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The Wonder Effect (SF) - Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth ***

Revisiting a classic collection of short stories by two greats of relatively early US science fiction, Pohl and Kornbluth (my copy dates to 1969, the collection to 1961). It's a short book with only 9 stories in it, which Fred Pohl in his introduction admits are a mix of relatively recent (1959-61) and somewhat ancient (early 1940s). Incidentally, that intro gives some interesting insights into how this duo worked together. Some of the early stories are quite weak, particularly the plodding adventure Mars-Tube, which has none of the edginess and wit of their later stories - and that's why I can only give the book three stars. But some of the other stories are top notch.

The opener, Critical Mass, is set 50 years into the Cold War - you really have to have been around during it to understand and really feel that sense of constant background fear and almost an acceptance that at some point the nuclear holocaust will come. There's a classic short twist-in-the-tail story in A Gentle Dying and a near-steampunk story putting nuclear weapons in the time of the First World War (Nightmare with Zeppelins), though the reality of what happens when you just shove a critical mass of uranium together is not accurately portrayed.

What's perhaps surprising is how little of it feels dated, with the except of the social niceties (and the use of wire recorders at one point, though it is an alien race doing it - so they could be excused). There's only one where there's a double anachronism blow. In The Engineer we have that inevitable blast from the past, the slide rule (it's odd that 1950s SF writers could envisage sophisticated computers and robots, but not a pocket calculator). And a deep ocean oil rig - great future idea for that period - oddly envisaged as having the living quarters down near the sea bed. (Not to mention having the management based there.) It's a shame, as the underlying message of the story has nothing to do with the mechanics, and is good, but it can be slightly lost in them.

Not the greatest SF stories ever, then, but some really interesting period material.

The book is out of print, though secondhand copies are available (the cover shown is my edition - it's a different one at Amazon).

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Review by Brian Clegg


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