Review: FSF 30-Year Retrospective

by Tom Ingram

I talk a lot about science fiction (though not, apparently, as much as I thought I did), but I’ve got some pretty serious gaps in my knowledge of the genre. For example, I’ve never read anything full-length by Heinlein. To get educated, I picked up The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A 30 Year Retrospective at a used bookstore based solely on the names on the cover—authors I had heard of, and figured I should probably get around to reading. It was meant to be a fast, low-investment read so I could get educated, as it were, in the classics of SF.

It turned out to be an outstandingly solid and representative collection that far surpassed expectations. FSF‘s focus on literary quality and humour over strict scientific accuracy means that the stories have aged well, even the more straight-ahead science fiction ones. These are mixed with humour, horror, and fantasy—with a few poems and cartoons thrown in for good measure—to render a wide and fairly deep picture of the genre as it developed in the pages of FSF during the mid-20th century.

It opens strongly with Alfred Bester’s story “Fondly Fahrenheit”, about the identity confusion of a man on the run with his murderous android. This, along with Theodore Sturgeon’s “…And Now The News” and Damon Knight’s “Not With A Bang”, opens the collection on a funny note. Between the latter two is one of Grendel Briarton’s Ferdinand Feghoot vignettes—I will confess to having looked up the punchline, not being well-versed in 1940s show tunes. This one may not have been very well-chosen for posterity.

Then we get more serious with the original short story of “Flowers for Algernon” (later expanded into the full length novel) by Daniel Keyes. There’s something tantalizing about watching the story unfold on the page, even if it’s so widely referenced that everyone already knows how it goes. “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr., another story that later became a novel, is a blend of humour, postapocalyptic science fiction, and sincere religious conviction—a rare thing to find in science fiction and, whatever your religious background, surely a refreshing change from endless evil space popes and priests of Syrinx.

I knew Shirley Jackson from “The Lottery”, but I had no idea she wrote for magazines like FSF. “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts” is another twist-ending vehicle like “The Lottery”, but (as far as I know) its twist is less well-known, and therefore more effective. Instead of building up a sense that something bad is going to happen and then in due course showing something bad happening, she presents an aimless, meandering narrative that undergoes a shocking shift of context on the last page. This is a far superior story.

“The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree Jr. was a bit of a sticking point for me. I had heard good things about Tiptree, and I wanted to like the story, but there were problems that I couldn’t get past. The authorial voice was unclear, which made it difficult to tell what was going on. It deals with gender issues, which is fair enough, and I will trust that Tiptree’s understanding of the subject is more sound than mine, but the male narrator didn’t ring true to me. It feels like she was shooting for “average man” and instead hit “absurdist parody of James Bond and Remo Williams”.

Next is a throwaway story by Richard Matheson, “Born of Man and Woman”. It’s not bad, just not particularly inspiring. Harlan Ellison is represented by “Jeffty is Five”. He’s better known for his antics than his writing these days, and it’s nice to see that the man can actually spin a good yarn. Zenna Henderson’s longer story “Ararat” is the first in a series about telepathic aliens living in an isolated village somewhere in the States. Not much happens in it, but the main concept is intriguing, and I’m interested in reading more about these characters.

Robert Silverberg’s “Sundance” is brilliant. It sets up expectations as to what kind of story it’s going to be and steadfastly refuses to fulfil them. It goes meta and becomes about the narratives we construct to enforce moral agendas. After all this seriousness, R. Bretnor’s “The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” lightens things up a bit (Reginald Bretnor is the same person as Grendel Briarton). “Dreaming is a Private Thing” is a truly third-rate Asimov story. He’s written much better, and the only explanation I can think of for including this instead of some other piece is that none of his good fiction was published in FSF. In that case, I’d rather see one of his science articles.

Next comes the linguistic delight of Brian W. Aldiss’s “Poor Little Warrior” and one of Philip K. Dick’s less bleak stories, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (the basis for the movie Total Recall). I had been told that Dick came up with neat ideas but couldn’t write well, but this is the first time I’ve gotten around to reading his work. And damn. It’s conceptually nifty, but the man could not put a sentence together.

Former FSF editor Avram Davidson contributes the hilarious “Selectra Six-Ten”. The collection is rounded out by “Problems of Creativeness” by Thomas M. Disch and “The Quest for St. Aquin” by Anthony Boucher, both of which are very good but strike a little too close to “Flowers for Algernon” and “A Canticle For Leibowitz” for comfort.

This collection brings together a representative sampling of what’s best in science fiction: not low escapism or inhuman technicalism, but an honest exploration of humanity through the lens of scientific development. Each story hits this sweet spot, even the ones that are ultimately duds. The book is long out of print, so there’s no chance finding it unless you look in used bookshops, but most of its contents have been reprinted again and again. I encourage you to seek them out, if you haven’t read them already.