The Bottom Line: I reread “Jay Score” by Eric Frank Russell, an SF story I had not read in decades, and really liked it and recommend it.
The Story: I’m currently reading my fifth giant, doorstop of a survey of 20th Century science fiction in the last year and a half, “The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy” (2000, Prentice Hall), edited by Garyn G. Roberts. I plan to discuss, compare and contrast all six 20th Century SF survey anthologies when I am done. Luckily, I am very interested in this, and a very fast reader with a lot of spare time.
Like all of these survey volumes, there are stories that I love and stories that I dislike, stories that are “classics” or well remembered that I have read before, stories that I am sure I have read but remember very little or nothing about, and authors and stories that are new to me. That is just what you get.
“Jay Score” by Eric Frank Russell was a story I recognized as having read before but that I did not really remember. I’m guessing I first read it in Russell’s collection, “Men, Martians and Machines” (I have the 1958 Berkley paperback), which I probably acquired in the early 1970s. I also have it in the 1978 “The Best of Eric Frank Russell” (a Del Rey/Ballantine paperback).
This short story originally appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction, May 1941. This was a really good, even outstanding issue, with “Jay Score” and two stories from the Recommended Reading list for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction Facebook Group as well (“Universe” by Robert A. Heinlein and “Liar! by Isaac Asimov).
The Analytical Laboratory feature for the July 1941 Astounding included reader reaction to the May 1941 issue. “Jay Score” came in fifth out of six stories. I can understand “Universe” and “Liar!” finishing ahead of “Jay Score”. I am at a bit of a loss on the other two stories that also finished before it, “Solution Unsatisfactory” by Anson McDonald (Robert E. Heinlein” and “The Stolen Dormouse” by L. Sprague de Camp. I don’t remember anything about them, and I have waded through too much dreck from this era to be in a hurry to read them now. (I’ll reconsider if I get substantive feedback on them)
There was a World Science Fiction Convention in 1941. It was only a few months after the story was published. The Hugo Awards were not yet in existence, and Retro Hugo’s for 1942 may never be awarded.
Looking at these two issues, it’s not clear that the story had any real impact in 1941. From my perspective in 2022, it’s a darn good story that is remembered and available (still in print in the 2000 NESFA “Major Ingredients: The Selected Short Stories of Eric Frank Russell” collection edited by Rick Katze, and available online at Internet Archive and other locations).
From today’s perspective, the story features great characters, a gripping plot, and is without the racism and colonialism commonly present in SF of this era. I did not see any women or female entities, but some of the alien races present could be whatever. Quite a bit of the fiction of this era, within SF or without, had both overt and/or built-in built-in unconscious (perhaps) racism, misogyny, colonialism, prejudice about sexual orientation and gender, ableism, etc. This can be present in even stories that are very well remembered or considered “classics” by some. This story is quite refreshing in that context. Garyn G. Roberts’ introduction to the story in “The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy” confirms that he included the story partially as a result of this. My detailed thoughts about the story itself follow below.
Lastly, I recognized that my last two blogs about SF stories were about stories that I liked, but felt were perhaps not deserving of inclusion in a “Best Of” anthology or being awarded a Hugo. My last book review was one that I was rewarded for reading but had decidedly mixed feelings about. I felt it was time to write about something that I unabashedly liked.
SPOILERS FOLLOW: A spaceship on the way to Venus hits/is hit by and damaged by a piece of floating space junk, disabling the navigation computer and putting them off course. They are now headed past Venus, instead orbiting towards the sun and death. The new Emergency Pilot saves the day at the cost of his eyes and vocal cords. At the end, we learn that the emergency pilot is a sophisticated, substantially human-appearing robot, which helped him survive to pilot the ship in a very close cometary orbit around the sun. As a result, the Emergency Pilot is inducted into a very exclusive club with the crew present; the strong praises embarrass him. The last sentence is great, “Don’t let anyone tell you that a robot can’t have feelings!” I really like this story, with a lot of great characters and without much of the racism and colonialism commonly present in SF of this era. The other “Jay Score” story I have read recently was “Symbiotica”, which was good but not as good as this. All of the “Jay Score stories are collected in “Men, Martians and Machines”, probably out of print but available used or perhaps online.