Book Review: The End of the World (1956), ed. Donald Wollheim
March 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
(Ed Emshwiller’s? cover for the 1956 edition)
The End of the World (1956) is a highly readable collection of short works by some of the leading figures of the 50s: Robert Heinlein, Edmond Hamilton, Philip K. Dick, and Arthur C. Clarke are the most notable contributors. All the works, including the short by the virtually unknown author Amelia Reynolds Long, have appeared in other volumes but it’s nice to have them grouped according to theme with a quality Ace edition 50s Emshwiller cover.
Wollheim gathers together a fascinating range of accounts of the end of the world — seen through the eyes of aliens, humans from the present viewing the future, the last men on earth surveying the ruins, a robotic bomb who thinks it’s human and “accidentally” triggers the end of the world, and the soon to be annihilated running for their lives. The dark subject matter (perfectly manifest in Philip K. Dick’s devastating ’Impostor’) is tempered by a few lesser pulp pieces and unfortunately, a banal pseudo-satire by Heinlein (the worst installment).
Philip K. Dick’s ‘Impostor’ and Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Rescue Party’ are two of my favorite science fiction shorts and merit tracking down the volume. Even the lesser contributions other than Heinlein’s dismal installment — Alfred Coppel’s ‘Last Night of Summer’ for example — are highly readable.
Collections likes these hint at the wide range of suspenseful, thoughtful, and disturbing works that emerged from the 30s-50s — generally considered an era of sci-fi naïveté when it comes predicting the influence of technology, future human development, etc.
Short Story Summaries (some spoilers)
‘The Year of the Jackpot’ (1952) (43 pages) Robert A. Heinlein 2/5 (Bad): Heinlein’s satirical ‘The Year of the Jackpot’ is yet another underwhelming short story of his extensive oeuvre. The tale follows a statistician who discovers that the world is on the way out — due to man’s increasing silliness. Here Heinlein engages in a satirical lampooning of the cultural mores (prescribed gender roles, prudish dress codes, etc) and political environment of the 50s (the Cold War). One of the silly acts suggesting/hastening the end are random occurrences of women taking off their clothes in public — even normally prudish women who prefer to undress under their nighties. Unfortunately, this satirical exercise is a real slog and one of the worst stories of the volume.
Yes, a few of Heinlein’s themes on are on display, marriage as a personal decision needing little ceremony, a loosening of the repressive social mores of the day, etc…. Fans of Heinlein will obviously disagree with my assessment and look forward to reading a work that develops (in a more satirical vein) a few of the themes found in his later “classic” Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
‘Last Night of Summer’ (1954) (10 pages) Alfred Coppel 4/5 (Good): A temperature spike due to various astronomical occurrences threatens to wipe out all but one million of Earth’s inhabitants who can fit in specially designed burrows. Only selectively distributed disks will allow entry into the burrows. The rest of humanity resorts to drugs, raucous parties, and the like. Our hero’s wife kills a man for his disks in order to save herself…. But should he save his wife and himself or their two daughters? Coppel’s vision is vividly conveyed — the impending disaster seems real as are the all too human reactions of the majority who will not be saved. The end is poignant and unforced. Worth reading.
‘Impostor’ (1953) (18 pages) Philip K. Dick 5/5 (Brilliant): *spoilers* PKD’s ‘Impostor’ is my favorite science fiction short story. Told in an unadorned fashion the horror of the situation is conveyed with rather startling ramifications. Earth is engaged in a war with aliens… The aliens develop a robotic humanoid bomb which penetrates shields hastily erected around Earth’s cities. The robotic bomb hones in on its victim, kills him, and downloads his memories. But, the “new man” is designed to not know he’s the bomb! The story follows Olham — a scientist — who is arrested by his comrades for being the alien device. They take him to the Moon to dismantle his body and explode the bomb out of harm’s way. Olham protests his innocence, reveals memories only his best friends would remember. But…
Devastatingly effective — one of best works of the 50s. A movie version by the same name was made with Gary Sinise a while back — avoid at all costs.
‘Rescue Party’ (1946) (33 pages) Arthur C. Clarke 5/5: One of Clarke’s best…. A federation of peacefully coexisting alien species in a large survey vessel come to rescue as many humans as possible due to an eventual supernova. When they arrive, they are unable to find any survivors. A few members of the survey team are accidentally stuck an a underwater subway. Instead of rescuing humans the aliens have to rescue their comrades. But a fascinating mystery remains….
Clarke is adept at conveying a mostly peaceful future of aliens working together — clearly and poignantly manipulating the trope of EVIL INVADERS emerge from the deep of space. Highly recommended.
‘Omega’ (1932) (17 pages) Amelia Reynolds Long 2.5/5 (Bad): ’Omega’ is an unremarkable pulp sci-fi number by a virtually unknown author. I might track down few more of her twenty or so short stories because I’m intrigued by early female pulp science fiction authors (Judith Merril, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, etc). A brilliant scientist develops technology to transfer a man’s consciousness into the future – technobabble ensues. A murderer volunteers to have his mind transfered and reports on mankind’s future development. And after the third day of moving forward in time the murderer’s consciousness views the death of mankind and only ruins remain. As the “days” pass his body in the “present” becomes more and more deformed. Long inverts Genesis’ creation in six days by depicting destruction in six days. Readable.
‘In the World’s Dusk’ (1936) (15 pages) Edmond Hamilton 3.25/5 (Average): My first exposure to Edmond Hamilton! An interesting but unspectacular pseudo-allegorical tale of the last man on Earth and his desperate (and sinister) attempts to resurrect/recreate the human race. Told with a somewhat heavy-handed manner (feel melancholic NOW!) à la most 1930s sci-fi I’ve read. Hamilton almost achieves his desired effect — searing loss, unusual emptiness, bleak landscapes. The intriguing twist ending is too unbelievable to fully register its implications.
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