My local library system, to make room for never-ceasing influx of new sci-fi, frequently discards rarely read gems which I pick up for a quarter. I’ve managed to snag a half-dozen books from David Pringle’s famous mid-80’s list of the 100 best science fiction novels, and a volume of first-rate C.L. Moore stories, among others. Here’s another gem that might be easy to miss: Deep Space, a collection of mostly 1950’s stories about, you guessed it, deep space. Despite the lackluster cover, this collection has some first-rate stories, including early ones by Harlan Ellison and Gordon Dickson, and a psychedelic planet story from Jack Vance that is even better than the Dying Earth stories.
Edited by Robert Silverberg, this collection has eight stories about human encounters with otherness in the far reaches of the universe. I highly recommend the collection:
Blood’s A Rover, Chad Oliver (Astounding, 1952): Not to be confused with the three or four other novels and stories of the same title, this is a story in the same spirit as Childhood’s End (1953). A team of anthropologists, as part of a galactic scale program, are sent to an undeveloped planet to nudge that planet’s natives along the path towards a more developed civilization. Like most ‘white man brings civilization to the natives’ stories common in Western literature, the tale ends up being more about the character of the colonizers than about the natives, and this one has a compelling, deep space twist.
Noise, Jack Vance (Startling Stories, 1952): When I finally swallowed my distaste for the bad fantasy covers of Jack Vance’s classic Dying Earth, I realized that these stories were pretty damn good. They aren’t really about sword and sorcery in a sci-fi setting; they are psychedelic descriptions of a completely different world, on par in terms of imagery with Alice in Wonderland and the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”. “Noise” is the same sort of thing, but even more haunting, dream-like and beautifully described than Dying Earth. A space traveler is stranded on what appears to be a paradisiacal, but uninhabited planet. This planet moves through an odd cycle of days and nights that bring a variety of brightly colored celestial objects into the sky, bathing the landscape in blues, reds, silvers, greens, causing a thorough transformation of the visible world with each cycle. Soon the castaway becomes attuned to the nature of the planet, and realizes that the planet may not be uninhabited after all.
Life Hutch, Harlan Ellison (If, 1956): This early Ellison is a grittier and less rational take on the classic Asimov mad robot tale (such as “Reason”). Exactly what you’d expect of Ellison glossing Asimov.
Ticket to Anywhere, Damon Knight (Galaxy, 1952): An ancient, vanished civilization has left a left a network of mysterious interstellar portals. One doorway is on Mars, and few humans have dared to traverse the network, because nobody has ever come back. But human beings being human beings, there is always someone with an itch to see where the open door leads. Knight celebrates human wanderlust and evokes a sense of the vastness of this massive network, despite the fact that most of the described planets seem like a variant of some extreme places on earth.
The Sixth Palace, Robert Silverberg (Galaxy, 1965): This is another robot riddle story, about a Sphinx-like robot that guards a priceless, ancient treasure on a distant planet that nobody has been able to claim. Unlike Asimov’s robot stories, this is an anti-reason story, without an apparently rational solution, but in the end I don’t think Silverberg succeeded in making the plot work.
Lulungomeena, Gordon R. Dickson (Galaxy, 1954): This early Dickson story is about men from different planets confined to close quarters for years on a distant mission. Tension inevitably results. The success of the story hinges on a clever plot twist and the acknowledgement of the deep incompatibilities between individuals that are drawn out in extreme situations.
The Dance of The Changer and The Three, Terry Carr (1968): This story, nominated for both a Nebula and a Hugo, attempts to tell an epic folklore of the inhabitants of a thoroughly alien gas giant planet. A human mining expedition on that planet comes to a bad end (announced at the beginning – this isn’t a spoiler), and the native epic may be an explanation why.
Far Centaurus, A.E. van Vogt (Astounding, 1944): The means for inducing suspended animation are discovered, and a crew of four set out for the first journey from Earth to Alpha Centauri. Because the journey is expected to take about five hundred years, one crew member wakes up every fifty years to check the ship, before returning to sleep, and therefore crew members can only interact with each other through notes that are read fifty years later. This book starts out as rigorous hard sci-fi, before developing into one of the typical wild van Vogt yarns. It’s a great example of classic mid-40’s SF from Astounding.