This is the fifth volume in Lester Del Rey’s Classics of Science Fiction line I’ve discussed here (starting with The Best of Murray Leinster, The Best of Robert Bloch, The Best of Henry Kuttner, and The Best of C M Kornbluth.) I believe it may also have been the first, since it has the earliest publication date of the titles we’ve examined so far — April 1974 — and also because the cover design for the first printing (see below) was slightly different and a little rougher.
And also because, if you’re going to launch a series dedicated to the very best science fiction and fantasy writers of the century, it makes sense to start with Stanley G. Weinbaum.
This isn’t the first time we’ve covered Weinbaum’s career. The distinguished Ryan Harvey wrote a terrific retrospective three years ago, where he said, in part:
In a way, Weinbaum was science fiction’s equivalent of Robert E. Howard: a hugely talented author who died too young. But Weinbaum’s run was even shorter than Howard’s — a mere year and a half, with twelve stories published during that time. Posthumous work followed, but considering the immense talent that Weinbaum shows in his fiction — starting with his first story! — it is frustrating how little of this gold strike ever got to the surface for readers to mine.
We’re hardly the first fans to champion Weinbaum’s pulp science fiction. H.P. Lovecraft praised him highly, calling him ingenious, and stating that he stood miles above the other pulp SF writers in his ability to create genuinely alien worlds, especially in comparison to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his “inane” stories of “egg-laying Princesses.” And series editor Lester del Rey, in the June 1974 issue of IF magazine, said:
Weinbaum, more than any other writer, helped to take our field out of the doldrums of the early thirties and into the beginnings of modern science fiction.
Pretty heavy claims. So exactly who was this writer who won such adoration and devotion, even decades after his death?
Stanley G. Weinbaum lived in Madison, Wisconsin. His first publication was The Lady Dances, a romantic novel serialized in Depression-era newspapers in early 1934. But his first real acclaim came with his first science fiction story, “A Martian Odyssey,” which appeared in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories.
“A Martian Odyssey” remains one of the most famous SF tales ever written — pretty good for a first story. When the Science Fiction Writers of America voted on the best science fiction short stories published before 1966 (when first the Nebulas were awarded), “A Martian Odyssey” came second only to Asimov’s classic “Nightfall.”
Hidden in this obscure magazine, “A Martian Odyssey” had the effect on the field of an exploding grenade. With this single story, Weinbaum was instantly recognized as the world’s best living science fiction writer, and at once almost every writer in the field tried to imitate him.
Asimov also calls Weinbaum “The Second Nova” of science fiction (the first being, appropriately enough, E.E. “Doc” Smith, whose 1928 debut, The Skylark of Space, was the first Space Opera, and the third being Robert E. Heinlein. Modestly enough, Asimov claims that his own arrival in the field, with a handful of minor stories, was not nearly impressive enough to constitute a “nova”).
Weinbaum published only a baker’s dozen stories in his lifetime, before lung cancer took his life in 1935, scarcely 17 months after the publication of “A Martian Odyssey.” He was only 33.
Fifteen other stories appeared after his death, including three novels: The Black Flame, first published in the January 1939 Startling Stories, The New Adam, and The Dark Other.
But with that bare handful of tales, Weinbaum carved out a legacy that has endured for over eight decades. Even today he is regarded as one of the finest early science fiction writers and his tales remain some of the best examples of fast-paced pulp SF. He was an early innovator and moved the entire genre forward, especially in the way it perceived and imagined aliens and exotic alien settings.
Nine of his most famous stories, for example, share a consistent setting, making them one of the first examples of a Future History. His Solar System was scientifically accurate (by 1930 standards, anyway), with a habitable Mars and Earthlike conditions on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, due to radiated heat from the heart of the great gas giants.
The Planetary series, as it came to be called, featured a host of fascinating alien creatures, including birdlike Martians (featured in “A Martian Odyssey” and its sequel “Valley of Dreams,” and mentioned in “Redemption Cairn”) and The Red Peri and the Venusian trioptes (in “Parasite Planet,” “The Lotus Eaters,” and “The Mad Moon.”)
Even today, The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum remains a highly readable and enjoyable collection, a great example of early science fiction that exhibits the finest pulp virtues: fast action, colorful settings and characters, and terrific storytelling.
Here’s the back cover text:
The Wondrous Worlds and Awesome Aliens of Stanley G. Weinbaum
“A Martian Odyssey”
Journey through a nightmare hell with Tweel — a pretty shrewd bird — as a guide!
“The Adaptive Ultimate”
Kyra could counter any threat… except herself
Sworn enemies, the man and the woman had to join forces or die.
“The Worlds of If”
A second chance is just as easy to blow as the first one.
“The Mad Moon”
Its natives were start raving mad… and the human colonists couldn’t be sure about their own sanity!
There and the seven other stories in this collection display the vigor and talent of the writer whose first story made him, as Isaac Asimov points out in theintroduction, “Instantly recognized as the world best living science fiction writer.”
And here’s the complete table of contents.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Second Nova, Isaac Asimov
“A Martian Odyssey,” (Wonder Stories, 1934)
“Valley of Dreams,” (Wonder Stories, 1934)
“The Adaptive Ultimate,” (Astounding, 1935)
“Parasite Planet,” (Astounding, 1935)
“Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” (Wonder Stories, 1935)
“Shifting Seas,” (Amazing, 1937)
“The Worlds of If,” (Wonder Stories, 1935)
“The Mad Moon,” (Astounding, 1935)
“Redemption Cairn,” (Astounding, 1936)
“The Ideal,” (Wonder Stories, 1935)
“The Lotus Eaters,” (Astounding, 1935)
“Proteus Island,” (Astounding, 1936)
“Stanley G. Weinbaum: A Personal Recollection,” Robert Bloch
The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum was published by Ballantine Books in April 1974. It is 306 pages and was priced at $1.65. It went through multiple printings (my copy is a 1979 third printing), but has not been reprinted since. The digital edition is $1.99.
So far we’ve covered the following volumes in the Classics of Science Fiction line (in order of publication):
The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum
The Best of Fritz Leiber
The Best of Henry Kuttner
The Best of John W. Campbell
The Best of C M Kornbluth
The Best of Philip K. Dick
The Best of Fredric Brown
The Best of Edmond Hamilton
The Best of Murray Leinster
The Best of Robert Bloch
The Best of Jack Williamson
The Best of Hal Clement
The Best of James Blish
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.