I picked up Men, Martians and Machines by Eric Frank Russell (1955) at Half Price Books a few months ago because I liked the crazy space knight on the cover, it was only a dollar, and it looked like it needed rescuing. What a pleasant surprise to find out that it is also a pretty great book.
Men, Martians and Machines is a collection of four inter-connected stories of the adventures of the crew of the Marathon, a new-fangled super-spaceship that thanks to some hastily explained science is able to explore further out than ever before. Our unnamed narrator is the Sergeant at Arms for the ship, and the crew is made up of a fun mix of Earthlings and a handful of Martians (very large octopus-like beings who are obsessed with space chess, like low gravity, and need very little air -- making them perfect for external ship repairs. They also love making jokes about how bad humans smell.)
Our narrator guides us through the ship's near collision with the sun, a trip to a planet of killer machines (well they mostly just want to dissect you to figure out what makes your individualistic mind run, but that tends to involve killing), a world filled with surprisingly defensive plants, and a planet of hypnotic beings that can make you see whatever they want, but when threatened actually look like a bundle of writhing snakes.
These stories are light on science and heavy on adventure, with a playful almost pulpy-detective-story edge to the narrator's voice. Here's a couple awesome sample sentences for your reading pleasure:
On the left a tall, idiotic gadget faintly resembling a drunken surrealist's notion of a sober giraffe was running away with McNulty.
The Martians frequently tried to imitate the Terrestrial habit of significantly closing one eye; they kept on trying despite the dismal fact that it can't be done without eyelids.
There are some fun anachronisms (like a set of on-going gags between our narrator and the ship photographer who is constantly worried about his boxes of heavy and fragile photographic plates breaking -- although, [nerd alert!] to be fair, photographic plates were used in astronomical photography until fairly recently, which I know since I had to rehouse and describe a bunch of them in my last archives job. They are very heavy.) And some unsurprising but cringe-worthy anachronisms like the fact that the alien life forms are almost always compared to Asians (it seriously seems like half of all old sci-fi books do this), a lot of talk about how black the black doctor is, and no women are mentioned at all.
Still, anachronisms aside, this really is a fun book. The aliens are interesting and surprising and and the other planets are creative and nicely described. Add to that some very good action sequences and the occasional bit of snappy dialogue and you have a nice little read on your hands.
[Back cover is here, fools. Check it out to see the cutest little spaceship of all time!]