’Tis the Season for Holiday Stories: Christmas on Ganymede edited by Martin H. Greenberg

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Because science fiction was born in magazines, where shorter works were preferred, but later sold best in book form, anthologies became a popular way to collect these stories. And of course, one of the most popular forms of anthologies were themed books, where all the stories had some common element tying the volume together. Given the fact that the Christmas season and its various rituals and traditions have long been celebrated in American popular culture (and also the fact that holiday shopping brings people to bookstores), it was inevitable that some of these anthologies would focus on the holiday. One of my favorites example is Christmas on Ganymede and Other Stories, collected by the prolific Martin H. Greenberg and featuring noted authors like Poul Anderson, Frederik Pohl, Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe.

When preparing this column, I was surprised to find that this is the first time I featured the work of Martin H. Greenberg, whose anthologies were ubiquitous during the final quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Greenberg had a huge impact on the field, and is thus overdue for some attention in this column.

I should note that the “Christmas” season is by no means limited to the Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Christ. The period also includes the turn of the new year, celebrations of the solstice and the promise of brighter days ahead, and of course a number of other religions celebrate important holidays during the period. We are reminded by cartoon characters like Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty, and the Grinch that this is meant to be a time of hope and of giving, where we should be looking to the better angels of our natures. Television shows and movies tend to suggest that this is also a season of love and romance. When you add to this the traditional gift giving associated with the holidays, encouraged by commercial interests, the modern conception of Christmas covers quite a lot of ground, and evokes any number of personal meanings and associations.

All of this gives science fiction writers lots of material to work with, and plenty of inspiration for stories. If my recollection is correct, pretty much every December issue of Galaxy magazine had a Christmas-themed cover, featuring images like robots trimming trees and Santa blasting around in rocket ships. Even Marvel Comics had holiday-themed collections (and if you look at their wiki, they consider Santa not just a legend, but a character in the Marvel Universe). Science fiction writers are a diverse group, representing many faiths, traditions, and beliefs. Thus, the stories they produce run the full gamut of possible themes associated with the holidays.

 

About the Editor

Martin Harry Greenberg (1941-2011), who often went by Martin H. Greenberg, was one of the most prolific editors and packagers in the science fiction genre, and in other genres as well, including mysteries, westerns, and horror. He is not to be confused with Martin Greenberg (who used no middle name or initial), the editor of Gnome Press, an early publisher of science fiction novels. He had a doctorate in political science, and began his career in academia, teaching at the University of Wisconsin. His first anthology, published in 1974, was academic—a collection of science fiction stories selected to illustrate principles of political science. Many of his earlier anthologies were collected in partnership with Isaac Asimov, and they edited over 120 anthologies together. Over the years, Greenberg had many partners, including some of the biggest names in science fiction, who worked with him to collect, edit, and manage the anthologies. Greenberg was also founder of Tekno Books, a company that primarily packaged books for release by other publishers. According to Wikipedia, he was involved in editing 1,298 anthologies, in purchasing 8,200 original short stories, and with Tekno Books, packaging more than 2,000 published books…a truly staggering output.

 

Anthologies and Science Fiction

Over the course of the 20th century, magazine sales eventually began waning while book sales waxed. The shorter fiction featured in the magazines was often republished elsewhere in different formats. There were Ace Doubles, which published two short novels back-to-back. Authors stitched together stories or expanded them to novel length for book publication. And many stories were gathered together into anthologies. Single author collections were popular, as were “theme” anthologies that grouped stories with similar topics. Furthermore, there were all sorts of “Best Of” anthologies, collecting stories from the previous year, from a particular era, or even those that purported to contain the best stories of all time. Two seminal anthologies that appeared after World War II were The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin, and Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. The magazine publishers were inspired to mine their own back catalogs, and I have more than a few Analog anthologies on my bookshelves. One of the most influential of the annual anthologies from the latter 20th century was The Year’s Best Science Fiction, put together by Gardner Dozois starting in 1984, with the series continuing until shortly before his death in 2018. Along with Greenberg, Dozois was one of the most prolific anthologists of the era.

While magazine sales have dwindled, with electronic publishing, the market for shorter works continues to be strong, and as long as there are stories to collect, we can expect anthologies to be a vital part of the science fiction genre for years to come.

 

Christmas on Ganymede

The book opens with the wistful story “To Hell with the Stars” by Jack McDevitt. A young boy is reading a thousand-year-old book from a time capsule, Great Tales of the Space Age (coincidentally edited by Greenberg and Asimov). He asks his father why humanity never went to the stars, and dad explains how the sheer distances and laws of nature were insurmountable. The boy, like the reader, is left unsatisfied by these answers.

“A Midwinter’s Tale,” by Michael Swanwick, is a story told by a far-future veteran whose memories have been shattered by war. He describes a winter night where one of the indigenous creatures, the larl, who are thought mute, begins to speak. It imparts the tale of how larl gain knowledge by eating the brains of the recently departed, and how their race was granted sentience when they consumed the brain of an early settler. This sounds horrific, and we are never quite sure the incident actually happened, and yet the tale ends up being quite moving.

The story that gives the anthology its title, “Christmas on Ganymede” by Isaac Asimov, is a humorous little confection where indigenous miners insist on being visited by Santa Claus, threatening to go on strike unless he appears. It ends with a clever little astronomical twist. I had enjoyed this one as a youth, but the story depends on the reader accepting the premise that humanity has the right to take any resources it finds, wherever it finds them, and exploit any creatures it finds to do so; it’s a notion we no longer tend to embrace.

“The Falcon and the Falconer,” by Barry N. Malzberg, is an unpleasant little tale, told in the form of statements made by naval personnel during an official inquiry. They are on a grim planet inhabited by disturbing aliens, and are gripped by a compulsion to stage a living nativity where something horrible happens to one of the crewmen. The story never gets a definitive ending, and there is nothing to like about any of the characters; it’s just the kind of story I dislike reading.

The story “Christmas Roses” by John Christopher tells of a spacer who brings a real Christmas tree to the moon on behalf of a friend trapped there because he can no longer tolerate the G-forces of space travel. I enjoyed this sweet but ultimately sad little tale.

My favorite tale of the bunch is “Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus” by Frederik Pohl. Pohl is a master of stories in which consumerism runs amok, and in this one, he is at his amok-iest. In a future where consumerism has taken over not only Christmas, but society as a whole, a man who works at a department store falls in love with a missionary’s daughter. Seeing him blunder from one encounter to the next, where his biases constantly undermine his wooing, is quite amusing. In the end, his romantic endeavors open up a new and more meaningful world to him.

Robotic toys are the focus of “The War Beneath the Tree” by Gene Wolfe. Each Christmas Eve, the old toys have to battle with the new toys for their very survival. A little boy inadvertently witnesses this Darwinian struggle and is horrified…and his horror is increased by a clever little twist at the end. This one is horror done right, a quite entertaining tale in a dark sort of way.

In “The Santa Claus Planet,” Frank M. Robinson gives us a human colony world where the customs of the potlatches of the Pacific Northwest are taken to an extreme, and lavish gifts are given, and even destroyed, as a show of power. The penalty for losing one of these contests can be deadly.

Connie Willis’ “The Pony” is a surreal Christmas story where the reader is never quite sure what is occurring. Dreams seem to become reality, and there is a disturbing feeling that nightmares might also come to life.

We are taken to a far-off colony world in “O Little Town of Bethlehem II” by Robert F. Young, a planet so far away that the light of the first Christmas day is just arriving. In a Christian colony, a massive celebration is in the works. But when a delegation of the indigenous aliens arrives to pay their respects, there is a violently xenophobic response, after which the colonists go back to celebrating the joy and hope of the season. The tale is a chilling portrayal of human hypocrisy.

“The Christmas Present,” by Gordon R. Dickson, also takes us to a human colony on an alien world, where the boy Allan attempts to explain Christmas to the jellyfish-like creature he calls Harvey. Allan gives Harvey a toy figure, and Harvey is inspired to sacrifice himself to eliminate a dangerous beast that could threaten his friend. The story is satisfying although bittersweet.

Poul Anderson sets the story “The Season of Forgiveness” in the same framework as his tales of Nicholas van Rijn and the Polesotechnic League. The humans are traders who want to acquire a unique herb that only grows on the planet, but require the aid of both city-dwelling and wilderness-dwelling aliens, and those factions are locked in endless war. When a young trader performs an act of mercy, and explains the Christmas spirit that inspired it, the aliens realize that the visiting humans have a spiritual nature that they had not seen before, and this proves to be the breakthrough that was needed to seal the deal, and unlock the herb trade.

“Christmas Without Rodney” by Isaac Asimov is another story that is played for laughs. A wife insists the family give their robot a Christmas vacation. Instead, they rely on the robot of their visiting son and daughter-in-law, who, despite being the latest model, proves incapable of operating in an un-automated home. Lots of accidents and misunderstandings ensue, and by the time the youngsters leave in a huff, the older couple is glad to see them go. Just so the reader doesn’t forget this is an Asimov story, the ending serves up a twist based on the Three Laws of Robotics.

The final tale in the anthology, “Christmas Treason,” by James White, presents a small group of gifted children who have developed a range of paranormal powers including telepathy and telekinesis. They decide to search for Santa Claus and his underground lair at the North Pole, but instead stumble upon secret installations all around the world that are filled with grumpy men and big missiles. As the story progresses, the threat of nuclear annihilation appears imminent, but the children manage to stumble into actions that make the world a better place, a very suitable way to end an anthology about the season of hope.

 

Final Thoughts

Christmas on Ganymede is a solid collection of stories from top-notch writers who explore seasonal themes from a variety of angles. While not every story was to my taste, there were enough good ones to leave me more than satisfied. And now that I’ve presented a favorite anthology to you, I’d like to hear about your own favorite anthologies, whether Christmas-themed or otherwise.

This is my last column before the new year begins, so I would like to wish all of you a joyful holiday season, no matter what or how you celebrate. And I wish everyone a safe and happy new year!

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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