Richard Wilson — The Finest
of the Futurians
With this, the second volume of the best short fiction of Richard Wilson, we are again presenting a career-long overview as opposed to an attempt to collect the author’s fiction in chronological order. The reasons for this are pretty straightforward: as a reader and collector in the genre for many years before I became a professional, I was always disappointed with series that would begin with an author’s best-known stories, follow up with tales a bit less familiar and somewhere down the line finish with a volume of miscellany and/or juvenilia (see the early Arkham House editions of Lovecraft for an example of this). I’m also not too fond of a chronological order, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost almost all writers in this genre with notable exceptions Keith Laumer and Robert A. Heinlein hone their craft and improve over the years (and of those two examples, the former had a very valid excuse, the latter did not). While I’m very interested in reading an author’s early work and assume most others are as well, I can’t imagine leading off a series of collections with a writer’s weaker offerings. The author that wrote “Mother to the World” is a vastly better writer than the young man who wrote “The Purple Bat”; (both stories are in the preceding collection, The Story Writer).
Secondly, writers tend to write what editors are buying (this is how we pay the bills). It’s not at all uncommon for a certain type of story or theme to be in vogue at a particular time and a clever author can usually come up with as many variations on a theme as there are magazines that will publish same. Examples that come readily to mind are John Campbell’s obsession with psi stories in the early fifties and the plethora of AIDS-inspired tales when the disease became epidemic. There are certainly good and some great stories in both cases, but to have to read several takes on the theme by the same author is likely to be tiresome. Therefore, as with the preceding collection, you have a sampling spanning a career that began in the late 1930s and ended in 1980.
Wilson was a member of the Futurians, a group of rabid science fiction fans most of whom shared the aspiration of writing professionally in the genre. From this group came some of the most influential and talented figures in the genre including Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, James Blish, Robert W. Lowndes, Issac Asimov, Judith Merril, Cyril Kornbluth, John B. Michel, and Virginia Kidd. A pretty awesome array of talent . . . Conventional wisdom would grant that Wollheim was the most influential (as an editor, rather than as an author, though he did write some fine stories), Asimov certainly the most famous, Blish and Knight the most erudite, Fred Pohl had the most prolific and varied career (as he also logged considerable time as an editor and agent), and finally Kornbluth was the most precocious. I will submit that Richard Wilson was consistently the best writer from the group, despite the more well-known careers of some of his contemporaries.
I do not mean to take anything away from his colleagues of the Ivory Tower (as the Futurian communal apartment was named), but I can point to weak or even outright bad stories by everyone in the group except Wilson . . . Back in 1957 James Blish in his persona of William Atheling Jr. described Wilson as “incapable of writing less than professionally since about 1940” as a preface to negative comments about Wilson’s story “The In-betweens”. Always one of sf’s most perceptive critics, Blish pretty much nails it. Even the two early pieces included herein as curiousa, “Retribution”, the author’s first story from 1938, and the title piece, an expansion of an idea supplied by a fellow Futurian and published in 1942 under the byline of “Ivar Towers”, while perhaps not of the caliber to lay claim on a retro-Hugo, are certainly of professional caliber.
A forty-year career with nary a clinker is a pretty remarkable achievement, particularly in a field where the bar was often set pretty low and one could get away with offering up some fairly insipid work and get paid for it. I’ve found that Sturgeon’s Law has been pretty damned accurate over the years, that Wilson managed to stay in the 10% called for in Sturgeon’s equation for his entire career is a pretty rare thing. I’ve gone on record as saying that on a story by story basis, Bob Leman was the best the field ever produced and that no one hit as many high points as did Ellison, Leiber, and Sturgeon, but Leman wrote only a handful of stories and as wonderful as the best of the trio cited above is, there were some misfires along the way. (For the record, I’m not including some current favorites such as Peter Watts, Greg Egan and Ted Chiang, so far, so good, but it’s too early to evaluate on a career basis). For operating at a consistently good and frequently great level, the nod has to go to Richard Wilson.
The composition of this collection is a bit different from the first book, The Story Writer. In the first volume we had two novellas to contend with and I deliberately shied away from short pieces for fear that they would be lost stacked up next to monumental works such as the titular piece and “At the Sign of the Boar’s Head Nebula”. In this volume I was able to include a number of shorter works, which was one of Wilson’s fortes as an author. Wilson was able to pack quite a lot into stories of just two or three thousand words. Even the classic “Lonely Road” (selected as best horror story for 1956 in my anthology The Century’s Best Horror (Cemetery Dance 2012) is only 3800 words. The titular tale, “The Man Without a Planet” and “Retribution” (a piece I’ve identified as Wilson’s first published fiction) are both under 2000 words, and “Back to Julie”, “Double Take” and “Wasp” all accomplish quite a lot in under 4000 words. I’m anticipating including a number of short-shorts in the third or fourth volume of this series. We always think of Fredric Brown as the master of the form, but Richard Wilson had a surprising amount of miniature masterpieces in his oeuvre.
These short pieces are balanced out by four novelettes, including the Nebula-winning “Mother to the World” and the well-known “It’s Cold Outside”. A bit more obscure are the other two lengthy pieces, “Watchers in the Glade” appearing for the first time in book form, and a real treat, “See Me Not”, a novelette from the estimable British book-a-zine Impulse, which wasn’t all that easy to get when it was being published in the 1960s and is darn near impossible to come by today.
As to the time-frame involved, once again we’ve tried to present a sampler of Wilson’s work from the very early days on up through the 1960s and 1970s, with an emphasis on his most prolific years, the 1950s. Our first Richard Wilson collection was greeted with considerable enthusiasm and I imagine that this volume will be considered equally indispensable by readers in the genre. You can be assured that I’m already in the process of putting together Volume Three!
Somewhere Near Area 51