Anthopology 101: The Best of Time and Space

By Bud Webster

For me, as with many people of my generation (give or take a few years), the primary source for science fiction and fantasy was the library, both school and public. My parents didn't read it; my mother read mysteries and my father read only the daily paper, and my older sibs wouldn't begin reading sf or fantasy until much, much later, so I didn't have sf books or magazines around the house.

But the library was sanctuary for me. Nobody would chase me, nobody would yell at me, and best of all, nobody there would rag me for reading books. I'd have stayed there forever if I could have. It was quiet, cool, and it's where I became addicted to books, both as artifacts and because of the content.

I was probably all of nine years old when I first found the thick, heavy collections of stories edited by Conklin and Healy & McComas for the first time. But there they were, that pair of behemoths: Adventures in Time and Space (ed. Raymond J. Healy and Francis McComas, Random House 1946) and The Best of Science Fiction (ed. Groff Conklin, Crown 1946). They changed my life, and without a doubt altered the way I read science fiction, and I wasn't the only one.

For decades after their initial publication, those two books were not just the cornerstones of any library sf section, but supporting walls. They were checked out over and over, rebound again and again, replaced and set out once more to be pored over again.

One of the most significant reasons these two books are so important in the field of science fiction is that they contain between hard covers for the first time stories, most of them now considered classics of the era, that would otherwise have been almost impossible to obtain. Pulp magazines, from which the vast majority of the stories came, were never intended to be kept, but thrown away. They were printed on the cheapest paper, barely bound between thin covers, and as soon as the next issue hit the stands the old numbers disappeared, covers stripped, into trash heaps.

Other anthologies had preceded, of course. J. Berg Esenwein's Adventures to Come (McLoughlin Brothers, 1937) was the first, although it had no measurable affect on the literature. The Other Worlds (Funk, 1941), edited by Phil Stong, author of State Fair, took at least half its content from Weird Tales; Stong was critical of most magazine science fiction, calling it "pablum of reiterated nonsense." Donald A Wollheim edited two; The Pocket Book of Science Fiction (Pocket Books, 1943), which was not only the first paperback science fiction anthology but the first such anthology to lay claim to being science fiction, and Portable Novels of Science (Viking, 1945).

But as important as these were, none of them would have the impact that the Conklin and Healy & McComas books would have. Consider: two major hard-cover publishing houses commissioned large and representative anthologies of science fiction, something that had never been done before on this scale. Even the fan presses hadn't yet collected pulp stories by different authors in a single volume. This was an open admission by the publishers that they no longer considered science fiction to be pulp trash, but a marketable and viable literature worthy of preservation.

So, how did they happen? I've gone into detail about Conklin's entry into publishing elsewhere, so I won't repeat it here. Suffice it to say that he wrote his first book (on lending libraries) in 1934 and stayed in publishing freelance from then until his death in 1968.

Although Conklin had read Wells' Men Like Gods in 1924 and had gleefully read his roommate's collection of old Argosy and All-Story pulps with their "scientific romances" by Garritt P. Service, Austin Hall and Merritt in the early '30s, he didn't become what he termed "an earnest devotee" of modern sf until 1944. That was the year he proposed The Best of Science Fiction to Crown Books.

Healy and McComas met through Anthony Boucher sometime in the 1930s, most likely because all three were active in (gasp!) socialist politics. McComas, in fact, was made to feel unwelcome at his job with a major oil company because he attempted to unionize the office workers. In 1941 he began a series of jobs in publishing, most notably two years at Random House. They pitched the idea to Random House president Bennet Cerf, and were given the go-ahead.

The race was on.

Obviously, since they were assembling the anthologies more or less simultaneously, there's no story overlap; this is, of course, one of the reasons they complement each other so well. It also means that, since Healy & McComas got there first, they were able to nail the cream of the Astounding crop before Conklin had a chance to pick. Nevertheless, the Conklin is not an inferior book because of it; Conklin was perfectly capable of finding quality work among the vast number of pulp stories that were left.

Let's look at why these two workhorses have outlasted so many others. First and most important, the editors knew what they were looking for and how to get it. All three editors read avidly, if not voraciously, and not only in the genre. Conklin had already edited a collection of stories from two of the most respected literary magazines of the day, Smart Set and New Republic, and McComas did extensive editorial work for Random, Henry Holt, and Simon and Schuster.

Then there was the ocean of material from which they could choose. Certainly that ocean was pretty shallow and thin in places, but there were also plenty of depths to be plumbed and that's what they set about doing.

Between the two books, there are 75 stories by 53 authors contained in almost 1800 pages. The earliest is Poe's "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," but there are six other stories that pre-date Gernsback's Amazing Stories. The latest was Leinster's "First Contact" from the May 1945 Astounding. Perhaps as important as who was in the book was where the stories came from: a full 56 of the 75 were taken from Astounding, 45 of those from John W. Campbell's tenure as editor. The next highest number came from the Wonder group with six. If nothing else, this demonstrates that the editors considered Astounding to be the pre-eminent source for sf stories, a contention with which I certainly cannot argue.

The tables of contents speak far louder than I can here: in both books, there are seven Heinlein stories (three as by Anson MacDonald); four each by Van Vogt, Padgett, and Don A. Stuart (John W. Campbell, for those of you who don't know); and a brace of stories by Asimov, Rocklynne, Boucher, Cartmill, and others. Leinster, Bester, Fredrick Brown, Eric Frank Russell, Nelson would have been more amazing if these books had not stood the test of time.

Here is the table of contents for Adventures in Time and Space:

Introduction - Raymond J. Healy & J. Francis McComas
"Requiem" - Robert A. Heinlein
"Forgetfulness" - Don A. Stuart
"Nerves" - Lester del Rey
"The Sands of Time" - P. Schuyler Miller
"The Proud Robot" - Lewis Padgett
"Black Destroyer" - A. E. van Vogt
"Symbiotica" - Eric Frank Russell
"Seeds of the Dusk" - Raymond Z. Gallun
"Heavy Planet" [with Frederik Pohl] - Lee Gregor (pseud. of
Milton A. Rothman)
"Time Locker" - Lewis Padgett
"The Link" - Cleve Cartmill
"Mechanical Mice" - Maurice G. Hugi (as by Maurice A. Hugi)
"V-2: Rocket Cargo Ship" - Willy Ley
"Adam and No Eve" - Alfred Bester
"Nightfall" - Isaac Asimov
"A Matter of Size" - Harry Bates
"As Never Was" - P. Schuyler Miller
"Q.U.R." - Anthony Boucher (as by H. H. Holmes)
"Who Goes There?" - Don A. Stuart
"The Roads Must Roll" - Robert A. Heinlein
"Asylum" - A. E. van Vogt
"Quietus" - Ross Rocklynne
"The Twonky" - Lewis Padgett
"Time-Travel Happens!" - A. M. Phillips
"Robots Return" - Robert Moore Williams
"The Blue Giraffe" - L. Sprague de Camp
"Flight Into Darkness" - Webb Marlowe (pseud. of Francis J.
"The Weapon Shop" - A. E. van Vogt
"Farewell to the Master" - Harry Bates
"Within the Pyramid" - R. DeWitt Miller
"He Who Shrank" - Henry Hasse
"By His Bootstraps" - Anson MacDonald
"The Star Mouse" - Fredric Brown
"Correspondence Course" - Raymond F. Jones
"Brain" - S. Fowler Wright

Two of the pieces, the Ley and the Phillips, are articles. The Hugi is something of an oddity; although many references list this as having been ghosted by Eric Frank Russell, it was, in fact, written by Hugi and then re-written by Russell to make it salable. Friends are good things to have. Editor McComas even "snuck" one of his own stories in under his pseudonym, Webb Marlowe, but to be fair, it originally appeared under that name in the February 1943 Astounding, so no foul.

But look at that line-up! How many of those stories have you read over and over, in "Best Of" collections and "Golden Age" anthologies over the years? How many of them are now considered classics? Now stop and realize that at the time this book was assembled, they were not considered classics, just what the editors thought were the best they could get of the yarns they'd enjoyed as science fiction fans. Easy enough to look back now and say, "Well, yes, but surely they knew..." Except that they didn't. Nobody did. The field was still too new. Back then, "classic" science fiction was Wells, Verne, and Poe.

"But weren't the stories they chose popular with the readership of the pulp magazines?" you might ask. Of course, but that readership numbered in the tens of thousands at best. Adventures in Time and Space would reach many times that in its first few years, and eventually millions more while (apart from collections, both private and public) the original magazines moldered and disappeared. The immortality of those stories was, in a very real way, assured.

(As an aside, I'll point out that one of the more delightful experiences I've had in 45 years of literacy was reading the late Alva Rogers' A Requiem for Astounding with the Healy & McComas beast at my right hand; when Rogers discussed a story he particularly liked that was also in the anthology, it was a simple matter to shift from one book to the other. I didn't even have to move my head much.)

Groff Conklin missed out on those stories, since he began his project later than Healy & McComas did, but not only was he able to find more stories, he was able to get his book out sooner then they did. How? Well, that's open to speculation, but it's very possible that it was as simple as The Best of Science Fiction having a single editor through which candidate stories would be filtered instead of two. I think it's more likely that there were other factors as well this was, after all, a race but the Single Editor Theory has a certain elegance that appeals to me.

Here are the contents of The Best of Science Fiction:

Concerning Science Fiction - John W. Campbell, Jr.
Introduction - Groff Conklin
Part One: The Atom
"Solution Unsatisfactory" - Anson MacDonald
"The Great War Syndicate" - Frank R. Stockton
"The Piper's Son" - Lewis Padgett
"Deadline" - Cleve Cartmill
"Lobby" - Clifford D. Simak
"Blowups Happen" - Robert Heinlein
"Atomic Power" - Don A. Stuart
Part Two: The Wonders of Earth
"Killdozer!" - Theodore Sturgeon
"Davey Jones' Ambassador" - Raymond Z. Gallun
"Giant in the Earth" - Morrison Colladay
"Goldfish Bowl" - Anson MacDonald
"The Ivy War" - David H. Keller
"Liquid Life" - Ralph Milne Farley
Part Three: The Superscience of Man
"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" - Edgar Allan Poe
"The Great Keinplatz Experiment" - Arthur Conan Doyle
"The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes" - H. G. Wells
"The Tissue-Culture King" - Julian Huxley
"The Ultimate Catalyst" - John Taine
"The Terrible Sense" - Calvin Peregoy (pseud. of Thomas McClary)
"A Scientist Divides" - Donald Wandrei
Part Four: Dangerous Inventions
"Tricky Tonnage" - Malcolm Jameson
"The Lanson Screen" - Arthur Leo Zagat
"The Ultimate Metal" - Nat Schachner
"The Machine" - Don A. Stuart
Part Five: Adventures in Dimension
"Short-Circuited Probability" - Norman L. Knight
"The Search" - A. E. van Vogt
"The Upper Level Road" - Warner van Lorne (pseud. of F. Orlin and Nelson Tremaine)
"The 32nd of May" - Paul Ernst
"The Monster from Nowhere" - Nelson Bond
Part Six: From Outer Space
"First Contact" - Murray Leinster
"Universe" - Robert Heinlein
"Blind Alley" - Isaac Asimov
"En Route to Pluto" - Wallace West
"The Retreat to Mars" - Cecil B. White (pseud. of William H. Christie)
"The Man Who Saved the Earth" - Austin Hall
"Spawn of the Stars" - Charles W. Diffin
"The Flame Midget" - Frank Belknap Long, Jr.
"Expedition" - Anthony Boucher
"The Conquest of Gola" - Leslie F. Stone
"Jackdaw" - Ross Rocklynne

Note that the book is divided into themes. Conklin pioneered the theme anthology at least eighteen of his 41 anthologies were themed , and in fact called one of his early anthologies Science Fiction Adventures in Dimension after that section of this book.

This book has a few anomalies that should be mentioned. First, due to a mix-up, the Nelson Bond story was credited to Donald Wandrei in the first printing; this was because Wandrei had written a story with the same title. The Stockton title, as Conklin explains in his introduction, was edited because, in Conklin's words, "In order to bring this short novel it ran to over 125 pages in the original down to manageable size for an anthology of short stories, I have excised endless descriptions of Stockton's other weapons, and much of the details of Britain's bumbling defense against them." Works for me.

Again, though, look at the titles and authors on that list: "Universe," "Killdozer," "Blowups Happen," "First Contact," Heinlein (four times!), Van Vogt, Boucher, Bond, Padgett...Conklin may not have had first pick, but he did better than just all right.

And continued to do so, I might add. When The Best of Science Fiction was reprinted as a trade paperback in 1963 by Bonanza, he cut 18 stories from the original, indicating that in the intervening 17 years both the readers and writers of science fiction had become sophisticated enough that those dozen-and-a-half simply were no longer representative of "the best." Whether, as some have argued, that this was an excuse for making the book smaller and thus cheaper to produce for a low-budget publisher is, I think, irrelevant; Conklin picked the right 18 stories to cut.

Ah, but even comprehensive anthologies have to close at some point. The editorial process not only decides whose name goes on the contents page, but whose doesn't as well. Healy & McComas are unapologetic about it, saying, "Anthologists, like critics, in offering their choices and opinions must expect the coals of dissent and the bitter bile of contumely upon their heads...We, too, will be subjected to censure for the twin sins of omission and commission." For his part, Conklin doesn't disagree, saying, "...the nature of any fairly comprehensive branch of writing makes it a foregone conclusion that no one anthology can actually represent it, without taking on the dimensions of an unabridged dictionary." Indeed, the books are big enough as they are. Much bigger and you'd need a block and tackle just to haul them down off the shelf.

And what names are conspicuous in their absence from the lists? Frederik Pohl, Ray Bradbury, Jack Williamson, Fritz Leiber, Wilson Tucker, and Hal Clement all published before 1945, among many others perhaps less deserving of preservation.

Of the 75 stories contained in these two books, all but a bare handful have been anthologized and collected over and over, in a few cases more than a dozen times. I have to wonder which anthologies, if any, from the last quarter-century will be able to make that claim; only time will tell, but I suspect damned few.

Over the years, I've been asked by non-readers of science fiction what books I would recommend as being good introductions to the literature many times, as I'm sure plenty of others have, too. I've never failed to name these two as the first of my top five choices for short-story anthologies. If I were asked to teach a class in the history of the field, these would be at the head of the required reading list. I don't think it's possible to over-estimate their value as single-volume repositories of the best and brightest of the first 20 years of science fiction; anyone who reads these two books and pays attention will have a good enough grasp of what makes science fiction what it is to be able to take off on their own and find further rewards in the field.

They aren't hard to find. They've been reprinted over and over; the original printings are common enough on eBay and ABE Books, as well as in used-bookshops; the Conklin has been done as an "instant remainder" and available in chain bookstores for a number of years.

So, track them down and buy them, if you don't already have them. Hold them in your hands and feel the heft of all those spaceships and robots and aliens and time machines. Feel the weight of not only the years past in which they originally appeared, but the decades and centuries into the future that they gleefully represent. Set them aside for your grandkids to marvel over; seal them away for a posterity yet to come if you like; put them both on a shelf by themselves and wait for them to breed, if you think they might.

Or you could do what I plan to do right after I finish this article: run into the next room, grab one, and start reading it again.