“Yesterday’s Tomorrows”: Recommended but a Bit of a Mixed Bag

I just finished reading “Yesterday’s Tomorrows”, an anthology by Frederik Pohl (1982, Berkley) that is billed as his “Favorite Stories From Forty Years As A Science Fiction Editor”.

Bottom Line: This is definitely worth reading. There are several classic stories in here, and a number of others that were new to me but very good. Just as importantly, his essays and author intros are interesting and riveting; it’s worth reading them even if you don’t read the fiction for his insights and history from a decades long involvement in speculative fiction as a fan, editor, writer, and agent. My overall rating was a very strong 3.8/5, which is “great” on my scale.

The Whole Story: When I started to write this essay, my first question was, “Why did I decide to read this book? Why now?” At first, I drew a blank, but looking at the Table of Contents nudged my memory.

When I was reading “The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy” recently, I realized that there were two versions of “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr. I decided to research which versions appeared where so that I could update the Internet Speculative Fiction Database accordingly.

One of the books “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” appeared in is “Yesterday’s Tomorrows”. I confirmed that version is the 1974 version. Apparently, Tiptree was not happy with the original version first published in the March, 1969 Galaxy Magazine. A different version appeared in the 1974 “SF: Authors’ Choice 4” anthology edited by Harry Harrison (Putnam). The acknowledgments page for the 1975 Tiptree collection “Warm Worlds and Otherwise” notes that the 1974 version of the story was “heavily revised”. I have not done a word by word comparison, but I don’t disagree. From my investigation, most but not all subsequent appearances of “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” were the 1974 version.

I have been a fan of Pohl’s writing for a long time, both short fiction and novels. I was aware that he had edited Galaxy and If Magazines, and that he had been an agent and fan also. I had heard of “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” and I was interested in reading it both for Pohl’s fiction choices and for the essays and story introductions. After reading it, I am glad that I did, although I do have some modest reservations.

On the positive side, there were a number of classics (IMHO) that I was very familiar with and liked, some of which I reread and some I did not. This was fun, as I had not realized that Pohl had edited these stories. This included stories liked “The Nine Billion Names of God” (Arthur C. Clarke, “Star Science Fiction”, 1953), “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (Cordwainer Smith, Galaxy Magazine, October 1962), “The Moon Moth” (Jack Vance, Galaxy Magazine, August 1961), and “Oh, To Be A Blobel!” (Philip K. Dick, Galaxy Magazine, February 1964).

A Gentle Dying

There were also a number of stories I really liked that I was not familiar with. This included “The Monster” (Lester del Rey, Argosy, June 1951), “A Gentle Dying” (a story by C. M. Kornbluth and Pohl, finished by Pohl after Kornbluth’s death, Galaxy Magazine, June 1961) and “The Report on the Barnhouse Effect”, (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Collier’s, 1950, a story I might have read before in “Welcome to the Monkey House” but did not remember). This was definitely one of the pluses of reading the book.

The essays and story introductions/author bios were outstanding, and a great reason to pick this up even if you don’t read the fiction. Essays included “Introduction”, “The Fanzines: 1933-1939”, “The Pulps: 1939-1943”, “The Anthologies”, “The Galaxy and If Years: 1960-1969”, “The Paperbacks: 1971-1978”, and “Afterword”. With his career as fan, author, editor and agent, he has a lot to say and it is very interesting, even if you don’t end up agreeing with all of it. Most of the story introductions/author bios are fascinating as well, with some anecdote of his history with the author and why he chose the story.

I do have three modest quibbles with the book. First, there are several stories that I just really, really wonder why they were included. These range from verging on bad to ordinary, from “Emergency Refueling” (James Blish, Super Science Stories, March 1940) to “The Man with English” (H. L. Gold, “The Old Die Rich and Other Science Fiction Stories”, Crown Publishing, 1955). I love James Blish, but “Emergency Refueling” was early in his career and it’s just not a very good story. I can only guess Pohl felt this was his best choice for this part of his career with this author. Sigh. Opinions differ on “The Man With English”, but I don’t find it very interesting.

Second, there are three novel “excerpts” from books he edited later in his career. I can understand why Pohl would want to include these excerpts to represent his body of work and be able to talk about them. However, I have found I don’t typically value novel excerpts. There are exceptions, but for me they are not typically coherent or present a good story without the rest of the novel. Of the three, the “Dhalgren” (Samuel R. Delany, Bantam Books, 1974) excerpt is both the most convincing as a stand-alone unit and the most interesting. I have heard of this book by an author I really like, and now I need to read the SF novel. Perhaps the most frustrating of the excerpts is from “The Dragon Lensman” (David Kyle, Bantam, 1980, set in the Lensman universe of and authorized by E. E. “Doc” Smith). The excerpt is limited to the prefatory material to the novel. For me, the Lensman series is definitely a guilty pleasure; I am able to enjoy it even while recognizing it’s many deficiencies and objectionable elements. I was hoping for some whiz-bang, exaggerated space opera material not unlike that presented by “Doc” Smith that I could enjoy, but this did not deliver. The third excerpt included is from a rather horrific Vietnam novel, “The Short-Timers” (Gustav Hasford, 1979, Bantam). The writing and story (as far as it went in the excerpt) were good, with the novel being semi-autobiographical by this Vietnam Vet. However, it was not speculative fiction in any way by the time it had been edited. Pohl was proud of being part of getting it published, but I just did not see it as essential to this anthology.

Finally, and this is minor, Pohl included the copyright/publication information for the contents in the copyright/acknowledgements page near the start of the novel. This is great, and better than some reprint anthologies/collections. However, I wish he had included the publication information for each story with the story introduction/author bio, to give better context for each story.

So, overall, as mentioned above, I thought this was a great anthology with a few modest deficiencies. Recommended.

Here are my thoughts on the individual titles. SPOILERS FOLLOW:

  • “Into the Darkness”, a 1940 novelette by Ross Rocklynne. This is a fun story of an energy creature who searches for the meaning of life through several universes and eventually understands that all die, and creates a planet and protoplasm. I rated this 3.4/5.
  • “Emergency Refueling”, a 1940 short story by James Blish. I really have no idea why Pohl included this story. The introduction is quite clear that he and Blish had a long and positive history, but no clue why this story. A pair of tramp space prospectors are out of radioactive fuel. Their only chance of survival is Pluto, which is quite radioactive in this story. The Space Patrol reluctantly lets them land, with specific directions on what to do and not do, although rather obtuse. They disobey the instructions, regardless of the rather dire warning of death and worse. One of them is consumed by a telepathic, radioactive monster. I rated this 2.5/5, easily the worst story presented.
  • “The Halfling”, a 1943 novelette by Leigh Brackett. I originally read this for the 1944 Retro Hugo nominations. I noted “not bad but not her best”. Not about to reread. I rated this a very average 3.3/5.
  • “Let There Be Light”, a 1940 short story by Robert A. Heinlein. I’m sure I’ve read this before, either in “The Man Who Sold the Moon” or “The Past Through Tomorrow”. Two academics, in biology and physics, try to develop a new, more efficient light bulb. They do, and it turns out to serve as a supremely efficient solar panel as well. The power monopoly threatens them. They release the patent publicly, taking a small percentage. Then they marry. I believe these solar panels are used in Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll”. Not a great Heinlein story; this was published the first year he had works published, but this was not one of the good ones. I rated this 3.2/5.
  • ‘Strange Playfellow (AKA “Robbie”)’, a 1940 short story by Isaac Asimov.  A very good story of a little girl and a nursemaid robot, although today we might find the characters a bit overdone. I rated this 3.7/5, not great but almost. I don’t feel this is a classic, but it does show up in 4 Lists for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction Facebook Group Recommended Reading List (BSFFSF FB Group RRL)
  • “Interstellar Way-Station”, a 1941 short story by Wilson “Bob” Tucker. I really enjoyed this story of life on a interstellar way-station between Earth and Alpha Centauri. The protagonist saves the life of a wayward rich girl who is almost eaten by a space shark, who then saves him. She swears she will wait for him (he has a 50 year term). He finds out she has married…. Corny, with stereotypes that today would need better treatment, but fun. I rated this 3.6/5.
  • “The Anthologies”, a 1982 essay by Pohl. A great, insightful and personal essay. Reading this is worth the price of reading the book.
  • “The Report on the Barnhouse Effect”, a 1950 short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I suspect I have read this before, perhaps in “Welcome to the Monkey House”. Professor Barnwell discovers a means of learning to release energy and influence the world with specific mental effort. He is sequestered for security, but eventually decides to escape to avoid military oversight and to make the world a better place. He is on the run while making the world better. He divulges the secret to an academic he is mentoring, amid his attempts to escape. This person is initially clueless, but finally understands and begins the mental exercises needed. This story is a well written farce. I rated this a great 3.8/5.
  • “Eco-Catastrophe!”, a short story by Paul R. Ehrlich. That name rang a bell, but I did not remember more. Ehrlich is “an American biologist, best known for his warnings about the consequences of population growth and limited resources” per Wikipedia. A very sobering near future tale of widespread eco-catastrophe, missing only global climate change. Not much of a narrative, but still quite a wallop. I rated this 3.5/5.
  • “The Nine Billion Names of God”, a 1953 short story by Arthur C. Clarke. I have read this many times. It’s a great story, one of my favorite shorts. Not a wasted word. I love this story every time I read it. I rated this as a classic, at 4.9/5. I’m not giving any story info here – you either remember it or you need to read it. This is mentioned on 4 Lists from the BSFFSF FB Group RRL, so very well remembered.
  • “The Man with English”, a 1953 short story by H. L. Gold. This is a pretty ordinary story about an unpleasant man who is injured falling off a ladder. He must have an emergency operation, which crosses his senses. I guess the synesthesia makes this speculative fiction. I rated this a barely adequate 3/5.
  • “Space-Time for Springers”, a “Gummitch the Cat” 1958 short story by Fritz Leiber. Previously read a long time ago, either in “The Best of Fritz Leiber” or “Star of Stars” perhaps. A fantastic story of how a super kitten, perhaps, saves a baby and kickstarts the life of a child. All this with astounding kitten theories of life and change. Amazing yet compelling flights of fancy, one of my favorite Leiber stories. I rated this a great 4.1/5. This is mentioned on one BSFFSF FB Group RRL List.
  • “The Monster”, a 1951 short story by Lester del Rey. I might have read it in del Rey’s “Robots and Changelings” collection. A being is amnesiac and feels persecuted. Gradually, he understands he is an artificial being, a test for beings humans hope to use to fight their own battles and explore space. In the end, he accelerates his already miniscule lifespan and convinces his creators that robots/whatever are not feasible. This is a great story for 1951. I rated this 3.9/5.
  • “The Rull”, a 1948 novelette by A. E. van Vogt”. I suspect I have read this before in the fix-up novel “The War Against the Rull”. A pretty good story of conflict between man and the Rull, races that could not understand each other. I rated this 3.5/5.
  • “The Embassy”, a 1942 short story by Donald A. Wollheim [as by Martin Pearson]. A fun but not major story. A person comes to a detective in NYC, trying to find the Martian embassy, which he claims is in NYC. It is not known that there are any Martians on Earth, and everyone thinks he is crazy. At the end of the story, we find out that he is Venusian and there are Martians in NYC. I rated this 3.1/5.
  • “Guinevere for Everybody”, a 1955 short story by Jack Williamson A cybernetic engineer ends up buying an artificial woman from a vending machine. Things go downhill from there. A very good but not quite great story. I rated this 3.7/5.
  • “The Galaxy and If Years: 1960-1969”, a 1982 essay by Pohl. A great essay on how Pohl gets bored editing Galaxy and If magazines.
  • “The Pain Peddlers”, a 1963 short story by Robert Silverberg. Read recently in “The Great SF Stories #25 (1963)”. A producer of “feelies” of probably un-survivable medical procedures with no anesthesia is badly cut up by the son of a probably dying man who dies after his family signs up. An ex-employee works now for a rival, bootleg feelie blood and guts show, and the producer is a “victim” of this rival show after he is cut up. Maybe not among Silverberg’s best, but very good. The “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” intro mentions how Pohl helped get Silverback into writing SF, by agreeing to accept Silverberg stories sight unseen. This was one of the early stories written under that deal. I rated this a very strong 3.7/5.
  • “Oh, to Be a Blobel!”, a 1964 novelette by Philip K. Dick. First read recently in “Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction” (edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, Frederik Pohl, 1980, Playboy Press).  I love this story, kind of manic, great characters, pathos, and a variant on the O’ Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi”. PKD does outrageous yet inevitable better than anyone. Pohl clearly loved PKD’s writing. There is a great tribute by Pohl to PKD, who died during production of “Yesterday’s Tomorrows”. I rated this 4.5/5.
  • “The Ballad of Lost C’mell”, a 1962 Instrumentality of Mankind novelette by Cordwainer Smith. It’s hard for me to be fair about this, as Cordwainer Smith is one of my favorite SF authors. I love the Galaxy cover. Definitely an SF love story, and a sneaky one at that. I have never done a critical, complete analysis of Smith’s work, but I really don’t think he ever wrote any fantasy, even though some of the worlds and situations he writes about are pretty different. I think this is actually one of his stories with the least outre elements and location. He definitely like to talk about authority/hierarchy and who was in charge and considered a person and who was not throughout his future history. Certainly a lot of his stories were about doing the right thing and helping people and non-people live better lives in some way, and that is central to this story. Pohl clearly loved his work and was very proud to publish much of it. Pohl was also someone who knew his identity while Paul M. A. Linebarger wrote as Cordwainer Smith. I rated this 4.8/5. This is mentioned on 3 BSFFSF FB Group RRL Lists.
  • “A Gentle Dying”, a 1961 short story by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. First published in 1961 in Galaxy, 5 years after Kornbluth’s death. Pohl and Kornbluth had finished the first chapter of a novel, but did not know how to finish it. Pohl realized a lot later that it should only be short fiction. To summarize, an author has been rewarded financially beyond his dreams. He loves children, and sets up a foundation to free children of “the corrupt adult cloak that smothers him, of freeing him for wisdom, tenderness, and love.” Finally he dies, surrounded by a nurse, doctor and kids. We learn that the foundation succeeded, and that he was the last alive who had not been terminated or treated. I rated this 3.9/5.
  • “Slow Tuesday Night”, a 1965 short story by R. A. Lafferty. I first read this in “The Best of R. A. Lafferty” (Gollancz/Orion/Tor, 2019). A great and funny story of a breakneck future civilization sped up by orders of magnitude. Pohl apparently was the first genre author to buy and publish Lafferty. He remained very unhappy with how slow Lafferty’s popularity and sales increased, as he just loved his work. Pohl included this story as it used a title he suggested. I rated this 3.9/5. This is mentioned on one BSFFSF FB Group RRL List.
  • “Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay “, a 1967 short story by Robert Sheckley. According to Pohl, this was originally written as a chapter in a book by Robert Sheckley. Sheckley was stuck with writer’s block 1/2 way through the novel and Pohl showed him that a chapter could be published as short fiction with very modest changes. Subsequently, the novel appears to have been published as “Dimension of Miracles” (unverified by me). An urbanite from the megacity of NY sees an ad and decides to move to Bellweather in New Jersey, an automated city with the personality of a smothering mother. This does not go well. I rated this 3.7/5.
  • “The Coldest Place”, a 1964 Known Space short story by Larry Niven. The first Niven story sold, Pohl liked it enough to publish it, even if the science of Mercury as a cold place on the backside was disproved before publication. This is a good enough first story. I rated it 3.5/5.
  • “The Great Slow Kings”, a 1963 short story by Roger Zelazny. An amusing but minor SF tale of two saurian monarchs who live at a dramatically slower pace of life. Definitely minor Zelazny. I rated this 3.1/5.
  • “The Life Hater”, a 1964 short story by Fred Saberhagen. Previously read decades ago, perhaps in Saberhagen’s 1967 “Berserker” collection. A man goes out to try to convince the Berserker to not destroy his planet. He must give it a sample of tissue. The Berserker is perhaps convinced. At the end, he reveals that he had gone out to talk to the Berserker because he was dying of cancer, and that the Berserker’s bioweapon is curing his cancer, which is what the sample was. A good story. I rated this 3.7/5.
  • “Old Testament”, a 1964 short story by Jerome Bixby. Pohl lamented the time Bixby spent in Hollywood, not producing stories that were printed. This is an amusing story of how human behavior can affect aliens. The story is reprinted in Pohl’s “The If Reader of Science Fiction” and here but nowhere else, so Pohl may be more impressed than others. I rated this an ordinary 3.3/5.
  • “The Moon Moth”, a 1961 novelette by Jack Vance. Vance does a great job in portraying a very different race/culture, and the challenges for a diplomat who is just thrown in with no preparation. Very well done, and worth inclusion here. Pohl clearly loves Vance’s work, and is very proud of publishing this story and “The Dragon Masters” (Vance’s first Hugo winner). Reprinted a lot, including “Science Fiction Hall of Fame”, “The Great SF Stories #23”, “The Best of Jack Vance”, “Alpha One”, “Modern Classics of Science Fiction”, and “The Jack Vance Treasury”. I rated this 4.7/5, a classic. This is mentioned on all 4 BSFFSF FB Group RRL Lists.
  • “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain”, a 1969 short story by James Tiptree, Jr. (pseudonym for Alice Sheldon). A great story of the end of the upper primates, by a designed virus. Dr. Ain falls in love with Gaia, perhaps? I love the story of Dr. Ain’s voyage to the conference. This was a 1970 Nebula SS nomination. This version is the 1974 “SF: Author’s Choice 4” version, heavily revised from 1969 version, and with Tiptree’s introduction addressed to editor Harry Harrison, an extensive jeremiad against man and his environmental impacts from Tiptree. I understand the feelings but the extensive introduction is not helpful. Reprints in “SF: Author’s Choice 4”, “Warm Worlds and Others”, “Yesterday’s Tomorrows”, “The Road to Science Fiction #4: From Here to Forever”, “Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science-Fiction”, “Women of Futures Past”, “The Future Is Female”, “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”, etc. Pohl mentions finding Tiptree in the slush pile. This could be true, although Tiptree’s first published story was in Analog. I rated this a great 4.3/5, not the best Tiptree but very good for early career. This is mentioned on one BSFFSF FB Group RRL List.
  • “Among the Bad Baboons”, a 1968 novelette by Mack Reynolds. Clearly another story Pohl likes, as all of the reprints are by him, and no one else, after the original publication in Galaxy Magazine. I don’t think this is a great story, but it’s pretty darn good for one I don’t remember ever reading before. Manhattan has been deserted, after economics changed, riots occurred and no one wanted to work there any longer. It represents an island of anarchy among a society where most subsist on a new version of welfare. Those on Manhattan are either baboons (those living deliberately in this chaos for some reason) or hunters (those there to hunt and kill the “baboons”, usually for the thrill). A artist and writer live together as baboons, until she is almost killed by a hunter. Great characters and discussion of what you can and cannot do in this society. I rated this 3.7/5.
  • “Sweet Dreams, Melissa”, a 1968 short story by Stephen Goldin. A very good and sad story of the first computer intelligence. She has the personality and mind of a little girl, and does not have the time to grow up. I rated this 3.7/5.
  • “A Bad Day for Vermin”, a 1964 short story by Keith Laumer. A sharp little story about how “vermin” is redefined after a racist exterminator kills an apparently intelligent alien. I suspect I have read this before, perhaps in the same 1964 issue of Galaxy that included “Oh, To Be A Blobel!” I rated this 3.7/5.
  • “At the Mouse Circus”, a 1971 short story by Harlan Ellison. The King of Tibet lives and dies, and his car is eaten. This story seems rather random, but that could just be 1971. I appear to have read this before in “Deathbird Stories”, but I don’t remember it. Pohl liked it a lot, as it was in his “Best Of” in 1972. I rated this 3.6/5, good but not great, for me rather minor Ellison.
  • “Excerpt from Dragon Lensman”, originally a 1980 novel by David A. Kyle. I have read all the Lensman books numerous times. Although not great literature, they were and are very engaging and a great read. I remember seeing this book, but never picked it up. I am disappointed that Pohl includes only the “short prefatory excerpt” but no actual story element. I rated this 2.5/5 as is.
  • “Excerpt from Dhalgren”, originally a 1974 novel by Samuel R. Delany. I have heard about “Dhalgen” for decades, but never was motivated to read it. Recently, a discussion in the FB BSSFF group on it and Delany convinced me I need to read it. This short excerpt (13 p) gives me a sense of the story and the writing. I do need to read this.
  • “Excerpt from The Short-Timers”, originally a 1979 novel by Gustav Hasford. A macabre but perhaps not exaggerated tale of horror in Vietnam. Apparently it started out with surreal elements, which Pohl convinced Hasford to remove. Pohl convinced the publisher to take it on , and for another Bantam editor to edit as it was no longer a Pohl book without the fantastic elements. Pohl was proud of this. I’m not saying he is wrong, but it did nothing for me in terms of his SF career.

One response to ““Yesterday’s Tomorrows”: Recommended but a Bit of a Mixed Bag”

  1. Wow, you do have some free time! I am a bit overwhelmed by some of this, but our lives are in very different places, so not unexpected. As always I am in awe of your encyclopedic knowledge of these genres.

    Like

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