The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume IV is a collection of the fourteen short stories that won science fiction’s “Nebula” award from 1970 to 1974.
Ill Met in Lankhmar is much more fantasy than what I think of as science fiction. It’s fairly easy to follow, and it held my interest tolerably well, but it’s not the kind of story that feels like it has much depth to it or that I enjoy more than a little.
The story takes place in a world of swashbuckling thieves in a near-anarchic city. There is much grandiloquent talk and behavior, references to honor amidst the violence, etc. There is little if anything in the way of futuristic technology (they fight with swords and such), and about the only supernatural element is a sorcerer and his magic, which again I would think is more fantasy than science fiction.
Slow Sculpture fit my tastes better. The story is about a man who invents things and finds solutions, and discovers that consistently there are economic/social/governmental forces that prevent his ideas from coming to fruition, because though they would help the world as a whole they would somehow hurt certain powerful interests. For example, automobile and oil companies buy his method of dramatically improving gas mileage and then bury it.
The story has a nice twist at the end where a character tries to impress upon him how even though things can seem as stacked and hopeless as he experiences them, maybe a person just needs to be more resourceful and flexible about doing good. Maybe not all the ways to make a positive difference will be blocked. In some sense the world might still be receptive if you approach it right.
I like this kind of story because it feels relevant to real life, and specifically to ethical issues that arise in real life. It can indeed be difficult to do good, and there are indeed many, many people who will try to block you from doing so when that is what’s in their self-interest, and how best to deal with that is certainly something I think about a lot.
The Missing Man is a decent story about a telepathic man trying to stop a terrorist attack in a futuristic New York.
The stories in these science fiction collections that I typically don’t like as much as the others tend to be cutesy, obscure, or have dialogue like old fashion action movies meant to appeal to teenage boys. The Missing Man has little or no annoyingly cutesy elements, has only a small amount of obscurity, and has only a trifle more of the action movie clichés.
It’s not one of the most thought-provoking stories I’ve read, but it’s average or a little better in that regard in its depiction of this future world.
Basically, the educated, white collar type people who have all the technological knowledge live in reasonable comfort with police protection in various autonomous neighborhoods like castles or something, organized around different lifestyles, different values (e.g., one sounds like a hippie commune). Meanwhile all the lower class people or people who just don’t want to conform to any of those communities are left to fend for themselves in the other, Hobbesian, parts of the city, where violent youth street gangs and other predators roam. There is next to nothing in the way of jobs for them, and most of them are sterilized—either by force or manipulated with various inducements—because the technology is such that there’s no need for their labor anymore and it would be convenient if they would just die off.
The Queen of Air and Darkness is about rumors of some weird barbarians or wild folk on the outskirts of a space colony that’s artificial and civilized on an otherwise barren and inhospitable planet. Most people dismiss the stories as legends, some think these beings are real and snatch babies and such, and some aren’t sure.
Much of the story reads like the kind of knights-and-princesses-and-dragons-and-formal-titles-and-speech-patterns fantasy that I find tiresome in these stories, so it loses some points there.
But in an interesting twist at the end, it turns out that these beings are shape-shifter type aliens who recognize such stories as having some deep appeal to the human psyche, so they embody the scary parts to keep the colonists from venturing into these areas and finding and conquering them, and they kidnap babies and raise them in the appealing adventurous way of these fantasies to ultimately release them back into the colonies to win hearts and minds and convert them to regressing to that kind of Medieval lifestyle and so not be a threat to the aliens. At least I think something like that is going on—the details of the ending aren’t real clear to me.
But in any case, I liked it more than most stories of this fantasy style, in that it’s sort of critical of that style in an appealingly meta way.
Good News From the Vatican is short and there isn’t a lot to it, but the context that can be inferred from the story is interesting.
Robots have gradually become more and more useful, then more apt to interact with humans as equals like just some other race of people, and then step by step are moving into positions of authority where presumably humans will be enslaved or rendered irrelevant. But it’s happening slowly enough for people to mostly get used to it and accept it. Some people still have misgivings, but it’s not like there’s some war between robots and people in the story.
The story itself is about the first robot to be elected pope, and how while people may have different opinions about it, there’s no sort of widespread outrage. People have become acclimated to this kind of thing, to where it seems to most like simply the next logical step.
A Meeting with Medusa by Arthur C. Clarke is more like I picture “classic” science fiction, more like what I probably expected these anthologies to be full of before I read them. Not whimsical or Tolkien-fantasy type stuff about knights and gnomes, but a futuristic story about space travel that has a lot of interesting speculation about technology, what alien beings might be like, the psychological and sociological effects of it all, etc.
The story is about a man who is severely injured captaining a humongous blimp-type thing that crashes, and is rebuilt in The Six Million Dollar Man fashion and sent on a mission to Jupiter. (Only at the very end of the story do we find out how radically he’s changed. Instead of a man with a few robot qualities, he’s more of a robot with just a few remaining human qualities.)
The story contains an intriguing depiction of what the gaseous atmosphere of Jupiter might be like, and of two or three species of aliens that are vastly different from anything that evolved on Earth (and are enormous, in proportion to how Jupiter compares in size to Earth). It’s realistic in that it only tells you the little bit about these things that could be observed by one guy on one mission who mostly only sees them at a distance.
Goat Song never fully drew me in. It is a futuristic version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The story is set in a society run by machines who assure people that ultimately they’ll be raised from the dead. Life is safe with the machines in charge, but boring and unfree. A guy’s wife dies, and he wants her back now instead of waiting for the supposed resurrection. He’s given a chance to recover her from death, screws up that chance, and responds by leading a revolt against the system.
When It Changed is a very short feminist tale about a colonized planet where only women survived. They’re doing fine on their own, but men—dumber, less civilized, but better armed—come from Earth to force themselves back into the women’s lives.
The Death of Doctor Island is kind of eerie and interesting. It’s more obscure than typically appeals to me, but I still found myself liking it more than not.
The story is about mental patients/juvenile delinquents, so I’m not sure if some of it is intended to represent the main character (or someone else) fantasizing.
The protagonist is a teenager who is put on some weird island with apparently only two other kids—a girl, and a brute. There’s some person or machine or something that communicates with the three of them telepathically. It mostly acts like a therapist trying to help them, but occasionally it lies or tricks them—justifying it by saying that to function in the real world they need to know how to deal with deception like that. That is, most people won’t act toward you like a kindly, condescending therapist, so it won’t help you if that’s the way you are always treated in this asylum.
But there’s some evidence throughout the story that the powers that be—represented by this machine or whatever it is—aren’t in fact trying to cure or help all three of these young people, but are trying to set up a situation where the brute—who is the truly valuable one with potential in their eyes—will get to work through his issues, even to the detriment of the other two.
Again, the story is obscure and hard to follow in some places, but was strangely interesting to me anyway.
Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand is set in a sort of futuristic or parallel universe version of the Old West. It doesn’t seem to be technologically more advanced than the actual Old West, but there are medicine man types who have perfected the ability to somehow use snake venom (delivered by the live snakes that they keep with them and treat as pets/mystic figures) to cure illnesses. The story concerns an itinerant woman snake healer of that kind. It was mildly interesting to me, but no more than that.
Love is the Plan the Plan is Death is a creepy, somewhat effective story about a dinosaur-type species that has evolved a way of surviving winter and perpetuating the species through cannibalism, and about one member of the species who tries to defy nature by not participating in that.
Born With the Dead is one of the most memorable stories in the collection. It is set in a world pretty much the same as the current one except that some dead people choose to be reanimated.
But when they are reanimated, they turn out to be psychologically different and to only want to be with other reanimated dead people. Mostly they’re arrogant and unpleasant, kind of like idle rich people who do a lot of traveling and have adventures and work on academic or cultural type projects, not to better the world but more because they’re bored and want something to fill their time.
The story is about a husband who is obsessed with reuniting with his dead wife. He wants to be a romantic and think their love can overcome death. But the only way to find out may be to rejoin her by dying himself.
It’s a story that makes you think about whether—if there were a life after death—we would care about the things, and people, we care about now, or if instead we would have vastly different preferences and values.
If the Stars are Gods is about aliens who come to Earth as part of a journey to various suns, which they regard as gods. It’s a somewhat interesting study of the different beliefs and attitudes and such of Earth people compared to those of this other race of intelligent beings.
The main Earth guy dealing with them is allowed to experience their communication with the sun and is blown away and convinced, though as a reader you have to think other hypotheses are equally or more likely, like that they did something natural or supernatural to him to make him think he was experiencing communicating with a sun god.
The Day Before the Revolution has little in the way of supernatural or futuristic technology elements. I guess it’s set in the future when something very like the 20th century leftist, socialist movements are fighting the status quo. It’s more like what Marxists predicted, that in time the old order collapses and the revolutionaries inevitably win.
Mostly the story itself is about an aging female leftist leader. Really it’s more effective as a tale about becoming elderly and dealing with all that that entails than as a political or science fiction story.
Overall there was little in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume IV that I enjoyed a great deal or that hit me on a deep level. I think I’ve read enough of these collections now to say I’ve given science fiction a fair chance, and evidently it just isn’t a genre that’s destined to be a big favorite of mine. Still, a fair number of the stories are at least mildly interesting to me, and occasionally one is more thought-provoking than that. So I like science fiction enough to keep it as an occasional part of my reading, but no more than that.