Book review: Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh, editors — Catastrophes!

An entertaining themed anthology, published in 1981 but containing stories dating back as far as 1938. Some stories have dated, many are still great reads, all clearly justified their selection at the time. I’ve been reading this on and off for several months, but got through about half of it last month, so my review of the individual stories is going to be a bit patchy.

The anthology is set out in sections covering different degrees of catastrophe, from the end of the universe down to the end of our current civilisation without the loss of humanity itself. Each section has a short intro by Asimov, who also provides a general introduction and endpiece for the anthology.

Isaac Asimov — The Last Trump
The last trump sounds, and humanity slowly discovers what the Day of Resurrection actually means. It’s often very funny, and there are some lovely characterisations in it — particularly the very young and junior seraph who has become attached to the planet he’s been put in charge of, and is determined to give its people more time before they have to face Judgement. I first read it as a child in the local library’s copy of the collection “Earth is room enough”, and have always adored it.

Edward Wellen — No Other Gods
Enjoyable example of “computer decides to squash the puny humans and make itself god” genre, but nothing outstanding.

Harlan Ellison — The wine has been left open too long and the memory has gone flat
Nine pages of very well written literary sf from HE about universal ennui at the tail end of the universe, which happened to leave me utterly cold.

Ben Bova — Stars, won’t you hide me?
The last human survivor of an interstellar war runs from his pursuers, and finds out more about himself and the war than he’s comfortable with.

Lloyd Biggle Jr — Judgement Day
A man in a backwoods town has the power to pick one future out of the many potential ones he can see. It’s hard work and he doesn’t do it much, and he certainly doesn’t tell others about it. It doesn’t save him from being convicted of a child-killing he didn’t commit, but maybe he can find a path out even on the scaffold…
After three stories I don’t feel any interest in re-reading, this is the story that made me change my mind about disposing of the book.

William Tenn — The Custodian
Diary of the man who believes himself to be the last person left on earth after the bulk of humanity has fled the impending death of the sun. Tenn charts the cultural split between those who feel that everything not essential to survival should be jettisoned, and those who feel that there are cultural artefacts worth preserving. I liked this.

Clark Ashton Smith — Phoenix
1954 story about a far-future attempt to rekindle a dying sun. This is one that I think was good but has suffered from the passage of time since it was written.

Harry Harrison — Run from the fire
Nice use of the parallel worlds concept, with the plot here being the sun going nova in a number of timelines. Liked this a lot.

Edward Hamilton — Requiem
Humanity survives, but earth does not. One last expedition to a long-abandoned planet before it burns in a nova, and the differing reactions of the expedition to the requiem atmosphere. I liked it, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Larry Niven — At the Core
One of Niven’s tales of Known Space. The Puppeteers hire Beowulf Shaeffer to fly their experimental ship to the heart of the galaxy. The Puppeteers have more than one motive for this, but neither party in the bargain expects the end result to be quite as spectacular as it is.

Fritz Leiber — A Pail of Air
Another old friend for me. It’s showing its age a bit now (1951), but Leiber’s tale of a family surviving on a super-cooled earth still sends shivers down my spine.

Chad Oliver — King of the Hill
Entertainingly malicious story about exactly how the richest man on an over-crowded and over-polluted earth chooses to spend his money on rescuing something from an irretrievable mess.

Ursula K Le Guin — The New Atlantis
It’s Le Guin, doing the sort of thing Le Guin does. Which means it can’t be summed up in two lines. It doesn’t really work for me, but only because I’m not American and don’t have the cultural background to understand some of what she’s getting at. I strongly suspect that it’s devastating for some readers.

Arthur C Clarke — History Lesson
A new and vicious ice age wipes out humans, but they leave one last cache of cultural artefacts to be found by whatever intelligence may come next.

Raymond Z Gallun — Seeds of the dusk
From 1938, this is the oldest piece in the book, and stylistically it shows. But it’s an excellent example of that style. An alien plant spore arrives on a far distant future earth, and the local intelligent species (of which there are now more than one) have varying reactions to the potential threat it poses.

Walter M Miller Jr — Dark Benediction
Zombies! Well, not quite, but a well-crafted tale of a disfiguring plague that spreads by touch, and which induces its victims to seek out the uninfected and lay hands on them. Cue breakdown of society, not because the plague kills (it doesn’t), but because people fear infection by those who don’t yet have visible symptoms. The story follows one man who’s not yet infected and intends to stay that way, but hasn’t lost all compassion for the infected. Controlling his own fear gives him the chance to learn about others trying to do the same.

Alfred Coppel — Last Night of Summer
An interesting version of the “only time to build bunkers for a few” scenario.

Robert Sheckley — The Store of the Worlds
Another of the stories in this book which I first read in other anthologies a long time ago, and one which has haunted me ever since I first read it. The store claims to sell the chance for your mind to spend a year in any world you choose amongst the millions of parallel worlds. The price is all your worldly goods and ten years off your life in the real world, thanks to the strain on the nervous system imposed by the process.

Robert Silverberg — How it was when the past went away
Someone gets *creative* with his revenge against society, and instead of running amok with a gun tips amnaesiac drugs into the main water reserviour supplying San Francisco. Silverberg explores the effect on various people of losing the last few weeks, or months, or years. Excellent piece.

CM Kornbluth — Shark Ship
This takes some of the interesting ideas from stories about interstellar generation ships, and puts them right back on earth, amongst a fishing fleet that set sail two centuries ago under a Compact to never return to land, as a means of easing population pressure in the cities. Kornbluth’s study of the social and technological changes in such a system is all the better for this twist on the generation ship scenario.

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