The Science Fiction Omnibus

omnibusThe Science Fiction Omnibus
Great Books Foundation
2007 / 592 pages
rating:   A  (genre short stories)

I have no idea why these works were selected for the Omnibus – perhaps for marketability,  perhaps for relevance to today’s readers,  perhaps due to copyright issues, perhaps for a good cross-section sampling –  no idea – probably a bit of all.  I fell in love with sci-fi as a kid although my first love was mysteries,  then my husband read a lot of it and passed his favorites on to me.  In recent years I’ve read sci-fi to catch up on classics I missed, or to keep up with contemporary fiction in general and because  I read everything  (except romance)  I’m a pretty omnivorous bookworm – equal opportunity genre-ically speaking).

That said I love the subject of SF itself  for it’s cultural history and related content. That gives special interest to these stories which are presented in chronological order of publication date – yes,  the interests of sci-fi writers and fans changed considerably over the years.

There is probably a higher percentage of women writers represented here than were actually in the field back back in the days,  but that’s fine – I’d never read Le Guin prior to this omnibus.

Going by the Sci-Fi folks’ definition of novel/novella/novelette and short story word counts,    Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and Mortimer Gray’s History of Death are novellas,  so I gave them their pages and  posts on the home page.  The short stories and novelettes are here.

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The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster;  32 pages / 1909 –
Rating A

Fear of technology and machines has been with us since Plato (or Socrates) warned that the device of writing would replace the necessity of memory.  That fear continues to the present age.

Forster was quite prescient about the tablets and convenience devices.  Here we have the fear of machines taking over everything.  There’s a fairly heavy religious theme – people will have their gods and their religions whether it’s a supernatural one or a mechanical one.  People will always try to escape the grasp of the machine.  Ideas stem from nature but nature has been cut off so the ideas become about old ideas.

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The Veldt by Ray Bradbury;  16 pages / 1951 –
Rating B

Television prompted all sorts of fears – see Orwell’s 1984.  In this story a projection screen in a children’s room becomes their weapon.  This is a rather humorous story but the message is fairly clear –  in the wrong hands …

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The Star by Arthur C Clarke;  17 pages/ 1956 –
Rating B+

Space mission finds remains of a solar system blown apart by the death of a star.  The result is the questioning of God –  any kind of rational or humane universe.  Reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow in the deep questioning of God.  The ending was quite ambiguous to me although I guessed it back in the first few pages.

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The Voice of Time by J.G. Ballard  35 pages/1960 –
Rating A-

Takes place in the early 1980s.  The last days of  Dr. Powers, a research psychologist and neurologies, who is slowly dying,  having fewer and fewer productive hours each day.  He still makes observations and records his findings.  He’s interested in a fellow scientist who committed suicide recently leaving a strange  carving of a mandala.

One unfortunate detail re the Great Books version is that where the original text refers to the “Mercury Seven”  and their trip of 20 years prior,  the Omnibus reads the “Apollo Seven.”   The Mercury Seven astronauts of were named just months prior to Ballard’s writing this story.  The Apollo missions didn’t start until 1967-68.

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The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey – 20 pages/1961 –
Rating A+

Loved this story of a brilliant girl who was born with profound physical handicaps.  This takes place in a very future time so she is able to be turned into the brains of a rocket ship.  Her pilot,  Jennen, is a well described,  sensitive soul falls who falls in love with her.

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Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut;  18 pages/1961  –
Rating C

Future horror of enforced equality – interpretation of Vonnegut’s meaning is questionable but he’s clarified it when it came up in a (yes) court case:
Vonegut: Lawyers Could Use Literary Lesson  (LJ World)-

“It’s about intelligence and talent, and wealth is not a demonstration of either one,” said Vonnegut, 82, of New York. He said he wouldn’t want schoolchildren deprived of a quality education because they were poor.

“Kansas is apparently handicapping schoolchildren, no matter how gifted and talented, with lousy educations if their parents are poor,” he said.

I thought the style suited the theme rather well.    It was utilitarian – easy words, short sentences,  the lowest common denominator  (heh).

Otoh,  thinking along those lines – when the HB and the ballerina get up to dances the narrative does kick up a notch or two – without being too obvious.   Here:

“And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!   Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well. They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun. They leaped like deer on the moon.  The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it.    It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it.  And then, neutraling gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.”

Nice – and I think it’s typical of Vonnegut’s writing –  kind of to the point.

http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/2778055.Kurt_Vonnegut

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The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison;  1962/ 16 pages –
Rating B

I wasn’t all that enchanted by Harrison’s  1962 story here.  Seemed more like a diatribe against religion than anything, using SF as the vehicle.   Imo,  this could easily have taken place in an Australian or African native community of the 19th century.  Science vs religion is soft-science,  I suppose – at least that’s the message and most of the plot.  Religion as a theme wasn’t used in SF  much until the 1960s and this story had a hard time getting published in the US but it’s still be read and published (obviously).

The title comes from 2 Samuel 1:20 (Bible) –  “proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon.”

Two taboos are broken – one more current:   – “do not interfere with the lives or beliefs of the aliens”  (Star Trek rules).    And the other of the 1950s – “do not mess with the Catholic Church.”

However,  on the plus side and likely the reason it was/is so popular,   it  “…[shines]  a light into those murky places where mundane fiction either will not or can not go: asking difficult questions about the nature of faith, belief and pride (and taking a few well aimed and accurate shots at the nature of colonialism along the way).
http://jameslecky.blogspot.com/2010/06/my-favourite-short-stories-streets-of.html

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The Days of Perky Pat by Philip K Dick / 1963- 27 pages
Rating: A

Perky Pat is a take-off of the Barbie doll which was introduced in 1959 (I was too old).  Ken was introduced in 1961 and Midge (Barbie’s friend) in 1963.   This is a little sociology soft-science fiction piece – what happens to people post-nuke war?  Who/what would we be like?  This is no Alas, Babylon (Pat Frank 1959) with the survivors reaching out to each other.

The Martians are not “believable” by any stretching of the proverbial suspension of disbelief.  That’s okay – they’re not meant to be – this story could take place on a remote desert island except for the memory part.   I think perhaps Lord of the Flies (William Golding – 1954) was similar in general ways.  (The nature of man is war.)

In TDoPP Dick has created a setting of a world gone to shreds due to nuclear war but the survivors are subsidized by some very generous Martians.   The adults who remember the old pre-war days play and compete others with their homemade teen dolls,  having them do what they did in days of yore.   The kids who were born after the war don’t have the same ideas so they busy themselves with making weapons,  hunting and making some money – at least the boys do – there are no girls in the story.

One day they hear about a Connie Companion doll from Oakland – a competition is arranged, the stakes being for the doll itself – Perky or Connie.

The story is nicely historical in its own way,  the way of classics,  although it’s also kind of  like the Sim games of today.  The women seem to egg them on in a way –  the girls?

Message? –  Even nuclear war won’t change our basic nature, acquisitiveness and competition – even the seeds of war.

**

5/30-5/31     Vaster Than Empires and More Slow by Ursula Le Guin / 1971: 31 pages
Rating:  A

Best of the lot so far imo (but I’ve said that after several!) . The title is from To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell (1650s).

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day
> snipped >
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.

Empathy is not enough and it can be scary.  Compassion is more than empathy.  “Fear is the mind killer” > Dune by Frank Herbert / 1965 –  I think those might be the themes here.

Osden is a supposedly autistic human on board a space voyage with other humans having various extra-sensitive or intellectual talents.  Osden is the “empath” – the one who feels all feelings and reflects them.   The others on board don’t trust him and he is unable not to mirror that – that’s his function – it’s quite distressing.

On a certain planet he and some of the others sense total fear,  not from any one source,  but seemingly from the entire connected eco-system (my word).  They figure out that this is because the ship is “other” and the planet has never encountered this manifestation of “other” before this.

The ending of this one points toward cooperation – an unusually positive ending although quite a sense of  sadness as well.

*****

7/14-7/15     As Simple as That by Zenna Henderson;  1971 / 13 pages
Rating: A-

A 1st grade teacher continues her writing lessons as the world falls apart during Torn Time.   Each incident is explained in the very simple language of the children  as the teacher maintains discipline and attention.  Houses collapse and people die but the children keep writing.

This is interesting because Henderson was a very early woman sci-fi writer who did not change her name to something more masculine.  Also she incorporated spiritual aspects into the story.

One of the study questions in the back of the story was:
>What does the teacher mean in saying, “Maybe more of our losses were gains?”

My answer:

She says that right after Maria talks about having been born blind but now can see – (religious theme there).   This has been a huge awakening if folks don’t go back to blindness.  They can realize what they have to work with and do it.

*****

7/16-7/17     The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov;  1976/ 41 pages
Rating: A+

No doubt one of the best stories in the batch.  Asimov follows Andrew, a robot, as he grows from being a slave to man’s will all the way to being human.  There are many steps on the way,  it takes a couple centuries during which time his protectors leave but he gains more and more human qualities.  He is the only robot of his kind and he wants to be  human.  What all does that entail?  What are the costs?

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7/18-7/19     Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree Jr.; 1976 /  56 pages
Rating:  A –

Three men are on their way home to Earth from a trip around the sun and beyond.   They have a hard time contacting Houston but when they finally do make a connection,  it isn’t with Houston and it isn’t in the same generation,  or even the century they left.   Suspicions arise.

Earth is 300 years older as they approach to return.  Fortunately for them the natives seem friendly although there has apparently been an epidemic so only a few million are left.  In fact,  there seem to have been quite a number of changes.

Another space vehicle, the Gloria,  with assistants is in the area and the astronauts leave the Sunbird,  their own ship, and manage to get aboard the Gloria – a very strange vehicle indeed.

Most of the crew on Gloria are women and the men from the Sunbird are horny – things having spent at least 18 months in space so there’s a little action here and it includes some force (perhaps).   Then the men find out how horny the women are – there are no men on Earth these days – haven’t been since the time of the epidemic and it’s almost a war – gun and all.

The suspense is carried from the first paragraphs right through to the end – it’s very good – thought provoking.  What would a world without men (or without women) look like?   But I certainly read this as a cautionary tale.

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7/20-7/21     Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card;  1977 / 40 pages
Rating: A+

This was the short story which preceded the book which I dearly loved.  In this short story Ender is at the training camp and fighting his enemies using very interesting technical devices and some very intelligent military maneuvers.   It’s all done on a computer monitor but it’s real training.

7/22-7/23     Bloodchild by Octavia Butler;  1984 / 21 pages
Rating: B-

I am very sensitive about biology and medical stuff so for me,  this story was gross.  I honestly don’t see why it’s so popular.   What if humans had to give birth to the babies of the aliens of another planet/galaxy whatever – where humans are the aliens and how would that transaction take place?  That’s the gist of the tale.    It’s graphic and violent.   I’m really glad I didn’t write this story and have all that gore in my brain.

The idea of slavery did cross my mind but the slaves weren’t fleeing from Africa – the sexual activity that went on was illegal and surreptitious and against all the moral codes.

an analysis from Depauw

an analysis from Bryn Mawr 

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7/24-7/25     Promises to Keep by Jack McDevitt;  1984/ 21 pages
Rating: A

On their way home to Earth after exploring various parts of the solar system for three years,  the three passengers on the ship Greenswallow have a little problem.  Their capsule has sustained some damage and when one of the crew went out to check he had his own mishap – he’s probably dying.

The ship’s partner ship, the Amity, also has 3 passengers one of whom is a doctor.  They decide to try to get the three members of the Greenswallow team over to the Amity but …

1.  The Amity might not be able to hold all 3 and provide food and air.
2.  Herman,  the injured man on Greenswallow might not make it.
3.  This will take time,  something of which there is precious little.

Do they leave Herman on Greenswallow to die a certain death?  Do they try to move him to the Amity where he will likely die and possibly take the others with him?  Are there other options?

Good story –

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7/26-7/27     Face Value by Karen Joy Fowler;  1986/ 14 pages
Rating: A
Taki and Hesper have gone to a distant place to study the menes a strange little alien group which fly around and don’t seem to communicate with sound.  Taki studies aliens professionally but Hesper is a poet – she uses words.   So Taki has a place there in this silent world,  but Hesper really doesn’t.  And she is invaded by the menes because she breaks down without her poetry.

Another good story.

A relevant interview with the author – Lightspeed 

****
7/28-7/29     Even the Queen by Connie Willis;  1998/  19 pages
Rating: A+

This was hands down the funniest story in the book – I never thought I’d read a story about menstruation – liberation – etc.  I love Connie Willis!

7/30-7/31     Mortimer Gray’s History of Death by Brian Stableford; 1995 /  67 pages
Rating: A+

Mortimer Gray is an earth historian in the early 29th century who is concerned primarily with death – specifically,  he thinks that the great progress of  humankind developed because of a fear of death.

He has first hand experience with near death when a seismic event happens and he and a small girl are trapped in ship at sea.  They escape but few others do.   And he goes on to start writing his multi-volume “History of Death.”

The chapters in this novella alternate between Mortimer in the 1st person describing his life,  and a 3rd person describing the volumes of History of Death as they are published.  The styles are somewhat different but the tone of each is lovely,  calm and reflective or simple reportage.

At first,  Mortimer can expect to live in the neighborhood of 300 years but as he lives his life,  within marriages but usually alone,  in Europe or the South Pacific or Antarctica – wherever,  he considers this issue of death and how mankind has fought it through the centuries in all sorts of ways from religion and technology and sanitation and war.  This goes against any need for natural selection because the point of that is longevity and domination.  Death is not really eliminated because accidents still happen and people still choose it.

There does exist an opposing group called the Thanatics which support a natural death and that support grows to public executions.   Mortimer considers himself a “neo-epicurian”  a “moderate hedonist,”  and opposed this kind of exhibitionism,  although does accept the idea that people can decide for themselves. .

Over the course of his long, long life he meets people and becomes famous and when that dims becomes a hermit.  He meets others,  moves, and writes his books.

There is a very satisfying conclusion.

2 Responses to The Science Fiction Omnibus

  1. Sartenada says:

    I love Sci-fi. I think that to me Sci-fi books are natural continuum to fairy tales. When I was child I was inspired very much by the book “One Thousand and One Nights”. Also I loved Tarzan books. Later came stories about “Wild West”.

    Many authors in Your post are unknown to me because I am learned French by reading French Sci-fi (about 1500 books) which bought on my many travels to Paris and Brussels.

    Like

  2. I never thought of Sci-fi as being a continuation of fairy tales but yes, I see it now. And fantasy is right in there. One Thousand and One Nights is a great book – I never could have read that as a child, though. The French had their own canon of sci-fi I think – very good stuff. I don’t know French though.

    Like

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