Picking up where we left off, we reach a milestone: the first story in this anthology — published, let us recall, at the height of the Space Race in 1963 — which actually takes place in outer space.
Poul Anderson's "Kings Who Die" is an odd blending of swashbuckling space opera action, Cold War political speculation, and a surprisingly grim look at human tribal psychology. The "Kings" of the title are the soldiers of the Space Corps, who are given every privilege and consideration on Earth because they are, in effect, sacrificial figures in an unending war across the Solar System. One can chuckle at some of Anderson's technological notions (no ship that small could carry a computer powerful enough to analyze strategy!) but this is still a powerful story. Four stars.
Next up is "The Unfortunate Mr. Morky," by Vance Aandahl, a curious short fantasy (with some sciencey trappings) about a bland little man who visits a carnival "Museum of Mirrors" and . . . well, I've read it several times and I'm still not exactly sure what happens. The mirrors do some kind of science-magic handwaving stuff and bland Mr. Morky gets replicated infinitely, taking over the world. Or something like that. I give it one star for being short. Did Judith Merril owe the author money?
"Christmas Treason" by James White is a rather over-long story about a group of children connected by a psychic link and a shared belief in Santa Claus who wind up ending the threat of nuclear war and stuff like that.
The list of great science fiction stories involving children is very short, and this one isn't on it. James White struggles to avoid being twee, since he has a Very Serious Message to convey (nuclear war is bad, m'kay?) but I'm not sure he succeeds. The NORAD Santa Tracker Web site does a better job of balancing childish wonder against the utter seriousness of nuclear early-warning systems. Two stars.
"A Miracle of Rare Device" by Ray Bradbury is not one of his absolute best stories, but even workmanlike Bradbury is pretty damned good. This one is a bit of fantastical Americana, about two sad sacks who become proprietors of a magical mirage. It's short and sweet (in a couple of ways). The most startling thing about "Miracle" is that such an overwhelmingly innocent story was in Playboy. Four stars.
"All the Sounds of Fear" by Harlan Ellison is a marvelously creepy story about one Richard Becker, the ultimate Method actor, who completely loses himself in each part he plays. He's the greatest actor in the world . . . until he's cast as a murderer. I think we all can see where this is going, but Ellison manages the amazing trick of throwing a second twist into the story, when we find out what happens to Becker when he doesn't have a part to play. Four stars.
Next up is "One of Those Days" by William F. Nolan. I'm not sure what to make of this one. It's a whimsical fantasy about a man who appears to be hallucinating, but may actually be manipulating reality around himself. If it was published five years later I'd call it yet another tiresome psychedelic story, but as it is it's just . . . weird. Two stars.
"The Day Rembrandt Went Public" by Arnold M. Auerbach is a perfect illustration of what's sometimes called "Poe's Law." When written it was an uproarious, over-the-top satire of the commercialization of art collecting. Now it's barely even fiction. Three stars for a depressingly accurate forecast of the future, I guess.
That puts us in the middle of the book, so I'll stop here. See you next time.