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Vintage Treasures: The Best of Murray Leinster

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

The Best of Murray LeinsterI first encountered Murray Leinster… wow, I don’t even know when. Probably in The Hugo Winners, Isaac Asimov’s 1962 anthology collecting the first short stories to win science fiction’s coveted prize.

It featured Leinster’s 1956 novelette, “Exploration Team,” about a desperate rescue attempt on a distant planet — involving an illegal settler blackmailed into helping a lost colony, and his team of Kodiak bears. Lost colonies, deadly aliens, and even more deadly bears… that’s the kind of story that sticks in your mind when you’re twelve, believe me.

Leinster died in 1975; he published his last book, a novelization of the Land of the Giants TV series, in 1969. But he was a steady presence on bookstore shelves during my formative reading years for well over a decade after his death, with reprint titles like The Med Series (Ace, 1983) and The Forgotten Planet (Carroll & Graf, 1990).

The mass market reprints have tapered off over the last few years. The last were all from Baen, a trio of excellent collections all edited by Eric Flint and Guy Gordon: Med Ship (2002), Planets of Adventure (2003), and A Logic Named Joe (2005).

Since then, the wheels of publishing have ground on, as they do, abandoning Leinster by the side of the road. We did our part to keep his memory alive, of course. I reprinted one of Leinster’s earliest pulp tales, “The Fifth-Dimension Catapult,” from the January 1931 Astounding Stories of Super-Science, in Black Gate 9.

There have also been low-budget digital editions of his out-of-copyright pulp fiction, sure, but by and large the genre — as living genres should — has focused instead on new and emerging authors.

I used to think that was inevitable. Readers have long memories, but publishing industries don’t, and when an author has been out of print for over a decade, she’s likely to remain that way.

But the brilliant Lester del Rey, publisher of Del Rey Books, proved me wrong. In fact, he proved me wrong nearly four decades ago, with a fabulous line of top-selling paperbacks collecting the best short science fiction and fantasy from the writers of the Golden Age of SF — including The Best of Murray Leinster, a collection of some of the best short SF and fantasy of the 20th Century.

In addition to “Exploration Team,” The Best of Murray Leinster includes the 1934 novella, “Sidewise in Time,” the story which essentially invented the alternate history genre.

The Forgotten PlanetIt’s still one of the most famous SF stories ever written, and the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, established in 1995 to recognize the best alternate history of the year, was named in honor of it.

It also includes “The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator” a rather ingenious time travel story from 1935, and “First Contact” (1945), a classic tale of the tension-filled first contact between a human starship and an alien vessel.

One of the hallmarks of Leinster’s fiction was that it was so different. The stories in The Best of Murray Leinster encompass classic space opera, time travel, marvelous inventions, thrilling explorations into the unknown, and laugh-out-loud humor. It’s a testament to his skill as a writer that they are still enjoyable today.

Murray Leinster was a pseudonym for William Fitzgerald Jenkins, who wrote over 1,500 short stories and articles, over a dozen movie scripts, and hundreds of radio and television plays. In addition to his enduring SF novels, he also wrote over a dozen westerns, a handful of mystery and romance novels, and even a Far East adventure, Sword of Kings (1933).

Del Rey published more than a dozen The Best of… collections, gathering some of the finest fiction of the pulp era into paperback for the first time. The line included Stanley G. Weinbaum, C. L. Moore, C. M. Kornbluth, Philip K. Dick, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Eric Frank Russell, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Cordwainer Smith, and many others.

Over the next few months, I’ll have a look at many of these volumes. They were essential to my discovery of SF and fantasy in my teen years, and they helped introduce me to many of the most important writers in the genre.

While many of the titles went through multiple printings and stayed available for years, they are now getting tougher to track down and becoming highly collectable.

Here’s the complete contents:

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Dean of Science Fiction, by John J. Pierce
Sidewise in Time (1934)
Proxima Centauri (1935)
The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator (1935)
First Contact (1945)
The Ethical Equations (1945)
Pipeline to Pluto (1945)
The Power (1945)
A Logic Named Joe (1946)
Symbiosis (1947)
The Strange Case of John Kingman (1948)
The Lonely Planet (1949)
Keyhole (1951)
Critical Difference (aka “Colonial Survey”) (1956)

The Best of Murray Leinster was edited by J.J. Pierce, and published by Del Rey in April, 1978. It is 368 pages in paperback, priced at $1.95.

So far we’ve covered the following volumes in the Classics of Science Fiction line (in order of original 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

You can find all of our recent Vintage Treasures articles here.

25 Comments »

  1. This was a wonderful series full of writers the most of whom were still fairly big names back during the 1970s. Looking at the list of titles on the first page is now a “who’s who” of the forgotten. I devoured these as fast as they were released. The Leigh Brackett, John W. Campbell, Jack Williamson, Raymond Z. Gallun, Corwainer Smith and C.L. Moore volumes were my favorites!

    Comment by doug - June 20, 2013 3:27 pm

  2. John, I’m glad you’re looking at Del Rey’s “Best of” series. The first one of those I read was the Jack Williamson volume, although the Henry Kuttner and Leigh Brackett volumes were and still are my favorites. Interestingly, the Leinster volume was the one that took the longest to find. Those, along with Asimov’s Great Sf Stories from DAW, really opened my eyes to what science fiction was and could be when I was a kid.

    In looking over Lester’s selections, it’s interesting who he included vs. who he didn’t. (Raymond Z. Gallun but not Ross Rocklynne?) I’m sure some of that was due to what rights were and weren’t available, but still it’s interesting to think about.

    But getting back to Leinster, I have to say that today he’s probably one of the most neglected authors from the 30s and 40s. (He envisioned something like the internet in “A Logic Named Joe” and I’ve lost count of how many times that’s overlooked when predictions of the internet in fiction are discussed.) I’ve read some of his work that hasn’t been widely reprinted, and much of it is every bit as good as what has. NESFA did a nice retrospective some years ago, but there’s enough out there to fill at least another large volume. (Stephen Haffner, are you listening?)

    Anyway, great post. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

    Comment by westkeith - June 20, 2013 3:30 pm

  3. The one story of Leinster’s that impressed me the most was “Proxima Centauri”. Even if the main drive of the plot is pure pulp, the way he describes human behavior during the long trip adds a realism that counter balances the more fantastic elements (i.E. Plant Men).It’s aged incredibly well when you consider that it was written “Before the Golden Age” (I read this first in the same named Asimov edited anthology). And don’t forget that the SFWA voted “First Contact” into the SF Hall of Fame.

    Comment by doug - June 20, 2013 3:58 pm

  4. I was eleven when my dad bought and read the Leinster collection. When I asked him about it he said he didn’t think I’d like it. Fortunately, that only encouraged me to give it a try. Glad I did. The gloriously pulpy “Proxima Centauri” still creeps me out.

    Looking forward to your pieces on the Del Rey collections. They’re one of the few series I’ve tried to collect and hold on to over the years.

    Comment by the wasp - June 20, 2013 4:46 pm

  5. I couldn’t agree more with all of the good words said here about Leinster. I tried to stir a little more interest in him when I wrote a little piece on him about three years ago, where I discussed a couple of his very earliest SF stories, before he matured into the writer we’ve all come to admire. For many years he was known as the “dean” of science fiction but few realize why unless they’ve read him. Here’s the link to my humble contribution to Leinster Awareness:

    http://www.tangentonline.com/the-pulp-magazines/246-the-pulp-magazines/1423-the-silver-menace-by-murray-leinster

    Comment by Dave T - June 20, 2013 6:14 pm

  6. It was one of those Best of books that I first found my 2 favorite Leigh Brackett sories: “The Veil of Astellar” and “The Jewel of Bas”. Besides Brackett I have The Best of Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton, CL Moore, Lester Del Rey, Stanley G Weinbaum (a genius who was truly ahead of his time and such a brilliant career despite being so short), and Murray Leinster.

    Comment by AmyFarmer - June 20, 2013 8:20 pm

  7. > I devoured these as fast as they were released. The Leigh Brackett, John W. Campbell, Jack Williamson,
    > Raymond Z. Gallun, Corwainer Smith and C.L. Moore volumes were my favorites!

    Doug,

    It sure is an impressive list, isn’t it?

    I thought they did a good job with the covers, too. Altogether it’s a highly collectible series of paperbacks.

    Oddly enough, the one on your list I remember with the most fondness is Raymond Z. Gallun. He was a pulp writer who never really survived the coming of Campbell, and he’d been out of print nearly 40 years when THE BEST OF RAYMOND Z GALLUN was released, but his stories still thrilled me at an early age.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 25, 2013 4:29 pm

  8. > Those, along with Asimov’s Great Sf Stories from DAW, really opened my eyes to what science fiction was and could be when I was a kid.

    Keith,

    Another great series! One that’s become ridiculously expensive to collect over the past decade, too.

    > NESFA did a nice retrospective some years ago

    Yes — FIRST CONTACTS: THE ESSENTIAL MURRAY LEINSTER collects 24 stories in a fat 464-page volume, but like you I still wish for something more complete. Overall it’s fine volume, but I think Baen did a better job with their three paperbacks.

    > but there’s enough out there to fill at least another large volume. (Stephen Haffner, are you listening?)

    Not that Stephen’s publication schedule isn’t already full as it is… but I agree that he’d do a fine job!

    Comment by John ONeill - June 25, 2013 4:34 pm

  9. > Glad I did. The gloriously pulpy “Proxima Centauri” still creeps me out.

    Fletcher,

    I’m re-reading “Proxima Centauri” now. “Gloriously pulpy” is probably being kind… Leinster is a fine writer, but wow. You need to have a high tolerance for pulp dialog to enjoy this one!

    Comment by John ONeill - June 25, 2013 4:37 pm

  10. > I tried to stir a little more interest in him when I wrote a little piece on him about three years ago, where I
    > discussed a couple of his very earliest SF stories, before he matured into the writer we’ve all come to admire.

    Dave,

    Thanks for the link! I enjoyed your review of THE SILVER MENACE and A THOUSAND DEGREES BELOW ZERO. I have to say I agree with your diagnosis of some of the prose problems of the early Leinster:

    > The downside is the crude, forced, prose. Some sentences are overlong and loaded with commas, and otherwise
    > awkwardly constructed. One can see the author straining for the proper word choices, some glaringly out of place.

    It’s impressive to see how far the author came with his later work.

    Which only makes me wonder if authors today are given anything like the same opportunity to mature and develop in the market. Highly doubtful… unless you include fan fiction as a market, maybe?

    Comment by John ONeill - June 25, 2013 4:44 pm

  11. > The one story of Leinster’s that impressed me the most was “Proxima Centauri”. Even if the main drive of the plot is pure pulp, the way he describes
    > human behavior during the long trip adds a realism that counter balances the more fantastic elements (i.E. Plant Men).

    Doug,

    I haven’t finished it yet, but I think this story deserves its own post. I’m enjoying it, but it certainly needs a high tolerance for wooden dialog and paper-thin characters!

    Maybe if I have time this week I’ll jot down some notes on the blog.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 25, 2013 4:46 pm

  12. > Besides Brackett I have The Best of Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton, CL Moore, Lester Del Rey, Stanley G Weinbaum
    > (a genius who was truly ahead of his time and such a brilliant career despite being so short), and Murray Leinster.

    Amy,

    That’s a fabulous list. I think my favorite from your list may be Edmond Hamilton (although I never finished the Brackett volume, so it’s not a fair comparison!)

    And you’re absolutely right about Weinbaum. Leonaur did a four-volume Weinbaum collection a few years back, and it’s the most complete I’ve been able to find.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 25, 2013 5:05 pm

  13. John – Just re-read it. Yeah, there’s some pretty bad dialog. And way too many exclamation points! Still, there’s a great core to the story.

    Comment by the wasp - June 25, 2013 6:40 pm

  14. […] can see my first entry in this series, The Best of Murray Leinster, here, and find all of our recent Vintage Treasures articles […]

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  15. […] these vintage Best Of collections — as I did recently with The Best of Robert Bloch and The Best of Murray Leinster — assuming that most readers have no idea who they […]

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  16. […] Vintage Treasures: The Best of Murray Leinster […]

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  17. […] See any of the previous volumes we covered in this series: The Best of Henry Kuttner, The Best of Robert Bloch, and The Best of Murray Leinster. […]

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  18. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum - August 9, 2013 3:06 pm

  19. […] a few times, but I’d never read it. It came up in the comments on my June 20th article on The Best of Murray Leinster, the first of the Classics of Science Fiction series I’ve been exploring recently. A reader […]

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  20. […] of Fritz Leiber The Best of Henry Kuttner The Best of C M Kornbluth The Best of Edmond Hamilton The Best of Murray Leinster The Best of Robert […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: The Best of Jack Williamson - August 28, 2013 12:40 pm

  21. […] of Fritz Leiber The Best of Henry Kuttner The Best of C M Kornbluth The Best of Edmond Hamilton The Best of Murray Leinster The Best of Jack Williamson The Best of Robert […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: The Best of Hal Clement - September 9, 2013 2:06 pm

  22. […] John W. Campbell The Best of C M Kornbluth The Best of Philip K. Dick The Best of Edmond Hamilton The Best of Murray Leinster The Best of Robert Bloch The Best of Jack Williamson The Best of Hal […]

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    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: The Best of James Blish - September 30, 2013 5:11 pm

  24. […] my investigation of the Classics of Science Fiction line, I started with one of the finest volumes, The Best of Murray Leinster. More recently, I looked at his creepy pulp SF tale “Proxima Centauri” on August […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: The Pirates of Zan by Murray Leinster - October 18, 2013 12:48 pm

  25. […] 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 […]

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