FRIDAY’S FORGOTTEN BOOKS #496: THE GREAT SF STORIES #1 (1939) Edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg

Back in 1979, DAW Books launched a retro anthology series that would feature the best stories from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, years before the yearly YEAR’S BEST volumes began. The series starts with stories from 1939 because Isaac Asimov already published a three-volume anthology series called Before the Golden Age that covered SF stories from 1931 to 1938.

This first volume includes classics like “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague De Camp and “Black Destroyer” by A. E. Van Vogt. Iconic writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Henry Kuttner, Robert Bloch, C. L. Moore, Lester del Rey, and Jack Williamson are represented. Asimov and Greenberg introduce each story and provide information about the writer. I was impressed by Nelson Bond’s “Pilgrimage” where a young woman confronts myths from the Past.

The Great SF Stories series went on to become a landmark series of anthologies. As Jim Harris found out when he started to collect these books, the prices online can be eye-popping! I plan to review a volume each month for Friday’s Forgotten Books. Only 24 more volumes to go! GRADE: A

Introduction 8
“I, Robot” by Eando Binder (AMAZING STORIES, January 1939) 11
“The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton” by Robert Bloch (AMAZING STORIES, March 1939) 25
“Trouble With Water” by Horace L. Gold (UNKNOWN, March 1939) 35
“Cloak of Aesir” by Don A. Stuart (John W. Campbell, Jr.) (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, March 1939) 56
“The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, May 1939) 103
“The Ultimate Catalyst” by John Taine (THRILLING WONDER STORIES, June 1939) 118
“The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp (UNKNOWN, June 1939) 141
“Black Destroyer” by Alfred E. van Vogt (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, July 1939) 163
“Greater Than Gods” by Catherine L. Moore (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, July 1939) 194
“Trends” by Isaac Asimov (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, July 1939) 229
“The Blue Giraffe” by L. Sprague De Camp (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, August 1939) 248
“The Misguided Halo” by Henry Kuttner (UNKNOWN, August 1939) 272
“Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, August 1939) 289
“Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, August 1939) 299
“Ether Breather” by Theodore Sturgeon (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, September 1939) 318
“Pilgrimage” by Nelson Bond (AMAZING STORIES, October 1939) 332
“Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, October 1939) 353
“The Four-Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple (AMAZING STORIES, November 1939) 363
“Star Bright” by Jack Williamson (ARGOSY, November 1939) 385
“Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, November 1939) 412

25 thoughts on “FRIDAY’S FORGOTTEN BOOKS #496: THE GREAT SF STORIES #1 (1939) Edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg

  1. Steve Oerkfitz

    This early in the “golden age” we still come across some poor writing. I remember liking the Gnarly Man, Black Destroyer, and Trouble With Water. And I know I have read the Heinlein , Moore , Sturgeon and Stuart(John Campbell). But don’t remember much about them. I, Robot is pretty poorly written as is the John Taine. I imagine the quality goes up as the years do. For some reason I don’t remember buying any of these collections.

      1. wolf

        DAW had so many fantastic books!
        Afaik Donald A Wollheim left ACE (which in its early days had these Ace Doubles, marvelous!) but after he died …
        I remember meeting his daughter(?) and her husband at the Eastercon in Brighton (think it was 1984), but found them lacking somehow – a real pizy.

        Anyway in the 1930s and 1940s the quality of SF published varied enormously. Reading some of these stories I had the feeling that many were just “fillers” to get a certain number of pages …

      2. george Post author

        Wolf, you’re right about a number of hacks churning out reams of stories for the pulp magazines. Quality was an issue for many years. DAW Books was one of my favorite publishers in the 1970s and 1980s!

  2. Jeff Meyerson

    A few years ago I started picking up these old collections, and I have about half a dozen of them waiting to be read, the next volumes 6 and 7. I’ll be looking forward to your reviews. I wish their introductions were on a Silverberg level, but at least they put them in some context.

    1. george Post author

      Jeff, Robert Silverberg’s introductions are in a class of their own. I can’t think of many publishers today who would embark on a project like THE GREAT SF STORIES today.

      1. Todd Mason

        Library of America, a few others. In paperback, Dover and New York Review of Books Press, among a few others. But they are thinner on the ground than they were.

      2. george Post author

        Todd, I’m encouraged by the LIBRARY OF AMERICA Volumes of Philip K. Dick. The New York Review of Books Press have published some SF, too.

      3. george Post author

        Todd, I bought and read a lot of DOVER books decades ago. I haven’t bought anything from them in years. I should check out their web site.

    1. george Post author

      Rick, the early works of any genre are likely to be rocky. Only when the basic templates and themes have been developed does the quality of the stories start to improve.

  3. Todd Mason

    And it should be noted that this volume contains several no-bones-about-it fantasy stories, meant to be read as such in 1939 and now. Asimov loved UNKNOWN FANTASY FICTION, and its average was a bit higher than ASTOUNDING, his other favorite magazine at the time.

  4. tracybham

    I will have to check the book sale this weekend for short story anthologies of this type. I have mostly mystery anthologies. Although I think I do have one with science fiction stories edited by Anthony Boucher.

    1. george Post author

      Tracy, those Anthony Boucher anthologies are excellent! THE GREAT SF STORIES series is the Gold Standard for SF during these Golden Age years. Hope you find a volume or two at the Book Sale!

      1. wolf

        I just realised that I have the complete series!
        25 volumes 1939 – 1963

      2. george Post author

        Wolf, congratulations! THE GREAT SF STORIES series is worth a pretty penny today! The volumes selling online are pricey and sometimes hard to find.

  5. Jim Taylor

    I disagree that “I Robot” by Eando Binder is that poorly written. I read it as part of the expanded novel, “ADAM LINK,ROBOT”. The story has twice been adapted to “The Outer Limits” TV series. ( Both adaptions starred Leonard Nimoy.) It has been adapted to both EC comics & Warren’s Creepy. As a pioneering robot story, It should not be ignored. Isaac Asimov even apologized to Otto Binder when his publisher ‘borrowed” the title for Asimov’s book. Not bad for a “poorly written story”

    1. george Post author

      Jim, I liked “I Robot” by Eando Binder, too. The writing style might be a bit clunky, but the sentimental aspects still affected me.

    1. george Post author

      Matt, I read THE GREAT SF STORIES series volumes as they were published. Jim Harris’s interest in the series motivated me to reread this classic series. If you can find any of these books, you’ll enjoy them!


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