Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review of Great Science Fiction Adventures ed. by Larry T. Shaw

Spotting Larry T. Shaw’s Great Science Fiction Adventures (1963) in a local used book shop for literally pennies, I couldn’t say no.  The anthology contains four stories of novella and novelette length from some of science fiction’s most well known writers: The Starcombers by Edmond Hamilton (1956), Hunt the Space-Witch! by Robert Silverberg (1958), The Man from the Big Dark by John Brunner (1958), and “The World Otalmi Made” by Harry Harrison (1958).  Precisely as the title, cover art, and blurb indicate, it is indeed a space adventure romp of yesteryear to escape into.

The anthology opens with Hamilton’s The Starcombers.  The story of a group of scavenger ships, led by the slothful Harry Axe and his shrew of a wife, it opens with their exploration of the third and final planet of a system.  Looking for valuable metals and materials left behind by previous civilizations and alien races, things take a turn for the interesting when they discover a deep cleft in the planet and a lone alien.  Taken on a commercial venture into the cleft with the promise of goods from the little man (not green), in the volcanic depths the group get far more than valuables in exchange.  The Starcombers is classic space opera, but due to Hamilton’s competency as a stylist, and that he is able to develop the story in unpredictable fashion, remains at least readable.

Hunt the Space-Witch! is a story from the space opera phase of Silverberg’s career before he made the switch to New Wave science fiction.  (I suppose this goes without saying considering the premise of the anthology.) The story of a man looking for his blood brother on a distant planet, the cult he runs into, and the shady characters populating his search, are nothing compared to the depths of despair life eventually brings him to.  A slow, unfurling story, Silverberg saves the best for last, the climactic scene as spooky as it is exciting.  The best story in the collection, it nevertheless remains dated for the concepts and presumptions.

The Man from the Big Dark by John Brunner is a complex-ified (not complex) mystery of a man who lands in a remote location on a planet and abandons his ship.  Everything about this scenario would be ok save the murdered girl found aboard the ship.  The man, named Terak, has his own agenda, and through a ocean voyage in disguise, meets a variety of characters, including a red-haired, green-eyed captain, that shape his and the planet’s fate.  Starting strong, the story gets stretched ever thinner as the shuffling and reshuffling of characters occurs.

Closing out the anthology is “The World Otalmi Made” by Harry Harrison.  The weakest story in the collection, it does, however, offer literal non-stop action.  The story of Brek, a Profession man (aka futuristic James Bond), his arrival on a planet where the Profession has accepted a contract is greeted with an assassination attempt.  Getting the girl and bringing down the weird, mysterious Otalmi in the process of escaping all manner of horrible deaths, Harrison holds nothing back in this extended explosion—I mean, male fantasy—I mean, space adventure.

In the end, Great Science Fiction Adventures does capture some of the imaginative magic of the late/post Golden Age.  Though each of the writers is at least a competent stylist (save perhaps Harrison), the pulp material remains only partially readable.  Silverberg’s story is weathered for its premise, but retains prose and story development, while Harrison’s is pure genre fluff.  Hamilton’s is classic in the enjoyable but forgettable sense, while Brunner’s talents are better found in others of his works.  A slim book (174 pages), it’s worth picking up for the brief genre escape it offers, but has little value beyond.

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