Isn’t the internet wonderful? Through this blog, I recently got the answer to a question that’s been tormenting me for close to fifty years.
Well, maybe not tormenting exactly. But I’ve long been troubled by my inability to identify a sci-fi story that had transfixed me when I’d first read it as a youngster. It concerned a society in which people lived for so long that, to counteract their inevitable boredom and ennui, they learned a way to temporarily transfer their consciousness into different creatures, such as animals.
Funny how memory goes. For a long time I thought the author must be Clifford Simak, and I had a vague recollection of the title of the collection as being something with the word “strange” or “strangers” in it. I kept looking for an anthology by Simak entitled Strangers in the Universe, and about two decades ago I’d gone so far as to locate a used copy and to read each story to see if the plot resembled the one I remembered. No dice.
It turns out the story was actually not so short; it was a Poul Anderson novella known as “The Star Beast,” which had appeared in his 1961 collection Strangers From Earth, although it had first been published in a magazine in 1950.
So I hadn’t been so far off on the title of the correct book after all, although my error had kept me from locating it. Memory (and it was in a thread about memory where the question and its solution first appeared) is a funny thing, and I’m pleased to see that mine wasn’t so faulty.
While I was researching this post, I discovered that, coincidentally, “The Star Beast” is also the name of a later novel by Robert A. Heinlein (1954), strangely enough. And in another odd coincidence, an even earlier short story (1940) by (of all people) Clifford Simak comes very close in title: it’s called “The Space Beasts.”
As I was looking this stuff up I noted two other things. The first is how astoundingly prolific both Anderson and Heinlein were (see this and this). The second is how evocative and poetic many of the great sci-fi short story titles are. I’d sensed that as a child and had responded to it; some of the best titles (which I’d forgotten in the interim) sent little shivers of remembered delight and mystery through me as I saw them again: “All the Traps of Earth,” “The Stars Are Also Fire,” and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.”
[NOTE: My very favorite sci-fi writer when I was young was Philip K. Dick. His stories had creeped me out mightily—the stuff of nightmares—while simultaneously fascinating.]