The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume Two B, edited by Ben Bova

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Volume Two B

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume Two B is the second volume of a collection of the 22 allegedly greatest science fiction novellas that were written prior to 1966. There are eleven novellas in each.

The Martian Way is a mildly interesting take on how people accustomed to a very artificial life on Mars will be better suited than Earth people to long space journeys.

Earthman, Come Home is a run-of-the-mill science fiction story of some kind of intergalactic empire that’s only loosely policed at the fringes, where two nomadic groups fight each other.

Neither of those first two stories grabbed me in a big way. I thought Rogue Moon had more potential, once you get past the—common in science fiction—annoying 1940s sexist noir style of tough guys and trophy women who speak in clichés.

Clone-type versions of people get sent to the moon, where they keep dying trying to get through some mysterious object or maze. I got caught up in the mystery of what this thing is and how it keeps killing these doubles, but ultimately found the story disappointing. When it’s finally revealed (sort of) what the object is like inside, it’s not very interesting at all. It just sounds like some psychedelic light show or something.

The Spectre General is a more whimsical science fiction story. A dying empire has equipment but no one to service it; people on a fringe planet have retained technical skills as a ritual and tradition but have no experience with any actual objects to use their skills on.

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster is one of my favorite stories in the collection. It is set in a futuristic world where people live underground in identical super-automated cubicles. Life is completely artificial. Direct experience is shunned. People like to talk—by telescreen—about “ideas.” They give each other lessons in history and other things, valuing them the most the farther they are from experience and the more people the stories have passed through.

Something called “The Machine” is in control of it all. The obvious analogue today would be computers and the Internet. I suppose academia, television, a totalitarian government and other things fit a bit also. What’s impressive is that the story was written in 1909, long before the existence of some of the things one might have thought it was about.

It’s a little surprising that in the story it’s a young person—the protagonist’s son—who is the one to rebel and try to go back above ground. I would think it would be more likely that the younger a person is, the more they can’t imagine, or desire, anything inconsistent with the technology they grew up with.

The Midas Plague is a very different kind of story, but is also among my favorites in the collection. It’s an interesting take on a society that is based on maximum consumption. It reminds me of how we are exhorted that same way, where the health of the economy is said to depend on spending and spending.

Among the differences in the society depicted in the story is that they’re aware how undesirable excessive consumption is, and so the lowest class people are required to consume the most, then as you work your way up you’re gradually relieved of that burden.

Also, there are legal, and especially internalized moral, prohibitions on any kind of waste. So you have to actually use everything you buy until it is used up, making it hard to meet your consumption quotas. Newspapers must be read in their entirety, food must be eaten as you grow fatter and fatter, etc. No waste allowed, no destruction or disposal of consumer goods.

I’m not sure why things would develop that way, where waste is a bad thing.

I also didn’t get the incentives of the black market practice of trading multiple fake ration cards for one real one. Why would you want more ration cards, since that just requires you to consume even more? The husband in the story reacts with appropriate horror when his wife makes such a trade, but I don’t get why she, or anyone, would think it’s a good thing to scam extra ration cards.

I like both The Machine Stops and The Midas Plague because they are about systems and technology and such having a kind of mind of their own and controlling the future, without there necessarily being any malevolent being or purpose behind it all. It all just develops “naturally” beyond anyone’s decisionmaking, and we become slaves to it. That to me is very much how the real world works.

The Witches of Karres is about little girls who are impulsive, headstrong, mysterious, and have supernatural powers. I would think, then, given that and given the fact that they’re identified as “witches” in the title, the story would have an ominous or scary feel to it. Yet for the most part it doesn’t. It’s a little whimsical, though not as much as some science fiction stories. It held my interest OK while I was reading it, but in the end there’s just no bite to it.

E For Effort has one of the most intriguing premises of any of these stories. A magic camera/projector is invented that can show any location at any point in time past or present.

Now, what would you do if you invented such a device? I’d have to think that 99% of people would use it to peep on celebrities when they’re naked or having sex, or for other such gossipy or sex-related things. That wouldn’t be its only use, but there would be plenty of that.

Beyond that, I’d imagine people would do things like revisit the best times of their life, maybe watch themselves with some loved one who has since died. Or perhaps they’d use it to solve mysteries—either investigating things about their own past that they’re not sure of, or finding out the identity of Jack the Ripper or what happened to Amelia Earhart.

Certainly there would be huge moneymaking opportunities in gambling and investing and such. It can’t see the future, so it wouldn’t be as simple as checking tomorrow’s stock prices or racing results, but if you could watch at will all conversations past and present that are behind closed doors in corporations, or that are about fixing fights or whatever, you could anticipate plenty of useful things about the future.

But in the story, the inventor and his partner use the device in a way I never would. Though they make a little money through blackmail, mostly they use the device to facilitate their making blockbuster docudramas about historical figures and events.

That seems awfully convoluted, as it takes a lot of work and involvement of other people. Not to mention people wouldn’t know how accurate it is, so your work wouldn’t be properly appreciated.

Granted, seeing what’s accurate and inaccurate in history would be one of the cool things to do with the device, but I hardly think that I’d be into that to the exclusion of all other uses.

Eventually they do come up with another use. They decide they can eliminate war and most bad behavior by making the device as widely available as possible so everyone can see politicians cynically saying different things behind closed doors while making patriotic speeches sending people to war, or people plotting crimes, etc.

The theory is that if there were maximal exposure of all human behavior all the time, that would effectively put an end to deception and exploitation and such. People, including leaders, would have to behave themselves. (Wikileaks taken to an extreme?) I doubt it. It sounds more like a nightmare world to me.

I liked the set-up of this story, and it gave me plenty to speculate about. I thought the behavior and expectations of the inventor and his assistant weren’t very plausible, but I’d still give the story a modest thumbs up.

In Hiding is about an adolescent boy and his relationship with a psychiatrist. The boy is almost supernaturally intelligent, but he covers it up due to how it will affect him socially to manifest it. When he needs to exercise his intelligence, he does things like obtain intellectual pen pals around the world, never letting on that he’s just a kid.

The psychiatrist figures out early that the kid’s phenomenally gifted, but learning the extent of it and the details takes a very long time of building trust and establishing a relationship.

At the end they discover reasons to think there are others like the boy, and they decide to try to find them.

The psychiatrist reflects on how the boy—who already has a much higher IQ—will soon more fully outgrow him and will only be able to interact as anything remotely like an equal with these other possible kid geniuses, and he thinks about what impact that will have on their relationship. He’s optimistic that however big of an intellectual gulf opens between them, the boy will never abandon their friendship entirely, but will treat the psychiatrist “as a loyal dog loved by a good master,” which to me sounds quite creepy. The more intelligent party in a relationship is doing the other party a big favor by treating them like a loyal dog?

It’s not a story that grabbed me in a big way or that I’d put among my favorites in this collection, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking enough to be worthwhile.

The Big Front Yard has kind of a cutesy style to it, but for some reason I experienced it as vaguely unsettling.

A man out in the country discovers that someone or something has been altering his house and its surroundings in weird, seemingly supernatural ways—adding structures of unrecognizable, apparently indestructible, substances, for instance. It turns out to be aliens creating some kind of wormhole or other-dimensional passageway to and from that spot on Earth from other places in the universe.

I think it’s supposed to be kind of a fun story, maybe even an uplifting story about how this guy accepts it all and doesn’t react with great fear or violence. But to me there’s an uncomfortable, even nightmarish quality to it. Maybe it’s that the protagonist is underreacting in a way you’d only experience in a dream. It’s like the story is trying to present something very ominous as if it isn’t ominous, and I was feeling the discomfort for him that he is inexplicably depicted as not feeling.

I don’t know if I’d say I liked the story or not, but it affected me more emotionally than the bulk of the science fiction stories I’ve read.

The Moon Moth is one of the more clever stories in the collection, about a planet where everyone wears masks to indicate their social status, and where there are very elaborate, convoluted rules and customs about what are honorable ways to behave and treat people. These native ways are very difficult for an outsider to decipher, but they are taken as obvious and self-evidently justified by the locals, who feel comfortable dealing with violations harshly.

A law enforcement agent comes to the planet and tries to blend in; a notorious criminal does the same. They play a cat and mouse game trying to discover and defeat each other, while maneuvering around the peculiar natives and their rituals.

This is a good kind of science fiction that takes a part of social reality and exaggerates it (a little) and puts it in a new context so that it’ll stand out, enabling us to see how odd and irrational and dangerous certain things are that seem so “normal” or inevitable but are really elaborate, optional social constructions.

All-in-all, I thought there were enough winners in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume Two B that even as someone who is not a big science fiction buff, I’m glad I read it.


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