Review: Great Science Fiction by Scientists, ed. by Groff Conklin

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Mike Brotherton’s anthology, Science Fiction by Scientists, for Tangent. This inspired me to read Groff Conklin’s Great Science Fiction by Scientists, which I’d had laying around for awhile. It’s a 1962 anthology from Collier which includes sixteen stories (mostly post-WWII, including two original stories, but going back to 1926) written by people ranging from those with scientific training to those who actually  practice science. The stories themselves are sometimes surprisingly unscientific, though most of them are science fiction and some are pretty typical hard SF. Conklin makes the odd editorial non-decision to present them alphabetically by author which leads to a rather random feel and some odd streaks (for instance, the first story is a fantasy and the last six are fairly weak). It does have several strong stories, though.

Only two primary clusters really struck me, though there are another two lesser clusters. One is of surprisingly melodramatic stories which are, in some cases, even more surprisingly effective. J. B. S. Haldane’s “The Gold-Makers” is probably the strongest of these, dealing with a complicated noir mob-like plot turning on the financial implications of being able to create gold, with some parties trying to achieve this and others trying to suppress it. This is wrapped in an “I’m publishing this true story as fiction” wrapper, which is entertaining. Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” may offend modern sensibilities, though it’s actually somewhat ahead of the curve of its time of writing (1926). It’s set in darkest Africa and deals with a scientist manipulating the tribe that has captured him, initially for self-preservation and eventually for more grandiose reasons. A couple of Europeans happen upon this situation and get involved. “The Ultimate Catalyst” by Eric Temple Bell (John Taine), is another jungle tale, this time in a South American dictator’s realm and is a sort of “Jungle of Doctor Moreau” tale which creaks and clunks a bit with its exotic horror trappings involving strange fungi but is fairly readable. Norbert Weiner’s “The Brain” is another mob tale involving a brain surgeon. It’s odd that scientists, being especially interested in causality and probability would write so many stories in which the plotting is markedly contrived or convenient but there are several such tales here and this is one of them.

The second group involves entities coming to wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence or other issues, sometimes with the “crackpot” with the “crazy theories” really being a misunderstood genius and the only one who’s even close to being correct. The best of these is the excellent “Learning Theory” by James (V.) McConnell. It focuses on confirmation bias and turns the table on a psychologist by having him get abducted by aliens and put through his paces in accordance with their pet theories, so to speak. Very clever and with a sound critique of a scientific problem. On the other hand, Leo Szilard’s “Grand Central Terminal” just has some aliens, on earth after we’ve blown ourselves up, trying to figure out why metal disks were placed in excretion chambers and trying to save a crackpot’s reputation by shooting down its crazy theories. Finally, “John Sze’s Future” by John R. Pierce (J. J. Coupling) is a rather weak piece original to this book which uses more confirmation bias and linguistic ambiguity to poke some fun at John “C”ampbell and his love of “psi.”

While the last two of those touch on humans doing bad things with the atom or otherwise going extinct, handling that subject isn’t their primary objective. It is the primary objective of Ralph S. Cooper’s fiction article “The Neutrino Bomb,” Louis N. Ridenour’s “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse” (a “playlet in one act”), and Chan Davis’ more conventionally narrated “after the bomb” story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug.” None of these are particularly successful as fiction though Davis’ is the best of them.

Other than the interior of a ship in “Learning Theory,” we only leave Earth twice and move to a supposedly alternate Earth once. That’s disappointing in itself but perhaps the most disappointing story in the book for me was “A Martian Adventure” (aka “At the Perihelion”) by Willy Ley (aka Robert Willey). I was excited because: it’s Willy Ley; it’s Mars; it’s a long novella. It does have some good discussions of orbital mechanics and such but, alas, to call its plot “picaresque” would be kind and even I, who usually ignore “social datedness” as irrelevant, was struck by the approach to (even low level) native life and the human woman. On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke’s tale of “man against the elements” with “Summertime on Icarus” was superb, being strongly plotted and making me feel like I was on Icarus myself. Both stories, oddly, deal with extreme heat in space. The alternate world story is Miles J. Breuer’s memorable “The Gostak and the Doshes,” which tells of a guy slipping into an earth in which people madly emote over senseless slogans rather than using reason. (These days, this earth feels like the alternate one.) It’s rather lazily plotted but makes up for it with its other excellences.

Of the remaining tales, Conklin bizarrely selects Isaac Asimov’s fantasy, “What If…” which involves a married couple seeing alternate paths presented to them by a weird guy with a hypnotism ball. Conklin defends the selection by saying it’s “completely charming” and that it’s “by Asimov.” Well, everything by Asimov is by Asimov and I don’t pick up Great Science Fiction by Scientists to read even completely charming fantasies. It is a fine story, of course, but not a great choice. Then there’s “Kid Anderson,” an android boxer tale from R(obert) S. Richardson which has another contrived plot and isn’t very good, and the sociological “The Mother of Necessity” by Chad Oliver which is okay, but not particularly compelling.

To recap, I particularly liked:

  • “Summertime on Icarus” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Learning Theory” by James McConnell
  • “The Gostak and the Doshes” by Miles J. Breuer
  • “The Gold-Makers” by J. B. S. Haldane
  • and perhaps “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley

If you have a particular interest in the anthology’s subject, I mildly recommend the whole thing but, if not, hopefully you can find some of the recommended ones elsewhere because you probably wouldn’t care for the anthology itself.

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