“American SF by the mid-1950’s was a kind of jazz, stories built by riffing on stories. The conversation they formed might be forbiddingly hermetic, if it hadn’t been quickly incorporated by Rod Sterling and Marvel Comics and Steven Spielberg (among many others) to become one of the prime vocabularies of our age.”
So writes Jonathen Lethem in his introduction to The Selected Stories of Philip K Dick. If you’re looking for that sci-fi conversation at its most hermetic, go read the 1956 celebratory anthology, The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fifth Series. The collection reads like a series of bad inside jokes, although three stories make it worth the $2.50 I paid for it at my favorite source of vintage sci-fi. (Check out the full listing of this anthology at isfdb.org.)
So where did this collection go wrong? Well, it was probably was difficult to not go wrong. Most 50’s pulp sci-fi writers pretty much sound the same: the same prose style, the same genre clichés, the same kinds of short stories that rely for their success exclusively on some clever twist. In a blind test, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish the writers in this collection from one another. To me, Frederick Brown, Charles Beaumont, Damon Knight, and L. Sprague de Camp sound exactly the same. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (each represented in this collection) are also in many ways like these second-tier writers, except that they are, thankfully, simply better. Clarke and Asimov use the same plot twists and clichés, but they handle them with more skill than the average writer. Clarke and Asimov stand out by virtue being the best at what everyone else is doing. Those American magazine science fiction writers of that era who developed much more unique and subversive voices, particularly Heinlein, Bester, Sheckley, and Dick are missing in this anthology.
Like I said, the anthology presents a series of inside jokes. The collection is padded with little poems and proems, and a little flash fiction (stunts that weren’t any more compelling then than they are today). Several of the stories are parodies of science fiction stories: Richard Matheson has a post-apocalyptic yarn about a science fiction writer who ekes out a living cranking out stories for pulp magazines that survived the bombs. Another story purposely tries to fit in every classic SF cliché into five pages. In the serious stories, you’ve got mutants, telepathy, time travel, and giant space freighters, all pretty much operating the way mutants, telepthy, time travel and space freighters typically operate.
There are a few winners. Alice Jones’ post-nuclear bomb story “Created He Them” tells of a strangely unhappy couple that is one of the few in their community able to produce healthy, non-mutant children. It turns out that this was a forced marriage because this couple is one of the few that “breeds true”, and so a marriage relationship is painfully reduced to only its most biological essentials. Asimov’s story, “The Singing Bell” is about an attempt to commit the perfect murder, somewhat reminiscent of The Demolished Man. The plot works remarkably well, until the resolution, when Asimov flubs it with a completely unpersuasive ending.
The best story in the book is, of course, Walter Miller’s “A Canticle For Leibowitz.” Bits of what would be Miller’s classic novel began appearing in magazines during the mid-50’s, and this collection has the story that eventually turned in to the first chapter of the book. Fans of the novel might be interested this earlier version.
Although science fiction was increasingly moving towards book-length forms, much of the best science fiction of the 50’s came in the form of short stories. But, as you’d expect in any literary genre, mediocrity was common, and it takes a little digging to find the best works because many of the annual ‘best of’ volumes were padded with mediocre filler.