L. Sprague de Camp was, like many American science fiction writers of the first half of the 20th century, an accomplished and curious polymath. His interests were wide-ranging, and as a result his stories were unpredictable and varied.
This collection brings together the title novella and six short stories, all dating from somewhere between 1938 and 1942. They harken to such distant years as 1971 and beyond, and although a couple of tales have dated somewhat, de Camp’s writing is still quite fresh and entertaining, with one exception to which we shall come in a moment.
The novella, “The Wheels of If”, combines two key ingredients: the notion of alternate histories, and the notion that an individual’s existences in each of those alternate realities can be shifted like playing cards in bicycle spokes, creating the ritual “wheel”. Alistair Park is an ambitious prosecutor who finds himself waking in different realities each morning, in worlds where changes in the past have re-written the future. His resolution of a political intrigue in which he finds himself embroiled in one of these realities is entertaining and unexpected, and it would have been interesting to read more of this world.
The remaining stories fell out thusly for me:
* The Best-Laid Scheme: a comparatively undistinguished time-travel and temporal paradox story. No hint of the greatness of “A Gun for Dinosaur”, which would come later.
* The Warrior Race: this story almost finished the book for me. I began reading it while camping in excessive heat and while the novella and the previous story were compelling enough to finish, this tale of men who return from their colony on a nearby world to become masters of Earth was so dull that I can barely keep my eyes open just trying to write about it now.
* Hyperpelosity: an amusing and more de Camp-esque tale of a ‘flu virus which leads to a surfeit of hirsute humanity. Investments in depilatories lose, curry-combs win.
* The Merman: scientist inadvertently exposes himself to a chemical which makes his lungs function like gills. Goes for a swim in the aquarium shark-tank. Entertaining.
* The Contraband Cow: a future world government policed by Sikhs where beef consumption is outlawed. Also amusing, and can be given the dubious award for most judicious coinage of a new word: “steaklegger” (e.g.; one who smuggles steak). As a sometimes vegetarian, I approve and was amused.
* The Gnarly Man: the final tale is one of a man who has lived rather longer than the average lifetime. In fact, he’s lived rather longer than there have been homo sapiens in the world. Oh, and he’s called Clarence. Another fun little tale.
These stories are worth the time of any devotee of good science fiction, with the possible exception of “The Warrior Race”, which is useful as an excellent cure for insomnia. Four stars.
Originally reviewed 9 July 2012.
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