The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5

I strongly recommend James Gunn’s six volume The Road to Science Fiction anthology series as a good look at the history of Anglophone science fiction. In the sixth volume, foreign language science fiction is covered.

However, I only reviewed this volume.

A retro review from September 2, 2003.

Review: The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5: The British Way, ed. James Gunn, 1998.Road to Science Fiction

Several novels are excerpted here. And one prominent one isn’t: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which Gunn argues is a transition from the gothic but not yet fully in the camp of self-aware science fiction. Lt. Col. Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking is the first of those future war novels written by politicians and military men determined to influence public policy. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, still in print, is a charming tale of life and culture in a two-dimensional world. That incomparable giant of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, is represented by a selection from Star Maker, narrated by a “cosmical mind” who views the life of the universe. (Though oddly, in this volume, Gunn barely mentions his importance to the genre. For that, you must consult volume two.) The title for the section on Richard Jeffries After London; Or, Wild England is “The Craving for Catastrophe”. It is a pastoral tale of a simpler life after an unexplained disaster has befallen the country.

That craving shows up in several more tales. Killer smog hits the city in Robert Barr’s 1892 story “The Doom of London.” “The Great Fog” of H. F. Heard wipes out worldwide civilization. Life gets extinguished on an alien planet in Arthur C. Clarke’s much anthologized “The Star”. The Nature of the Catastrophe” in Michael Moorcock’s story of that name is never really explained. An amalgam of newspaper excerpts and fiction, this story unfortunately shares the oblique prose and loose setting of his Jerry Cornelius novels. Not readable in its own right, it still gives you some idea of Moorcock’s influence on the New Wave. Tanith Lee’s “Written in Water” is a last woman on Earth tale. The world that may be destroyed by an artist in J. D. Beresford “A Negligible Experiment” is our own. The disaster of John Wyndham’s “The Emptiness of Space” is a personal one. Its hero has survived a spell in cryonic suspension and fears his soul has left his body.

As you would expect, the anthology is full of several famous names. Not only are J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss present in earlier installments of this series, but they also are the only authors to get two stories in this volume. Ballard is represented by “The Voices of Time” (more disaster) and “The Drowned Giant“. They serve as a good introduction to his passive protagonists and landscape motifs. If you don’t like Ballard, these will do nothing to sway your opinion. The more versatile Aldiss has the witty “Working in the Spaceship Yards” and the decidedly downbeat “Appearance of Life” — both in their own way dealing with problems of communication in the human species. Genre critic and defender Kingsley Amis shows up with the rather trite, but stylish, “Mason’s Life“, a short short story about the reality of some’s dreams. Anthony Burgess works a new twist on the old cliche of a hack writer ripping off a famous writer via a time machine in “The Muse”.

An interesting famous name is Rudyard Kipling who only wrote two science fiction stories though Gunn argues that his narrative techniques were so ahead of their time that, had he written more, he would be called the father of science fiction. Indeed, Kipling’s “As Easy as A. B. C.” is a bit too modern since his exposition is slick and glib and a bit obscure. Written in 1912, it wouldn’t have seemed out of date in the 1950s. As for Wells, he is represented by his famous “In the Country of the Blind”.

The second tier of fame, names already fading from the public mind, is well represented. Eric Frank Russell’s “Hobbyist” puts a crashed scoutship on a planet with a frighteningly omnipotent and mysterious alien. John Brunner’s “The Totally Rich” postulates that the rich really aren’t like you and me. One hires a man to resurrect a lover from psychic traces he left on his environment. “The Happiest Day of Your Life” by Bob Shaw shows the downside of a really efficient educational system. James White puts his tailoring experience to good use in “Custom Fitting“. It shows the importance of being properly dressed no matter the occasion or species. Christopher Priest’s “An Infinite Summer” is about the havoc wrecked on one man’s life by mysterious tourists who “freeze” people’s lives for varying periods. Ian Watson’s “The Great Atlantic Swimming Race” is the newest story in the book, but its satire on those great fundraising events of the 1980s like Live Aid already seems a bit dated.

Gunn rescues other names from obscurity. “A Corner in Lightning” by George Griffith outlines the dangers of trying to horde electricity. S. Fowler Wright’s “The Rat” is a rumination on the dangers of immortality being bestowed on humans. “Mouth of Hell” by David I. Masson doesn’t really go anywhere but most of it is an interesting exploration of alien geography. “The Power of Time” by Josephine Saxton is a neglected classic about a really ambitious construction project: relocating New York City to England. The characters of M. John Harrison’s “Settling the World” set out to assassinate God. D. G. Compton’s “It’s Smart to Have an English Address” has a musician not at all comfortable with someone recording not only his performance but the sensations of performing.

There are several good stories in this anthology that are rarely anthologized. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1913 story “The Horror of the Heights” anticipates some of the work of Charles Fort. Peter Phillips’ “Dreams Are Sacred” is at the head of a long line of stories where people enter the dreams of others to manipulate their symbols and restore the dreamer to sanity. “Made in the U. S. A.” is a slick 1953 story from J. T. McIntosh about Freudian psychology, divorce, and androids. Brian Stableford’s “And He Busy Not Being Born” has a protagonist who is bothered enough about the prospect of his inevitable demise that he does something about it — and becomes transformed.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

6 thoughts on “The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5

  1. Pingback: Crash | MarzAat

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