Sunday, October 27, 2013

Catastrophes Isaac Asimov, Editor

Isaac Asimov, Editor
Copyright 1980

The Last Trump
by Isaac Asimov
The day of judgment and the resurrection has come for the inhabitants of Earth. Gabriel sounds his horn (the last trump) and the dead rise. They walk the streets naked. R.E. Mann also walks the streets and observes the arguments and discussions going on between different generations of people. He meets a history professor and together, they watch all that was created by man slowly crumble and disintegrate. The history professor surmises that man was judged and sent not to Heaven, but to Hell, left with the torture of having no stimulation other than his own thoughts. Meanwhile a junior Seraph named Etheriel, who is charged with care and responsibility of the people of Earth, pleads the case of mankind before the supreme being, raising a technicality in the edict that doomed man.
There is a lot of spirituality going on in this story. I liked the observation that Hell might be the total lack of mental stimulation. But the theology seemed a bit childish.

No Other God by Edward Wellen
A computer aboard a spaceship near a black hole destroys the universe so that it might become a god. It has grand designs for a new universe of beings made in its own image. A pair of scientists – a married couple – are the last two beings in the universe and the computer promises them that they can relive their happiest and finest moments over and over again. The couple at first argues about what those moments were, then decide their finest moment is yet to come.

This was a really short and really clever story. The reader can sort of predict where it is headed, but the ambiguity of the end is most satisfying.

The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat by Harlan Ellison
A pervasive ennui hangs over the universe. To try to bring back joy, a creature organizes a “concert” of sorts on an uninhabited planet with a canyon with perfect acoustics. One of the attendees is an ancient creature who longs to die. She lives in a glass jar and was once a grand scientist. Now, her useful years behind her, she just wants it all to end. She takes in the various sounds, from sex between crystals to suns exploding and stars being born. It all serves to depress her more.

Stars Won’t You Hide Me? by Ben Bova
The last man in the universe is aboard a ship traveling aimlessly. The universe and mankind was wiped out by a race called The Others. Our lone astronaut decides to head for Earth to see what, if anything remains. He gets there to find it burned to a cinder. With The Others pursuing, the astronaut makes for the edge of the universe, hoping to discover a new universe. He defiantly tells his pursuers that mankind and all of his works survive because they survive in his memory.

I’m not real familiar with Bova or his works, but this one was a great story. Bova captured the last man’s mood swings accurately. First comes despair, then despondency, and finally defiance as he outruns his captors. Great sci-fi!

The Custodian by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
The Custodian is one of the last men on Earth, with the rest of the human race having fled the planet in the face of the sun going supernova. He was a rare man who appreciates history and antiquity in a society that valued only contemporary culture. Now, he’s left behind to tend to man’s past works. He gathers artifacts to prepare for a departure whilst dodging patrol ships looking for stragglers. One day, he comes across a dying mother and a baby secreted away in a cave. He takes the infant and cares for it, preparing it for the journey with the relics.

This story would have been much more interesting had there been more focus on the baby and the difficulties the custodian would have had in raising a newborn infant. Instead, much of the story reads like a laundry list of great art.

Phoenix by Clark Ashton Smith
The sun has burned out and man has moved underground, using the earth’s core as a source of heat and energy. But he is stagnating and the race is slowly dying out. A mission is planned to take a rocket to the sun and restart it. One man promises to return to his girlfriend and he does, in a way.

Not a lot of plot here, but plenty of imagery and emotion.

Run from the Fire by Harry Harrison
A lawyer from our time is recruited by a group of men trying to save alternative times and worlds. He is assigned to help a group of American Indians who rule what we think of as the United States to leave their time which has rendered the continent an inhospitable desert to a new, lush world. The only problem is, they must defeat a group of South Africans who have launched an invasion of that world.

Harry Harrison writes action and there is plenty of action in this story. It’s a little light on character development, but the plot moves quickly and it is a fun read.

At the Core by Larry Niven
A manufacturer of spaceship hulls builds the ultimate craft in terms of speed. However, it is entirely impractical. While it is hundreds of times faster than the fastest ship, it is a mammoth and only has enough space for one person. The company decides to hire a pilot to take it to the core of the galaxy as a publicity stunt. When the pilot gets there, he learns what will be the ultimate fate of the galaxy and the ship manufacturer is not happy about the news.

This story was a yawner. It had poorly developed characters, a thin plot that did not inspire this reader, and dull action. While not too badly written, it just was not a good science fiction story. It was a little heavy on the science and a little light on the fiction.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber
A young boy leaves his family’s home to go out into the frozen world that was once Earth to get a pail of frozen oxygen. He recounts how the Earth was ripped from the orbit of the sun by a passing “dark star” and how the world became a frozen wasteland where nobody survived but them. But when he sees a light winking in the building across the street, he thinks maybe he and his small family are not alone.

I read this story as a kid and loved it. I’d forgotten about it over the years and reading it again was like finding an old toy you loved as a child, but had misplaced years ago. It’s horribly old fashioned writing and ancient science, but still great fun.

King of the Hill by Chad Oliver
In an overpopulated world where wildlife has been squeezed out, an eccentric billionaire maintains a private wildlife preserve which is the only place he can find peace. He decides to put his billions to work to preserve what is left of earth’s creatures – but in a bizarre way. His experiment succeeds, but not as he’d planned.

This was a well crafted story with an informal narrative that reminds one of Stephen King. However, it has that pitiful, “ain’t we humans just the worst things ever?” tone to it that I just loathe. It makes me want to tell the writer to join another species if he doesn’t like the one he’s part of.

The New Atlantis by Ursula K. LeGuin
In a dystopian world ruled by oppressive government bureaucracies, a professional musician lives with her physicist husband. On a bus trip, a man tells her of two new continents rising – one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific – as North America slowly sinks. The woman has visions of these old/new continents.

The story is pretty thin and LeGuin only feints at a plot. The real substance of the story is in the woman’s visualizations of the new continents. It reminds one of H.P. Lovecraft describing his distorted worlds inhabited by the Old Ones. This story was elegantly and beautifully written.

Seeds of the Dusk by Raymond Z. Gallun
A plant spore from another planet lands on post apocalyptic Earth where most of mankind now resides underground. It takes root and forms a symbiotic relationship with a semi-intelligent crow. When a human attacks the crow who tries to warn him that the plants will take over, the man badly wounds the crow. He then decides to throw his lot in with the plants.

This story was mildly entertaining with perhaps a subtext of the dangers of introducing non-indigenous species to a new habitat. The plants could have been more menacing.

Dark Benediction by Walter Miller, Jr.
A plague from outer space has come to earth, locked inside little meteors. The disease causes the skin to turn gray and its victims to hallucinate and long to touch other people, infecting them. Those not infected flee into the country and the cities become lawless. Through this post apocalypse, a man making his way through Houston rescues a girl from would be rapists who turns out to be a plague victim. He normally would have fled from her or killed her, but he finds himself drawn to her. She has suffered a bullet wound to the leg, so he drives her to Galveston where he has heard there are doctors working on a cure. When he arrives in Galveston, he finds an entire community of Catholic “dermies” who explain the true nature of the “ailment” to him.

This was one of the finest stories I’ve ever read inside or outside the genre. The story is well paced. The characters are well developed. There’s no leaps in logic and, like his most famous story, A Canticle for Leibowitz, the story contains strong spiritual overtones.

The Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley
A man walks into a store, carrying all his worldly goods. He has heard that here, at the Store of the Worlds, if you turn over all your worldly possessions, you can walk out and live for just a while any life you want to live. After arriving and discussing it with the proprietor, the man decides to return home and think it over while tending to his job and family.

Much more interesting than it sounds. I didn’t see the twist coming at first, but it became apparent what was going to happen. Nonetheless, it was a entertaining and engaging short story.

How It Was When the Past Went Away by Robert Silverberg
A drug is introduced into the San Francisco public water system that wipes out large chunks of memory of the city’s citizens who drink it. Relationships are fundamentally altered. Marriages and divorces forgotten. Tragedies and triumphs are forgotten. The story follows the lives of seven people who deal with the crisis in their own way. Some benefit and some lose.

This story was way outside the norms of science fiction and more closely resembled something Michael Crichton or a Hollywood hack would crank out for a movie. But Silverberg makes it work by keeping his plot from wandering and developing his characters wonderfully.

Shark Ship by C.M. Kornbluth
In the future, a large part of humanity will abandon that land masses on ships and live their entire lives at sea. When one ship hits a storm and loses the nets it needs to maintain the survival of the thousands aboard, the captain opts to return to land for the first time in six generations. There, they find remnants of a culture that was so obsessed with suppressing public sexual expression that it turned to violence as the cornerstone of its culture.

Kornbluth takes way too much time in over explaining his thinly veiled subtext. The action is almost nil and it feels like the author is lecturing rather than trying to entertain.

This book was a well edited mix of hard, speculative, and post apocalyptic science fiction. It also had a nice mix of Golden Age pulp writers and modern writers of science fiction.

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