The Best of Ballantine’s “Best of…” by Jeff Baker.

The Best of the Best of Ballantine’s The Best of…

Compiled by Jeff Baker

From about 1974 through at least the late 80s, Ballantine Books published a series of over 22 (paperback and hardcover) “Best of” collections of the work of science-fiction writers, many from the “Golden Age” in the 30s and 40s. At the best they offer a representative sampling of the work of some masters, some of whom were still around and writing at the time the books were released.

They were pretty popular and were also issued in Science Fiction Book Club editions. And I must note that both paperback and hardcover had different covers, excellent in my opinion. Most of the books feature an introduction by an author who knew or was very familiar with the author or his/her works and an afterward by the author in question when they were still around. These intro/outros were usually insightful, informative and often provided a personal glimpse into the reality of the author’s world.

They are a little harder to find in the used stores today but when I was starting to really read and study science fiction and fantasy short stories I scooped them up and they were an introduction to some names I hadn’t heard before. There influence on my own work cannot be underestimated, and I feel their influence even today.

So, here is one story from each one of the books I read through, stories that I think would make a fine collection today.

“A Martian Odyssey,” by Stanley G. Weinbaum.

This is the story that Isaac Asimov said burst on the scene like a nova. It is among the first really alien extraterrestrials of fiction that still comes off as a real character with emotions and even pathos.

“The Movie People” by Robert Bloch.

Something of an anomaly in that many of the best stories in the Bloch collection are fantasy or horror. Bloch wrote a lot of science fiction but he is best remembered for his creepy stories with a twist in the tale. But “The Movie People” is Bloch’s love letter to the silent movies; sweet, sentimental and a little spooky. Oh, and the movie theater he describes was a real place.

I would have selected his treatment of a then well-worn science-fiction theme “It Happened Tomorrow” but this ostensible sci-fi story was simply not included in the book!

“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell.

Had to go with this famous classic by the great editor who shaped magazine science fiction for decades. The story was the source for the movie “The Thing” and its remakes. Oh, and in recent years there has been a successful effort to tar Campbell as an anti-Semite to the extent of renaming the John W. Campbell Award. Writers who were Jewish (such as Asimov) debunked this notion during Campbell’s lifetime. Campbell loved to argue on all sides of an issue and he remains controversial, which probably explains some of the hostility towards him.

“He That Hath Wings” by Edmond Hamilton. This perfect collection by Hamilton dovetails nicely with the collection by Leigh Brackett (to whom he was married.) The story soars with its tragic romance.

“The Jewel of Bas” by Leigh Brackett. One of Leigh Brackett’s (Mrs. Edmond Hamilton’s) fine, pulpy adventure stories set on a Burroughs-type Mars back when it was plausible that these worlds would have an atmosphere, inhabitants and tons of adventure. They literally don’t write ‘em like that anymore. Oh, and if you have the Best of Brackett and Hamilton books don’t fail to read their introductions. Sweet and funny and written by two people still in love.

(Brackett edited an anthology “The Best of Planet Stories,” collected from the pulp magazine that was one of her regular markets. It was billed as Volume One but did not sell well and there was no second volume even though a table of contents can be found online.)

“Exit the Professor” by Henry Kuttner. Kuttner was a master of blending humor and horror and the emphasis is on the funny in this tale of a backwoods family who are also super powered mutants from Atlantis. It’s one of a series of four and I scoured bookstores looking for the other stories. (“Cold War” is included in “The Best of Henry Kuttner.”) many of Kuttner’s stories count as science-fantasy and nobody really did it better. Kuttner, of course, was married to writer Catherine L. Moore who wrote as C.L. Moore and from the late 1930s on much of their work was in collaboration. To what extent who wrote what even they weren’t sure!

“No Woman Born” by C. L. Moore. Moore has been described as a master of mood and atmosphere in a story and “The Best of C. L. Moore” proves that. While the Kuttners generally collaborated (as they explained, they were writing for a living!) this and most of the stories in the book are hers alone. Written in 1944, “No Woman Born” is mature, dramatic and anticipates much of the science fiction of later years.

“The Power” by Murray Leinster. I love stories told in the form of letters or diaries and this one is loads of fun as the present-day letter writer comments on a very old manuscript. Leinster (William F. Jenkins) was a pulp master and (along with Kuttner) he could be very funny. (He was also writing about the internet in 1945!) In the early 2000s Baen Books put out several collections of Leinster’s stories including his Med Ship series.

“A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber. A science-fiction, apocalypse, Y. A. story by a pulp author whose career extended into the 1990s the story quickly crafts a world after disaster, characters and a situation that seems near-inescapable. Leiber is best known for his fantasy and horror, as well as not only coining the term “Sword and Sorcery” but writing some of its best stories. “A Pail of Air” has justifiably been anthologized all over the place.

“The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith. Many writers have created their own Future History (Heinlein most famously) none quite like Smith’s “Instrumentality of Mankind” universe. Dr. Paul Leinbarger was literally an expert on East Asia and psychological warfare and kept the fact that he was Smith a secret until his sudden death at 53. “Lyrical” is a word that is deservedly used to describe his prose.

Just a further note on Smith here: Ballantine put out a companion anthology to the Best of for Smith: “The Instrumentality of Mankind” which includes a timeline for his future history.

“Day Million” by Frederik Pohl. Pohl started publishing in the late 1930s and kept on through 2010 when he was in his nineties. He was not only a prolific writer but an editor who bought some of Cordwainer Smith’s stories. Pohl was also a friend and frequent collaborator with C. M. Kornbluth.

“The Little Black Bag” by C. M. Kornbluth was adapted for an episode of “Night Gallery” over fifty years ago. It hasn’t aged, and Kornbluth’s stories are still topical and trenchant.

“Jay Score” by Eric Frank Russell. An interstellar ship, a multi-ethnic crew and alien crew members. All treated sympathetically. No, not “Star Trek,” Russell’s stories predate the Enterprise by about 25 years.

“With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson. Another Sci-Fi master who kept writing from the pulp days (1920s) to the early 2000s. The cover of the paperback illustrates the story and is perfect!

That’s probably enough for one collection!

I picked up the bulk of these anthologies for between fifty cents and three dollars. I got a bargain.

I know (I mean personally!) writers who are doing their best to embrace the cutting edge of contemporary writing. Me? I am still and always will be a retro writer happily ensconced in the moods and styles of the pulps and the Golden Age.

This entry was posted in Books, C. L. Moore, Fantasy, Henry Kuttner, Reading, Reviews, Science Fiction, Short-Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

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