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by : Ray
Published 30 July 2007

"The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus", edited by Brian Aldiss

This is a really outstanding collection of science-fiction stories from the late forties and fifties, the golden age of sci-fi in my humble and no doubt biased opinion, that being the period when I first discovered the genre, which was all the rage then, in my youthful days. But it was undeniably a period when many of the great names were first exploring their talents to the full, it was an age when rocket science was opening up vast new previously-unthought-of vistas, an age when the possibilities of technology seemed to be exponentially exploding the time-honoured boundaries of the thinkable.

Selected and introduced by one of the best English writers of science fiction, Brian Aldiss, published in several installments between 1961 and 1964, this 616-page Penguin Omnibus edition is a superb reference work. Among the many masterful, hard-to-forget stories, the ones I found especially impressive were:

  • Poor Little Warrior by Brian Aldiss himself (1958), about the misadventures of a blasé time-traveler looking for excitement - and finding it - by hunting big game in the days of the dinosaurs;
  • Counterfeit by Alan Nourse (1952), a tense account of the desperate struggle of the first human explorers of Venus with a very wily alien who had infiltrated their spaceship, during their return trip to Earth ;
  • the brilliant and vey amusing (albeit not particularly sci-fi) Build Up Logically by Howard Schoenfeld (1950), about the herculean struggle of an author with his explosive main character;
  • the whimsical but powerful Liberation of Earth by William Tenn (1953), where a bard recounts to his hearers the by-then legendary struggle between two alien armies fighting between themselves on Earth to to "liberate" mankind from the other camp, a story with a message for all times;
  • the amusing and very original MS Found In a Chinese Cookie by C.M. Kornbluth (1957), where the dirty wash of sci-fi writers is - almost - washed in public;
  • Common Time by James Blish (1960), a particularly brilliant study of the mysteries of Einsteinian time as perceived by an interstellar traveller;
  • and the opening 2-page stunner Sole Solution by Eric Frank Russel (1956), an astonishing variation on the creationist theory of the origins of the universe.

But my favourites just have to be:

  • the great Canadian writer A.E. Van Vogt’s Fulfilment (1952), exploring the potential of computers for the positive evolution of mankind, very much in the same vein and just about as impressive (and that is high praise indeed) as his classic tale The Monster (my all-time favoutite, about what happens when a giant spaceship of the ever-expanding Ganae race discovers the mysterious remnants of past civilizations on Earth), with a touch of humour thrown in for good measure;
  • and Clifford Simak’s terrific Skirmish (1950), where a solitary and rather average man takes it upon himself to show a menacing bunch of alien machines just what stuff mankind is made of. This is a story that I first read in my youth and have never forgotten, so I was absolutely delighted to be able to confirm that its dramatic and literary qualities have excessively well passed the test of time.

The short story format is, I would think, the format in which the science fiction genre is at its best, a format where the idea and the drama and the denoument are everything and the ambiance and style and character development that are the very essence of the novel form are much less important and even counter-productive.

And here we have probably the best anthology of the best stories from the best period of creative, credible sci-fi!

A must!!!