9

This was one of my father’s old books that I read twenty or more years ago. He had bought it in a barn somewhere in the back country where the owner was just trying to make a couple of bucks. My father only had a quarter, enough to buy this book. When he came back the following weekend with money, the place was gone, shut down or burned down, I don’t really remember anymore. This would have been in the 1970’s I think.

The book was a hardcover with no dust jacket. The cover was a deep blood red, but that may have been from age. I remember my father was excited about the book because it was something special. He might have said it was the first hardcover SF anthology, but I might be misremembering or he may have been wrong. The book was quite thick, several hundred pages, maybe 500. I think the title was on a dark plate on the front. The binding was a slightly darker and different shade of red.

I remember the stories as very golden age. The only one I remember at all clearly was the first one, I think.

A scientist is walking one day and notices that there is an eerily clear pond surrounded by dead animals and plants. It may have had industrial waste runoff but I don’t remember. There is a description of something like a half a cow or a deer on the edge of the water, where the rest has been eaten away by the waters. The scientist takes a sample back to the lab of the pond water.

After experimenting, he finds that the water is able to respond to stimuli, eventually hooking up a speaker and finding the water can converse. The water learns rapidly, and figures out a way to become mobile, the small pool walking around. The scientist feeds the water pieces of raw chicken or something, which it dissolves.

The water wants to explore and to spread, and the scientist knows that if it does, there will be no stopping it as the water takes over. In desperation, the water tries to escape down a drain, but the scientist stops it by pouring carbolic acid into the water (I remember distinctly that it was carbolic acid), killing it.

I think there may have been another story in the anthology I vaguely remember. A scientist is sentenced for a crime. His punishment is to spend the rest of his life researching, which doesn’t seem so bad. Then he finds out that there are conditions. He must research one of several classical impossible problems. I don’t remember if he would be released if he succeeded or not.

The classic impossible problems were things like developing a perpetual motion machine, or a universal solvent. The government figured that there was no point in wasting good scientists, it seemed a fitting punishment, and if any of them ever actually solved one of these problems, it would be a boon.

The scientist decides to look into the universal solvent. Eventually he announces that he has found it. Investigators, skeptical, come to look and just see him at a table, smiling. They demand to see the solvent and he sneers. He explains that a universal solvent couldn’t be held in any container, as it would simply dissolve the container. So he had swallowed it. And soon it would work it’s way out of his body, through the floor of the prison, and make its way to the center of the earth. I think the implication was that this would destroy the world in some way, but I don’t remember how.

I’d like to find this book again, and my father is sadly no longer available for me to ask what he might remember.

  • There is a previously answered question for a story about a universal solvent. ISFDB might suggest anthologies it was published in. – DavidW Oct 25 '18 at 1:39
  • @user14111 no I am not, it’s really a guess. I may have read the second story around the same time, or I might just be confused and thinking the second story was in the anthology – Broklynite Oct 25 '18 at 8:10
10

The first story (sentient pond) is "Liquid Life", a novelette by Ralph Milne Farley (Roger Sherman Hoar), first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1936, available at the Internet Archive.

Here is a summary by Everett F. Bleiler in Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years:

A rambling account of an intelligent virus-like life-form that is discovered in a local pond. A portion taken to a laboratory, provided with radio communication, and educated by oral readings, turns out to be far more intelligent than humans. It aids considerably in the laboratory work, making sensational discoveries, but if it reaches the outside world (since it has developed mobility), humanity is doomed. Part of the situation is the reactions among the lab owners: friendship, exploitation, fear. The situation is resolved when the virus runs its life cycle.

An excerpt from the story, about the discovery of the thing in the pond:

"So you feel it too, eh?" asked Metcalf. "Well, you haven't yet seen the half of it. Not a lily pad nor a reed, you will note. The fish are all gone. There are not even any bugs on the surface." Then as Dee approached the water's edge, "Careful there! Don't let any of the spray get on you—it burns like an acid."

Dee knelt on the beach, and gingerly filled several glass-stoppered bottles with water from the pond. Then he and Metcalf walked slowly and thoughtfully down the road, until they came to a pasture at the end of the pond.

"Here is the latest victim," Metcalf announced. "It has not been disturbed."

Lying on the grass, about fifty feet from the water, was a dead, half eaten cow. Dee stooped down to examine it.

"See how the legs and tail taper off to a point at their upper ends, as though they had been dipped in acid," he said. "I pulled a half dead frog out of a snake's mouth once, and the whole rear end of the poor frog had been dissolved to a point, just like that. You don't suppose—"

"No," Metcalf replied. "There is nothing in that pond large enough to eat a cow. I have had it dredged with dragnets from end to end. The nets were eaten away, and several of the men got badly burned by drops of water, but not a thing did they bring to the surface."

"Well," Dee said, "I've seen enough to start on. Let's get me back to Boston, so that I can analyze these samples."

More excerpts, about the use of carbolic acid:

Then suddenly Dee cried out in pain. "Burned myself!" he shouted, and looked frantically around for an antidote.

Hans Schmidt rushed over and poured something from a small brown bottle onto Dee's hand.

"Dilute carbolic," he announced, in response to a questioning look.

"What! An acid to counteract an acid! How absurd!" Dee declared.

"Well, it worked!"

"But what on earth made you think of using carbolic, Hans?"

"I merely acted instinctively," Schmidt rather sheepishly replied. "When anything goes wrong, a bacteriologist instinctively reaches for his carbolic acid. That's all."

[. . . .]

"Sanctimonious tripe!" Schmidt interjected. "Let me handle this. Let's see what threats will do! Virus, even with your super-mind and your newly learned 'extensibility,' you are physically in our power. A few drops of phenol in your jar, and where would you be? Come across with the secret of how to make gold, or I'll put an end to you. If we can't know the secret, no one else ever shall!"

"I'm not afraid!" calmly replied the voice from the radio set. "You cannot kill me. For I am only a part of me. The rest of me—the pond—would still live. I am deathless."

"I'd pour carbolic in the pond—tons of it!" Schmidt blustered.

[. . . .]

Anson Metcalf hired the best firm of Concord lawyers, and got out an injunction to keep the State troops off his property. But the governor promptly declared martial law, and thus superseded the courts. A big oil truck, filled with carbolic acid, set out for Salt Pond under a strong military escort.


"Liquid Life" was reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction, a 1946 anthology (hardcover, xxvii+785 pp) edited by Groff Conklin. I believe that this was indeed "the first hardcover SF anthology" but don't have an authoritative source handy to back that up. [No, not really; see P.S.] The ISFDB notes, among other differences between the first and second printing:

Boards:

  • 1st printing: embossed in silver on front and spine. Verification copy is black cloth.
  • 2nd printing: embossed in gold on spine only. Verification copy is maroon cloth.

  • As you recall the cover being "a deep blood red", it was probably the second printing that you saw.


    The second story (universal solvent), as noted in a comment by DavidW, seems to be "Varieties of Technological Experience", a 1978 short story by Barry N. Malzberg, which was the answer to an old question, Looking for a sci-fi story about a prisoner and a universal solvent. Of course that 1978 story was not in Conklin's 1946 anthology.


    P.S. Conklin's The Best of Science Fiction was not exactly the first hardcover SF anthology, but it was certainly a notable early landmark in the history of SF anthologies; maybe you could call it the first important one. Quoting The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

    But the usually accepted candidate as first sf anthology is Adventures to Come (anth 1937) edited by J Berg Esenwein. It was also sf's first Original Anthology i.e., its stories were all previously unpublished – but they were by unknowns (it has been speculated that Esenwein wrote them all under one-off pseudonyms), and it seems the anthology had no influence at all. Much more important was The Other Worlds (anth 1941) edited by Phil Stong, a hardcover publication reprinting stories by Harry Bates, Lester del Rey, Henry Kuttner, Theodore Sturgeon and many other well-known writers from the sf magazines. The first notable paperback anthology was The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction (anth 1943) edited by Donald A Wollheim, eight of whose ten stories are still well remembered, an extraordinarily high batting average considering that more than half a century has since elapsed. Also relevant at this point is Wollheim's Omnibus volume The Portable Novels of Science (omni/anth 1945), comprising three novels and one novella.

    The year that presaged the advancing flood was 1946, when two respectable hardcover publishers commissioned huge anthologies, both milestones. In February 1946 came The Best of Science Fiction (anth 1946) edited by Groff Conklin, containing 40 stories in 785pp, and in August came Adventures in Time and Space (anth 1946) edited by Raymond J Healy and J Francis McComas, containing 35 stories in 997pp. The latter was the superior work and even today reads like a roll of honour, as all the great names of the first two decades of Genre SF parade past. But Conklin's book is not to be despised, including as it does Sturgeon's "Killdozer!" (November 1944 Astounding), Robert A Heinlein's "Universe" (May 1941 Astounding) and Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (May 1945 Astounding) (see First Contact).

    • Sounds like you’ve got it. I wasn’t sure if the second story was part of the collection or not. What’s a verification copy tho? – Broklynite Oct 25 '18 at 7:39
    • thanks, that’s a really nice bit of info – Broklynite Oct 25 '18 at 11:42
    • "Liquid Life" also appeared in the anthology Great Stories of Science Fiction (Random House, 1951) edited by Murray Leinster. I don't remember a story about a universal solvent. So it's only a half a candidate for the likely anthology. – a4android Oct 25 '18 at 12:11
    • @user14111 You obviously have well-stocked library. My suggestion was only half-plausible, as I noted in my comment, and corroborated by yourself as being even more dubious than I first thought. Farley's "Liquid Life" wasn't a brilliant story. I'm amazed it was anthologized severally. Standards of writing have risen. The best story in TBOSF was Leinster's "Kingman" story IMHO. He contributed two other stories as well. I appreciate your detailed & well-researched response. – a4android Oct 26 '18 at 1:38

    Your Answer

    By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

    Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.