Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: 'The Ace Science Fiction Reader' edited by Donald A. Wolheim

2 / 5 Stars

‘The Ace Science Fiction Reader’ (251 pp.) was published in 1971 and features cover artwork by Charles Volpe, John Schoenherr, and Jack Gaughan.

In his introduction, Donald Wolheim (with a self-congratulatory note that may, or may not, be justified, depending on your own opinion) remarks upon the critical and commercial successes of the 'Ace Double' imprint. 

The Science Fiction Reader, he informs us, is an experimental effort at creating a trial ‘Ace Triple’ volume, relying on reprinting novelettes previously appearing in various Doubles.

The leadoff novelette, Clifford Simak’s ‘The Trouble With Tycho’, first appeared in print in 1961. It’s about a young prospector on the colonized Moon; he encounters a swell dame who enlists his aid in an effort to explore the forbidden area around the immense Tycho crater. The story has aged reasonably well, and is the best in the anthology.

Jack Vance’s ‘The Last Castle’ (1966) is typical Vance, and if you are not a Vance fan, you probably won’t like it. Set in the days of the Dying Earth, ‘Castle’ features a tribe of decadent lotus-eaters confronted by a slave rebellion. While the plot eventually gets reasonably engaging,  it is subordinate to Vance’s displays of carefully crafted turns of phrase.

Samuel R. Delaney contributes ‘Empire Star’ (1966). The plot deals with a callow young man, named ‘Comet Jo’, who is selected by a trio of aliens to carry an important message from his backwater planet to the far-off Empire Star. The story is a sort of sci-fi picaresque, filled with oddball characters, offbeat dialogue, and contrived plot developments. The New Wave movement was gaining ascendancy in the mid-60s and ‘Empire Star’ was the perfect example of the type of story that would come to epitomize the movement. In truth, I thought it trite, cutesy and a chore to finish. Of the three tales in this volume, 'Empire Star' has aged the most poorly.

In sum, ‘The Ace Science Fiction Reader’ is primarily useful as a marker of the shift in editorial attitudes towards sf in the mid-1960s. This was a shift away from standard, technology-based pieces like 'Tycho',  towards the more imaginative approaches to prose style exhibited by 'The Last Castle' and 'Empire Star'. 

Modern readers, however, will find 'The Ace Science Fiction Reader' underwhelming. For Ace Books completists only.   

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