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- Published on Amazon.com
It's hard to believe that this old collection of mostly good to great stories by various European and Russian writers from the 1960's to early 70's, with outstanding English translations, have had no reviews here. This is perhaps indicative of still how little attention is paid by the general SF community to works produced outside American and British territories -- and I speak as an American. SF is about expanding your horizon, not being comfortable and provincial about it, the very point made by the book's introduction...
Ok, I admit that I haven't pay too much attention to foreign SF either before reading this collection, aside from past samplings of internationally well-known names like Lem and the Strugatskies. I expected the vast majority of foreign SF to be either too weird or too political or just derivative copycats of great English-language SF works, but this collection was an eye opener and suggests that there are many more great foreign SF to read out there than I had surmised. Most of these stories are well-crafted, inventive, explore universal themes, and wouldn't be out of place in any top-tier American or British periodicals or anthologies, yet still exude their own sense of view and vitality. My only complaint is that there are only 11 of them here, not enough to get a fully representative view of the SF richness that awaits on foreign soils -- although the introduction mentions and lists a good many other authors. (And let's hope that these were not the few gems in a mountain of slush, Sturgeon forbid.)
I'll briefly summarize and review these 11 stories while trying not to spoil them too much:
"In Hot Pursuit of Happiness", Stanislaw Lem (Poland). The longest story in the collection, one of Lem's Cyberiad stories -- a "sure" entry to start off with. Lem doesn't disappoint and is in top form here -- unless you prefer his more serious works like Solaris (which I thought dour and tedious). This is a fun and intricate romp on a cyberiad's attempts to construct a race which can exist with perfect happiness and the various material snags and philosophical mishaps he encounters.
"The Valley of Echoes", Gerald Klein (France). Mood piece of a Mars exploration team that discovers a sonic relic caused by a freak geological feature, and the sad and ironic result from their fervent wish to make contact with the Martians. Short enough to be effectively haunting instead of just maudlin.
"Observation of Quadragnes," J.P. Andrevon (France). The worst story in this collection, as it contains cliches and gaucheries and offensively sterotyped characterizations, especially about Americans (gee, what a suprise). Alien captures a male and female human for study, and the resulting angst and confusion to all parties. A rant on universal miscommunication perhaps -- narrated successively in Rashomon-style by the 3 characters -- and which likely also applies to the author.
"The Good Ring," Svend Age Madsen (Denmark). Farmer miserable with his lot finds an alien ring and gets to view and choose to live in three alternate worlds where his life is much better. Ah, but being a fairly thoughtful and honest human being, it doesn't turn out that simple. A witty, existential fable.
"Slum," Herbert W. Franke (West Germany). A short travelogue through a hellish, poluted future world. Contains vivid imageries but the story doesn't really go anywhere (pardon the pun).
"Captain Nemo's Last Adventure," Josef Nesvadba (Czechoslovakia). Probably my favorite story of this collection. Famous captain goes off on last adventure with crew to save humanity from gigantic alien ship that routinely causes supernovas, and how his legacy is ironically remembered 1000 years after he returns to earth (relativistically). [Yes, irony tends to predominate in this collection.]
"The Altar of the Random Gods," Adrian Rogoz (Rumania). Something that J.G. Ballard would write -- a complement, I suppose. A weird, dystopic piece on how an improbable hover car crash elicits the attention of several artificial entities ("gods").
"Good Night, Sophie," Lino Aldani (Italy). Something that Philip K. Dick would write...ok, enough. I gather this story is quite well-known in the European community but this was my first exposure to it. "Dream" movies indistinguishable from reality is the entertainment standard of the future and has caused widespread addiction and isolation, with resulting blightness to nearly all facets of civilization -- and you thought today's videogames are bad! Well-known actress of these addictive dream-films feels guilty about her job and thought about quitting, but at what cost? Contains some clumsy and annoying "as-you-know-bob" explanations to set it up but is otherwise quite involving and clever.
"The Proving Ground," Sever Gansovski (U.S.S.R.). Given how anti-military and anti-authorian this story is, I'm surprised the author was able to publish it in 1969 in his homeland (or perhaps he published it outside of it). Civilian inventor (and bereaved father of son killed in action) gives a bunch of top military officers a demonstration of a secret weapon that will definitely make an impression on them -- an indestructible tank that goes into action by picking up brain vibrations caused by fear. Though the concept is quite improbable and isn't well explained, it's a bracingly grim, taut and nihilistic tale.
"Sisyphus, The Son of Aeolus," Vsevolod Ivanov (U.S.S.R.) The only overtly fantastical story in the collection. A weary and poor veteran soldier of Alexander the Great, while traveling home and getting lost in a path that is reputedly haunted, encounters a big guy who spends most of the day rolling a big rock up a hill after it falls back down. The big guy is glad to see him, but not for the reason most of us cynical readers would have guessed, and the ending is fitting and has genuine pathos.
"A Modest Genius," Vadim Shefner (U.S.S.R.) The last, and close to my favorite story in this collection. Guy inventor of all sorts of clever and revolutionary devices (including water skates) is given scant recognition by the world and is trapped in a loveless marriage, until he unleashes his best invention yet to reunite with his true love. Charming and hilarious story.
This review pertains to the 1973 softcover edition with the ugly orange cover, as shown. (I note that later editions have been issued with more editorial notes.) I hope it will encourage some readers to try out this collection and invites more reviews and responses. I'm starting to think now that the only excuse for an adventurous and well-rounded SF reader not to read more foreign SF would be the lack of decent translations -- and that would admittedly be a very good excuse for some countries.