Judith Merril [Ed], The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (1957)

Judith Merril [Ed], The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (1956), cover by Richard Powers.
The best part of being a SF nerd is the joyous feeling you get with new purchases. I rarely buy anything published later than 1980, and have a certain penchant for 1970s SF, both because of the covers (oh, the covers) and the great width of storytelling from that decade. Sometimes I go for a specific title, but occasionally I buy a bundle of books, especially if they are cheap. This ‘go happy’ attitude makes my bookshelves swell at an alarming rate and I have more books than I could possibly read.

SF abounds with anthologies/collections/best of’s – some better than others – and if you are a collector you will soon have plenty of such volumes in your shelf. I think it was the Richard Power cover more than the content that made me start to read the The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (published 1957, but summarizing the publications from 1956), but this volume was pretty inspiring once I started to read. There is a certain oldie but goldie tinge to some of the stories, all written at a time when man had not yet put his foot on the Moon; a freer interpretation of what our solar system could house in terms of life and possibilities, with less actual science to compromise the imagination of the authors. That said, this also results in quite predictable stories with ‘the first men on the moon’ or ‘evil alien does evil things until stopped by masculine hero’. If a theme could be applied to this particular volume it would be communication, as the majority of stories in some way or the other relates to how we try, and sometimes fail, to communicate with each other – be it man to man, or man to alien. Given the magnitude of pulp published in the late ‘50s the editor Judith Merril made a good job choosing stories. So good, it seems, that this series continued for more than a decade. I will gladly pick up more issues if I can just to revisit the early days of SF.

Collated rating: 3.15 out of 5 – some highlights, but also several meagre stories

John Bernard Daley, The Man Who Liked Lions – 3 out of 5

Ancient super race with mental powers to subdue men and beasts have a showdown at the zoo. This is the endpoint of a hunt – the tracking down of a renegade – that has taken both the hunted and the hunters through the veils/wheels of time (yes – time machines, naturally). A story that includes elements of van Vogt’s Slan and a slight tinge of the more modern Highlander movie. And it ends, quite surprisingly, in talons and fangs of lions and vultures. John Bernard Daley has only three listed works at ISFDB, all of them short fiction from the second half of the 1950’s.

C. M. Kornbluth, The Cosmic Expense Account – 4.5 out of 5

An absolutely crazy and entertaining short story on two unexpected heroes set to halt an escalating zombie plague: Professor Leuten – the author of Functional Epistemology – and his publisher Mr Norris. This couple despises each other, Professor Leuten because Mr Norris promised him fame (including a cover of Time magazine) he never got, and Mr Norris because Professor Leuten is high strung academic ass. The book they published is of the kind that people buy to look smart, but never reads. Only one person really read it and liked it: Miss Phoebe, an elderly little lady. In doing so, she started to affect the minds of those around her and by the power of Function Epistemology transformed them into mindless, but kind zombies. The kind of zombies that just doesn’t do anything but thinks. Crops rot, or are eaten by rabbits. Houses burn and no one puts the fires out. Society crumbles, zombies starve. The mind plague is spreading outwards 1 km per day and every attempt to stop it only cause more people to be zombiefied. Professor Leuten and Mr Norris want to pay Miss Phoebe a visit and their mutual loathing is their only protection: if they suddenly start to think fondly of each other they know it is Functional Epistemology talking. Using their innermost fears – spiders and rats – and a silly posture on one leg, touching their noses, they have a means to shake the spell away. Beautifully written and mad, this story is great!

Theodore L. Thomas, The Far Look – 2.5 out of 5

Man has finally reached the Moon and established a little mobile observatory, large enough to house two persons. The astronauts are cycled once a month, meaning that each crew stays a long lunar day and a looooong lunar night before being ferried home. But the darkness does something to them and when they return they are transformed, with that Far Look and fine lines around their eyes. A story that doesn’t really puts it all together, where some parts have promise and others not.

E. L. Malpass, When Grandfather Flew to the Moon – 3.5 out of 5

In a remote cabin in 2500 AD, the Griffiths family just install electricity, much to gran’s dismay. Grandpa is an imposing house tyrant, with strong will and strange impulses. Gran is coping, but complaining. The rest of the family isn’t really pictured in any detail, except the young granddaughter who follows gran around at night when she watches the moon go from full, to a sickle and then to disappear. On that very moon is grandpa, after hitching a ride with the spaceship that landed in the field behind the barn. More than verging on the bizarre, Malpass mixes spaceships, strong-headed characters and plot twists freely, all in a very Amish-ish futuristic backwater.

Reginald Bretnor, The Doorstop – 2.5 out of 5

A strange-looking item bought in a flea shop finds it place as a doorstop. But what is this thing, really? It looks ancient, with an aged copper patina – but is it really old?

Silent Brother, Algis Budrys – 3 out of 5

The crew of the first starship expedition just returns to Earth after a jolly in the Alpha Centaury system. Lots of fireworks, hallelujahs and senses of great accomplishments! But not for Harvard Cable. Poor Cable was supposed to go on the expedition, but became crippled in an accident and now sits alone in his apartment brooding dark thoughts. But strange things happen: the crew members become quarantined, the media are not allowed access – is there a space plague? Meanwhile, Cable have unexpected sleepwalking bouts building a strange machine in his cellar. Not a bad story, containing references to the locked-room mystery and a mind-dwelling alien parasite, but could have been longer and more nuanced.

Damon Knight, Stranger Station – 4 out of 5

In this tale, we follow Paul on a mission to Stranger Station, a remote rendezvous point where every year a sole man meets an alien race. His mission is not clear to him and although extremely well paid he has some doubts for what this job will mean for his sanity. The aliens were first observed on the Titan moon and are a horrible sight, nightmarish even. But friendly, it seems. At their first meeting, mankind received a yellow exudate as a gift – a substance that makes humans immortal. And every thirty years a trade meeting occurs – a tête-a-tête between a human and an alien –where a new a batch of yellow precious doses of this elixir is secured.

Isaac Asimov, Each an Explorer – 3.5 out of 5

I would have loved this story 20 years ago; it is very Asimovish. A clever plot revolting around the outcrossing of plants – this time evil mind-bending plants that subjugate intelligent animals to become their involuntary gardeners. It plays with our conception of animals as the top of the food chain, masters of all other creations, and turns it around. The plants happen to be telepathic and the two human explorers get involved in an intergalactic fertilization event and become carriers of evil plant spores. Craftsmanship, yes, good story, yes – but a little too cozy.

Randall Garrett, All About “The Thing” – not graded

A parody in verse. Not really my thing.

Ray Russell, Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster – not graded

Shortened form of an article first published in Playboy on the movie industry’s overtaking of the SF-genre. Not really understandable unless you – unlike me – have all the ‘50s authors, directors and movie titles in living memory.

Robert Nathan, Digging the Weans – 2.5 out of 5

A semi-scholarly argument between different archeology professors on how to interpret the remnants of a long gone culture. Little fragments are unearthed and bits and pieces are used to sketch the lives of the inhabitants of We (inferred from Us) in their old abandoned cities n.yok, Oleens and Chaga’go. Post-apocalyptic musing which probably was more fun to the writer than the reader…

Roger Thorne, Take a Deep Breath – 2 out of 5

Navigator is the worst cigarette on the market, but a new slow hypnotic commercial makes it the hottest brand in town. The alluring method used for advertising Navigator is then expanded to promote a single man for presidency.

Robert Abernathy, Grandma’s Lie Soap- 2.5 out of 5

Old grandma is the matriarch in her little cabin out in woods. She cannot stand lies, and be damned those little rascals that tries to pull her leg – if caught lying she washes their mouths with her lie soap and from that moment on they can say nothing but the truth. The only grandson to escape her punishment grow up to become a city man, a scientist. But science isn’t great – or rather doesn’t turn into profitable products. But when the secret formula of grandma’s lie soap is distilled and added to tooth paste there is money to be made. But what fun is left in a world full of truth?

Mack Reynolds, Compounded Interest- 2.5 out of 5

What would you do if you could travel back in time? Kill Hitler? Save Titanic? Or… maybe just invest your pounds wisely? In this short story a time traveler pops up every 100 years in a Venetian bank, providing advice on how to invest his initial small deposit. Knowing history his money is growing at an exponential rate, until one day when it is time to cash in his fortune.

J. G. Ballard, Prima Belladonna [Vermilion Sands] – 4.5 out of 5

Prima Belladonna is the first of several stories set in Vermilion Sands, a future holiday resort. The main charater makes a living by tending a flower shop with extraordinary singing flowers. Tuned using an Arachnid orchid, these potted plants can be trained to sing everything from Bethoven to jazz. Our dear shop proprietor adjusts the chemicals soaking the plants’ roots to keep them happy, but most of all he struggles with the very diva orchid set in her bolted vault clouded in a chemical fog. In an apartment across the street a golden skinned girl  with insects eyes moves in; a singer whose voice similar to the orchid’s can make wonders happens. It is close to a masterpiece – escpecially in comparison to some of the admittedly rather mediocre stories in this collection – and depicts a decadent, but slow life where people drink, play board games and attend parties. The shop ownder and the insect-eyed woman have a sort of affair, but it is clear that it is more on her terms than his. And likely part of the reason it happens in the first place is because of her interest in the singing flower. I need to read more Ballard.

Theodore Sturgeon, The Other Man- 4 out 5

The longest story in the collection, and from an author that with time rose to the Parnassus of SF writers. Although nicely written and interesting, my interest in the story waxed and waned; perhaps I was too tired when reading it. The premise, at least is interesting: what substance is our personality, and how can it change? The story is centered around Fred, a famous psychologist, his former wife Osa and her new man Newell – who is the patient whose personality is up for scrutiny. Dr Fred has a psychostat, a machine that can tune in to a specific part of the personality spectrum, opening the possibility to investigate – and treat – different parts of the psyche. It is sort of like operating the mind of a person with an old-fashioned radio, turning the knob to the right frequency and than set to work.

In this case the unpleasant, malign personality of the patient boils down to a suppressed twin personality locked in the inner vaults of the brain. A Siamese twin of the mind, and the struggles caused by this multi-personality creates a living man with a single-minded careless and evil personality. But how to treat not only one, but two minds at the same time – and withhold professional morality when all you want is to get back to your former wife? The story oozes of early psychology science and uses this to also explore the relationships between the three main characters. It can be read for free here.

Garson Kanin, The Damnedest Thing – 3 out of 5

A corpse comes to life while the undertaker is preparing it for the funeral. Its final wish is to scale down the costs for the cermony, but what will the undertaker’s wife say?

Zenna Henderson, Anything Box – 3 out 5

A warm ending of the volume, with a story about a teacher and a very special pupil, Sue-lynn with her Anything Box – an invisible box that if your peer into will fill you with your heart’s desires.

Advertisements