by Lester del Rey
“They needed a new frontier, free of national barriers, where the headstrong could fight nature instead of their brothers.”
I say, “Grand Master,” you say, “yeah.”
Most of us are familiar with at least a few of the 33 authors on the SFWA Grand Master list. They have written some of the greatest, most popular novels of our time and given us countless new worlds. In many cases they’re pushing science itself forward. But something special can happen with their short stories, especially in Best of collections.
When dealing with the greatest stories from the greatest authors who have some of the greatest minds—the cream of the cream of the cream of the crop—be ready to have your brain plied and stretched in all dimensions. New perspectives are presented as a matter of course, and this kind of speculative and critical thinking is, has been, and always will be vital to the dueling causes of bettering ourselves while avoiding extinction. Without the scientifically oriented dreamers we’d never have explored the seas, never have flown the skies, never have pierced the veil of space and we’d still be oppressing each other in the name of ancient, invisible beings who rule everything (well, three out of four ain’t bad). We need new ways of looking at the problems we’ve always had along with the new ones we’re creating daily, so . . .
Lester del Rey was awarded the title of SFWA Grand Master in 1990, and three years later he was gone. Writer of great works and partial founder of the science fiction and fantasy line Del Rey Books, the man had both deep vision and remarkable talent in letting us in on it. Much of it is the scientifically oriented, ‘hard’ science fiction. When finished with one of these stories you’ve not just been transported, you’ve studied and you’ve learned. The best of his short stories are collected in two companion volumes: War and Space and Robots and Magic.
War and Space consists of 19 short stories and 10 novellas and novelettes and has an excellent introduction by fellow Grand Master Frederik Pohl. A summary of all 29 is available from a link below but the highlights deserve special mention:
For I am a Jealous People – Aliens have invaded Earth and mankind is in retreat. A preacher and his atheist friend Doc are captured by the invading enemy and encounter God. And He’s on their side, not ours.
This is a very hopeful story where Man can survive, persist, and eventually conquer all his failings—perhaps even the failings of his creator.
“Man,” he said, “has one virtue which is impossible to any omnipotent force like your God. He can be brave.”
“Return Engagement” – Shawn is sick to his heart of watching the world around him turn to darkness, as man’s failings continue to outpace his triumphs. Something is missing; something has been lost. When he returns to his childhood home and encounters a strange shell in a familiar location, he is transported to an alien world.
This is another story that speaks to you, that both recognizes the trends of humanity and meets them not with anger but with sadness. The beacon that called to Shawn is only supposed to call to children, but not even they can hear and respond anymore. We’re losing the battle against ourselves, and stories like this examine the issues and sometimes even hint where solutions can be sought. Here lies one of the keys to the universe.
“And There Was Light” – The world has been divided into two incompatible superpowers, and it was inevitable atomic weapons would begin to fall sooner or later. In order to prevent that eventuality, one side develops a form of radiation that sterilizes man and plans to use it against the other so there would be no violent, horrific destruction—just a slow, merciful death as the opponents would no longer be able to reproduce.
A HUGE, very short story with a strong lesson.
“Earthbound” – An astronaut, attending a fundraiser on Earth but longing to get back to space, meets a man on a balcony who has never set foot off the planet.
Slight knowledge of legend gives this story major impact.
“Moon-Blind” – Bill Soames is abandoned on the surface of the Moon and left for dead. His own ingenuity gets him back to Earth 4 years later, but no one remembers him and he finds factual records of his own death recorded years earlier. As he tries to figure out what’s going on he ponders other human achievements in history that were also ignored until hundreds, sometimes thousands of years later.
This one takes a hard look at the discoveries of science over the millennia and asks important questions. Why was Lief Erikson’s discovery of America ignored? Why wasn’t the invention of the steam engine recognized when it was invented by the Greeks?
“There had been times when the whole world was wrong and only one man was right; as far as he was concerned, this was another such case.”
Helping Hand – This is the incredible story of first contact between man and an alien species, and as the two species are feeling each other out through language Sam has to decide what the human race’s future will look like.
While many other stories of this nature ignore history and how the knowledge of it affects the meeting, the plot of Helping Hand is specifically driven by it. The story is inventive, conscientious, and no less than brilliant.
“Enemies could become friends. But the distance between inferiors and superiors only widened, until the lesser was swallowed up in the greater.”
“No Place Like Home” – Sid and his friend Doug had convinced investors they could reach the moon before world governments, and when successful they convinced the investors they could do the same for Mars. When a new ship is built, Doug tells Sid the official launch is a sham and he must go alone, tonight, but Sid has trouble accepting it.
Another story frozen in time, this one’s got both friendship and ingenuity at its core and when things don’t go as planned, adaptation is key. “No Place Like Home” is extremely short but is one of the best stories in an extraordinary collection.
“And It Comes Out Here” – Here is arguably the towering masterpiece of the collection.
A young man is visited by an old man, claiming to be his future self and in possession of a time machine. He cannot explain how the time machine works, but has access to it through vast wealth from a machine capable of producing nearly unlimited, atomic power for every home, which the young man is soon to invent. But the old man couldn’t have invented the machine because he doesn’t remember doing so when he was younger, and the universe has become bent from the paradox. To fix it, the young man must travel with the old into the future and retrieve the power source that started it all.
When you read this story you’ll see things that aren’t exactly sparkling new to the modern audience. But that doesn’t matter, because it gets you thinking about the paradox in general, which is a rabbit hole you may never escape.
“There is one fact no sane man can quarrel with … everything has a beginning and an end. But some men aren’t sane; thus it isn’t always so!”
The Band Played On – Murdock had been stuck on the garbage run from the moon, as no other pilots would step up to relieve him. He accepted his new station but held out hope he would one day be permitted a transfer. When disaster strikes on the moon during a raging storm on its surface, only the best pilot has a chance at making it through the weather. Murdock must risk his life to save others and keep his meager farm afloat.
This is an amazing story with an outstanding ending, where sometimes the greatest gift we could be given is ours to begin with.
The Still Waters – Expensive, powerful ion engines had been replaced by cheaper, more efficient “blowtorches.” Zeke and his wife are the last two operators on one of the old ships, no longer in demand for cargo and falling into disrepair, and they must decide what to do with the ship on its last legs.
The old and the new are examined and contrasted. What happens to us when the new world passes us by and our outdated expertise is no longer needed or wanted?
The ten tales above are no less than masterpieces of storytelling, and any one of them challenges us to think harder, to be better. There are plenty of other excellent stories in the collection, and a couple that are a little convoluted, but this is a massive book and that’s got to be expected.
As for the edition itself, there’s good news and bad. The good news is that NESFA Press has produced a very high quality, 600-page behemoth of a book with paper, boards, cloth and binding that will last far longer than regular trade editions from the large presses. It’s nice to hold, and while the text stretches toward the margins it’s not crowded or presented in an undersized font.
The bad is . . . pretty bad. It’s possible these have been corrected in a reprinting, but it’s rare to see so many typos in a first edition. 29 nasty errors were encountered during the stories, and these aren’t the kind you can argue your way around with grammar and style choices. These are just plain errors. If you read the Editor’s Acknowledgements, pictured below, you’ll even find an error in the same paragraph that thanks the proofreaders.
At the end of the day this is a high quality production with a number of unfortunate mistakes in the text, but both of those factors are secondary to the stories themselves, which are thought-provoking and entertaining. Brains will bend, rest assured. If you’re not familiar with Lester del Rey, this is a highly recommended way to catch up.
“We of Man’s creation are left to mourn his passing, and to worship the memory of Man, who controlled all that he knew save only himself.”