by Bud Webster
Merry Blacksmith Press, 2013
A Review by
Colleen R. Cahill
When looking back at older science fiction, it can be like viewing a starry sky. Some of the stars burn bright, such as Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury: others are not so strong. This has nothing to do with their worth and means there is some wonderful works out there just waiting for you to find. But like astronomers, you might need some tools to locate them and Bud Webster’s Past Masters from The Merry Blacksmith Press is just the thing for such explorations.
Past Masters is a gathering of 35 articles Webster has written over the years for various publications, but all have the same goal: to introduce readers to “authors who seemed to have slipped from the Mass Consciousness”. This starts off with an informative and humorous piece called “Mars-the Amply Read Planet”, which describes not only the more recent stories, but also notes speculative works going back to the seventeenth century. He includes a list of the best 100 story titles, which has gems such as Zombie Surf Commandos from Mars. This first article sets the tone for what follows, for as Webster notes, he is more a historian, biographer and bibliographer than critic, and he also admits the articles let him pretty much do what he wants.
As a reader of science fiction and fantasy since the early 70’s, not all these authors here are new to me. Cordwainer Smith, who stories are “intricately plaited and elaborately plotted” is a favorite of mine. Zenna Henderson is another and like Webster, I find great heart in her works. But even knowing of these authors, I learned more about their works and life from this book and found new titles to hunt down. There are also plenty of names that I have not explored, and I am reading a work by the “master craftsman” Nelson Slade Bond I found for free on Amazon. There are authors here for every taste, from the interplanetary swashbuckling of Leigh Brackett to the cynical but entertaining works of C. M. Kornbluth to the subtle stories of H. Beam Piper. Accompanying each article is a bibliography, which is as complete as time and resources allow, although with some authors, such as the prolific Murray Leinster are limited to works in science fiction and fantasy. Definitely some of the titles, especially the short stories, are going to be hard to find, but these days the Internet is your friend with numerous ways to seeks out various pieces, as well as some small press reprints.
Webster does not just give us authors, but also some interesting short pieces on little know items, such as what Russ Winterbotham and Jonathan Lethem have in common. These short pieces are a bit of fun and learning that again show Webster’s sense of humor and wonder. There are also two dialogues between Webster and author Jerry Pournelle. Past Masters concludes with an examination of the history of the Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin, a piece that will give you a good background on this organization.
This book is not only a great read, it is a valuable resource for those who like to reconnoiter in used book stores (in person or online), providing a sky full of stars to locate. I heartily recommend Past Masters for all you science fiction and fantasy explorers.