January 11th, 2012

Solving a decades-long science fiction mystery via the blog

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.

But all I had to do was post this query last December on a thread about memory enhancement and bam!—a couple of hours later, a commenter volunteered the information I’d been seeking for so long.

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.]

11 Responses to “Solving a decades-long science fiction mystery via the blog”

  1. Marine's Mom Says:

    I read every science fiction book in our high school library all those years ago. Heinlein and Asimov figured prominently in that list. I believe Asimov was one of the most prolific authors of all time and his books are hardly lightweight. I also read all the anthologies and, like you, some of the plots are still in my head. Pretty amazing that a short story can have that much effect on our brains, after all these years. And I’m talking forty years on my part!

  2. Mac Says:

    “…how evocative and poetic many of the great sci-fi short story titles are…”

    Oh, how very well I understand that. My memories of my early acquaintance with sci-fi are almost as poignant as memories of first (second, third) love. It was true of the titles of novels as well, of course: I vividly remember discovering on the shelves of the library Star Gate (now ruined by overuse, but pretty potent in the imagination of a 14-year-old), Citizen of the Galaxy, and others. I once did a blog post called I Miss the Future. I do. (Since I wrote that, btw, I’ve seen Blade Runner, and thought it was excellent.)

  3. Ymarsakar Says:

    At one time, I basically went through all the science fiction authors of a particular style in the library by simply picking each book with an interesting cover from the aisle.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    My favorite short story slash novella was “The Voyage of the Space Beagle” which was, for me, an early foray into the power of the mind and how someone, a crewmember, could use his mind to discover solutions which inevitably also required him to manipulate his fellow crew who had been themselves manipulated by strange entities they found along the journey.

    While the short stories each had a satisfying ending, the entire series had an overarching plot. For some reason, later novels and such were too large and cumbersome to provide multiple good endings and climaxes. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started reading Japanese visual novels that I rediscovered my favorite aspect of The Space Beagle.

    For a long time, I couldn’t remember the title of the book until somehow I rediscovered it. When I mentioned it to someone else that was a scientist, he said that the Beagle was the name of Darwin’s ship. That suddenly clicked because the story was about an interstellar ship going around the universe looking into weird, and dangerous, phenomenon.

  5. Commenter formerly know as roc scssrs Says:

    Was never a big SF fan, but what I read impressed me mightily, e.g. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. I liked the Cold War, twilight-struggle atmosphere of a lot of that old stuff, but eventually it got depressing. Too many doomed planets and lost civilizations, I guess.

  6. TANSTAAFL Says:

    “Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Star Beast” is a wonderful book, and I actually re-read it not that long ago.

    It was one of Heinlein’s series of juveniles published, IIRC, by Scrivners. He had an informal agreement with them that he’s submit a new juvenile every 2 years, to be acdcepted as is. The first time the editor tried to change something in th estory was his last submisssion to them.

    One nice thing about his books is that RAH schooled his young readers against racism in any way shape or form. One of the most improtant protagonists in “Star Beast” is a black man, something unheard of in 1954.

  7. TANSTAAFL Says:

    “The Voyage of the Space Beagle” was by A. E. van Vogt.

    My very first novel was Andre Norton’s “Star Man’s Son”.

  8. Les Says:

    For a contemporary author who reminds me very much of Heinlein, try reading something by John Scalzi.

  9. Data Schlepper Says:

    You read all the science fiction I read and at the same time, in the 60’s and 70’s. But in your gripping account of that time, your “change story”, you never mention science fiction at all. Did I miss something?

  10. BrotherCadfael Says:

    TAANSTAFL notes that “One of the most improtant protagonists in “Star Beast” is a black man, something unheard of in 1954.”

    Even more amazingly, Mr. Kiku was a career bureaucrat, miles away from the typical Heinlein hero.

  11. Alex Bensky Says:

    There’s some internal evidence in another Heinlein juvenile (the publisher was Scribner’s) that in “Tunnel in the Sky” the protagonist is black, although it’s not clear.

    Another thing is that in many Heinleins, not just the juveniles, there are strong female characters, although only (among the juveniles) in “Podkayne of Mars”) is the protagonist a girl. And it’s not this self-conscious, “hey, look, a girl can be brave, too” stuff that gets jammed into books today. It’s simply taken as read that a girl (or woman) can be intelligent, courageous, and resourceful.

    Clarke also had a few poetic titles: “The Songs of Distant Earth,” and “The Fountains of Paradise” spring to mind.

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