Ideas are the building blocks of science fiction — that’s obvious when you start categorizing science fiction by themes. I’ve been getting into old science fiction theme anthologies and I recently ordered the ten volumes of Asimov’s Wonder Worlds of Science Fiction anthology series edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. The first story I read by randomly flipping through the first eight volumes I received in the mail was “Though Dreamers Die” by Lester del Rey. It was in volume 9, covering Robots. However, “Though Dreamers Die” first appeared in the February 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Read it here.
Lester del Rey isn’t well remembered today, except maybe for “Helen O’Loy” another robot story that was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg. “Though Dreamers Die” was anthologized in two significant anthologies about robots The Robot and the Man edited by Martin Greenberg and Machines That Think edited by Isaac Asimov, Patricia S. Warrick, and Martin H. Greenberg. Del Rey’s daring story “For I Am a Jealous People!” is included in the 10th volume of this series, covering Invasions. I can’t believe his story “The Day is Done” wasn’t included in the 6th volume for Neanderthals.
To explain why I said ideas are the building blocks of science fiction, I’m going to have to describe the plot of “Though Dreamers Die” in detail, giving all the spoilers. The story is included in the volume for robots but it could have been included in many different theme anthologies.
“Though Dreamers Die” begins with a man named Jorgen regaining consciousness. We’re given some backstory in the narrative. Humans have been wiped out by a plague on Earth, thus we have both a Post-Apocalypse and a Last Man story and maybe even a Dying Earth story. The Dying Earth theme usually involved the far future when Earth is about to be destroyed. Sometimes Dying Earth means the planet is dying, and other times it suggests the human race is dying. Maybe we should just call it End of Humanity themed.
Jorgen is waking up from Suspended Animation or Cold Sleep, another trope of science fiction. In this 1944 story, del Rey has Interstellar Travel limited to the speed of light. Before the plague had nearly wiped out humanity, humans had tried to Colonize Mars, but the plague had found its way there too. So a new design of spaceship was built to be a Space Ark to go to the stars. The humans were put to sleep during the long voyage of Interstellar Exploration which lasted 90 years. The ship was manned by Intelligent Robots who during the voyage developed Artificial Gravity and Controlled Interia.
After Jorgen is revived he is told that all the other colonists aboard the ship had died of the plague and he was the only one immune. Jorgen works with five robots that are named One, Two, Three, Four, and Five. They have found a New Earth. It turned out to be a paradise, much like Earth, but with no intelligent life. Jorgen suffers from an Existential Despair in Space of being the Last of Our Species. Robot Five describes to Jorgen how he imagined the new world becoming if humans had survived. This is when Jorgen realizes that Robots are equal to Humans, and Robots are our Descendants and that he shouldn’t despair.
Jorgen tells the robots they should build a Robot Civilization but robot Five says robots could never be happy without humans. This harkens back to Clifford Simak, that Robots are our Faithful Companions. Jorgen orders the robots to lie down and to Memory Wipe everything they know about humans. Jorgen leaves in the spaceship. Before he goes he decides to leave a drawing of the Solar system hoping the robots would one day find the Original Home of Humanity.
“Though Dreamers Die” is overly sentimental and crudely told, it does provide a great deal of wonder. I expect back in 1944 its ideas created quite an impact. And if you read the story closely, you could find many more science-fictional ideas that have become cliche over the years. The story isn’t dramatic. It’s just an unfolding of interlocking concepts. This was common back in the early days of science fiction.
As science fiction evolved, writers had to weave science-fiction ideas into dramatic scenes and intricate plots. That was why Robert A. Heinlein made such an impact when he began publishing in 1939. Lester del Rey achieved this in his novella “Nerves,” which was later expanded into a novel. However, that story has become dated because of our knowledge of atomic energy.
Now that I’m reading all these old science-fiction anthologies I’m noticing how science-fictional ideas were used to construct science-fictional stories. Science fiction that combined ideas and good storytelling techniques didn’t really emerge until the 1950s. A great example is “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester or “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance when the characters and storytelling became way more important than the SF idea.
Even today, science fiction often feels like a writer came up with an idea and then invented characters and a plot to showcase the idea. We never feel Jorgen is a real person. A counter-example is Charlie Gordon from “Flowers for Algernon.” That story has several science-fictional ideas in it, but what we remember is Charlie and what he felt. Lester del Rey tells us what Jorgen felt, but we never experience his emotions as we do with Charlie Gordon. However, I thought the passage beginning with “Breakfast lay beside him…” was quite good for del Rey at the time.
I wonder how a modern writer would write this same story today? What if it was just one scene, the parting scene, and it had the dramatic impact of the “Tears in the Rain” scene from Blade Runner? With so few words we feel deeply for Roy Batty. And we remember that feeling for the rest of our lives. Could someone make us feel for Jorgen as we do for Charlie Gordon?
Just think of all the ideas I will find in these anthologies, but how many of the stories will have sophisticated storytelling and deep emotional impact? I’ll see and let you know.
James Wallace Harris, 2/10/23
3 thoughts on ““Though Dreamers Die” by Lester del Rey”
Many thanks for this piece, Jim! I like these various Asimov/Greenberg/Waugh anthologies, and have been slowly working my way through them. Asimov did other anthologies with other co-editors, such as one titled 50 Short Science Fiction Tales (an anthology of short-shorts), with Groff Conklin.
I haven’t yet read “Though Dreamers Die,” but I have a collection on hand with this story–The Early Del Rey, Volume 2–so maybe I’ll get to it soon.