the jewel trade on Lyra; and he also adheres to his Order's pacifism: they have a rule against ever using weapons. Then one of the crew members gets arrested, and it looks like the local authorities will railroad him, especially when Alen uses his knowledge to confound a strict local judge ... The resolution involves Alen realizing that sometimes violence is justified, and that the whole thing was a setup to test him: is he an inflexible prig only fit for low-level jobs in his order, or does he have the imagination to be a more influential member. So: very Campbellian. And pretty enjoyable.

2 comments:

  1. I had this book in 1958 when I was 12, and read it more than once. Much later, I turned it in to a used book seller in exchange for a couple of Ace Doubles (don't ask, I don't remember, though one probably had a Norton half). I probably got the best of the deal.

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  2. Your blog is rapidly becoming my favorite. I love SF and I love all old books so you are preaching to the choir and making me very happy. Thanks

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