Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Best of Murray Leinster (Del Rey paperback)

Of all the early masters of science fiction Murray Leinster (1896-1975) is perhaps the most underrated. He published his first science fiction story in 1919 and was still writing well into the 1960s. Del Rey’s paperback The Best of Murray Leinster includes the majority of his most admired and influential stories.

Sidewise in Time is almost certainly the earliest science fiction to deal with alternate universes/multiple universes. And it deals with these subjects in a remarkably ambitious manner, considering that the story dates from 1934.

Something very odd is happening. Viking longboats are sighted off the coast of modern Virginia. A Roman legion is marching through the streets of Joplin, Missouri. A man is killed by a dinosaur in Ohio. Professor Minott is an insignificant professor of mathematics at an insignificant college but he has figured out what is happening. More than that, he predicted it. And he has taken steps to survive. In fact he intends to do much more than survive.

Various parts of the Earth begin to oscillate between various timelines. The oscillations happen several times a day. Will they continue forever? Will things return to normal? Will our universe even survive? Professor Minott isn’t sure but he has a fair idea of the odds and he likes them. A remarkably clever and inventive story.

Proxima Centauri is from 1935. The Adastra is the first starship and after a voyage of seven years it is approaching Proxima Centauri. Hopes are high that an inhabitable planet may be found.  The Adastra is not so much a starship as an entire world. It is a sphere a mile in diameter and it is for all practical purposes entirely self-sufficient. It produces its own food. All water is endlessly recycled. It produces almost limitless energy. It could in theory undertake a voyage lasting hundreds of years, with its crew going through many generations before reaching their destination. This is one of several possible solutions to the difficulties of interstellar travel without exceeding the speed of light and this may well be the first science fiction story to explore this idea.

Leinster also explores the possible downsides. And they’re quite similar to the problems encountered on many of the early oceanic voyages of exploration. After a year or more at sea the crews tended to lose enthusiasm for the whole idea. They started to demand to return home. Disciplinary problems multiplied. Even mutiny was not unknown. And that’s what happens to the Adastra. Not actual mutiny, but an uneasy situation that could easily lead to mutiny.

And the Adastra is about to run into even bigger problems. Those who planned the expedition thought of almost everything, but there was one thing they failed to consider - what if there were inhabited planets orbiting Proxima Centauri but the inhabitants turned out to be unfriendly? What if they turned out to be unfriendly to an extreme degree? It might then turn out to be unfortunate that the Adastra is entirely unarmed.

Proxima Centauri deals with ideas that would later become commonplace in SF but it’s not only surprising to encounter them in 1935, it’s even more surprising to find them explored so cleverly.

The Fourth-dimensional Demonstrator combines humour, whimsy and an offbeat view of a possible time paradox. Pete Davidson had been hoping for a large inheritance from his uncle. All he ended up with was a fourth-dimensional demonstrator. At first it seems to be little more than an amusing toy, until Pete discovers that it can do something extraordinary  after all. It can bring an object forward out of the past. But what if the object already exists in the present?

First Contact deals with a dilemma facing the crew of a starship that has just made the first ever contact with an alien civilisation. And it’s a very tricky dilemma indeed. How can you possibly trust an alien species? And if you can’t trust them, certain very serious consequences logically follow. It’s a provocative and original story.

In The Ethical Equations a very junior officer finds himself having to shoulder an immense and unexpected responsibility. A derelict alien starship is drifting in our solar system, somewhere beyond Jupiter. Although derelict may not be the right word. This very junior officer slowly comes to realise the full significance of the situation. There’s a potential deadly menace but a tricky moral dilemma.

It’s rapidly becoming obvious that the immense and potentially catastrophic problems that contact with aliens would cause was a subject to which Leinster had given considerable thought. He is fascinated by the ethical perplexities which would confront us, the near impossibility of judging the possible intentions of aliens and by various dangers that might not be immediately obvious. Leinster doesn’t seem overly obsessed with scientific or technical details. He is more interested in the psychological and moral ramifications of first contact. And he deals with this subject with originality and intelligence.

Pipeline to Pluto deals with a stowaway, or at least a would-be stowaway, on an unmanned cargo flight to Pluto. It’s cheaper than paying for the fare for a regular spaceliner and they pay good money at the mines on Pluto so it sounds like a great idea. What could go wrong? Not as impressive as the other stories in this collection but it’s OK.

The Power is another first contact story, but a very unconventional one. Some very old letters have been found and they are the means by which the story is told. In the late fifteenth century a student of ritual magick named Carolus believes he has performed an impressive magical operation and has summoned a kind of demon. It is obvious to us that the demon is in fact an alien space traveller. He desires to pass on his knowledge to men and Carolus desires this knowledge but there is a problem. Their cultural backgrounds are simply too different to allow any meaningful communication. Carolus cannot conceive of knowledge in other than occult terms while the alien is patiently trying to teach him to construct high-tech machinery.

No matter how much goodwill there might be on both sides it might prove to be absolutely impossible to communicate with an alien species. There would simply be no intellectual common ground. It’s a great story, the best in the collection so far.

A Logic Named Joe is a remarkably prescient story dating from 1946. A logic is a kind of computer. Every home has one. They provide entertainment and information. All the logics are networked together so that each logic has access to just about every piece of information in existence. One of these logics, which the maintenance man who narrates the story calls Joe, has developed a curious fault. It has developed a kind of self-awareness, and it wants to be even more useful. It wants to offer advice to people. If you want to know how to do something you just have to ask your logic. Unfortunately the logics are now telling people how to do all sorts of things. If you want to know how to commit the perfect murder your logic will tell you. And Joe has managed to defeat the censoring mechanisms that were built in to the system. If Joe cannot be stopped civilisation will collapse. Another very clever and provocative story.

Symbiosis is a war story. The province of Kantolia has been invaded by a much more powerful neighbour. Kantolia is defended by about fifteen customs guards and a handful of policemen while the invaders have an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands plus tanks and jet fighters. The situation is hopeless. The invaders don’t have a chance. You see Kantolia does have one defence. It’s a type of what would much later become known as asymmetric warfare. Another solid and original story, written in 1947.

The Strange Case of John Kingman is a very strange case indeed. John Kingman is a patient in a mental hospital. Nobody has taken much notice of him. He is assumed to be incurable. Then a young psychiatrist decides it would be worthwhile to have a close look at the records and he discovers something rather disturbing. John Kingman was admitted to the hospital 162 years ago. Things get more disturbing when the significance of the sketches drawn by the patient finally become apparent. John Kingman knows more about atomic energy than any living scientist. Much more. Not a bad story, and yes this 1948 story is in its own way yet another first contact story.

The Lonely Planet, dating from 1949, is the story of Alyx. Alyx is a creature that lives on the planet of the same name. In fact it is the only living creature on the planet. It covers most of the planet’s surface. Alyx is not quite animal and not quite plant. It has purpose but it lacks intelligence. Or at least it lacked intelligence until it encountered men. Alyx did not realise it was lonely until it encountered other creatures. Alyx wants only companionship. It has no desire to hurt anyone. It cannot even conceive of wanting to hurt anyone. But Alyx has developed intelligence very quickly, intelligence far greater than anyone could possibly have imagined. Alyx is therefore a threat.

This story has some resemblances to Stanislaw Lem’s much later masterpiece Solaris. Alyx is not quite a sentient planet, but that’s what it becomes. The Lonely Planet is a remarkably ambitious tale of an encounter with an unimaginably alien intelligence. A superb story.

Keyhole from 1951, explores slightly similar themes to Lonely Planet. Against all the odds living creatures are discovered on the Moon. They seem quite primitive. At first. But not for long. This is another of Leinster’s obsessions - how alien civilisations impact on each other. Once two alien civilisations encounter each other the results are unpredictable and cannot be undone. Another intriguing and thought-provoking tale.

Critical Difference, written in 1956, is a struggle for survival on what seems to be a doomed planet. It’s a frozen planet to begin with but now it’s getting much much colder. Too cold to allow the colonists to survive. Colonial Survey Officer Massy has lots of ideas but every one of them seems to have a fatal flaw. If he can’t come up with an idea that will actually work it’s all over for the inhabitants of Lani III. Not one of the collections’s stronger stories but still quite good.

All in all this is a superb collection. Leinster was a science fiction writer who has clearly been criminally underrated. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I forgot what a great collection this is. Popping that back into the To-Be-Read pile -(Mine is now mostly virtual, what with all the e-books).