An Ode to the Ballantine Best of Series and Why We Need it More Than Ever

The original Star Wars came out when I was in elementary school, and it was a mind-warping experience.  I had come to science fiction and fantasy through comics, but it was the sense of wonder and excitement this movie generated that turned me from reading mystery books to reading science fiction books checked out from the school library.  As I read above grade level, I was soon searching out science fiction in the adult section of the public library and in book stores.  Like a second hand book store at the flea market.

This place sold second hand paperbacks for a quarter, IIRC.  The covers were stripped, which meant the books had been reported to the publishers as having been been pulped and the covers returned for credit.  In other words, they were technically stolen.  I didn’t know that then.  There were a number of titles I recognized, such as some H. P, Lovecraft.  I picked up The Best of Jack Williamson there, and later The Best of L. Sprague de Camp.

The Williamson volume started with stories from the 30s and went up to the 70s.  There was an introduction by Frederik Pohl and an afterward by Williamson.  This was the pattern of the series.  An introduction by an author or editor associated with the writer of the book, and if the author was still living (most were but not all) he or she contributed an afterward.  My mind was blown.  David Hartwell once said the golden age of science fiction is thirteen.  I was, and it was.

I did well in school, meaning I usually finished any assigned work before the end of the period, and a typical class usually found me with a few minutes time to read.  I inhaled books, and many of the ones I carried with me were science fiction.  I soon picked up other titles in this series.  A large number of them were still in print, and I bought the Weinbaum, Blish, Smith, and Clement new in paperback.  (I’ll be doing an in-depth look at Weinbaum later this year if all goes according to plan.)

The Science Fiction Book Club published a number of them.  I’ve already written about how the Leigh Brackett volume I bought through the club was a game changer for me.  The authors I first encountered through the SFBC editions were Pohl (the first I bought through the club), Kornbluth, Hamilton, Brown, del Rey, Campbell, plus Brackett, but the one that really blew my mind was Kuttner.  His was the second Best of I bought through the club.  Something about Kuttner’s wit and cynicism, plus his imagination captured me and has never really let me go.

Eventually I collected the entire set in paperback, including both covers of the Leiber volume.  Trust me, the second one with the crap game is much better than the original cover.  Phillip K. Dick was ultimately the scarcest, although Leinster was the last one I bought. (I think.  It’s been too many years now to be sure. I just know I eventually saw more copies of Leinster than of PKD through the years.)  The art was always appealing.  Some of the titles have been reprinted after the series ended, but with new covers.  A mistake, if you ask me.

Each cover had something about it that pulled me in, made me wonder what worlds of imagination lay between the covers, of what was happening in the illustration, and which story did it illustrate.  All of the cover art illustrated a scene from one of the stories.  In short, they did what good cover art is supposed to do, attract the reader enough to pick up the book.

The cover copy on the back gave one to two sentence teasers about some of the stories that I found enticing.  The focus of the cover copy was on the stories, not how important or relevant they were.  Just that they were entertaining.  The title lettering, yellow font at an angle in the upper left corner of the front cover, was eye-catching.

There were some stories I read later in other books that made me wonder why they weren’t included, such as Kornbluth’s “The Education of Tigress Mccardle” or Kuttner and Moore’s “When the Bough Breaks” or Brackett’s “The Halfing”, but overall these books were a great introduction to writers, most of whom went on to become among my favorites.

A few of the stories, particularly some from the 30s, were a little creaky.  But there was only one that was really a dud.  That would be the Raymond Z. Gallun volume.  There are some good stories there, “Old Faithful” being the best, with “Seeds of the Dusk” not being bad.  But a lot of the stories in that book frankly didn’t impress me.  Maybe I was just too cynical and jaded by that time.  Still, I think Ross Rocklynne would have been a better choice.  Alas, Rocklynne is long forgotten by most readers.

My understanding is that the authors selected were those under contract to Ballantine and the series was intended to highlight those authors.  (The Del Rey imprint hadn’t been started when the series launched, although it followed soon after with all the books eventually being published as Del Reys).  I don’t buy it.  Of course a number of the authors weren’t under contract to Ballantine, such as Weinbaum, Kuttner, Moore, or Campbell.  At least as far as I know.  They certainly didn’t have any books in print from Ballantine at the time that I ever saw.

There were other Best of volumes from other publishers.  Pocket Books was the main alternative.  Among the writers they collected were Poul Anderson, Randall Garrett, Keith Laumer, and Jack Vance (the best volumes in that series in my opinion) as well as John Sladek, Damon Knight, Harry Harrison, John Collier, Wilson Tucker, Mack Reynolds, A. E. van Vogt, and Barry N. Malzberg.  Most of these were thin and didn’t have as many stories as the Ballantine editions.  There were two collections of Simak, but only the one from the 60s had “Best” in the title, both from other publishers.  And there were a few other Best of collections here and there.  Plus there were British Best of collections that differed from the US ones, such as the two volume Kuttner collection on the shelf behind me.

And in more recent years, publishers such as Subterranean have been bringing out doorstopper sized Best of collections by people such as Gregory Bendford, Nancy Kress, Joe Haldeman, and Alastair Reynolds, to name a few recent volumes.  This is a good thing.  It allows readers to discover the short fiction of some of the major practitioners of the field today.  These books showcase the life’s work of many of our leading writers in one volume.  And with electronic versions being an option, they aren’t limited to collectors and die-hard fans with deep pockets.  (The hardcovers tend to run around 40 bucks.)

So why did I say we need the Ballantine series more than ever?  Because of the way it captured the literary history of the field.  There’s no one today who writes like Cordwainer Smith.  Or Stanley G. Weinbaum.  Or Eric Frank Russell.  These writers were the trail blazers and pioneers of the genre, folks for whom an entertaining story wasn’t just a good thing.  It was how they made a living.  If the readers weren’t entertained, there would be no more sales.

We live in a time when the past has been forgotten.  I addressed an aspect of this when I talked about forgotten women writers and how women being leading figures in the field wasn’t a new thing.  There were people who didn’t like that post because I contradicted their narrative.  Tough beans.  Reality is what it is.

It’s become fashionable to dismiss the writers of the past, especially those who wrote for the pulps, and most especially white males.  When I look at the books that are lauded as being original, my initial reaction is often So-and-so did it better in the 40s.  Case in point, Murray Leinster predicted the internet in “A Logic named Joe”.  Most people have never even heard of the story, much less read it.  Predicting the internet is usually attributed to someone else.  I’ve heard a much awarded writer ask if she should read Jack Vance.  The mind boggles.

It’s been said that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.  We’re seeing that happen now.  A number of books are published each year that are declared good and original.  The sad thing is that the good parts aren’t very original, and the original parts aren’t very good.

I’ve also heard a number of people say they won’t read certain writers because those writers had ideas or held views that the person making the statement finds offensive or disagrees with or thinks will give them cooties or simply because said writer had the misfortune to be born and write in a different time and place than the speaker.  Well, that’s your choice and your right, cupcake, but it’s also your loss.  Most of the writers in the Ballantine Best of series had ideas or beliefs different from mine.  I still read them.  I learned from them, even if I didn’t always agree with them or like what they had to say.  But I’m a more well-rounded person for it.

That’s called diversity, in case you’re wondering.

I’m not saying you should agree with or like every book you read or every writer whose work you read.  I am saying that this series introduced me to a great number of stories that I still return to nearly 40 years later.  By and large these authors, and those published by Pocket Books and other publishers, had an impact on the field and wrote influential stories, just like Lovecraft, Howard, Smith, Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Lamb, Sabatini, etc. did in other genres.  If we forget them, then we and the science fiction and fantasy fields are poorer for it.

13 thoughts on “An Ode to the Ballantine Best of Series and Why We Need it More Than Ever

    1. Keith West Post author

      There are better retrospectives of some of these authors available now, but as far as inexpensive introductions, they’re pretty hard to beat. I’ve gotten in the habit of picking up spare copies when I come across them. They’re starting to get pretty hard to find, but some still pop up every now and then. Let me know what you’re looking for, and if I see those titles, I’ll grab them for you.

  1. Woelf Dietrich

    I’ve always been an eclectic reader. I’ve grown more selective as I got older, mostly because of time constraints and my own tastes having settled. Apart from a few authors whose political opinions are so loud and bigoted and in your face obnoxious, I’ll read anyone. I have forgotten many authors and stories from my younger days and that just feels wrong, which is partly why I follow this blog. It’s like getting reacquainted with old friends. So, yes, you are correct, Keith. We shouldn’t forget the writers of old. They laid the foundations for great storytelling.

    Just a pity that on those foundations you see the crumbling and derelict buildings of a once great empire of storytelling. It’s now overgrown with moss and jutting roots and weed. Not unlike the old Roman walls and forgotten fortresses in Brittain. It’s up to you and me and anyone who loves good storytelling to clear the foundations and rebuild. And we’ll build something fantastic and solid that not even time can erase!

    Although, if I’m honest, we won’t ever be able to recreate that same magic. Too many things play a factor. For one, the lens through which we viewed the world back then has changed. Some of us are more cynical and tired. But we can stay true to the spirit of it and we can discuss the old ones and read their work while we try to write the best damn story we can.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Well said, although some days I think cynical and tired would be an improvement for me. Part of the magic was that what I was reading was new. I wasn’t jaded and while I knew a lot of science, I didn’t know so much that it got in the way of the story. I sometimes think the sense of wonder that sf/f is so noted for is like a drug. You build up a tolerance. I also think it’s stronger when you’re younger, and your brain is awash in all those youthful hormones.

  2. Fletcher Vredenburgh

    Another terrific addition to the conversation. Now I’ve got a post percolating in my cranium. These books, the anthologies Asimov edited, and a host of others, were my sci fi mother’s milk. I think you and Woelf are spot on regarding aging and our perspective about the sense of wonder changing.
    I used to gripe about scifi books by non-sf writers being lauded by mainstream critics, even though nothing in them was new or original to spec fic readers. Now, the genre suffers from genre writers who have no sense of what’s gone on before them (and don’t care), and produce unoriginal and drab stories.

    I just looked at my shelf of Ballantines. I’m only missing Bloch, Dick, and Brunner and it was deliberate. I used to have the multi-volume collections of the short fiction of both and Brunner just seemed out of place. Of course, if I had just found them in a shop I would have snatched them anyway.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I’ve been seriously considering looking at the Asimov anthologies he did for DAW. A new one in that series was a highlight of the month. I’ve also thought about restarting the Ballantine Adult Fantasy posts here.

  3. deuce

    A classic series. I don’t have all of them by any means — always more of a fantasy aficionado — but the ones I have are consistently good. I need to buy a few more, especially Williamson.

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