Review: The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl

The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl (Doubleday, 1962, hc, 248pp.) LCCN: 62-11295

“Introduction” by Frederik Pohl
“At the End of the Orbit” by Arthur C. Clarke [aka “Hate”]
“On the Feasibility of Coal-Driven Power Stations” by O. R. Frisch
“A Feast of Demons” by William Morrison (Joseph Samachson)
“The Heart on the Other Side” by George Gamow
“Lenny” by Isaac Asimov
“The Singers” by W. Grey Walter [excerpt]
“The Invasion” by Robert Willey (Willy Ley)
“To Explain Mrs. Thompson” by Philip Latham (R. S. Richardson)
“Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis [aka Chan Davis]
“The Black Cloud” by Fred Hoyle [excerpt]
“Chain Reaction” by Boyd Ellanby (Lyle and William C. Boyd)
“The Miracle of the Broom Closet” by W. Norbert (Norbert Wiener)
“Heavy Planet” by Lee Gregor (Milton A. Rothman)
“The Test Stand” by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine)
“Amateur in Chancery” by George O. Smith
“The Mark Gable Foundation” by Leo Szilard

Frederik Pohl’s introduction to this 1962 book begins by talking about how remote science has become from the layman’s perceptions and common sense, moves on to talking about how science fiction is aptly named because it is fiction infused with the sensibility of the scientific method, and concludes by talking about how yesterday’s science fiction reader has become today’s scientist and how that cycle will continue. Along the way, he cites Sturgeon’s law which indicates that 90% of SF is trash and has the corollary that that is unremarkable because 90% of everything is trash. Fortunately, though not everything in this book is gold, it defies any specific application of Sturgeon’s law. Of the fourteen stories in this collection (leaving aside the excerpts of novels by W. Grey Walter and Fred Hoyle) I recommend four and little of even the remaining 71% is trash.

Several of the 71%, especially early on, fall into a couple of classes and some of each of those classes share a common attribute. In the “more science fictional” class and having the attribute of reading well even if they don’t ultimately succeed, I’d place Arthur C. Clarke’s “At the End of the Orbit” and Boyd Ellanby’s “Chain Reaction.” The former deals with a spacecraft coming down in the ocean (a motif repeated in “Heavy Planet”) where a Hungarian diver with a hatred for Russians develops a plan to exact vengeance on the cosmonaut inside. While the narrative is intense and interesting, an element is clearly contrived and the whole thing plays on sentimentality. The latter involves a group of scientists visiting a colleague in an insane asylum. That man has been committed because he claimed to have calculated that the end of the world would be brought about by the experiment they are all involved in. That experiment has just taken place and they’ll all find out whether the “mad scientist” could have possibly been right any minute now. The scenario is compelling but I have to wonder if this is how the other scientists would spend what might be their last day on earth and there is a far more severe problem with the end which I can’t reveal without spoiling it.

Remaining at least somewhat science fictional but being less interesting from start to finish, George O. Smith is not represented here by any superb “Venus Equilateral” story but by “Amateur in Chancery” which is much like several recent SF stories I’ve read lately in that it depends on a scientific organization being indistinguishable from anarchy and involves a character who is almost literally “too stupid to live.” A sort of jump gate is established from Earth to Venus and a woman impulsively pilots a vehicle through it. Seeing a native Venusian, she assumes the atmosphere must be breathable but is rendered comatose when she exits the vehicle, doomed to die quickly but not so quickly that our scientists back on Earth can’t try to figure out how to explain to a primitive living under clouds the concepts of “left and right” so he can press the correct button to return her to Earth. All this is communicated via a telepathic human girl. There are some nice points about frames of reference and common assumptions but the story obviously constructed to make these points is deficient. The one story in the book I have a hard time finding anything good to say about is George Gamow’s “The Heart on the Other Side.” A man must win the hand of his girl by proving to her shoe-manufacturing father that his theories about there being Moebius regions on Earth is correct and, to do so, he takes a shipment of right-shoes to the Amazon to turn them into left-shoes which will help the father’s business because demolishing pre-existing methods of production and replacing them with trips to the Amazon will somehow be more economical. On his return, the suitor believes he has failed, so throws away all the shoes but discovers something on his return. This seemed more like a very old romance story with a wide streak of silliness than SF.

Speaking of things that don’t seem entirely like SF, the “more fantastic class” includes “A Feast of Demons” by William Morrison, which may be talking about entropy-reversing particles but refers to them as “demons” which contributes to the fantastic feeling. The tale of people aging backwards is strangely interesting until the end, which is probably intended to be humorous but is definitely anti-climactic. Similarly, Philip Latham’s “To Explain Mrs. Thompson,” which examines the difference between describing and explaining, also maintains interest as it takes the reverse approach and deals very matter-of-factly with the apparition of a man’s dead wife in telescopes pointed towards Andromeda with tension rising as the phenomenon comes closer to the Earth before the tale reaches its anti-climax. On the other hand, I never engaged with W. Norbert’s “The Miracle of the Broom Closet,” about a remarkable and devout janitor at a lab in Mexico contributing to an odd interplay between science and religion.

Moving to Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective. Leo Szilard’s “The Mark Gable Foundation” opens with the narrator perfecting his suspended animation technique and committing to travel 300 years into the future. He says, “I thought my views and sentiments were sufficiently advanced, and that I had no reason to fear I should be too much behind the times in a world that advanced a few hundred years beyond the present.” He changes his tune when he is awakened a mere 90 years into his journey to find a world in which having teeth is no longer socially acceptable but making a living as a sperm donor is. This 1961 story turns out to be a satire largely pointed at the moves in the late 1940s to establish a National Science Foundation. Its thesis is that making scientists become grant-chasing bureaucrats will lead to the stultification of science through safe and fashionable pursuits (and, as much as I support coherent public commitments to science, I have to admit the validity of his critiques). That aside, this would also make a timely read for today’s sufficiently advanced and morally perfect humans. While perhaps not a “satire,” O. R. Frisch’s “On the Feasibility of Coal-Driven Power Stations” is certainly satirical and an example of the sub-genre of “science fiction stories written as science fact articles.” As such, it’s lacking in fictional qualities but the notion of a future atomic-powered society discovering the radical notion of burning coal to supply power has its interest.

The last set is made up of stories which are both excellent and fully science-fictional (except one which is even further away from fantasy in being almost mainstream). Isaac Asimov’s “Lenny” is a Susan Calvin robot story in which a robot is “born” malformed through a fluke and doesn’t operate as designed but can learn. This story (not the greatest of the robot stories, but a good one) tackles several issues from the Heinleinian motif of “specialization is for insects” to methods of increasing interest in science to corner cases of the Three Laws but also focuses on Susan Calvin, herself. Asimov is not usually given credit for characterization (and didn’t take it, himself, arguing that ideas were more important in SF) but Susan Calvin is a significant and complex character creation, not least in gender terms. Created in the 1940s as a fiercely intelligent, independent, and scientific woman, she is sometimes portrayed as “unfeminine” while simultaneously having “intuition” and other supposedly feminine characteristics. Either way, this complexity is part of why she’s such a remarkable character and comes into play in this story.

Robert Willey’s “The Invasion” deals with a mysterious alien invasion in which a ship settles down and takes possession of a hydroelectric power plant. One man uses good old-fashioned engineering, sticktuitiveness, and professionalism to attempt to thwart their mysterious but deadly designs.

Similarly, Lee Correy’s “The Test Stand” involves a professional man in an era of safe rocketry narrating his experiences as a younger man when it was not safe. When a test firing failed, he and a co-worker were put into a situation which was akin to defusing a bomb, made all the more nerve-wracking by the fact that the man’s wife and child had come to see the experiment. The man learns something about himself and his job. In terms of dramatic plot and psychological effect this is reminiscent of Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” and is excellent and, being published in 1955, its subject of rockets certainly puts it into the category of very-near-future-SF but the story’s one flaw is that it could be written about literally having to defuse a bomb with much loss of science-fictional interest but little other change.

Finally, Lee Gregor’s “Heavy Planet” reads a bit like “Hal Clement meets Thunderball.” People are living on a planet with incredible gravity such that steel is almost like kleenex to them. However, they have enemies and need atomic weapons to deal with them so, when an atomic-powered spaceship goes down in the ocean, the protagonist and some of those enemies converge on the wreckage and tense combat ensues. This thrilling tale is simultaneously action- and idea-packed and I enjoyed it a lot. Considering each of the “science” and the “fiction,” “The Test Stand” is superior in the latter while this is superior in the former but both are highly recommended.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl

  1. Pingback: Asimov’s Centennial: Nine Stories, December 1940-June 1941 | Featured Futures

  2. Pingback: Science Fiction by Scientists, edited by Michael Brotherton | Featured Futures

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