Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book Review: 'Catastrophes' edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Henry Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh

3 / 5 Stars

‘Catastrophes !’ (1981, Fawcett) is edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. It’s a thick chunk of a paperback book at 413 pages with a 10-point font; the suitably apocalyptic cover illustration is uncredited.

‘Catastrophes’ is an anthology devoted to end-of-the-world stories; the book is organized into five Parts, with the Parts devoted to accounts of the destruction of the Universe, the Sun, the Earth, Humanity, and Civilization. The stories (ranging from the late 30s to the mid 70s) in the anthology are all previously published in SF magazines, or hard-bound story collections.

Brief descriptions of the contents:

‘The Last Trump’, Isaac Asimov: the Biblical End of the World takes place and the resurrected dead wander a rather bland, but renewed, Earth. Asimov attempts a twist in his ending; however, most readers will spot it coming well in advance.

‘No Other Gods’, Edward Wellen: a fable of two future space travelers and their interaction with a God-like computer.

‘The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat', Harlan Ellison: yet another pretentious New Wave story from Ellison. A intergalactic music contest (?!) provokes deep angst and retrospection on the part of a troubled alien named Stileen.

‘Stars, Won’t You Hide Me’, Ben Bova: a human space pilot tries to elude vengeful aliens. A ‘cosmic’ ending helps this become a very readable story.

‘Judgement Day’, Lloyd Biggle, Jr.: a man with a unique mental power finds himself in trouble in small-town America. Reminiscent of Jerome Bixby’s ‘It’s a Good Life’, ‘Day’ is one of the better tales in the collection.

‘The Custodian’, William Tenn: a mildly satirical tale of a recluse who hopes to be the Last Man on Earth.

‘Phoenix’, Clark Ashton Smith: an old school pulp story from Smith that is actually rather readable (!). Maybe he was depleted of metaphors, similes, adverbs, and adjectives the day he wrote it. Anyways, it’s about the Sun gone colder, and a last-ditch effort to save Mankind is under way.

‘Run from the Fire’, Harry Harrison: an entertaining story of alternate universes and efforts to dodge a Sun going nova. Harrison effortlessly runs through more plot developments in three pages than other authors do in 20 pages.

‘Requiem’, Edmond Hamilton: By 1962, when this story first appeared, Hamilton had progressed as a writer and was capable of producing a reasonably good short story. A spaceship captain explores the melancholy ruins of a far-future Earth.

‘At the Core’, Larry Niven: Set in Niven’s ‘Known Space’ universe, pilot Beowulf Schaeffer helms a new starship on a maiden journey to the galactic Core. Hard science theme, but quite readable and featuring some wry humor.

‘A Pail of Air’, Fritz Leiber: a competent tale from Leiber about survivors of a new Ice Age.

‘King of the Hill’, Chad Oliver: a wealthy man contemplates an Earth dying from overcrowding and pollution. The cynical, preachy tone of the story is an inevitable component of an early-70s Eco-catastrophe story.

‘The New Atlantis’ by Ursula K. Le Guin: a much-anthologized New Wave short story. A married couple struggle to survive in a threadbare, dystopian future America; interspersed with their narrative is one in which a long-buried race of alien beings prepare to reassert control of the Earth.

‘History Lesson’ by Arthur C. Clarke: in the far future, aliens comes across some artifacts left by Man. Clarke’s rather plodding prose style doesn’t set up the ‘surprise’ ending very well.

‘Seeds of the Dusk’ by Raymond Z. Gallun: an Old School pulp story from 1938. A spore from Mars touches down on a bleak, far future Earth. The story holds up quite well for modern readers.

‘Dark Benediction’, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. : a plague from space strikes the Earth, and Paul Oberlin scavenges in the empty streets of Houston. The ending veers into sentimentality, but in many ways this novelette is superior to Miller’s remarkably over-rated novel ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’.

‘Last Night of Summer’, by Alfred Coppel: a short, melodramatic story about end-of-the-world debauchery taking place the evening before a massive solar flare is predicted to subject the Earth to lethal temperatures.

‘The Store of the Worlds’, by Robert Sheckley: a melancholy tale of a man purchasing the fantasy of his choice.

‘How It Was When the Past Went Away’, by Robert Silverberg: a drug that causes amnesia gets slipped into the water supply of 2002 San Francisco. For some who imbibed, forgetfulness is a blessing. As was typical of Silverberg’s output in the late 60s – early 70s, it’s more of a novelette about Relationships than a hard-core SF adventure.

‘Shark Ship’, C. M. Kornbluth: another much-anthologized Eco-catastrophe story. In a near-future Earth gripped by overpopulation and environmental collapse, vast ships ply the oceans in a ceaseless search for edible plankton.

The verdict ? Taken as a whole, ‘Catastrophes’ is a serviceable collection of SF tales. There are four or five entries that qualify as memorable stories, with the rest more or less standard-issue. If you are into apocalyptic and end-of-the-world themed collections, then this one may be worth searching out.

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