Thursday, June 28, 2012

Classic Sci-Fi: The End of the World ed. by Michael Kelahan

Subtitle: Classic Tales of Apocalyptic Science Fiction
Publisher: Fall River
Date: 2010
Format: hardback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 457
Reading time: three weeks

From GoodReads: A century-and-more ago, while some people pondered the pinnacle that civilization had attained, others worried how it would come crashing down. Many of the era s best writers gave shape to those fears in wildly speculative stories that envisioned unthinkable fates and spectacular dooms for our planet and its people.

The End of the World collects twenty-one classic stories and poems from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which the Earth s end times erupt in fire, frost, flood, famine—and worse. Dramatic, tragic, exhilarating, and transcendent, the provocative stories in this volume offer thrilling accounts of global catastrophes, natural disasters, science run amok, and shocking cataclysms as only the most imaginative writers could conceive.

My review: Oh, classic sci-fi, how I have missed you! I just love the combination of creative spirit, scientific discovery, and (in most cases) Victorian culture that can be found in stories from what I consider the dawn of the genre. Many of the authors in this anthology are already well-known - Jack London, E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft (we seem to like abbreviated names here), Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Lord Byron - though not necessarily for science fiction. Others are well-known to early sci-fi enthusiasts, while others are just obscure. It's a very interesting mix, as are the stories selected for inclusion.

In the tales from the 19th century, a notable theme is that of a comet or similar celestial body hurtling into the earth, into the sun, or barely missing the earth. Kelahan explains that this is due to the abundance of comets sighted during the century; I was surprised by the similarity of disasters to that described in Ignatius Donnelly's nonfiction works from the 1880s. His ideas about the earth passing through a comet's tail in prehistoric times, causing the disasters recorded in mythology, the fall of Atlantis, and various other historical mysteries? Apparently the science of the comet's impact wasn't something formulated entirely by him.

A lot of the stories ran together for me. Several, however, did stand out. "Earth's Holocaust" (Nathaniel Hawthorne) was humorously satirical. "Into the Sun" (Robert Duncan Milne), "The Star" (H.G. Wells), "The Thames Valley Catastrophe" (Grant Allen), and "Finis" (Frank Lillie Pollock) were particularly dramatic and frightening. Milne's sequel to "Into the Sun," however, was a rather ridiculous tale, in terms of its improbability, of how the 'apocalypse' would result in a utopia. Another interesting theme to appear in the stories from after about 1900 was that of evolution, especially how, even if the human race were to be destroyed in a cataclysmic event, life would eventually be able to return to the planet.

There are four novels or novellas, presumably unabridged, included in the anthology. I only read one of them at this time, since I own a copy of one of the others and have already read the last two. The Crack of Doom (Robert Cromie), the longest of the novels, wasn't much fun to read. I thought the main character was rude and pusillanimous, and the plot felt disjointed and a bit confusing. The Scarlet Plague (Jack London) I didn't read, since I have another copy and will read it at some later date. The Machine Stops (E.M. Forster) and The Poison Belt (Arthur Conan Doyle) are two of my favorite books from a couple years ago. Forster's novel begins as a dystopia and ends with an apocalypse; I found it very well-written and plausible. The Poison Belt was ruined for me because I already knew how it ended. I still greatly enjoyed reading it - like the first Professor Challenger novel, The Lost World, it's exciting and engrossing - but, given the ironic conclusion, I thought everything was humorous rather than dramatic and frightening.

In terms of what the editor did, I thought he compiled a very good range of post-apocalyptic stories, given the number of authors represented (though there were no female authors - right off hand, I can't think of any specific early post-apocalyptic stories by women, but there were female authors who wrote sci-fi during the period). Each story was introduced with a brief bio of the author and a little bit of information on the work. My only problem was that the book needed a better proof-reader, there being multiple typography errors just in the introduction and then scattered throughout the book.

For other excellent anthologies of early science fiction, see The Phoenix Pick Anthology of Classic Science Fiction Stories (2008; ed. by Paul Cook) and The Treasury of Science Fiction Classics (1955; ed. by Harold W. Kuebler).

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