Book Review: First Step Outward, ed. Robert Hoskins (1969) (Asimov, Silverberg, Sturgeon, Heinlein, et al.)

3.25/5 (collated rating: Vaguely Good)

Published a few months before the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, Robert Hoskins’ anthology First Step Outward (1969) charts an imagined future history of humanity’s exploration of the galaxy. The stories, gathered from some of the big names of the day (Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, etc.), are grouped as if part of the same future with headings such as “To the Planets” and “To the Stars.” As with most anthologies, this contains a range of gems (such as Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea”) and duds (Ross Rocklynne’s “Jaywalker”).

I’ve previously reviewed five of the thirteen stories in their own posts–linked for easy consultation.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Cold War” (1949), Kris Neville, 3/5 (Average): Previously reviewed in its own post here.

“Third Stage” (1963), Poul Anderson, 3.5/5 (Good): Previously reviewed in its own post here.

“Gentlemen, Be Seated!” (1948), Robert A. Heinlein, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average): My first return to Robert A. Heinlein in around a decade is exactly like I thought it would be–thoroughly disappointing. Yes, yes, yes, I know this is far from what he was capable of. The number of reprints this misfire of a story receives mystifies (it appeared in the regularly reprinted The Green Hills of Earth and The Past Through Tomorrow).

In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Shuttlepod One” (2002), Malcolm Reed patches a shuttle pod hole with mashed potatoes. “Gentlemen, Be Seated!” is only a tad less ridiculous in that someone uses their bottom. Despite the silly “solve” to the lunar disaster, a few observations make the story superior to the one that follows. Heinlein’s clear statement that space travel can only be for the mentally strong–“for the men who go out into space had better not have phobias” (58)—adds a touch of realism to the proceedings. Also, I always appreciate stories where journalists attempt to put together a story—in this instance the journalist ends up telling the story of the everyday dangers of lunar life that he himself experiences. As with most of Heinlein’s fiction, it’s smoothly told.

“Jaywalker” (1950), Ross Rocklynne, 1/5 (Bad): In Rocklynne’s future scientists discover the negative impact of weightlessness far beyond “space-nausea and a mild feeling of panic” on menopausal and pregnant women and “men with prostrate trouble” (79). If you want to travel, you must present a card demonstrating that you are medically cleared. Marcia hates space travel. Her husband, Captain Jack McHenry pilots a transport craft. After a bout of marital trouble, a newly pregnant Marcia decides to prove her love by sneaking onto her husband’s ship putting everyone at risk forcing her husband to execute a dangerous maneuver. Scientific nonsense aside, “Jaywalker” attempts to tell a poignant tale of love around this morally misguided idea. McHenry should divorce Marcia on the spot rather than swoon with rosy love. Ross Rocklynne, a complete unknown to me, writes one of the worst stories I’ve suffered through in the last half decade. Apparently he published a story in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions (1972)…

“The Hated” (1958), Frederik Pohl, 3.75/5 (Good): Previously reviewed in its own post here.

“Sunrise on Mercury” (1957), Robert Silverberg, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average): In the past I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Robert Silverberg’s 50s SF short stories–highlights include “Why?” (1957) and “There Was an Old Woman–” (1958). “Sunrise on Mercury” is another solid story that would fit in my series on “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.”

Silverberg explores how the dream of space exploration is dashed by the brutal psychological toll: “then when he finally gets up where it counts, he cracks up” (101). This “nameless malady, this inexplicable urge to self-destruction” causes spacemen to attempt suicide potentially dooming their crews who depend on them (100). In an expedition to Mercury, the Second Astrogator Curtis, plagued by the nameless malady, attempts to throw himself into the ship’s nuclear pile. Tranquilized for treatment back on the Earth, the expedition continues. However, other signs–for example the erroneous courses plotted in ship’s computer–suggest an external rather than internal influence on their minds.

I enjoyed Silverberg’s speculations on the mental state of astronauts but found the explanation of some of their symptoms and behaviors diminished their import. I am assuming that Curtis was influenced like other spacemen by the terrors of space and the others by the entity on Mercury?

“Hop-Friend” (1962), Terry Carr, 3/5 (Average): While I have read countless Universe anthologies edited by Terry Carr, I’ve only read two of his own stories: Cirque (1977) and “The Live on Levels” (1973). “Hop-Friend,” his fourth published short story, presents an evocative alien mystery on Mars. The Marshies, partially telepathic bird-like beings, flicker and jump from place to place on Mars’ surface. Most colonists ignore and dismiss them as a nuisance. Communication is brief and it’s unclear if entirely understood. Sustained conversation is impossible. Walt Michelson, ever since he arrived in the first wave of colonists, is fascinated by the Marshies. A construction job seeking water in a distant Martian reason gives him the possibility to reach an understanding with the beings–if only he knew if they could understand him.

A slight story with an appealing, if simple, message that communication is always worth the effort.

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959), Theodore Sturgeon, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Previously reviewed in its own post here.

“First Contact” (1945), Murray Leinster, 3.5/5 (Good): I am a fan of Murray Leinster’s later Med Series stories. Check out my reviews of S.O.S. From Three Worlds (1967) and Doctor to the Stars (1964) if you haven’t already. Without doubt, “First Contact” is a historically important story that contains many alien contact tropes that will appear in later science fiction (universal translators for example). A few narrative sequences feel like a version of Star Trek if it were made two decades earlier during WWII.

What did I enjoy? A common theme in Leinster’s stories (at least those I’ve read) is his adherence to peaceful solutions to problems. In this instance, the crew slowly realizes that aliens that they are facing off with in the Crab Nebula have come to a similar impasse. What did I struggle with? As with Star Trek, cultural and societal understanding of aliens, especially of the humanoid variety, comes far too easily despite their radically different ways of communicating. Leinster’s aliens aren’t very alien. The florid storytelling characteristic of 40s SF is always off-putting. I might be rating this story too highly due to its historical importance. Recommended for fans of 40s SF and first contact tales.

“Misbegotten Missionary” (variant title: “Green Patches”) (1950), Isaac Asimov, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average): A research ship lands on the Saybrook’s planet to investigate the mystery of a previous destroyed colony ship. The captain of the colony ship, before its destruction, sent a report to Earth about their encounter with a planet consciousness that attempted to integrate in individual consciousness of the crew into itself by impregnating their women. The research crew create a barrier between the ship and the planet to prevent the same crises. But a bit of the planet slips into the ship! While I won’t spoil the exact ending here, Asimov uses the premise to speculate on the humanity’s chaotic individualist nature–the crises itself is wrapped up with as little effort as possible. An interesting premise with a half-hearted attempt to say something about out predilections for anarchy and chaos.

“The Market in Aliens” (1968), Barry N. Malzberg, 3.5/5 (Good): “The first thing I did when I brought the alien home from the auction was to plot him right into the tub” (195). Harry purchases aliens at auctions and sells them at a profit. He’s not concerned with the well-being of the alien turning his bathwater black. Humanity’s cruel actions are dictated by their inability to communicate with their interstellar visitors. Harry fixates on nickeling and diming the system. He’s a modern day slave trader interesting in the health of his captives only if it brings in a bigger profit.

I am reminded of the diaries of the 17th century slave trader Captain Thomas Phillips. While Phillips admits the humanity of his victims and refuses to torture them to the extent of other slave traders, the allure of profit from his shares in the ship dictate his actions. Malzberg’s narrator has similar moments: “I always try to communicate with them; I never said they weren’t intelligent. Deep inside me there is the belief that a bit of soul exist in everything” (198). But he ignores these thoughts pushes aside the “mass guilt” narratives of the scientists (198). In the end, the profit goes to showing off to his girlfriend the two “specimens” he acquired for the local zoo (198). Money trumps all.

Disturbing!

“The Rules of the Road” (1964), Norman Spinrad, 3/5 (Average): Previously reviewed here.

“Jetsam” (1953), A. Bertram Chandler, 3/5 (Average): “‘The dream,’ he whispered aloud, is turning sour'” (217).

The first expedition to the Moon, the culmination of the old dream of conquest and possession, takes on strange vibes after the discovery of a spacesuit in the lunar dust. A disquieting feel (the defining positive of the story) that this has all been done by humanity before permeates the pages. The interior thoughts of the main character, the Navigator, suggest less than savory urges propel humanity to the stars–the glory of being the first man to step foot on the lunar dust, to best the Soviets, to possess and conquer…. While the explanation for the “strange vibes” leaves something to be desired, I found the overall tone evocative.


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22 thoughts on “Book Review: First Step Outward, ed. Robert Hoskins (1969) (Asimov, Silverberg, Sturgeon, Heinlein, et al.)

  1. I’ll say more about Rocklynne later. I’ve always thought his reputation way higher than it deserved, based largely on one clever 1930s story (“The Men in the Mirror”) and on the fact that Ellison decided he needed to invite him into AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS. Nothing else is worth much attention, and one Planet Stories piece I read, about, as I recall, Plant Men from Venus, was as awful as you can possibly imagine.

    • So much about this story mystifies. 1) The scientific theory that weightlessness kills pregnant and menopausal women and men with prostate issues. According to various space historians I’ve asked online this does not seem to be a real theory that anyone had back in the late 40s but rather something he invented. 2) To demonstrate her love, the estranged wife puts herself, her unborn baby, her husband AND the entire spaceship crew at risk on the hunch that her husband might be able to conduct a rare maneuver to rescue them. 3) If it is so dangerous for some to get on a spaceship, why is it so easy to sneak aboard? 4) How does any of this demonstrate love vs. other major psychological problems?

      I am weirdly tempted to read his story in Again, Dangerous Visions.

      What was “The Men in the Mirror” about?

      • In “The Men in the Mirror”, explorer in the Solar System — I can’t remember where, maybe an asteroid — end up finding a perfectly polished parabolic “crater”. They fall in, and end up in the center with no way to escape because the surface is so smooth they can’t climb it. The story is about how they manage to get out, and the solution is clever enough (though I’m don’t think his solution is actually physically workable). Still, it’s really just a puzzle story, there’s not much more to it than that. Asimov anthologized it in BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE, though it actually was published in an early Campbell Astounding (it could have been in the inventory when Campbell took over, though.)

        Rocklynne (real name Ross Louis Rocklin) published regularly for 20 years beginning in 1935, then apparently got sucked into Dianetics. All short work except two short novels that have only ever appeared as “A Complete Novel in One Issue” in Startling (which means they may only be novella length, though maybe not.)

        He was lured back to SF in 1968 by Fred Pohl (who did a lot of that), and according the the SF Encyclopedia (entry in this case by Clute and Nicholls) his later work was pretty good, and they particularly liked the A,DV story, “Ching Witch!”, which is about genetic engineering. I’ll have to reread that story, I don’t really remember it. My feelings about him were corrupted by stories like the one you have review, and the Plant Men story.

        Here’s what I wrote about that story, “Slave Ship to Andrigo” (Planet Stories, July 1951): “Ross Rocklynne is sort of known as a decent pulp writer because of some science-puzzle stories in the ’30s, especially “The Men and the Mirror”, and because Harlan Ellison apparently read a couple of those stories when he was a kid and decide Rocklynne was a cool old writer whom he just had to have in Again, Dangerous Visions, wherein Rocklynne published “Ching Witch”. But “Slave Ship to Andrigo” is a pretty good example of pulp SF at its worst. For one thing, Andrigo is an unknown planet of our solar system! Apparently, its orbit is highly inclined to the ecliptic, so nobody has ever noticed it. I had really thought that idea had gone out in the ’30s. (Except for John Norman!) Anyway, there is apparently a thriving slave market for the plant people of Andrigo: get this: because they are plant people, they make great gardeners! The story is about a nasty slavespaceship owner who hires the man who married his girlfriend in revenge: he’s going to corrupt the man into a slaver. But he undergoes an epiphany when the man reveals that the woman still loves him, and so he resists a mutiny and turns into a good guy.”

        (I see now that I was being a bit unfair to Ellison, as Rocklynne was really lured back by Pohl, and had published several other new stories before “Ching Witch!”.)

        • By the way Geoff Landis revisited “The Men in the Mirror” with “The Man in the Mirror” in Analog for Jan-Feb 2008 — I believe he tried to fix the physics of the solution in that story, and, knowing Geoff, he probably got it right.

          • So it’s a direct update of the original story? Intriguing. Landis is not an author I know but one obsessed with physics to the extent of feeling the need to rewrite a 30s pulp vision doesn’t really draw me in….

            • Landis didn’t really write a direct update of the original story, he just took the same situation (stuck in a perfect parabolic mirror) and wrote a different story (one person instead of two, for one thing, more contemporary ideas about the future political solar system, etc.) And also made the science better.

              Landis is a very fine writer, worth checking out. He started slightly after your usual date range, first story published in 1984. He won a Nebula for “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” (1988) and a Hugo for “A Walk in the Sun” (1991). The latter might tangentially fit your Astronaut series — it follows a woman who has crashlanded on the Moon, and who was to keep walking fast enough to stay on the day side of the Moon in order to keep powering her space suit, until she can be rescued.

        • I love SF Encyclopedia. I always read entries for authors I don’t know well — Rocklynne included. “Slave Ship to Andrigo” sounds downright atrocious and as morally confused as the one I reviewed here. Perhaps that’s a theme of his stories! hah.

          Does Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction explore at all the reason so many SF authors and fans felt the pull of Dianetics?

          From your discussion, I still want to check out “Ching Witch.” Perhaps some of his later stories are worth the read.

          • Nevala-Lee does discuss the Dianetics thing to some degree but I think he felt that less central to his main focus, at least when it came to discussing the effect of Dianetics on the wider field, on writers like Van Vogt, etc. (Heinlein and Asimov, of course, both resisted Dianetics, rather fiercely as I recall. And by that time (1950 or 1951) both had largely abandoned Campbell.

            As for reading late Rocklynne, by all means I think that’s a worthwhile thing to do. “Ching Witch!” certainly looks worth another look — I last read it in about 1975 I think so I don’t remember much!

            Ellison did like to get stories from Golden Age writers if he could — there was also a T. L. Sherred story in A,DV; and a Bob Tucker story was bought for TLDV. (Tucker claimed it was awful. Tucker, to be sure, was still an active and fairly successful novelist in the 1970s.)

  2. Addenda: …and when reading a text (seeing a film, taking part of a musical experience…), its important trying to get in the mood of “reception”; not “dooming” too fast…

    /Mats

    • Hello again Mats,

      What and who are you referencing? Your own dismissal of the Landis story or something in my review? But yes, as a historian by trade and training I agree that the historical contexts adds a lot of fascinating complexity to a story beyond the text — which is one reason I have such a focused area of exploration for my site and conduct the thematic readthroughs on particular themes (negative takes on space travel, generation ships, etc.). Of course, there are moments where my dislike of a particular story overpowers my desire to write more comprehensively beyond my gut reaction to the text itself.

      I echo many of those similar points in my article on my project: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2018/06/15/fragment-s-why-i-read-and-review-50s-70s-science-fiction/

        • Last night I read a few stories from The Angel Esmeralda by Don Delillo (his only collection).
          Among them the splendid SF story Human Moments in World War III (83).
          Perhaps something for Your series?

          M.

          • Hmm, I am intrigued by the DeLillo story. An author I know more based on reputation and what I’ve read about his encyclopedic tendencies vs. personal reading experience.

            I’ll see if I can find “Human Moments in World War III” (1983. Thank you for the recommendation.

            • Hi again,
              and when talking about “American mainstream SF”. I I did find some week ago in the swedish SF magazine Nova SF (2008) a short story by Joyce Carol Oates; EDickinsonReplilyx from her collection Wild Nights! Nova says it was originally published in Virginia Quarterly Review 2006. Pure SF! And very Good.

  3. I’ve read some decent Rocklynne stories, but can only moderately-clearly remember “Ching Witch!” and the slightly silly but readable “Emptying the Plate” at this point.

    The appeal of Dianetics to sf writers was mostly in the notion of Secret Knowledge Those Others Don’t Want You to Have That Will Make You Healthy, Wealthy and Wise…as opposed to the lure of the COS later on, that of Fixing the Homosexuality You’re Ashamed Of and Why It’s OK For You, Hollywood Star and Similar Folk, To Be Obscenely Rich While Others Starve, So Don’t You Worry, among a few other things.

    • Considering the number of random advertisements of the occult/secret knowledge/Rosicrucianism type books in SFF magazines, that makes perfect sense. And, of course, the SF penchant for secret knowledge narratives and the enlightened alien or secret cabal of knowledgeable man.

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