Once upon a time, back in the last century in 1965, the Science Fiction Writers of America launched the Nebula Awards. A few years later they thought: Why not have a vote on the greatest science fiction stories of all time published before the Nebula Awards began, and honor them by compiling them into a book? This is the result. Volume I is a collection of short stories, and volumes II and III are collections of novellas. Fair enough. I read this book many years ago, in fact, but I found it recently again in a boxed set with volumes II and III at the Seattle Public Library book sale. Interesting aside: At the book sale I paid three dollars for the whole boxed set in excellent condition. I was on Amazon looking for something else today, and I found two copies of this particular boxed set. They were each selling for $2,000. Now, Amazon marketplace sellers have the freedom to set their own prices, but even if the set cost a fraction of what they were charging for it, one would say I got a good deal.
Anyway, the earliest stories in this book are from 1934. That’s eighty years ago as of the writing of this essay, and you expect, of course, that the science and some of the storytelling will be dated. So it is. Some stories hold up well, and others not so much. Some stories are mediocre, to be honest, and have been far eclipsed by more recent efforts on similar themes. But these stories were chosen for their historical and cultural context within the genre, and not only for their inherent value.
I probably wouldn’t have chosen these same stories, at least not all of them. But I suppose they are fairly representative of the field as it was back then. Only a few genuinely dragged, and I will not mention which ones they were because despite their ragged, aged technique they served a purpose in the development of what speculative fiction is today. Instead, I will mention a few of the stories that struck me as genuine timeless works of literature on this reading of them. And I am not referring here to the science. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, for example, posits a fantasy world that due to modern scientific discoveries could never be mistaken for Mars, but it is a beautiful, fully-realized story that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. Other stories have their characters use old-fashioned phones and televisions and all sorts of odd devices that bring a smile and a shake of the head today, but none of that matters. As a reader, I am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the tale.
Anyway, some of the stories that particularly struck me this time around: “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, about a scientist on a remote island who creates a race of mini-beings advancing in evolution at a speeded-up rate so he can benefit from the discoveries they come up with. “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, about two young siblings, a brother and a sister, who stumble upon some futuristic toys in a time machine and use them to construct a gateway to an alternate reality. “Arena” by Fredric Brown, the story that inspired the famous Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk and the alien face off for the fate of humanity. Brown’s story, by the way, is much more intense and gutsy. “Surface Tension” by James Blish, in which microscopic colonists living in a tiny pool on a far planet build a two-inch “space ship” to traverse the void of atmosphere to a new world in another nearby pool. “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, in which a shuttle captain discovers a teen girl has stowed away aboard his spacecraft, and he must eject her into the void or he will not have enough fuel to deliver needed medication to save many lives. “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, the now-famous story that became a film for which Cliff Robertson won an Oscar, about a man with an IQ of 68 who has an operation that makes him a genius, and then realizes the change is temporary and slowly deteriorates back into the person he was.
Yes, there are some good stories in this book, and some of them brought up a lot of memories of past reading of pulp magazines, anthologies and novels. As I said, there are some glaring omissions. The editor explained in the introduction that he was limited to one story per author. I would have chosen, for instance, more stories by Cordwainer Smith, and the one that made it into the book would not have been my choice if I could only choose one. I would have included “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, my all-time favorite Cordwainer Smith tale, or perhaps “The Game of Rat and Dragon” or “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”. But I didn’t have a vote in the matter. I was just a kid when this book came out. I didn’t even know SFWA existed, although I soon found out.