Fed up and bored with all the alien invasion, post apocalypse science fiction? Looking for clever and inventive ideas with surprise endings? Want to read great stories from the masters? Time to try some Golden Age short stories.
The Golden Age ran from about 1938 until the mid 1960s, depending on who you ask. These short stories are common in science fiction, and there are plenty of collections in paperback form. Some are all by one author, some are on a theme, some are the year’s best shorts.
The vast majority of these books are long out of print, so they aren’t going to cost you more than a few quid a time. You can either look online for the titles below or take pot luck in a used book shop, where you might not find the stories and titles I've mentioned here, but there are lots of good story collections out there.
If you can’t find the ones mentioned below, a good bet is to just buy collection of stories that are all by different authors, and see which ones you like. Here’s five of my favourite tales to whet your appetite, and which books you can find them in. Collections of stories named here are by the author, unless stated otherwise.
Homo Saps by Eric Frank Russell (1941)
“Majestically the long caravan emerged from the thick belt of blue-green Martian doltha Weed and paraded into the Saloma desert. Forty-four camels stalked along with the swaying gait and high-faluting expressions of their kind.”
Sugden, Mitchell, and Ale Fa’oum are taking a caravan across the sands of Mars. They are trading with the Martians for Mallow seeds, which can be distilled to make a genuine cure for terrestial cancer. Mitchell (who hates the camels) is invited to follow a Martian back to his home, where the Martian uses a machine to speak to him, and Mitchell starts to ask questions:
“Why can’t you guys speak properly?” he asked, with unjournalistic awkwardness.
“Properly?” squawked the loudspeaker. The Martian was astonished. “We do talk properly. Ten thousand years ago we ceased this noise-talk of low-life forms and talked here”—he touched his forehead—“so!”
“You mean you converse telepathically?”
“Of course—same as camels.”
“What?” yelled Mitchell.
“Sure! they are high form of life.”
“Like hell they are,” bawled Mitchell, his face purpling.”
You might think you’ve heard of the idea of camels being highly intelligent before, and you would might be right, as it’s found in Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids. I think that he had read Homo Saps and thought it would be most entertaining to use the idea. He was right. There are lots of science fiction references to see in his work, if you know what to look for, and it makes reading his books all the more entertaining.
A Can of Paint by A. E. Van Vogt (1944)
Kilgour is the first man to land on Venus. He finds a cube about eight inches on a side, lying on the grass:
“Suppose the cube had been left there for him to find?
The idea seemed fantastic, and some of his doubts faded. A couple more tests, he decided, and then - He took off his glove, and gingerly touched the handle with his bare finger.
“I contain paint!” something said into his mind”
He bends to pick up the can, and:
“a dazzling bright liquid squirted from it onto his chest. It spread quickly over his body, clinging like glue, yet running swiftly.”
He can’t get the paint off. If he doesn’t get the paint off, he isn’t going home. What does he do? This is a problem story; the protagonist has to think his way out a sticky situation…
Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Leiber (1967)
Joe Slattermill has an unusual skill; he can throw dice (roll the bones) and get them to land with any face up he chooses. He goes out one dark evening and ends up in Night Town, where in The Boneyard gambling den he comes up against a most dangerous and unusual opponent:
“Behind the man in black was a knot of just about the flashiest and nastiest customers, male or female, Joe had ever seen”
“It was the man in black, their master, who was the deadly one, the kind of a man you knew at a glance you couldn’t touch and live. If without asking you merely laid a finger on his sleeve, no matter how lightly and repectfully, an ivory hand would move faster than thought and you’d be stabbed or shot. Or maybe just the touch would kill you.”
“Just who, Joe kept asking himself, had he got into a game with tonight?
The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
“This is a slightly unusual request,” said Dr. Wagner, with what he hoped was commendable restraint. “As far as I know, it’s the first time anyone’s been asked to supply a Tibetan monastery with an Automatic Sequence Computer.”
the Lama of the monastery wants to use the computer to more quickly finish:
“compiling a list which will contain all the possible names of God.”
The monastery buys the computer and sets it to work, but why do they want to finish the job so soon?
Placet is a Crazy Place by Fredric Brown (1946)
This isn’t a serious story at all, but it’s full of interesting ideas. Placet is a small planet orbiting in a figure of eight around two suns.
One sun is matter, the other is antimatter. Between the two, is the Blakeslee field where:
“light rays slow down to a crawl and get left behind”
The result is:
“Placet is the only known planet that can eclipse itself twice at the same time, run headlong into itself every forty hours, and then chase itself out of site.”
The Blakeslee field does something to the optic nerve or the brain, so:
“you get an illusory picture of what is there.”
“So when the door opened and a two-headed monster walked in, I knew it was Reagan. Reagan isn’t a two headed monster, but I could recognise the sound of his walk.”
Most amusing if you like wordplay.
That's it. Enjoy!