Ah, the heady days of sci-fi, when men were men, women were women, and bug-eyed tentacled things were bug-eyed tentacled things. Picked up because of the Hugo and Nebula winner ‘The Saturn Game,’ this edition contains eighteen stories and novellas, along with assorted limericks and songs penned by Anderson. The editor notes that when completed, there will be anywhere from six to eight volumes in the collection. Dear Editor–unless you are someone’s devoted and rich parents, you probably don’t need to collect and publish everything they ever wrote.
‘Operation Salamander’ was perhaps one of my favorites, an urban fantasy type tale about a graduate student who is unable to continue a relationship with his girlfriend after she gets a teaching job. It feels a lot like a Zelazny short. ‘Sam Hall’ was another intriguing one, a forward dystopia where phantom rebel Sam Hall is created by a law-abiding Security official. ‘The Only Game in Town’ deals with two time-traveling agents and a group of Chinese explorers who discover 13th century America. ‘No Truce With Kings’ is another dystopia, a forward and fractured U.S. with emotional politics played out by a local warlord and his son who grows to take the opposing side. ‘Eve Times Four’ was a comical little bit about a group of people in an escape pod.
Others are solidly of the sci-fi tradition, a hero or small crew tasked to solve a particular problem while in space. ‘Sunjammer’ explores how to save an unmanned freighter from the effects of a sun flare. In ‘Hiding Place,’ a pleasure space yacht with a damaged engine is challenged to escape following raiders, and how to identify a new sentient species. ‘Supernova’ was how to convince a planet with a multitude of fighting tribes to allow a slightly more advanced species space for a research station.’Elementary Mistake’ was how and advance team capable of building an interstellar port discovers a raw materials problem. ‘Robin Hood’s Barn’ is about a stagnant future culture and a Patrician’s efforts to stimulate change by appearing to halt it.
The writing is very competent, but surprisingly dry. In these stories, Anderson tends to allow the world-building to grow only as much as he needs to tell the story, despite including a variety of alien races. They very much feel like novellas and novelettes, complete in themselves but narrowly focused stories. For me, many of the stories were s–l–0–w, feeling more geeky-wonky than riveting. For instance, the four sci-fi mentioned earlier all dealt with a situation being set up through somewhat lengthy discussion and explanation, then engaging in limited actions or more discussion why various attempts to solve the issue won’t work. The solution in a couple rely on hard science (‘Sunjammer’ and ‘Elementary’) which is only vaguely interesting. Depends on how moved you are by distillation, I guess.
If only it weren’t so terribly dry…
“‘It sounded terrifying,” Morruchan said, ‘until they pointed out that Valenderay is three and a half light-years distant. Ad this is a reach so enormous that no mind can swallow it. The radiation, when it gets to us, will equal a mere one third of what comes daily… and in some fifty-five days’ (Terrestrial) ‘it will have dwindled to half… and so on, until before long we see little except a bright nebula at night.'” (‘Supernova’)
In the sci-fi canon, my guess is that Anderson’s strengths are his skill in conveying ideas, and his conjecture/exploration of various problems that might be encountered in space. Certainly the range here is interesting. None felt overtly offensive, but with the benign male-centric dominance of the generation. Characterization is generally limited; there’s almost no backstory to characters and often they are roles as much as people. Dialogue is often didactic, whether from lecture or conjecture becomes irrelevant.
“‘I’m no expert. But as I understand it, the Staurni are a rare thing, a stricly carnivorous intelligent race. Normally carnivores specialize in fighting ability rather than brains, you know. I once talked with a buck who’d visited here and poked around a little. He said he’d notice fossil outcrops that suggested this continent was invaded long ago by a bigger, related species. Maybe the Staurni had to develop intelligence to fight back. I dunno. However it happened, you’ve got a race with high-powered killer instincts and not gregarious…'” (‘Arsenal Port’)
Overall, it felt time-period typical, the cerebral-focused sci-fi that lacked much emotional engagement. Except for ‘Saturn Game’ and ‘Hunter’s Moon,’ the stories were all written in the 50s and 60s. The two that were written later were the most stunning in terms of world building, ‘Saturn’ with it’s ice caves and ‘Hunter’s’ with it’s unusual alien life-forms. They also focused deeper on the relationships between characters, which brought an emotional component to the stories, so I suspect his later works would be more enjoyable.