THIS SPRING and early summer saw the republication -- often in sturdy hardback editions -- of several classics of science fiction and fantasy. Whether for beach, subway or easy chair, they make for terrific reading. That's why they're classics.
The Stars My Destination , by Alfred Bester (Franklin Watts, $15.95). No more exciting sf novel has ever been written than this one. A star ship has been damaged, lost in space. Weeks have passed and only a scarcely literate merchant's mate 3rd class is left alive, sick and delirious. Suddenly another ship passes in view, and with heroic effort and a last bit of strength, the desperate man just manages to send a rescue signal. There is no way to mistake the S.O.S., but the other ship simply floats serenely on, leaving Gully Foyle to die.
But he doesn't die. Instead Foyle vows that somehow he will survive and that one day he will take his revenge on those who left him marooned among the stars.
What follows is more exciting than Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Rambo combined. Bester writes a quick-march prose; his characters -- darkly Machiavellian, obsessed, decadent -- recall the heroes and villains of Jacobean drama; and his story-line follows that of Dumas' classic The Count of Monte Cristo. At the end of each chapter you say to yourself, this can't get any better, and then it does. Some of it's corny, some of it's even Joycean, but all of it works and dazzles. Like a supernova.
Flatland , by Edwin Abbott (Penguin, $3.95). A much more restful and contemplative book, as befits the classic of mathematical fiction, Flatland recalls those satiric tales -- like Utopia, Gulliver's Travels or Erewhon -- that describe the inhabitants and customs of strange lands. Few nations can be stranger than this two-dimensional realm inhabited by Lines, Squares, Triangles, Polygons and Circles. Lines, it turns out, are women, possessed of little sense and much dangerous emotion; they are sometimes referred to as the thinner sex. Circles are priests, the highest form; the other shapes represent tradesmen, the nobility etc. The goal of the lower forms is to evolve toward perfect circularity; all irregularity of sides represents madness or criminal tendency. "Configuration makes the man" and "If you are born an Isosceles with two uneven sides, you will assuredly go wrong unless you have them made even."
Besides a guide to basic geometry, Flatland obviously offers some mild social (and even religious) satire -- of Victorian society, since it was published in 1884. In its second half, A Square (the supposed author of the book) encounters a sphere and finds himself introduced to ideas of three-dimensional space. Naturally he is as disconcerted as we would be in trying to visualize life in the fourth dimension.
The Mathenauts , edited by Rudy Rucker (Arbor House, $18.95). For more contemporary examples of mathematical fantasy, try this collection. If you've just read Abbott's classic, start with editor Rucker's own charmer, "Message Found in a Copy of Flatland," in which the hero discovers the actual Flatland in the basement of a Pakistani snack bar in London. A strange and terrible fate awaits him. Douglas Hofstadter contributes a fable about the mathematics of Armageddon in "The Tale of Happiton," while Ruth Berman suggests that scientific research may have lost more than it knows when Professor Moriarty perished in his struggle with Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. Two stories by Norman Kagan -- "Four Kinds of Impossibility" and "The Mathenauts" -- portray the jagged, hyped-up world of whiz-kid mathematicians; what happens is less important than the feel of what it's like to think about topology, hypercubes and Hilbert space. Besides these new stories -- including this year's Nebula winner "Tangents" by Greg Bear, and fine work by Larry Niven and Gregory Benford, among others -- Rucker also reprints two oldies but goodies: Martin Gardner's topological whimsy "No-Sided Professor" and Isaac Asimov's "That Feeling of Power," a cautionary tale about a little man who relearns the principles of arithmetic in a future world of super-computers.
Star Maker , by Olaf Stapledon (Tarcher, $8.95). Brian Aldiss introduces this book with a drum roll: "Star Maker is the most wonderful novel I have ever read." Doris Lessing, C.S. Lewis and Stanislaw Lem -- to mention only the L's -- are only slightly less enthusiastic. Scuttlebutt has it that J.P. Tarcher -- not normally a publisher of sf -- brought out this 50th anniversary edition simply because it was his favorite book too.
Certainly it is a book of wonders. The style is oracular, recalling the revelation to John; indeed the novel could be thought an extended commentary on the Biblical text "And I beheld a new Heaven and a new Earth." It begins with allegorical portentousness: "One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill." Soon the unnamed narrator -- or his ethereal self -- is lifted up into the heavens, from where he surveys our world, journeys to others and lives among strange civilizations. On one planet, for instance, a fish-like creature evolves in symbiosis with a spider-like partner; together they ultimately become the saviors of the galaxy. Stapledon intersperses 1930s social commentary -- about fascism, the group-mind, etc. -- throughout this account of a very serious galactic hitchhiker. In the final pages our hero -- linked mentally with representatives of other races -- learns that the stars themselves are conscious beings, locked in an eternal dance through space and time. Before he returns to his own world he even glimpses the cold, implacable nature of the Star Maker himself. With terrifying sublimity, Stapledon's apocalyptic fiction shrinks the fates of people, planets and galaxies to passing moments in the life of the universe.
The Drowned World , by J.G. Ballard (Carroll & Graf, $3.50). One of the masters of science fiction's New Wave of the 1960s, Ballard began to earn more wide-spread recognition with his recent Empire of the Sun, his Booker Prize-shortlisted, autobiographical novel about a child lost in wartime Shanghai. Ballard has always been interested in lost souls, and this earlier short novel remains one of his best depictions of inner space, of the glamour of self-destruction, the hypnotic sanity of madness.
"Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight o'clock, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperms crowding over the roofs of the abandoned department stores four hundred yards away on the east side of the lagoon. . . . By noon, less than four hours away, the water would seem to burn." Sometime in the near future, the earth's climate has altered: The temperature has risen dramatically; the poles have melted; most of Europe is under water; mankind struggles on in only a few northerly outposts. Everywhere the world is becoming a tropical jungle, fecund, humid, and fetid, rank with swamp life, swarming with giant lizards and alligators. Clearly this world reflects man's subconscious, his animal nature, his heart of darkness.
What happens in this hothouse future is at once thrilling and horrifying. The scientist Kerans refuses to leave a half-submerged London, an older researcher and a beautiful young aristocrat his only companions. A pale, white-suited scavenger appears -- named Strangman -- whom his black followers call a living dead man. He inaugurates a carnival of death that by turns recalls Kafka and Lord of the Flies, with backdrops by Max Ernst and Douanier Rousseau. In the end, Kerans commits himself entirely to the heat and ripening death. Few sf novels can be more haunting than this scarey tale; it will shock some readers -- and send others looking for more books by J.G. Ballard.
Vampires: Two Centuries of Great Vampire Stories , edited by Alan Ryan (Doubleday, $15.95);
The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories , chosen by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert (Oxford, $18.95);
The Ghost Stories of M.R. James , selected by Michael Cox, illustrated by Rosalind Caldecott (Oxford, $19.95). If chills are what you're looking for, then this trio will keep you cool through the hottest August. Alan Ryan has gathered virtually every worthwhile vampire short story -- from Polidori's "The Vampyre" through Le Fanu's famous "Carmilla" on to C.M. Kornbluth's nuclear-mutant "The Mindworm," and ending with notable stories by Robert Aickman, Suzy McKee Charnas and Tanith Lee. Ryan's graceful and informative headnotes make this a book to keep as well as shudder over.
What's especially appealing about the Oxford volume of ghost stories is its freshness. Classics like F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth" and L.P. Hartley's "A Visitor from Down Under" are here; but the vast majority of the selections eschew the familiar goblins and ghouls. For instance, Henry James is represented by "The Friends of the Friends" instead of "The Turn of the Screw"; W.F. Harvey's "The Clock" is substituted for his narrative tour de force "August Heat"; and Elizabeth Bowen appears with "Hand in Glove" rather than "The Demon Lover." So even if you own other general collections of ghostly tales, you are sure to find plenty new to read in this substantial and handsome book.
Michael Cox also edited this oversize selection from the tales of M.R. James. While it can't be recommended as a best buy -- the complete tales are still in print and should be a cornerstone of any library of supernatural fiction -- it is nonetheless an attractive luxury. Cox's long introduction, replete with photographs, provides a brief life of James -- provost of King's College, Cambridge, and master of Eton -- and describes the genesis of his tales. Caldecott's illustrations capture the antiquarian, port-and-Stilton, blazing-fire-in-the-senior-common-room flavor of such classics as "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book," "The Tractate Middoth," "The Mezzotint" and the shivery "Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." The actual horrors may seem tame by Clive Barker and Stephen King standards, but these are narratives that should be savored rather than gulped. In other words, you can read them now in a hammock and look forward to rereading them again in the dead of winter.
Michael Dirda is science fiction and fantasy editor of Book World.