One of the best things about used bookstores, in my not so humble opinion, is finding battered old paperback SF anthologies. That’s really how I got into SF in the first place, and it’s something I keep coming back to. The three anthologies here are all ones i picked up a few weeks ago in Hay-on-Wye (a small Welsh village widely known as the Town of Books, for those not in the know). I don’t really have enough to say about each one for a full review, so here’s the first Quick Reviews.
Nine Tomorrows marks a personal milestone for me. As far as I am aware, it is the last Asimov anthology I need for my shelves. And while it’s satisfying to have them all, I feel a little hollow at not having any left to hunt down. Asimov is the golden standard by which I judge SF, and while this is not his best collection, it’s still a solid read. ‘The Gentle Vultures’ was the only story new to me, but my favourites remain ‘The Last Question’ and ‘The Feeling of Power’. ‘The Last Question’ in particular is possibly my favourite Asimov short outside of his Foundation works. A simple story, told across billions of years, it’s the sort of long-term story I’d really like to see more of, but which seems to have fallen out of favour in modern SF.
The capstone story of the collection is ‘The Ugly Child’, the emotionally-charged story of a Neanderthal boy pulled into the present and the nurse who cares for him. It’s not a story I’ve ever been particularly enthused by, though it’s far from bad. Overall, I give a solid 4/5 to Nine Tomorrows.
Nine By Laumer is only the second work I’ve read by the author, Keith Laumer. (The first being a recent omnibus Three By Laumer). There are some strong stories here, though only ‘The Walls’ and ‘Placement Test’ are up to Asimov’s high standard. The latter, in fact, is eerily similar to Asimov’s ‘Profession’, found in Nine Tomorrows. I suspect both were written for the same editor on request, but it’s interesting to see how two different authors interpret what is almost exactly the same idea. ‘Dinochrome’ also gives a glimpse into Laumer’s Bolo-universe, a world of sentient super-tanks. Like so many of my favourite stories, this series covers hundreds of years.
While there are some strong stories here, there are no real stand-outs. For that reason, I have to give Nine By Laumer a humble 3/5.
The final anthology here is Henry Kuttner’s Ahead of Time. Kuttner is an author I’ve only discovered this year, thanks to rereleases of his work. But this collection of nine short stories has convinced me to hunt down the rest of his output. Maybe he can even replace the Asimov-shaped hole in my to-buy list. There’s not a bad story in the batch, even the immortal hill-billy story is somehow gripping! They’re also a lot darker than the generally optimistic work of Asimov, though written at the same time and for many of the same pulp magazines. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that an awful lot of Kuttner’s shorts involve suicide and insanity, and not always in the ways you’d expect. ‘De Profundis’, a tale of an asylum inmate visited by alien beings is one of the most vividly written stories in the batch, while ‘Camouflage’ is a fast-paced tech thriller that still hold up to today’s expectations. As an aside, both of these stories are reportedly co-written with CL Moore, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that her hand is on so much of what I enjoy reading.
It’s been a while since an anthology has so fully captured my imagination, but Kuttner’s Ahead of Time easily earns a 5/5 rating from me.