Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review: Nebula Award Stories Number Two

Book Review: Nebula Award Stories Number Two
edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison

3 / 5 Stars

‘Nebula Award Stories Number 2’ (244 pp) by published by Pocket Books in September 1968. The cover artwork is by Jack Gaughan.

This anthology contains novelettes and short stories published in 1966, all of which either were selected for Nebula Awards, or placed on the 'Roll of Honor'. Thus, this collection is as good an example of the New Wave movement in its ascendancy as any of the era, including Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology from 1967.

In a smug Afterword titled ‘The Year in SF’, editors Aldiss and Harrison have a great deal of fun mocking the majority of entries in the sf magazines of 1966……..pulp-minded stories wedded to outdated notions of sf, stories that (in one of their more bizarre phrases) ‘annihilate thinking’....?! 

The digests that publish these stories are ‘living on intellectually unearned income, cannibalizing their past’.

In the minds of Aldiss and Harrison, it is the job of the SFWA to identify and promote genre works that have Literary Merit. In so doing, the SFWA will aid people in ‘….better understanding …..the dynamically changing world about them.’

Needless to say, my goal here at the PorPor Books Blog is to examine New Wave era works with a more critical eye than they received when first they appeared in those giddy days of the mid-60s. Accordingly, here are my capsule reviews of the entries in ‘Nebula Award Stories Number Two’.............

The Secret Place, by Richard McKenna: the Nebula Award 1966 winner for Best Short Story from the by-then deceased author of The Sand Pebbles. The plot deals with an Army officer searching for uranium deposits in an Oregon desert during the waning years of the Second World War. A troubled young woman from a nearby village may provide aid.

It’s easy to see why Aldiss and Harrison and the SFWA selected this story for receipt of a Nebula Award. Its sf content is muted, even absent; with its emphasis on the emotional and psychological states of the characters, it could easily have been printed in any number of general fiction magazines still on the shelves in 1966, such as The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy, or The New Yorker.

But when read 50 years later, it’s the type of story that elicits – at best – a shrug. Bob Shaw's story (below) certainly was more worthy of the Nebula Award than 'The Secret Place'.

Light of Other Days, by Bob Shaw: this has since become a classic of 60s sf. It does a good job of combining the human element – in this case, marital conflicts – with an sf concept, in this case, a special kind of window that replays events from the past.

Who Needs Insurance ? by Robin S. Scott: Pete ‘Ace’ Albers, crewman and pilot aboard WW2 and Viet Nam war planes and choppers, is blessed with what seem to be unusually good luck………the kind of luck that raises suspicions……….. Combining a fast-moving, humorous prose style with sf elements, this story holds up very well when read 50 years later.

Among the Hairy Earthmen, by R. A. Lafferty: unconvincing fable about the Gods of Greek Mythology influencing human affairs.

The Last Castle, by Jack Vance: another classic of 60s sf. A novelette about Earth in the far-future, where a society of lotus-eating aristocrats faces extinction at the hands of rebellious alien laborers. Needless to say, this novelette reads as well now as it did 50 years ago.

Day Million, by Frederik Pohl: in the far future, sex and romance will have very different - even shocking - meanings then they do today. For this short story, Pohl has his first-person narrator relate the story in a 60s 'hip' vernacular: Cripes man, take my word for it. The result is painfully awkward and unconvincing.

When I Was Miss Dow, by Sonya Dorman: an alien race that can assume any form – and any gender – they deem convenient assigns one of their number to befriend a visiting Terran. A contemporary critic would undoubtedly praise this tale for its use of sf to explore Gender Roles and the Nature of Human Emotions. Be that as it may, this story is nothing special.

Call Him Lord, by Gordon R. Dickson: the arrogant prince of an intergalactic empire must make a social call to the archaic planet Earth. Another of the better stories in the anthology.

In the Imagicon, by George Henry Smith: Dandor relies on his virtual reality console, the Imagicon, to achieve the ultimate in escapism. This entertaining short-short story features satiric humor and, in its denouement, a clever twist.

We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, by Philip K. Dick: the classic Dick story, and the basis for the 1990 film Total Recall. Howevermuch Dick has been praised for his imaginative approach to sf, this story demonstrates that as a prose stylist, he was not much better than the pulp writers that editors Aldiss and Harrison mock in their Afterward. There is awkward syntax.... wooden dialogue........ and characters who don’t speak, but Grate, in this tale………..

Man in His Time, by Brian Aldiss: editor Harrison, in the Introduction to this story, assures the reader that his fellow editor Aldiss didn’t know that this story was being selected for the anthology, thus – presumably – deterring accusations of editorial favoritism.

The story starts with an astronaut, returned from a Mars journey, talking to the thin air, and exhibiting other eccentricities. His wife and psychiatrist are trying to cope. After several pages go by, Aldiss reveals that the astronaut has been infected, so to speak, with the ability to perceive events 3.3 minutes in advance of everyone else on Earth.

It's an interesting concept, but unfortunately, Aldiss neglects to adequately frame the physics of this phenomenon, preferring instead to focus on the emotional and psychological interactions of the astronaut and his wife. This gives the story an obtuse quality. Although Harrison declares that this tale says ‘something vital ……about the human condition’, in my opinion, it’s a real Dud.

Summing up, ‘Nebula Award Stories Number 2’ has a sufficient quota of rewarding stories to make it worth getting.

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