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The Stars Tonight


Edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg & Charles G. Waugh 

23 Apr, 2024

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Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh’s 1983 Starships is a science fiction anthology on the theme of starships.

Received wisdom asserts that Roger Elwood poisoned the well for SF anthologies by producing a tsunami of mediocre anthologies in the early 1970s. If that were the case, you would not know it from the joint editorial careers of Asimov, Greenberg, and Waugh. The trio produced more themed anthologies than I care to list here.

An unstated element of the theme for this particular anthology may have been vintage.” It contains thirteen stories, of which one is from the 1940s, six are from the 1950s, five from the 1960s, and just one from the 1970s. Perhaps the editors wanted time-tested stories. Perhaps the rights were easy to secure.

I tended to avoid the Asimov, Greenberg, and Waugh anthologies because they all seem to have a mass-produced sausage vibe. I resisted buying this collection because I already owned eight of the stories in older anthologies. I was wary of what I will call for obscure reasons the Laumer syndrome1. Even the Rick Sternbach cover did not convince me to part with $3.50. Then.

An argument for the utility of this anthology: there are many readers who would NOT have encountered the best of the stories here. An argument against utility: the undeniable classics like the Smith, the van Vogt or even the McCaffrey are more than balanced by less memorable works. Even Asimov’s commentary, which is sometimes interesting, doesn’t add that much to the value of the book. I would have to judge Starships as mostly harmless.

As far as I can tell, Starships is out of print. That said, it remained in print for at least twelve years, not bad for a book of that era. If this review interests you in the book, you’re likely to find it used, online.

The Longest Voyage • (1983) • essay by Isaac Asimov

An essay in which Asimov illustrates the scale of the universe. The universe is very large (obligatory Hitchhikers quotation here), something that is lost on many SF authors.

Not to be confused with Poul Anderson’s Hugo-winning short story of the same title (which does not feature an on-stage starship).

The Burning of the Brain” • [The Instrumentality of Mankind] • (1958) • short story by Cordwainer Smith

A lost starship can only be saved at a terrible cost to Go-Captain Taliano.

This kerfuffle could have been avoided by adding just one step to the existing preflight checklist. As they say, regulations are written in blood.

Modern readers might find the subplot involving Go-Captain Captain Taliano’s wife Dolores Oh a bit off-putting: she eschews longevity treatments to see if Taliano loved her or her beauty. The text is not sympathetic.

I first encountered this story in The Best of Cordwainer Smith.

Home the Hard Way • (1967) • novelette by Richard McKenna

A patrolman is determined to settle on a low-population, isolated, doomed colony world of fools ruled by cads. He finds his attempts to go AWOL blocked at every turn.

I am not being snarky about the colony. The text makes it clear that the ailing colony’s founders chose an out-of-the way world and selected settlers with an eye towards establishing a caste system, with the moneyed families at the top:

Conover is trying to start a dynasty. That’s why he came so far. Except for the Brecks and Spineilis the people are all morons. Conover chose them so on purpose.” 

This is not going to end well. In fact, it is in the process of ending badly, which makes the crewman’s determination to return odd.

I had not encountered this story before reading this anthology.

Potential” • (1953) • short story by Robert Sheckley

An amnesiac discovers that he is the last surviving human in all the universe… or so it appears.

This is basically Invasion of the Body Snatchers with human body snatchers. The humans assure themselves this is OK because they only target mentally deficient aliens.

Could Asimov, Greenberg, and Waugh have assembled an anthology around the theme of ableism? Not only would that have been possible, they could have also used a number of stories from this very book.

This story too was new to me. I also learned there is an old Sheckley anthology that I somehow missed.

Bill for Delivery” • [Federation of Humanity] • (1964) • short story by Christopher Anvil

A starship crew struggles to deal with a notoriously inept and noxious crewman.

The crew’s real problem is that they work for a terrible boss, a guy who will definitely punish underlings for events over which they had no control.

I first encountered this story in a Carr and Wollheim Best SF anthology. Really not sure why they (or Asimov, Greenberg, and Waugh) found it noteworthy.

Story of a Curse” • (1965) • short story by Doris Pitkin Buck

Starfaring humans discover that relativity means never being able to go home again.

The story begins with the abandonment of a half-alien bastard by its human father. The author seems to be assuring readers that the starfarers deserve what happens later.

Also new to me. As far as I can tell, Buck’s work has been anthologized but never collected.

The Oceans Are Wide • (1954) • novella by Frank M. Robinson

When his father dies, ten-year-old Matty is elevated to captain. Can he survive deadly dynastic politics to guide humanity’s sole surviving generation ship to its destination?

On the one hand, the authority figure on whom Matty depends is absolutely clear that only a succession of hereditary autocrats can lead humans to their new world. On the other, almost all of the other generation ships, presumably using the same command structure, failed en route…

I first encountered this story in Blieler and Dikty’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1954, which I found in my university library way back when. I’m not sure how this book found its way into the library (built in the mid-1960s). The university was only founded in the mid-1950s. A look at the library’s current holdings doesn’t show this book. I hasten to add that I didn’t take it.

Far Centaurus” • (1944) • short story by A. E. van Vogt

Would-be starfarers embrace risky hibernation to make a half-millennium trek to Alpha Centauri… only to discover that the system has long since been settled by fellow humans equipped with superior technology and faster starships. Worse yet, that society has no place for the foul-smelling relics of a long-dead culture.

How did the travelers overlook the possibility that later ships would be much faster? Unconvincingly:

How could we have forgotten human progress?” 

Far Centaurus” is considered a classic and was so widely anthologized that I cannot be sure where I first encountered it2.

The Ship Who Sang • [The Ship Who …] • (1961) • novelette by Anne McCaffrey

A hideously deformed baby is saved from mandatory euthanasia to become the guiding brain of a starship. Ship’s brains can live centuries, which makes companionship with regular humans inherently tragic.

This too would be a fine pick for The Big Book of Incredibly Ableist SF Classics.

Ship was widely anthologized; I encountered it first in the fix-up novel of the same title. Note for people relying on the ISFDB: entries for short stories do not include fix-ups.

Avoidance Situation • (1956) • novelette by James McConnell

Subspace gave humanity the stars and the opportunity to be the Dakn Empire’s latest conquest. Given the choice of slavery or extermination, which will humans choose?

This story went on a lot longer than the slender plot could carry. The eventual solution is rather arbitrary.

The author was a University of Michigan professor of biology who also wrote a few SF stories on the side. He may be remembered as the memory-RNA guy, but is probably better known as one of the victims of the Unabomber. He suffered hearing loss but survived the explosion.

This was the first time I had read this story.

Chance Encounter” • [John Grimes] • (1959) • short story by A. Bertram Chandler

First contact offers a lonely telepath a chance at true love… except that there’s a catch.

The telepath has discovered that the human female telepaths he meets are often ugly and stupid. He finds that alien telepaths aren’t.

This was my first encounter with this story, though I was familiar with some of the events mentioned therein. The important discovery made in this story is referenced in later Grimes stories.

Allamagoosa” • (1955) • short story by Eric Frank Russell

Fearing an audit’s outcome, a starship crew figures out what they hope is a cunning way to conceal losses of ship’s equipment.

This story is MilSF adjacent. Combat plays no role in the story; the struggle is between enlistees and military bureaucracy. I suspect it may have been sparked by WWII memories.

I first encountered this story in the Hugo-Award two-book collection that the SFBC offered as an enticement to new members.

Founding Father” • (1965) • short story by Isaac Asimov

Castaways discover that the deadly world on which they are marooned is beyond their limited ability to transform or even survive. Despite this, there is a happy ending of sorts.

Modern readers as yet unconvinced that terraforming is moral might be aghast that the castaways want to transform a world with a unique chemical cycle into a boring N2/O2 world. In their defense, the starfarers were vexed because that unique chemical cycle was killing them.

I first encountered this in story in Buy Jupiter and Other Stories, which I loaned to someone in 1977 and never got back.

Wings Out of Shadow • [Berserker (Fred Saberhagen)] • (1974) • novelette by Fred Saberhagen

A human finds himself the prisoner of a relentless killing machine and its human goodlife3 quisling. He must somehow mislead the foe into self-destruction even though he cannot speak anything other than the truth.

Stories about true but misleading statements are frequently found in SF, enough to fill an anthology.

Much to my annoyance, I found myself purchasing this story three times over in short succession: in The Best From If Volume 2, The Ultimate Enemy, and The Spear of Mars. Why do I own so much stuff by an author whose work I don’t much care for” is the running theme of my Saberhagen collection.

1: The tendency of any three Laumer collections to have two collections worth of stories.

2: Among the many editors who anthologized this story was the other Martin Greenberg, co-founder of Gnome Press. He occasionally paid his authors. I suspect that the editor of Starships went by the names Martin H. Greenberg or Martin Harry Green in order to avoid mistaken identification with the non-paying Martin Greenberg.

3: I’ve always wondered if the founders of the Canadian fitness chain Goodlife Fitness had first read the word goodlife’ in Saberhagen.

Despite similarities between the Berserkers and the Doomsday Machine in the Star Trek episode The Doomsday Machine,” the inspiration for the episode (written by Norman Spinrad) wasn’t Saberhagen, but rather Melville’s Moby Dick.