“Science Fiction Classics” is a series of anthologies and books of republished fiction produced by the British Library and edited by Mike Ashley. Each of the anthologies focuses on a specific recurrent topic in science fiction and includes a mix of well-known and rediscovered stories.
Published in 2021, Spaceworlds collects fiction dealing with life inside space habitats of various kinds: starships, stations, generation ships, and even a “space shield”. The nine stories cover a relatively short period of science fiction history, from 1940 to 1967. Note that I have omitted one of the stories, “The Ship Who Sang” by Anne McCaffrey, because I have read it previously and did not re-read it.
“Umbrella in the Sky” by E.C. Tubb
Originally published in Science Fiction Adventures, January 1961
Prolific British writer Edwin Charles Tubb (1919 - 2010) is best known for his lengthy Dumarest saga which ran to 33 novels between 1967 and 2008. Even by 1961, though, he was an experienced author who had published dozens of short stories in various magazines. “Umbrella in the Sky” is a fairly strong opener for the anthology, focusing on the construction of a space shield designed to protect Earth from a catastrophic solar flare. Perhaps “Parasol in the Sky” would have been a more apt title?
The first-person protagonist, Mike Levine, is brought in to troubleshoot the shield project. Construction has fallen behind, and further delays could doom the human race. The story takes a psychological bent, as Levine investigates the effects that the dangerous work is having on its zero-G technicians. “Umbrella in the Sky” is also intriguing for what it implies about the state of Earth in its future setting. Levine is a former “Professional Quarry”, seemingly as part of a kind of sanctioned human bloodsport.
“Sail 25” by Jack Vance
Originally published in Amazing Stories, August 1962
This story was originally published under the meaningless title “Gateway to Strangeness”, so the alteration here is a welcome one. Jack Vance (1916 - 2013) is often most associated with his Dying Earth series, but by the 1960s he was moving into panoramic, far-future stories. “Sail 25” is on a modest scale by comparison, focusing on a group of rookie astronauts. They are compelled to crew an antiquated spaceship powered by a solar sail, on a kind of shakedown training cruise. They are guided - in the loosest sense of the term - by an experienced but drunken and cantankerous veteran named Henry Belt. This character is a brilliant comic creation by Vance, one which lifts the story tremendously with his dialogue:
“Whatever is meant by this barbaric jargon I’m sure I don’t know, Mr. von Gluck. It is clear that you fancy yourself a philosopher and a dialectician. I will not fault this, so long as your remarks contain no overtones of malice or insolence, to which I am extremely sensitive.”
The rookies are much less interesting but the dilemmas they must face to get home alive, combined with Henry Belt’s irascible personality, keep “Sail 25” engaging right to the end. A great story.
“The Longest Voyage” by Richard C. Meredith
Originally published in Fantastic, September 1967
This story was my first encounter with Richard C. Meredith (1937 - 1979), rather a tragic figure in that he died of a brain haemorrhage in 1979, when he was just 41. “The Longest Voyage” is an essentially straightforward survival story, but executed to a very high standard. The main character, astronaut Scott Sayers, is the lone survivor of a disastrous space mission. Every one of the other crew members has been killed, and Sayers is trapped on a severely damaged spacecraft with seemingly no chance of rescue. In this sense, the story resembles a kind of prototype for The Martian; in its believable but harrowing depiction of astronauts it also brings to mind Beyond Apollo (1972) by Barry Malzberg.
“O’Mara’s Orphan” by James White
Originally published in New Worlds SF, January 1960
Northern Irish SF fan and author James White (1928 - 1999) carved an unusual niche for himself in the 1960s with a series of stories focusing on medical crises in space. This story is a fairly early example, and was later reworked into a segment of his collection Hospital Station (1962). In the story, a crew member aboard that hospital station is compelled to look after an orphaned alien with very specific needs. This central plot is less interesting than the backdrop of human-alien cooperation, which is only glimpsed here. White’s commitment to a fairly novel idea is admirable, especially one which isn’t about violent conflict, but the story arguably outstays its welcome.
“Ultima Thule” by Eric Frank Russell
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, October 1951
British writer Eric Frank Russell (1905 - 1978) was a favourite of legendary SF editor John W. Campbell, and for that reason his stories appeared frequently in Astounding Science Fiction. “Ultima Thule” concerns a small crew of a starship which emerges from hyperspace and discover, to their horror, that they have travelled so vastly far that they have exited the universe. Understandably, this news does not sit well with the astronauts and so tempers - and pyches - soon begin to fray. The real strength of Russell’s story is the way that he describes the scene of total nothingness:
“And still the impenetrable dark outside, thick, cloying, the dark that has never known light or life.
“The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” by Don Wilcox
Originally published in Amazing Stories, October 1940
This story by Don Wilcox (1905 - 2000) is the oldest in this collection, and it definitely shows. As editor Mike Ashley points out in his introduction, “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” was the first “full-blown generation starship story”. That makes it very historically significant, as generation starships have become a major feature of science fiction over the years.
As historic as Wilcox’s trendsetting story is, it’s not an easy read. It has much of the sort of gee-whiz tone that is expected of a story from 1940, and its basic plot will seem ludicrous to modern readers. The main character is entrusted with the task of travelling aboard a generation ship in order to preserve knowledge of civilisation. While the other crew live, breed, and die in real time, our hero travels in cryonic suspension and only wakes every 100 years. At the start of the story, the ship is infiltrated by not one, but two stowaways - which raises serious questions about the security of the launch facility.
“Survival Ship” by Judith Merril
Originally published in Worlds Beyond, January 1951
The shortest story in the anthology, “Survival Ship” is set on a generation starship - literally called Survival - which has just begun a lengthy mission. The tale is well-written, and in just a few pages Judith Merril (1923 - 1997) sets up the basic premise. The issue is that the story is heavily dependent on a twist ending of sorts. The revelation may have taken readers by surprise in 1951, but will be highly predictable for today’s readers, which significantly undermines the effect. Again, as with the previous story, this one is more of historical interest than anything else, particularly in terms of what it says about the social mores of the early 1950s.
Worlds Beyond was a very short-lived publication, which ran for only three issues in 1950 and 1951.
“Lungfish” by John Brunner
Originally published in Science Fantasy, December 1957
Happily, interest in the fascinating British writer John Brunner (1934 - 1995) has been undergoing a bit of a revival in recent years. Much of the attention on him focuses on his novels, which is understandable because they are the easiest parts of his work to access. He also wrote numerous short stories, including this fairly early one published when he was just 23.
“Lungfish” is another generation ship story, but is unusual in that it focuses on just two generations. The older generation, the “Earthborn”, were on board the ship when it embarked on its mission and are supposed to return to Earth on it. The younger generation, the “tripborn”, were born on board the vessel and have never known planetary life. Brunner’s focus is squarely on the development of tensions between these generations, caused by the tripborn’s refusal to take up the future planned for them - to colonise a new world. Brunner’s emphasis on psychology and generational conflict lifts “Lungfish” above the rank-and-file of generation ship stories; it is one of the strongest entries in this anthology and could have been the basis for a novel.
Spaceworlds is an impressively varied collection of deep-space tales, albeit something of a mixed bag. For me, “Sail 25” is easily the standout story here, while “The Longest Voyage” and “Lungfish” make for strong runners-up.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.