Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Matter of Perspective

For some reason I didn’t buy the DAW Books series of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories when it originally appeared. I don’t know why, since it’s the sort of thing that appeals to me. Anyway, I’ve started picking up the books now, and the stories are as good as I remembered them to be.

I recently finished reading the tenth volume in the series, which covers the year 1948. I’d read every story in the book at least once before, and most of them I must have read in the years I first discovered the SF digests and anthologies, which would mean the middle 1950s. So the stories when I originally read them were anywhere from six to ten years old. At the time, I thought they were ancient.

After I finished the book of 1948's best, I picked up Donald A. Wolheim Presents the 1990 World’s Annual Best SF (also a DAW Book). All those stories are fifteen years old now, yet they seem to me to be quite recent, practically as if they were published yesterday. It’s funny how getting older affects your sense of time.

The stories that I remember most vividly from the Asimov book I mentioned are ones you’ll probably remember, too: Fredric Brown’s “Knock,” Judith Merrill’s “That only a Mother,” Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven,” Eric Frank Russell’s “Late Night Final.” Great stuff, as are all the stories in the book. The title’s not a misnomer.

The 1990 book was interesting to me because I don’t read nearly as much SF these days as I once did, and I wondered what I’d think of these “recent” stories. To my surprise, I liked a lot of them. The writing style is a little more sophisticated and “literary,” but the old familiar SF tropes are there. “Chiprunner,” by Robert Silverberg (who no doubt read the stories from the 1948 volume in the original magazines in his youth) is modern variation on Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, if not on Ray Cummings’ Beyond the Vanishing Point, and Silverberg’s “A Sleep and a Forgetting” is a time-travel-alternate-world-paradox story. Even James Morrow’s “Abe Lincoln in McDonald’s” is a time-travel-alternate-world story tricked out in new duds. “In Translation” by Lisa Tuttle is a first-contact-aliens-among-us story. I didn’t much like this one, but I still felt I was on familiar ground. I think there might even be a little Leinster connection. Brian Aldiss’ “North of the Abyss” is the old dead-man-who-thinks-he’s-alive tale with Egyptian gods. And my favorite was probably Lucius Shepard’s “Surrender,” which I see as a juiced-up version of an old movie called Alligator People.

I had fun reading both books, but I’m more interested in reading the old stuff. And in fact I’ve been browsing in several of the other Asimov volumes over the last couple of weeks. I’ve decided that I have to get all of them, and maybe I will, sooner or later.

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