The Best of Hal Clement (Del Rey, 1979). Cover by H. R. Van Dongen
The Best of Hal Clement (1979) was, according to my research, the nineteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. (Only two more to go!) Lester Del Rey (1915–1993) provided the introduction (his fifth and final in the series). Hal Clement, whose real name was Henry Clement Stubbs (1922–2003), was still living at the time and thus available to do the Afterward. Sci-fi artist H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) provides his eighth cover in the series. His work graced more volumes than any other artist in the series.
The first time I heard of Hal Clement was in a Black Gate post by John O’Neill back in 2013 about this very book. As usual, John gave a fine review. But I commented back then (you can still see my response in the original post):
This review in no way enticed me to seek out or try reading any Hal Clement. I don’t think it was a bad review, Clement just doesn’t sound very compelling to me.
Why this reaction? In that post John O’Neill accurately summed up Clement’s writing:
Clement wrote in a category that is nearly extinct today: true hard science fiction, in which The Problem — the scientific mystery or engineering puzzle at the heart of the tale — is the central character, and the flesh-and-blood characters that inhabit the story are there chiefly to solve The Problem. When Clement talked about writing, he mostly talked about the requirement to keep his stories as scientifically accurate as possible; he described the essential role of science fiction readers as “finding as many as possible of the author’s statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them.”
John further commented, “Okay, that ain’t how I view my role as a reader — and I read a fair amount of hard SF. But your mileage may vary.”
So, to say the least, I was not looking forward to reviewing The Best of Hal Clement. “Hard” science fiction does not sound like my cup of tea. Nevertheless, to my surprise, I really enjoyed this book.
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The Best of Jack Williamson (Del Rey, 1978). Cover by Ralph McQuarrie
The Best of Jack Williamson (1978) was, according to my research, the fifteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Frederik Pohl (1919–2013) provided the introduction (his second in the series, he also did the intro for The Best of C. M. Kornbluth). Jack Williamson (1908–2006), who was still living at the time, does the Afterword. The famous sci-fi artist Ralph McQuarrie (1929–2012) provides his first (and only) cover in the series.
Jack Williamson’s writing career spans close to a century! He began professionally writing all the way back in the Hugo Gernsback “scientifiction” pulps, and continued all the way up to and beyond the Star Trek/Star Wars science fiction popularization of the late Twentieth Century. In addition to winning several awards such as the Hugos and Nebulas, the Science Fiction Writers of America named Williamson its second Grand Master in 1976, the first being Robert Heinlein (1907–1988). Also, in 1994 Williamson received a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement and in 1996 he was part of the inaugural class of inductees into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. He received various other awards before his death in 2006 at the ripe old age of 98.
Given this long and illustrious career, it beggars no disbelief that the fourteen stories in The Best of Jack Williamson represent over fifty years of his writing. Presented in chronological order, the earliest stories are pure juvenile pulps and progress up through the “New Wave”-ish/Harlan Ellison era to darker themes and more mature stories. Though The Best of Jack Williamson is clearly the work of one science fiction writer, it can also be seen as a sort of panoramic history of science fiction in the Twentieth Century in general. Williamson was diverse but various themes seem to recur.
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Cover designed by Ella Laytham
The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones
Saga Press (310 pages, $26.99 hardcover/$7.99 ebook, July 14, 2020)
Stephen Graham Jones has been a force on the horror scene for well over a decade now. His first major book Demon Theory came out back in 2007. But he quickly became a regular in many horror anthologies and magazines in the ensuing years and he has over two dozen books to his name including the amazing collection When the People Lights Go Out (2014) and his werewolf novel Mongrels (2016).
I first came across Stephen Graham Jones around 2013 in an anthology that included his gut-wrenching short-story “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit.” That story is still one of the most heartbreaking “horror” stories I’ve ever read. Another story of his that really sticks out to me is his “The Darkest Part” in Ellen Datlow’s edited Nightmare Carnival 2014, which I raved about here on Black Gate a few years ago. Though I have not read all of Jones’ stories, I have found him to have a consistent ability to evoke a range of raw emotions, all within the satisfying milieu of the clearly recognizable genre of supernatural horror.
Jones’ latest novel is no exception. The Only Good Indians is packed with wallops of horrific fright as well as some very upsetting and traumatic scenes, emotionally and viscerally so. Jones is himself Native American and most of his stories that I have read have Native American main characters. Given the title of his new novel, it should be no surprise that the main characters here are Native American as well. But The Only Good Indians also takes place within contemporary Native American life, including reservation or “rez” life: its idiosyncrasies, its glories, and most fervently of all, its tragedies.
And, in my humble opinion this is what makes The Only Good Indians so uniquely good — and for me, very thought-provoking.
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Cover by H. R. Van Dongen
The Best of Eric Frank Russell (1978) was the eighteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Alan Dean Foster (1946–) provides the introduction, his first and only introduction for the series. H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) does his seventh cover (far surpassing Dean Ellis’s five). Since Eric Frank Russell (1905–1978) was unavailable at the time this volume was compiled, no Afterword is included.
Alan Dean Foster relates in the introduction that during a lunch with John Campbell they realized they both had the same favorite sci-fi writer: Eric Frank Russell. But both lamented (this was 1968) that Russell no longer wrote that much. This seems like very high praise, since it comes from two very influential figures in the sci-fi field. But who was Eric Frank Russell, and why did he quit writing?
Eric Frank Russell was a British writer (which I found surprising since his dialogue sounds American to my reading). He grew up in a military family, but didn’t serve in the military until World War II. Most of his early life was spent writing for American and British pulp magazines. He also produced a few novels, some fairly successful, including Sinister Barrier (1943) and Wasp (1957), which was optioned by Ringo Starr of The Beatles, but never filmed.
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The Best of L. Sprague de Camp
(Science Fiction Book Club edition, 1978. Cover by Richard Corben)
The Best of L. Sprague De Camp (1978) was the fifteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Poul Anderson (1926–2001) gives the introduction. Darrel Sweet (1934–2011) does his second cover of the series, the first being The Best of Cordwainer Smith. L. Sprague De Camp (1907–2000), still living at the time, wrote the afterword.
I’m a fairly late-comer to science fiction. I grew up with Star Wars and typical sci-fi shows and movies of the late 70s and 80s, but my reading picks tended to be more towards fantasy and horror. So, like many of these classic sci-fi authors in the Del Rey series, L. Sprague De Camp was a new name to me. And it’s interesting, I think, how one can come to a new writer.
In all honesty, I was not looking forward to reading this volume. Most of what I’ve read of and about De Camp hasn’t given me the most favorable impression. Case in point: A couple of years ago I compared De Camp’s Robert E. Howard (REH) biography with Mark Finn’s. If you know anything about De Camp’s reputation among many REH fans, you’ll know that it is usually less than favorable (again, see my earlier post for more details). And, after reading De Camp’s REH bio, I came around to agreeing with some of this critical press. In short, I thought that De Camp could often come off as conceited with his overly bold claims, especially given his tendency of providing insufficient evidence — or none at all!
But after reading The Best of L. Sprague De Camp, I have to say that despite his reputation with many an REH fan, this has become one of my favorite volumes in the Del Rey series. I found De Camp to be a very fascinating writer. Two things, I think, really stand out in his science fiction writing.
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The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun (1978) was the seventeenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. J. J. Pierce returns to give the introduction to this volume. H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) does his fifth cover of the series (tying with Dean Ellis at this point). Raymond Z. Gallun (1911–1994), still living at the time, did the Afterword.
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database reports that Gallun (rhymes with “balloon,” not pronounced “gallon”) wrote five novels, including The Planets Strappers (1961, see Rich Horton’s review here), The Eden Cycle (1974) and Skyclimber (1981), but these were written later in his life. Most of Gallun’s writing career is comprised of dozens of short stories and serials. Like so many of the authors in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series, Gallun had been a prolific writer in the pre-WWII heyday of the pulp magazines. But unlike many pulp authors, including many in this series, Gallun seems to have stayed mostly within the sci-fi genre instead of branching out to fantasy, horror, detective, etc. And we’re talking “old school” science fiction!
Overall, I’ve liked the majority of the authors that I’ve read thus far in the Del Rey series. But there have been some that I liked better than others. I found Frederik Pohl and John Campbell both a little hard to get into, and I found Cordwainer Smith very difficult to sync with, though there were stories in all of these collections I enjoyed. But I have to say that I really, really struggled reading The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun, more than any other book in this series so far.
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The Best of Murray Leinster (1978) was the fourteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. J. J. Pierce returns to give the introduction to this volume. H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) returns to do his fourth cover of the series, having done the cover for the seventh volume in honor of John W. Campbell, the tenth volume in honor of Fredric Brown, and the eleventh in honor of Jack Williamson. Since Leinster was already passed away in 1978, no afterword is included in this volume.
Murray Leinster (1896–1975) was the nom de plume of American writer William Fitzgerald Jenkins. Pierce refers to Leinster as ‘The Dean of Science Fiction”, clearly showing a deep respect for him, and I think also an indication of Leinster’s representativeness as an early and grand leader of pulp SF.
I’ve often heard early pulp SF described as basically following “engineer-solving” plots. I think I’ve understood what this meant, and I know I’ve seen examples of these in earlier volumes of the Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. But Leinster is sort of a practitioner of this sort of plotting par excellence. What do I mean? Leinster’s plots tend to center upon some difficult problem that is presented as unsolvable (or nearly so), but by the end of the story the problem is usually solved in some sort of rational or scientific way. At first blush, this may sound fairly boring, and it has the potential to come off as overly preachy about the goodness of science. But in reading Leinster, you often get pulled into the problem of the story, and are sometimes surprised with how science answers or attempts to answer the issue at hand.
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The Best of Robert Bloch (Del Rey, 1977). Cover by Paul Alexander
The Best of Robert Bloch (1977) was the thirteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Lester Del Rey himself gives the introduction to this volume. Paul Alexander (1937–) does his first cover for the series, a very lively one based upon Bloch’s folktale “That Hell-bound Train.” The afterword was by Robert Bloch (1917–1994) himself.
When John O’Neill began first doing posts on some of these Del Rey editions a few years ago, the one that most intrigued me was his post on this Bloch volume. I was of course familiar with Bloch as the author of Psycho (1959), which was famously made into the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name in 1960. I also knew that Bloch was part of the vaunted “Lovecraft Circle,” having exchanged letters as a young author with famed weird author H. P. Lovecraft, even having the honor of becoming a protagonist/victim, named “Robert Blake,” in one of Lovecraft’s tales: “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936).
But I hadn’t really read that much of Bloch. But buying The Best of Robert Bloch soon fixed that.
Like most writers who cut their teeth on the early pulps, Bloch wrote widely and in various genres. Most pulp writers, in order to make anything close to approaching a living, had to be able to write everything from sci-fi to suspense thrillers. Bloch did as well. But given his association with Lovecraft, and his fame in connection with Psycho, I would’ve thought that The Best of Robert Bloch would tend to focus more on horror, or horror-related themes. And there was much here that fits with that genre.
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Robert E. Howard (1906–1936) is most famously known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. But he was a very prolific pulp writer of various genres who created several other memorable characters including Solomon Kane and Kull, gracing the pages of Weird Tales and various other pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s.
To celebrate the importance of this writer, Robert E. Howard Days exists as an annual event (first weekend of every June) that brings together Robert E. Howard (REH) fans and scholars to celebrate the life of this great pulp writer. This event takes place every year in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, the hometown of REH. The primary locus of events takes place at the Robert E. Howard Museum, which was actually the home of REH and his parents, and the place where most of his greatest stories were written.
After years of planning to attend Howard Days, I finally bit the bullet and made the road trip to Cross Plains (from Minnesota!) After arriving in Abilene late Wednesday, I got up early Thursday morning in order to drive to Brownwood (30 minutes or so south of Cross Plains) to go to Greenleaf Cemetery where REH’s grave resides.
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The Best of Fredric Brown (1977) was the tenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. The then living horror author Robert Bloch (1917–1994) gives the introduction. H. R. Van Dongen (1920–2010) returns to do his second cover in the series, having done the cover for the seventh volume in honor of John W. Campbell.
There is no afterword since, generally, the series seems to include an afterword by the author only if (fair enough) the author was living at the time. Since Fredric Brown had already died (1906–1972) by the time this book was published there is no afterword.
I first heard of Fredric Brown a few years ago here at Black Gate. Our own esteemed editor John O’Neill was reminiscing about this very book. As with so many of John’s Del Rey “Best of” posts, I was intrigued and tracked down a copy. I read through the book and enjoyed many of the stories.
But, my main memory of Brown was primarily one of annoyance.
At that time Brown struck me as an author who often tried to be too cute for his own good. My impression was not helped when I picked up his short novel Martians, Go Home (1954) a few months later. I enjoy a bit of humor in my fiction. But I guess I was not in the mood for something like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the time.
I also found the twist endings of many of Brown’s short stories to be less than satisfying. So when I started to go through this series for reviews on Black Gate, I was not looking forward to returning to Fredric Brown.
But upon re-reading this volume, I surprisingly found that my prior annoyance had dissipated. What changed?
I am convinced that one’s reading is sometimes greatly affected by the context of one’s life. Perhaps the first time I read The Best of Fredric Brown I just was not in the mood to experience, what the book’s back cover calls, the “Wit and Whimsy of Fredric Brown.” Perhaps I wanted my fiction to be a bit more serious. And perhaps I was living in the post-hangover era of M. Night Shyamalan movie twist-endings. Whatever it was, this go-around was much more enjoyable.
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