Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #14 of 107: “The Microscopic Giants” by Paul Ernst
The VanderMeers didn’t have to go far to find “The Microscopic Giants.” It was in the same October 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories that the last story we just read had been reprinted (“The Last Poet and the Robots” retitled as “Rhythm of the Spheres”) . I’ve often wondered why anthologists focused so much on Astounding Science Fiction, but these two stories suggest that there was a good reason – science fiction stories in the other pulp magazines just wasn’t as good. The whole time I was reading “The Last Poet and the Robots” I wondered why the VanderMeers hadn’t picked Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” instead. It featured the same kind of monomaniacal megalomaniac mad scientist acting like a god, but in a much better developed tale.
However, “The Microscopic Giants” is a somewhat better story than Merritt’s. It’s still a crappy story by modern storytelling conventions, but it has several good SF speculations in it. I’ve always liked the idea of humans existing in the far past where geological changes hides any evidence of them. Unfortunately, that theory isn’t the solution to the mystery within this story. The introduction sets us up for a hollow Earth story, but it’s not that either. “The Microscopic Giants” is about lifeforms that are much denser than rock, existing deep within the Earth, who can move through ordinary matter. That’s a keen idea, but it was handled in the most basic way. First contact is simplistic and xenophobic, and the humans are left hoping never to encounter this new superior species again. Rather a chickenshit resolution.
Finding better undiscovered stories is the challenge to assembling any retrospective anthology that covers science fiction in the 20th century, especially if you have reasons not to reprint the fan favorites. All the old pulps have been mined time and time again. I’m sure new editors want to discover previously unrecognized stories whose enlightened qualities could only be recognized by contemporary readers. These two stories were duds in that regards. Like I said, the current champ for a SF story about a monomaniacal megalomaniac mad scientist acting like a god is Kidder in “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon.
If I was going to offer a substitute for “Microscopic Giants” using the hollow Earth theme it would be “DP!” by Jack Vance from the April 1953 issue of Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader. It’s about the world being overrun with refugees from the hollow Earth and how countries of the surface world try to deal with the crisis. I read it during the Syrian refugee crisis which gave “DP!” depth. “Microscopic Giants” offer no insights to modern readers and it’s really not worth saving.
However, I can’t think of any short stories that deal with super-dense beings living and moving around inside the Earth. The Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark” featured a creature called the Horta that could move through rock. And I also thought of the classic comedy-horror film Tremors (1990). I do vaguely remember stories that used the emptiness of matter to allow characters to move through solids, but my old brain can’t dredge any titles up right now.
Reading The Big Book of Science Fiction has been interesting, but so far few of the fourteen stories we’ve read have been quality stories by modern reading standards. Too many have been intellectual/historical curiosities. I keep hoping the VanderMeers will find gems I haven’t read before. So far, their best find new to me is “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois. I thought his story was well-told for 1920, and Du Bois nicely finessed the point he wanted to get across. So far the other stories have done little finessing.
Paul Ernst had several ideas he wanted to explore, but he didn’t know how to put them into a story. His solution was a minimalist frame with cliché conflict. That’s common for our genre. I’m also listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. and with every story I’m amazed by how Miller sets up his story with an excellent dramatic conflict. Well, at least the later stories. I’m hoping to see more of that skill as we progress through this anthology.
James Wallace Harris, 9/13/21
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