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A Sea of Space by William F. Nolan

A Sea of Space

by William F. Nolan

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A Sea of Space
edited by William F. Nolan
Bantam, 1970
ISBN 0553045903 (paperback), 195 pp.

Review date: July, 2015

Unless it's the subject or theme of a piece, I try not to bring up race, gender, sexuality, etc. of authors or editors, because it's often irrelevant in considering the quality of writing and storytelling . . . but. Oh. My. Gosh. This has to be one of the ‘white dudest’ of ‘white dude’ science fiction collections I've ever come across. With the exception of Herbert A. Simmons, all the contributors to A Sea of Space, the 1970 anthology edited by William F. Nolan, are, as near as I can tell, males of white European descent. And it shows. This isn't to say that there aren't some good stories in the collection, some in which stereotypical attitudes aren't at the forefront, and some which succeed despite them, but overall it's really pretty mediocre and at times just downright bad.

The collection leads off with one of the biggest names in sci-fi, Ray Bradbury, whose ‘The Blue Bottle’ takes place on that favorite planet of his, Mars. This story, uncollected in The Martian Chronicles and heavily revised for its publication in A Sea of Space isn't one of his best, but it's nevertheless good, telling the tale of treasure hunters on the Red Planet, and examining the fates of those who are greedy and of those who can be satisfied with the simple things in life.

Chad Oliver's ‘The Wind Blows Free’ follows, and it too is one of the better stories in the collection. Yet another tale, so popular in the science fiction genre, of freedom and oppression, it's definitely got a 'masculine' feel to it (if one adheres to that theory of criticism separating masculine and feminine styles of writing, and their supposed focus on the external and internal, the grand scale and the small)—centered around a single young man, his discovery of a vast conspiracy aboard an interstellar spaceship, and his quest to escape. It is, however, well written; its protagonist is a sympathetic one; and even among other, similar dystopian tales, it's enjoyable and not overly derivative, especially for 1957, when it was originally written.

Next is Ron Goulart's ‘Society for the Prevention’. In his introduction to this story, the editor writes that “[h]umor . . . has been relatively rare in science fiction.” Perhaps that was true in 1970, but since then—especially if one includes the allied genre of fantasy—humor has become much more common, as seen in the works of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Robert Asprin, and others. I personally have never been all that fond of over-the-top humor myself, preferring my literary humor more subtle and more scarce, so I wasn't really all that entertained by this story. Set in the author's comedic ‘Barnum System’ universe and written as a letter to the protagonist's boss, explaining “why the gross of wicker temple urns can't be sold”, it reeks too much to me of trying too hard to be funny, and its stock caricatures just didn't impress me all that much. But, as always, I caution potential readers not to rely too much on my reaction; those who are fans of farcical sf might find this much more entertaining than I. The same holds for the penultimate story in the book, Norman Corwin's ‘In Space with Runyon Jones’ which fails doubly for me, not only because of its haphazard over-the-top humor, but also because it's not even a coherent story but simply a series of excerpts from a novel. I found myself chuckling once or twice, but only in isolation; as a whole, I found that the story just didn't work at all.

Another comedy (in the older sense of the word, describing a somewhat lighthearted tale with a happy ending) that didn't work for me, even though the humor was toned down, was Nolan's own ‘Lap of the Primitive'. Set on Venus and focusing on a stereotypical 1950s heterosexual couple on vacation, Nolan himself says of this tale, “I found that the woman, Tildy Perchall, had taken over.” I'm sure the author thought that he was being progressive and doing a good thing by focusing on the woman, on her thoughts, emotions, and goals, but . . . just . . . wow. This one reduced everybody to stereotypes, especially Tildy, whose single goal was apparently to find a better man. Admittedly, Mr. Perchall was fairly whiny and not at all prepared for his adventure on Venus, but it feels like he was written that way specifically to contrast his academic, bookish (perhaps somewhat pretentious) nature with that of his ‘rival’ (and, ironically, his hero), Boliver Chadwick, who is not only legitimately book-smart and academic, but also more handsome and adventurous, a man's man and a ladies' man both. It was interesting enough to keep me reading, but the end was an utter disappointment, and the fact that Nolan chose this to represent some of his best work shows just how questionable his judgement as an editor is, or at least how much times have changed. Probably both.

Equally disappointing are two stories of a slightly more serious nature, both by fairly well known authors in the field: William F. Temple's ‘The Undiscovered Country’ and ‘Restricted Area’ by Robert Sheckley. The former is about an expeditionary team who kidnap an alien chieftain's daughter from Pluto for study, only to find that she has unexpected ways of fighting back to free herself. While the struggle is engaging enough, the humans don't exactly give you much reason to root for them—save for one man who questions his team's methods. It's that questioning that keeps the story readable for most of its length, but the ending, which upholds and condones the conservative, criminal, imperialist, and chauvinistic ways of the human team, makes it an utter disappointment by the time the reader is finished. The latter story, about another exploratory team, this time on an unnamed planet, is somewhat Twilight Zone-ish in nature, relying on a surprise plot twist at the end—but it's definitely an unsatisfying and anticlimactic twist. Although I know the names of these authors, I'm not extremely familiar with their respective oeuvres, but I still find it difficult to believe these pieces to be the best representatives of their work; if so, I'm disappointed that these writers were as popular as they were in their time.

Fortunately, these five disappointing stories are in the minority. With a total of fourteen in the collection, nine are more satisfying to readers who expect more out of their science fiction. In addition to the two stories that start off the book, mentioned above, there are seven more that make this book worth picking up, and a couple that even make it worth consideration of a permanent home on readers' shelves.

Also quite Twilight Zone-ish in its style (in fact, it was later adapted into an episode of that series), is Charles Beaumont's ‘Elegy’. Set on an asteroid at some unspecified point in the future, it's a decent blend of space opera and light atmospheric horror/mystery; my only major complaint is that it could have been a little more ‘atmospheric’, with maybe a better build-up to the formulaic twist at the end.

Similarly decent, if not exactly outstanding among the stories in this collection, is Ray Russel's 1,700-word ‘I Am Returning’, which is told from a very alien alien's point of view. Somewhat better is a tale by the esteemed Robert Bloch, entitled ‘The Old College Try’, which examines colonialism, cultural relativism, and one of the possible outcomes of attempting to enforce one's own cultural values upon a dissimilar culture. Even better, in my opinion, and also focused on cross-cultural contact, is the heartwarming ‘Worship Night’ by Kris Neville, a relatively minor sf author (but with a small cult following) of the late ’40s to mid ’70s, which focuses on a more personal and less political level than Bloch's story.

Among the most outstanding and memorable tales in the book is ‘One Night Stand’ by Herbert Simmons, an African-American writer (the only identifiably non-Euro-American author in this collection) who was well enough known in his day but has since lapsed into obscurity, which focuses on jazz culture and interstellar relations, with a theme of love versus fame; although relegating the female love interest herself to a mere object of discussion rather than a fully fledged character, and thus keeping in line with the male-centered focus of the collection, this very short story is nonetheless a welcome breath of diversity in the book.

Finally, two other outstanding and memorable stories fall toward the end of the book: ‘One Love Have I’, by Robert F. Young, and ‘The Ties that Bind’, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.—the first being another heartwarming tale, this time of love across the centuries, and the latter an excellent 10,000-word sociocultural commentary set on a far-future Earth that lives up to the expectations one might have of the author of such a classic as A Canticle for Leibowitz.

On the whole, this collection isn't particularly exciting, but it is notable as a fairly representative state of much of the sf field up to the time it was published, so I don't consider it one of my highest recommendations, although I do suggest that you consider it if you're highly interested in comparative science fiction and the evolution of the genre. That said, I think it's worth it to check out the book for some of the better pieces, which make up about one-third of the book. I don't feel comfortable ranking them, but in order that they appear, these are:

1. ‘The Blue Bottle’, by Ray Bradbury (also available in numerous Bradbury collections, incl. The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition)
2. ‘The Wind Blows Free’, by Chad Oliver (also available in California Sorcery, 2001, also ed. by Nolan, and Far from this Earth and Other Stories, 2003, a collection of Oliver's tales)
3. ‘One Night Stand’, by Herbert Simmons (unavailable elsewhere)
4. ‘One Love Have I’, by Robert F. Young (available in two other anthologies, both more expensive and probably more difficult to find: 1972's Themes in Science Fiction: A Journey Into Wonder and 1982's Science Fiction A to Z)
5. ‘Worship Night’, by Kris Neville (unavailable elsewhere)
6. ‘The Ties that Bind’, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (unavailable in any other collection, but out of copyright and available online at Project Gutenberg)

So if you're a hardcore sf nut with an interest in the genre's past or if you want to find a small handful of lesser known but quite likely new-to-you stories worth reading, then you'll want to go ahead and find a copy of A Sea of Space, edited by William F. Nolan; otherwise, it's not particularly worth the time and effort.



2½ stars: Better than average. Whereas many reviewers tend to be more generous, most works I rate receive two or three stars. At this rating, all my expectations have been met; there are few technical, conventional, or factual flaws, if any, and I found the work to be mildly entertaining and/or sufficiently informative, but it wouldn't be at the top of my list of recommendations. A 2½-star work is better than just "OK" but I wouldn't quite call it "good". Equivalent to a school grade of 'B-', or a little better than average. ( )
  tokidokizenzen | Jul 31, 2015 |
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...that sea where each man, as in a mirror, finds himself - Ray Bradbury
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The sundials were tumbled into white pebbles.
From The Wind Blows Free - The lights in the ancient tunnel came on, blinding him, searing whitely into his brain. The footsteps came closer, closer … There. He saw a shoe, right in front of his eyes. Voices. “Is he dead?” “No such luck,” “He’s too tough to kill.” A foot nudged his battered shoulder, none too gently. “Come on, Sam boy. Get up.” It was like awakening after a too-long sleep. He had to swim back towards awareness, pulling his way through dense layers of stifling fog. Every bone in his body hurt. He rolled over very slowly. He struggled to his knees. The foot hit him again. It wasn’t a hard kick, but it didn’t have to be. Sam went down, his mouth in the dust. “Come on, Sam boy. Stop playing around.” “That’s enough of that, Ralph. Let him alone” Sam tried it again. He got to his knees , waited. Nothing happened. He pulled himself erect. His vision cleared. There were three of them in the corridor with him. They were all Crewmen, and they all had face masks on to protect them from the dust. He recognized Ralph Holbrook by his voice. The men all had canteens clipped to their belts. “Water,” He said. His voice was a dry croak. The men were ghostly in the white light. One of them shook his head. “No water , Kingsley. Not until we get you back where you belong. After that you can have all the water you want.” “Water,” he said again. His throat was on fire. “Sorry, Sam boy.” Holbrook moved a little. Sam could hear the water gurgling in his canteen. “Let’s go Kingsley,” said the man who had spoken before. He sounded almost bored. “It’s a long walk back.” Sam stared at the canteen on Holbrook’s belt with raw, red eyes. He stood absolutely motionless, and then something snapped inside of him. It was like a dam bursting, a dam he had held in check all his life. His eyes brightened, and a terrible, icy strength flowed into his exhausted body. He stood up straight, his head almost touching the roof of the tunnel. His huge frame seemed to swell until he filled the corridor. His hair was white with dust but his eyes were black coals in the light. He clenched his bleeding fists and his lips drew back from his teeth. Suddenly he was very calm, very sure. He stood there like a rock. He was through running. And then, for the first time in his life, Sam Kingsley really got mad.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553045903, Mass Market Paperback)

Bantam paperback original anthology. Includes an introduction by the editor and these stories: The Blue Bottle (1950) by Ray Bradbury; The Wind Blows Free (1957) by Chad Oliver; Society for the Prevention (1964) by Ron Goulart; One Night Stand (1963) by Herbert A. Simmons; Elegy (1953) by Charles Beaumont; Lap of the Primitive (1958) by William F. Nolan; The Old College Try (1963) by Robert Bloch; I Am Returning (1961) by Ray Russell; The Undiscovered Country (1958) by William F. Temple; Restricted Area (1953) by Robert Sheckley; One Love Have I (1955) by Robert F. Young; Worship Night (1953) by Kris Neville; In Space with Runyon Jones (1952) by Norman Corwin; The Ties that Bind (1954) by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:46 -0400)

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