Another story collection, this one consistently rewarding and featuring several light-hearted early tales. A special attraction of this book is the way Anderson supplies brief, appealing little forewords to each piece. As with most of Anderson's short fiction collections, there's much satisfaction on offer here, and not a bad piece in the bunch. Dive in!
A BICYCLE BUILT FOR BREW
The whole book is worth tracking down for this wonderfully funny 100-page short novel alone. A merchant vessel arrives on a terraformed English (read: Anglian) asteroid colony only to find it has been occupied by a ragtag military force of righteous Gaelic mercenaries who want to reclaim the asteroid, which they believe was unlawfully claimed by the Anglians. One of the merchantmen, with the improbable aid of two civilians, must find a way to get the interdicted ship off the asteroid and get word to the Anglian capital asteroid. Not to give too much away, but the title involves beer — lots and lots of beer — and the unique way in which it saves the day. Brimming over with hilarious characters, outrageous dialects, wild parody and as ingenious an improvised shuttlecraft as Anderson could hope to devise. Very fast-paced, too, a must for good comedy writing. One of the very best comic SF stories ever brewed up; fans of Adams and Pratchett take note. Pop open a Guiness and enjoy!
An emissary and spy from a militaristic colony world long since separated from Earth visits another colony world with an eye towards conquest, and learns to his surprise that the entire culture, and especially the economy, is based upon gambling. They look to be an easy conquest, but might they have an ace up their sleeves? Figure it out. Quite unlike gambling itself, this novellette is hampered by predictability...though it is (naturally, for an Anderson tale) appealingly written, with an admittedly clever premise.
THE CRITIQUE OF IMPURE REASON
When an "independently intelligent" robot designed for hazardous mining duty on Mercury decides it prefers to while away its time with pretentious novels and pompous critical journals, its designer launches a massive literary hoax in order to get the robot turned back to its originally intended duty. Hilarious, multi-layered satire of Asimov's Robot stories, the act of writing and of criticism, and of literature's impact on society and culture. Takes a couple of good potshots at the Beat Generation, too. Title is a pun on Kant's most famous work. This story also appears in the 1964 collection Time and Stars.
Funny little tale about a group of fun-loving aliens who make first contact with Earth, and whose technological advancement masks a rather embarrassing secret... Smart satire of American consumerist culture and its concomitant gullibility.
DUEL ON SYRTIS
A ruthless human hunter illegally pursues sentient Martian prey across the red planet's deserts. Grim but darkly satisfying, particularly in its ironic ending. One of those solid older SF tales whose scientific obsolescence doesn't hamper its readability.
Absurdist parody of pseudoscience written in the form of a nonfiction article that tries to explain the universe in terms of various "stuffs" — "firststuff," "bluegraystuff," "headachestuff" (my favorite) — and the way they bind together. One joke, but a pretty good joke, and short enough not to overplay its hand. Totally makes no sense, but that's the point. (Though a reader has given me another interpretation of the story, pointing out that it also cleverly speculates on a different course of development of the English language.) Originally written for a fanzine, this was reportedly a huge hit in the scientific community, with various professionals making up their own contributions later on.
ESCAPE FROM ORBIT
Solid character-driven story about three astronauts stranded in orbit around the moon, and a colleague of theirs back on Earth who tries to beat the clock to save their lives, while wrestling with his own guilt about being safe at home. The ending seems a bit too abrupt, and by today's standards it's the type of tale we've seen a million times. But for its day (1962) it was remarkably prescient, and 40 years later it comes off as impressively contemporary and un-dated. This story also appears in the 1964 collection Time and Stars.
Witty little space opera mini-saga about Wing Alak, Machievellian intriguer of the Galactic League Patrol, and his ingenious campaign to outwit the barbaric and imperialist Unzuvan Empire and trick them into capitulation. Alak is no Dominic Flandry, but this is smart storytelling of the old school.
THE LIVE COWARD
Wing Alak pursues a warmongering criminal to an alien world, where the villian has gained asylum through an allegiance with the king. But can Alak perhaps gain an advantage by playing the king against his bitter enemies, the powerful church of the Allshaper? Sharp and hilarious story is an absolute treat for fans of intrigue; makes you wish Anderson hadn't lost interest in Wing Alak and gone on to give him his own novel. Or three.