Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Forgotten Authors; Lester del Rey

Image from

The Early del Rey
by Lester del Rey
(Doubleday, 1975)

War and Space/Robots and Magic
by Lester del Rey
(NESFA, 2009)

     In the 1970s, and intermittently over the decades, I've belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club -- one of those mail order book clubs where you get six or eight or 12 books for 10 cents to join, then must agree to purchase four more books at regular club prices (usually up to 50 percent of list cost for "book club editions," which were sometimes slightly scaled down in size and on cheaper paper). When I first joined, the regular book club price was usually something like $1.49 to $1.98.
     In addition, the SFBC would sometimes offer special editions of books, either hardcover versions of books that were paperback originals or omnibuses of several books or stories by an author.
     Every month you would be offered two "featured selections," which would be shipped to you automatically if you didn't decline them. You could send them back if you didn't want them, but clearly the club was hoping you would elect to keep them. Occasionally I forgot to decline selections, and occasionally I elected to keep them anyway. Sometimes the books I obtained in this fashion were among my favorites.
     One such shipment contained the books The Early del Rey, a 500-page anthology of 24 early, previously uncollected short stories by science fiction Grand Master Lester del Rey -- best known for the short story "Helen O'Loy" (reprinted in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1)  and the novella (later novel) Nerves (reprinted in the classic anthology Adventures in Space and Time, among other places) -- with autobiographical passages. It was modeled on The Early Asimov, a similar collection of stories and autobiography by Isaac Asimov, the difference being that del Rey was not as popular or well-known as Asimov -- certainly not by me; I'd read hardly anything by him -- so there was not as much hankering for every last story he had ever written being so collected. The best stories, one presumes, had already been collected in one of his other three collections.
     I don't know how well the book sold, but it's probably not a coincidence that when the third single author Early collection was released, The Early Pohl, it was a much smaller volume, as was The Early Williamson (Jack Williamson). I don't believe a fifth volume was ever issued.
     Still, I was interested in older science fiction (as with Asimov, del Rey started writing and publishing in 1938, both mostly wrote for John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, and both books end at about the point they became professional (as opposed to hobbyist) writers in the very early 1950s. They also both served as sort of a writer's life as one could follow their development and education. So I decided it looked worth reading and kept it.
     The del Rey stories are surprisingly good, better on average than the Early Asimov stories, given that these are the ones that hadn't been previously collected in one of del Rey's other anthologies. His later career is mostly noted for his juvenile science fiction novels (some of which, I believe, were ghostwritten from his outlines) and his time as editor of the del Rey books imprint. He also served as the template for one of Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers characters, Emmanuel Rubin. But I find his reminisces of life and publishing in the 1940s, including during World War II, as fascinating and an interesting contrast with Asimov's (del Rey was more blue collar than Asimov). And some of these stories I prefer to his better-known works.
     While The Early del Rey is no longer in print, the NESFA Press has two massive collections of del Rey stories, War and Space and Robots and Magic, which between them contain 18 of its 24 stories  (though without the autobiography), and 11 of the 16 stories from the author's self-selected The Best of del Rey, plus the original novella-length version of the novel Nerves and another 33 stories.
     The higher percentage of stories from Early than Best of indicates that these are not always stories that del Rey considered among his best. In fact, they include two or three del Rey thought were stinkers -- one which only ever received fanzine publication and of which del Rey neither possessed nor wanted to possess a copy -- and sometimes under the magazine titles rather than del Rey's preferred ones.
     Still, I'm happy to see some of these stories -- in particular, "The Faithful,""Anything," "The Smallest God," "My Name is Legion" and "Though Poppies Grow" -- get renewed exposure. While they aren't the best stories ever written, I've re-read them with pleasure over the years, and I don't believe they've had book publication before or since Early del Rey.
     Lester del Rey died in 1993. He doesn't have much in print today, but I'm glad to see his short fiction hasn't been entirely forgotten.


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