A Treasury of Great Science Fiction PDF Print E-mail

Groff Conklin ed., A Treasury of Great Science Fiction (1948)
Reviewed by John Hertz
April 2007

Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.

Groff Conklin (1904-1968) was one of our best anthologists, and Treasury, his second, was one of his best anthologies.  I’m here to talk about the original hardback Crown edition, 517 pages, thirty stories; under the same title Berkley reprinted eight in a 1957 paperback.  Crown sold Treasury at $3.50 when gasoline was 26¢ a gallon.  That’s history for you.

Great and famous stories are in this Treasury.  Three are from the spectacular partnership of Henry Kuttner & Catherine Moore, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” under their pen name Lewis Padgett, “No Woman Born” as by Moore, “Vintage Season” as by Lawrence O’Donnell.  “Woman” Conklin called “scintillating ... the C.L. Moore masterpiece” in his introduction.  “Season”, the only story included of its length, was voted Best Novella of All Time in the 1999 Locus magazine poll.  “Borogoves” has just (March 2007) inspired a Tim Hutton movie.

By Arthur Clarke are “Loophole” and “Rescue Party”, both good, “Rescue” a gem. By Robert Heinlein, “It’s Great to be Back”, one of those he made so understandable to people with no special love of s-f that it ran in The Saturday Evening Post. “With Folded Hands” may be the best thing Jack Williamson ever wrote. “The Ethical Equations” by Murray Leinster, well-crafted like so much by that master artisan, touches in passing a notion Heinlein built a future history on. “Flight of the Dawn Star” by Robert Williams, published in John Campbell’s Astounding, compares wonderfully with Campbell’s own “Forgetfulness” published (as by Don Stuart) there a year earlier.

Three more of my favorites have lacked the applause of further anthologizing, “Children of the Betsy B” by Malcolm Jameson, that too-rare achievement, an s-f comedy; “Tools” by Clifford Simak, a fine study by an otherwise celebrated writer, and “The Embassy” by Donald Wollheim (as by Martin Pearson), another comedy, which did appear in a 1952 Frederik Pohl volume.

What makes an s-f classic? I’ve been discussing this in the s-f community. I propose that a classic is an artwork which survives its time; one which, after the currents which may have buoyed it have changed, can be seen to hold merit. In s-f particularly, changing times affect the currents of prediction and, if I may say so, preachment. I suggest they are subsidiary. Decades after the Treasury stories were written, a few look false through the lens of science, a few through the lens of politics. But falsehood has an extraordinary meaning in fiction.

The 20th Century writer Vladimir Nabokov said, “An original author always invents an original world, and if a character or an action fits into the pattern of that world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth.” He was talking about why Jane Austen was not “dated”; no more is Shakespeare — or Lady Murasaki — or Sophocles. The great artworks of another culture inspire us to study it; in the proverb, To bring home the wealth of the Indies you must carry the wealth of the Indies with you.

Below the peaks of greatness we can have what Marty Helgesen, a well-known fan in New York, calls useful fun. The Treasury stories were written before I was born; of their day I am no deep student; they carry no nostalgia for me; the best of them are delicious for their own sake, and although this is quite sufficient, to enjoy it now that we are different broadens the mind.

To stay with Nabokov a little further — I am quoting his Lectures on Literature, given in his Cornell University days and posthumously published (incidentally, s-f lovers, they include Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”) — “Read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations.... read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art.”

Ordinary touches in “It’s Great to be Back” hone the extraordinary. Mr. & Mrs. MacRae, returning from Luna City in the Moon, staying at a Manhattan hotel, breakfast on orange juice, coffee, eggs, and toast. To order, Mr. MacRae faces the telephone and shouts at it, “Service!” — and while he is shaving, a delivery cupboard buzzes. I’ll quote. “Breakfast over, he put down his paper and said, ‘Can you pull your nose out of that magazine?’ ‘Glad to. The darn thing is too big and heavy to hold.’” The MacRaes had forgotten what pounds weigh on Earth. They had likewise forgotten, which is the thrust of the tale, what seeing far horizons meant.

The title of “Tools” is a joke, and the end is a joke although it’s gallows humor. The giant evil corporation is only a pawn of the author, who was writing something better than social satire — as with Dickens, the social satire is flimsy, redeemed by the author's soaring vision. So is the wise old psychologist. Not for nothing is he named Steele. Not for nothing is he resilient, yet finally snapped under torsion. He is the hero, but not the protagonist; he triumphs in tragedy (unlike “Vintage Season”); he out-thinks everyone, perhaps. Of all the moments in the book one of the finest is the last gesture of his cigar.

For L.A.con IV, the 64th World Science Fiction Convention in 2006 (fourth in the Los Angeles area produced by the same people or their successors; the first was in 1972), as a member of the program subcommittee I set panel discussions of four Classics of S-F, a panel each. One of the four was “No Woman Born”. In Progress Report 4 and on the con Website <www.laconiv.org> I wrote, “This masterly novelette explores beauty and attraction with almost inhuman resonance. It probably could not have been written by a man or in any other genre.”

Look how Moore reveals each viewpoint, the show-business manager outgoing enough for his career, the planetwide star performer persevering enough for hers. Of the imaginary science Moore gives only what the characters perceive; or for the scientist, carefully made the fulcrum but not the protagonist or narrator, what he naturally remarks to the others. By the guiding rule of our field, it is what people do with the science that makes the story. At the emotional climax, prepared by the narrative climax, Maltzer asks “You do admit it, then?” Deirdre demands “Do you still think of me as delicate?” Who has learned? Who is protecting whom — in the world of 1948? Or today. Wow!

Last Updated ( Monday, 11 April 2016 )
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