This is one of the all time classic stories of science fiction in my opinion. It also has all the elements that got me reading science fiction in the first place – ancient alien civilizations and scientists doing proper deductive reasoning.
Humans have discovered ancient ruins on Mars of a now extinct advanced civilization. They find buildings, machinery and books, but no remains of the martians. The story focuses on Martha Dane who desperately tries to decipher the martian texts, but without any sort of primer or Rosetta stone she makes little progress. Her coworkers are not making it any easier by demanding that she drops her research because they deem it impossible.
This is one of those classic science fiction stories that isn’t just “good for its time” or “important for the genre”, but a genuinely great story to read today. In my opinion, scientists and their research process are too often portrayed in an either dumbed down or overly dramatized manner. This is one of the great exceptions that makes the whole process believable and engaging. That the main protagonist is a woman isn’t something you think much about today, but I would assume for its time it was a bit out of the ordinary. Just another plus point for this story. Haven’t been many great female characters in the anthology The World Turned Upside Down so far.
Read in The World Turned Upside Down Originally published in Astounding, February 1957 ISFDB Link Read the story at gutenberg.org Rating: 5
Using a time machine for a safari trip to prehistoric times, especially the time of dinosaurs, is a well known science fiction trope. This story from 1956 is a classic example of this.
The story is told by a time-travel hunter, who runs a small business taking customers back to prehistoric times to shoot extinct species – like dinosaurs. He recounts a specific trip where he took two very different men back in time to hunt dinosaurs. A small successful businessman, August Holtzinger, who wants to prove to himself and his fiancée that he is “man” enough to take down a big animal. And Courtney James – a hot tempered playboy seeking thrill and adventure. On the trip James acts totally irresponsible shooting everything that moves, Holtzinger gets nervous and he soon questions whether the trip was such a good idea. He could settle for just a minor hunting trophy while James wants the big dinosaurs. And the tour leader just tries to get everyone out alive. Unsurprisingly things go horribly wrong. Suffice to say without spoiling too much – the usual time-travel paradoxes also comes up in the end.
This story is entertaining and pretty straight forward. It has all the classic archetypes for a hunt-in-the-wild story with the levelheaded leader that does things against his own better judgement, a scared passenger regretting even coming along and the hothead causing trouble with his stupid behavior. Especially the last part makes the story less enjoyable for me. I am generally not a fan of stories where the action is driven forward by dumb decisions. Not because everyone is always rational in real world situations, but it is just more interesting to read something where the characters ends up in dangerous situations despite doing most things right. The leader even had the “this is a bad idea” internal dialogue from the start, but went on anyway. Still, it is an important classic for the genre – especially when it comes to dinosaurs and time-travel.
I have been reading science fiction for far too many years without reading Robert Sheckley. The first story in the collection Untouched by Human Hands sets the tone for what to expect from Sheckley. “The Monsters” is a story from 1953 that subverts the usual tropes of the genre by telling a first contact story from the aliens perspective.
A reptilian-like race observers a rocket landing on the surface and strange bipedal creatures exits the ship. The aliens refer to themselves as humans and the Earth-humans as monsters, but it is clear for the reader what is going on. Through casual conversations among the reptile aliens we get a sense of what kind of society they have, their moral values and how the interpret the actions of the visting “monsters”. Sheckley’s writing is very clear and to the point, but still conveys a lot of information.
For a modern reader the plot and the concept of challenging our moral values with an outside look might not seem that original here 70 years later, but I still think Sheckley’s writing is above many authors of the present. It is clear without being dumbed down and has a lot of satirical subtext without being pretentious. Highly recommended.