Review: The Short Fiction of Lester del Rey
After months of intermittent activity, I've finished reading the virtual "Collected Stories of Lester del Rey Plus" (62 stories and a novel, ~1550 pages). He only published five original collections in his lifetime: ...And Some Were Human (1948; cut vt 1961), Robots and Changelings (1957), Mortals and Monsters (1965), Gods and Golems (1973), and then went back to the beginning with the very large Early del Rey (1975). Of them, ...And Some Were Human and Gods and Golems are definitely the best and Early del Rey is definitely the worst, though it is, by definition, a collection of all his previously uncollected early work intermixed with autobiographical material intended to show his development and give some "writerly" advice and so on, rather than a body of fiction carefully selected on its own merits. Since that collection was in chronological order and I had all the other stories from the period, I read them all in chronological order and, after that, kept reading the later stories in publication order (re-reading in the case of the GG stories and a couple-three strays).
(The "Plus" is because I also read the uncollected "Nerves", Nerves, "Evensong", and "Robots' Return". He didn't re-collect the first after it was cut from the paperback version of his first collection because it was a novella he'd expanded into the second (a short novel) in the meantime. Either is superb if you don't have the other but the novella version is better. The third is from Dangerous Visions (1967) and he never collected a story published after 1964. The last is actually by Robert Moore Williams, which I read because del Rey wrote "Though Dreamers Die" as a sequel to it. Del Rey improves on the original there.)
Del Rey's early stories are often quite sentimental, in the sense of playing on emotions, and that never completely disappeared from his writing. His later stories can be quite gritty and dark, but there are early examples of that, too. He wrote quite a bit of fantasy along with his SF - the fantasy sometimes being the Unknown-style rationalized fantasy, with some verging on the slick style. His SF is sometimes hard SF but often sociological or psychological. He seems about as comfortable with one as the other. He wrote more SF but edited more fantasy and I think he says somewhere in Early del Rey that he prefers fantasy, which surprised me. He has a fascination with biblical phrases and themes but takes some, let's say, unconventional approaches to them. And he has a strangely jaundiced and negative view towards aspects of modernity and big city life but it tends to result in either dark griping stories or a yearning for transcendence or ancient elysian fields rather than a Simakian/Bradbury-esque exaltation of the recent rural past or general failure to engage with modernity. Stylistically and structurally, he's often a pretty pulpy writer which some might not be able to appreciate but he can be quite adventurous, especially conceptually and, after all, he was chosen by Ellison to lead off Dangerous Visions.
Probably the most remarkable thing I noticed about my reading was that, while I'm a hit-or-miss guesser generally, I could usually tell that a story was going to be a twist story or have a big reveal and guess what that twist/reveal was. I don't know if that's on me or del Rey or some weird synergy but, if you value truly astonishing twists and have the same guessing quotient I had, that might be an issue.
Anyway - to the point: I also have a copy of The Best of Lester del Rey from the great Ballantine "Best of" series and a little game I played was to rate all the stories without looking at the Best of contents and then seeing what happened at the end. Of my top 10 stories, there was no reason, by his lights, for del Rey to include "Nerves" or "Though Dreamers Die", and "Anything" was too similar to at least one other story to make a good balance (and does have a significant flaw) and, otherwise, all my top stories were in The Best of:
- "Helen O'Loy" (1938) is a tricky tale. It was his second story and first great success, like van Vogt's "Black Destroyer" or Asimov's "Nightfall" but, in my opinion, unlike those stories, allowances have to be made. This is a sentimental tale that might be seen as sexist today and the novelty of the robot companion concept, however risque it might have been in 1938, has largely worn off now. But it's still a pretty neat and historically significant tale and was chosen for the SF Hall of Fame in the 60s.
- "The Day is Done" (1939) is another of the early sentimental stories but is extremely effective as it details the last neanderthal and his interactions with the new-fangled critters.
- "The Coppersmith" (1939) is a great fantasy about elves rendered unconscious by air pollution and, while it misses climate change, reading a 30s fantasy story about peak oil was pretty fascinating. It's also a great bit of characterization/conception.
- "The Wings of Night" (1942) is a Don Stuart-like tale that contains many implausibilities and wouldn't even be attempted today (even suitably modified) but the evocation of the last of an ancient telepathic race on the moon produces benefits more reasonable stories miss.
- "For I Am a Jealous People" (1954) is a fascinating tale about an alien invasion of earth that has god on its side and how a preacher and his atheist doctor friend respond. This is the sort of tale that just grabs you and becomes very vivid and involving.
- "The Seat of Judgment" (1957) is, in many ways, a much more "dangerous vision" than the story actually in Dangerous Visions (1967), dealing as it does with a bit of pretty explicit alien sex a la Farmer's "The Lovers", combined with alien (and human) religion a la Martin's "A Song for Lya" along with even a tiny dash of Anderson's Flandry.
- "Vengeance Is Mine" (1964) is about space invaders wiping out humans, leaving a robot (later joined by another) to create more robots and bring the religion of Man to the galaxy while hunting the perpetrators.
A story to note from the second-tier of good stories is "And It Comes Out Here" (1951) which is a sort of time travel story for people (like me) who (often) hate time travel. Most time travel stories feign a sort of "time travel logic" that is completely illogical - this tale is completely logical about its illogicality - it dives right to the center of the nonsense and embraces it. Campbell made a rare editorial error in rejecting this because it didn't do anything. This is true, but that's the point. It's a useless story because time travel is nonsensical. But it's a clever and fun story.
Beyond this, my second set of favorites and del Rey's don't intersect but that's really just a case of disagreeing on which merely good-to-fair stories to include to fill up a big collection (16 stories, 366 pages). The only thing noteworthy is that del Rey selected "Into thy Hands", perhaps due to his fondness for allegory, but I hated that one. I also didn't much like "The Years Draw Nigh" (thin, implausible, overwhelmed by malaise) or "The Monster" (second-rate van Vogt), though they have their good points. But otherwise, the half-dozen remaining selections are at least okay.
So if you're really inspired to dig into del Rey, it can be fun and worthwhile in a way but he's really not a "completist" author. I do strongly recommend The Best of and one version or other of "Nerves" (novella version available in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol.IIB) as essential, though.