Reviewed by Karen Langley
There can’t be many readers of Shiny New Books who aren’t aware of the lovely British Library Crime Classics series: long out-of-print and forgotten novels and short stories from the golden age of crime fiction which the BL re-issue in striking and beautiful new covers. Now, the BL are spreading their wings and launching a similar series of Science Fiction Classics; and if the first two volumes in the series are anything to go by, it will be just as great a success!
The BL have decided to get the series underway with two collections of short stories, and as will be fairly obvious from the titles, one focuses on tales of our Moon and one on stories of Mars. The books are edited by Mike Ashley, a renowned sci fi expert, who also provides excellent and informative introductions to each volume. These put the works featured into context as well as providing an overview of fictions dealing with each planet, and it’s obvious that Ashley is going to be as essential to this series of books as Martin Edwards is to the Crime Classics. The books are also beautifully presented, as you’d expect, with each having a striking black and white drawing from Flammarion’s “Astronomie populaire” opposite the title page. The vintage artwork on the covers, by Chesley Bonestell, is also stunning.
So what of the contents? Well, each book features stories which span quite a range of time, and it’s actually a real eye-opener to learn from the introductions just how old our knowledge of these other worlds is, and just how long we’ve been writing about them. H.G. Wells features in both, as might be expected since he’s known as the father of science fiction, and an extract from “The First Men in the Moon” covers the lunar side of things. Interestingly, however, Ashley chooses not to go for “The War of the Worlds” for Mars, instead opting for a fascinating story called “The Crystal Egg”. Like other stories in these volumes, this features a kind of ‘virtual’ space travel, where Earthlings witness events on other planets without actually being there.
And the range of authors is wide too; well-known names like Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham, J.G. Ballard and Ray Bradbury, who are probably familiar to non sci fi readers, sit alongside those who are all but forgotten such as George C. Wallis, William F. Temple and John Munro. It’s wonderful to see these more obscure writers being rediscovered, as the quality of the stories chosen is very high. There is a broad variety of subject matter, ranging through early (and often scientifically strange!) visions of flight to other planets; stories of individual or global self-sacrifice; the effect of extended space travel on the families of those who choose to risk their lives this way; and the ecological and moral dilemmas facing humans when encountering other planets and life forms.
The latter aspect is particularly fascinating, as the reader can trace via the gradual evolution of the stories the various changes that took place in our attitudes to other planets as we became more informed about what it was actually like on the Moon and Mars. Even though we now believe that neither of these rocks in space can sustain life as we know it, this hasn’t stopped humans from dreaming about the possibility.
It’s hard to pick favourites when reviewing two such outstanding collections, but stories which particularly resonated with me were “Dead Centre” by Judith Merril, a powerful piece focussing on the family of a lunar astronaut; “Nothing Happens on the Moon” by Paul Ernst which considers the fact that what we encounter in space may well not be in a form we are expecting or can deal with; Arthur C. Clarke’s very famous “The Sentinel”, with its chilling last line; Wallis’s “The Great Sacrifice”, a powerful and moving look at global relationships; and “Measureless to Man” by Marion Zimmer Bradley which again considers the differences between life forms, and also veers into the territory of the morals of colonising other planets. But really, all of the stories are worthy entries in these collections and, most importantly, all are wonderful reads.
There is still a kind of snobbery which attaches to science fiction, and I probably even tend to lapse there myself occasionally; I like sci fi, but I can be dismissive of the sword-and-sorcery in space, hard sci fi stuff, preferring to opt for more speculative science fiction or even the classic and golden age kind. It’s a mistake you shouldn’t fall into, because the best science fiction throws a spotlight on our human traits, showing the good with the bad, and letting us see ourselves in all our dubious glory. These works are often chillingly prescient, with one author in 1883 (W.S. Lach-Szyrma) lamenting the wasting of fossil fuels and the inability of humanity to harness water power.
So if you find yourself at all nervous about approaching science fiction, the variety in these rich collections of stories would be a wonderful introduction to the genre, showing just how wide-ranging and enjoyable it can be to read sci fi; and if you’re already a convert, “Moonrise” and “Lost Mars” are going to be your perfect chocolate box of short works, ideal to dip into and enjoy. I, for one, can’t wait to see which novels the British Library are going to bring out in this series!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is never happier than when she’s stargazing.
Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, (British Library, 2018). 9780712352758, 348pp, paperback.
Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet (British Library, 2018). 9780712352406. 302pp, paperback.
Both edited and introduced by Mike Ashley