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.
“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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