Book Review: The End of the World (1956), ed. Donald Wollheim

(Ed Emshwiller’s? cover for the 1956 edition)

3.75/5 (Good)

 The End of the World (1956) is a highly readable collection of short works by some of the leading figures of the 50s:  Robert Heinlein, Edmond Hamilton, Philip K. Dick,  and Arthur C. Clarke are the most notable contributors.  All the works, including the short by the virtually unknown author Amelia Reynolds Long, have appeared in other volumes but it’s nice to have them grouped according to theme with a quality Ace edition 50s Emshwiller cover.

Wollheim gathers together a fascinating range of accounts of the end of the world — seen through the eyes of aliens, humans from the present viewing the future, the last men on earth surveying the ruins, a robotic bomb who thinks it’s human and “accidentally” triggers the end of the world, and the soon to be annihilated running for their lives.  The dark subject matter (perfectly manifest in Philip K. Dick’s devastating ‘Impostor’) is tempered by a few lesser pulp pieces and unfortunately, a banal pseudo-satire by Heinlein (the worst installment).

Philip K. Dick’s ‘Impostor’ and Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Rescue Party’ are two of my favorite science fiction shorts and merit tracking down the volume.  Even the lesser contributions other than Heinlein’s dismal installment — Alfred Coppel’s ‘Last Night of Summer’ for example — are highly readable.

Collections likes these hint at the wide range of suspenseful, thoughtful, and disturbing works that emerged from the 30s-50s — generally considered an era of sci-fi naïveté when it comes predicting the influence of technology, future human development, etc.


Short Story Summaries (some spoilers)

‘The Year of the Jackpot’ (1952) (43 pages) Robert A. Heinlein 2/5 (Bad):  Heinlein’s satirical ‘The Year of the Jackpot’ is yet another underwhelming short story of his extensive oeuvre.  The tale follows a statistician who discovers that the world is on the way out — due to man’s increasing silliness.  Here Heinlein engages in a satirical lampooning of the cultural mores (prescribed gender roles, prudish dress codes, etc) and political environment of the 50s (the Cold War).  One of the silly acts suggesting/hastening the end are random occurrences of women taking off their clothes in public — even normally prudish women who prefer to undress under their nighties.  Unfortunately, this satirical exercise is a real slog and one of the worst stories of the volume.

Yes, a few of Heinlein’s themes on are on display, marriage as a personal decision needing little ceremony, a loosening of the repressive social mores of the day, etc….  Fans of Heinlein will obviously disagree with my assessment and look forward to reading a work that develops (in a more satirical vein) a few of the themes found in his later “classic” Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

‘Last Night of Summer’ (1954) (10 pages) Alfred Coppel 4/5 (Good):  A temperature spike due to various astronomical occurrences threatens to wipe out all but one million of Earth’s inhabitants who can fit in specially designed burrows.  Only selectively distributed disks will allow entry into the burrows.  The rest of humanity resorts to drugs, raucous parties, and the like.  Our hero’s wife kills a man for his disks in order to save herself….  But should he save his wife and himself or their two daughters?  Coppel’s vision is vividly conveyed — the impending disaster seems real as are the all too human reactions of the majority who will not be saved.  The end is poignant and unforced.  Worth reading.

‘Impostor’ (1953) (18 pages) Philip K. Dick 5/5 (Brilliant):  *spoilers* PKD’s ‘Impostor’ is my favorite science fiction short story.  Told in an unadorned fashion the horror of the situation is conveyed with rather startling ramifications.  Earth is engaged in a war with aliens…  The aliens develop a robotic humanoid bomb which penetrates shields hastily erected around Earth’s cities.  The robotic bomb hones in on its victim, kills him, and downloads his memories.  But, the “new man” is designed to not know he’s the bomb!  The story follows Olham — a scientist — who is arrested by his comrades for being the alien device.  They take him to the Moon to dismantle his body and explode the bomb out of harm’s way.  Olham protests his innocence, reveals memories only his best friends would remember.  But…

Devastatingly effective — one of best works of the 50s.  A movie version by the same name was made with Gary Sinise a while back — avoid at all costs.

‘Rescue Party’ (1946) (33 pages) Arthur C. Clarke 5/5:  One of Clarke’s best….  A federation of peacefully coexisting alien species in a large survey vessel come to rescue as many humans as possible due to an eventual supernova.  When they arrive, they are unable to find any survivors.  A few members of the survey team are accidentally stuck an a underwater subway.  Instead of rescuing humans the aliens have to rescue their comrades.  But a fascinating mystery remains….

Clarke is adept at conveying a mostly peaceful future of aliens working together — clearly and poignantly manipulating the trope of EVIL INVADERS emerge from the deep of space.  Highly recommended.

‘Omega’ (1932) (17 pages) Amelia Reynolds Long 2.5/5 (Bad):  ‘Omega’ is an unremarkable pulp sci-fi number by a virtually unknown author.  I might track down few more of her twenty or so short stories because I’m intrigued by early female pulp science fiction authors (Judith Merril, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, etc).  A brilliant scientist develops technology to transfer a man’s consciousness into the future — technobabble ensues.  A murderer volunteers to have his mind transfered and reports on mankind’s future development.  And after the third day of moving forward in time the murderer’s consciousness views the death of mankind and only ruins remain.  As the “days” pass his body in the “present” becomes more and more deformed.  Long inverts Genesis’ creation in six days by depicting destruction in six days.  Readable.

‘In the World’s Dusk’ (1936) (15 pages) Edmond Hamilton 3.25/5 (Average):  My first exposure to Edmond Hamilton!  An interesting but unspectacular pseudo-allegorical tale of the last man on Earth and his desperate (and sinister) attempts to resurrect/recreate the human race.  Told with a somewhat heavy-handed manner (feel melancholic NOW!) à la most 1930s sci-fi I’ve read.  Hamilton almost achieves his desired effect — searing loss, unusual emptiness, bleak landscapes.  The intriguing twist ending is too unbelievable to fully register its implications.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The End of the World (1956), ed. Donald Wollheim

  1. I now have to go find the Coppel story. I read his post-apocalyptic road novel, Dark December, the other year, and was very impressed. That one would make a great movie.

  2. “Imposter” is the only one of these I’ve read.It’s a very effective and disturbing piece.It was also on original publication,the only one of PKD’s short stories that was ever published by the somewhat philistinal John Campbell Jr. for his magazine,”Astounding”,who apparently hated his stuff,and said that “not only was it unreadable,but nuts”.

    Why did he publish this one then?Campbell liked stories with a sound or at least plausibly pseduo scientific grounding.Of course Dick’s stuff was far from it,[as was Ray Bradbury at the same time]so would of course have been displeasing to the editor’s conservative views.He wasn’t the only one who couldn’t get on with Campbell though…..far from it!

    What is so different about this one then?Is there really a plausible grounding for it which is far from Dick’s usally more quirky metaphysics,that allowed it to pass unhindered beneath the stoic editor’s gaze?

    On examination,the robot theme I suppose was at the time, commonplace and universally accepted as a scientific premise within sf.The theme here then was pertinent and unlikely to cause any offence,which would seem to be the end of it,and would be pleasing to the saturnine Campbell.At least it would be I think,if it wasn’t Philip K.Dick who wrote it.

    What other reason is there then?The story takes place against an intersteller background in which the “imposter” is,unbeknown to him,a robot manufactured as a tool by the aliens to infiltrate the enemy.The scenario seems satisfying for a standard sf tale,with the unusal robot android plausible I suppose for an advanced civilisation with the technology to make it.That doesn’t sound bad,but I’m still not able to be thouroughly convinced.

    It’s difficult to imagine how the fake Spence Oldham,who killed the real one and has no memory of it,can feasibly belive he is the authentic article,as though he is the real one.Of course to us who love PKD’s metaphysical strangeness,this doesn’t matter.He also dealt with political,pseudo religious and socialogical themes,but this doesn’t provide any scientific reasoning for the ontological issues raised by the sound humanity and beliefs of the robot.Would it really not have mattered considering the stronger elements of the story though?

    I can’t come to a conclusion on this as to how it passed muster to enter the grey pages of “Astounding”.I’ll leave it to you to ponder.

    I prefer some of his other short stories though,among them “Apon the Dull Earth”,about reincarnation and pluriformity,”If There Were no Benny Cemoli”,in which homostatic machines create the news and history, and “Pecious Artifact”,a moving homily of a reconstructed Earth in which humanity struggles to retain old values of love and empathy.Have you read them?

    • I have no idea why this one slipped through John Campbell Jr’s dislike of PKD’s work. An no, I can’t see how this is any more plausible. I’d like to think it’s because the simple set-up of the story can be both a vehicle for speculative themes delving into “metaphysical strangeness” and a nice adventure tale. Perhaps Campbell chose, in this particular case, to ignore the speculative themes and concentrate on the horror evoked by the plot.

      It’s always been one of my fav SF short works.

  3. yes I can understand your choice,but that doesn’t explain John Campbell Jr’s preferance.I can only think now that it was one that he thought his magazine’s readership would be interested in,prehaps for the reasons you give.

    • I think he’s successful in imbuing the novels/short works throughout with metaphysical content — less successful writers “end” (or rather copt-out of deeper implications) with a descent into a metaphysical morass (man becomes like the Gods, or pure drivel/gobble that makes little sense).

      (Not to be mean, but David Brin’s The Kiln People (2002) is the biggest culprit of painful METAPHYSICAL CHAOS TRANSFER STUFF SOULS DEEPER MEANING that I have ever read)

  4. Yes he was of course very matter of fact about it…he had a deft touch that showed metaphysical revealation could be detrimental and irreversable that was done with brilliance and panache.Prehaps the closess anybody came to it was Ursula LeGuin,herself an author on the top tier,in “The Lathe of Heaven,a tribute as you know to PKD,but as I remember,I thought it showed a conceptual flaw.

  5. Does anyone on this board recall a short film made of _Rescue Party_ ? I saw it in grade school in the early 80’s. This was not fine cinema; more like film school project. I think we saw _All the troubles of the World_ the same day, another short I would like to track down.

    I once found a company that had released it on DVD, but I lost the link and am looking to find it again.

  6. I liked the RAH tale, maybe because I’ve been a consultant and like reading about them, especially before they were a thing. Also, I did find the ending a surprise, but one afterwards that you realize was well foreshadowed.

    • Unfortunately, I read and wrote the review too long ago to remember any specifics. I have soured a bit on Heinlein over the years. He used to be one of my favorite SF authors (more because my dad read him as a kid and recommended his stuff all the time).

Comment! Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.