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Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year Second Annual Collection

by Lester Del Rey (Editor)

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For the record, the year in question here is 1974.

Like most anthologies of this kind, this one is very much a mixed bag. Which always rather surprises me, somehow, as if I can never help expecting these best-of-the-year anthologies to feature nothing but truly outstanding, or at least very good stories. But of course, it's pretty much inevitable, given the notorious variability of taste and, in the case of these older volumes, the impossibility of any editor consistently guessing what will or won't stand the test of time.

Well, this one, at least, has the benefit of being interestingly varied. Here's a rundown of the individual stories:

"If This Is Winnetka, You Must Be Judy" by F.M. Busby: A man's consciousness bops back and forth along his own timeline, leaving him to experience the years of his life out of order. It's an intriguing setup, but I've seen this sort of thing (or variations of it) done much better elsewhere. That may be kind of unfair, as for all I know Busby was the first person ever to come up with the idea, but, regardless, my response to this one can mostly be summed up as "meh."

"Sleeping Dogs" by Harlan Ellison: A military commander does stupidly aggressive things while his more peaceable co-worker watches in helpless indignation. The editor describes this as being very low-key for Ellison. Me, I'd say it's surprisingly bland for Ellison. Not to mention terribly unsubtle. Another "meh."

"The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn" by Vonda N. McIntyre: An elderly alien living on a generation ship experiences a painful disconnect with those born on the journey and desires to live only long enough to reach their destination. Now, this one I really liked. I think it hits an often elusive sweet spot when it comes to writing aliens: the main character is, culturally and physiologically, believably non-human, but her feelings and desires are entirely relatable. It makes for a good, moving story.

"Earth Mother" by Carolyn Gloeckner: A woman visits a reproductive facility to request the destruction of her husband's donor sperm after his death, and learns something she would rather not have known. This one was okay. It is, to some extent, an attempt to predict the future of reproductive technology, and, unsurprisingly, it's only minimally successful at that. But it does kinda-sorta anticipate a certain 21st century news headline, so I give it some points for that. And the plot revelation, while it's obvious a mile away, works all right, mainly because it's not drawn out too long.

"Dream Gone Green" by Alan Dean Foster: In a far distant future in which animals have been granted human-like intelligence but are still subordinate to humans, a horse with an ambitious dream makes a business proposition to a young heiress. Some entertaining bits of world-building here, but the plot didn't engage me much, and the characters are sadly underdeveloped. I suspect I might have enjoyed it more if I were more of a horse-lover, though.

"The Night Is Cold, The Stars Are Far Away" by Mildred Downey Broxon: An elderly alien tells the story of his ancestor's encounter with a creature from the sky, and night after night continues to watch the stars, which, depressingly, never seem to change. This one contains some very familiar SF themes -- science vs. religion, aliens trying to figure out scientific concepts as humans learned them in the past -- but it doesn't go in for the usual triumph-of-reason ending. Instead it just sort of... ends. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, but it's nicely written, and it's got me thinking a little bit about SF tropes and astronomy and how inevitable scientific progress really is.

"Ad Astra" by Harry Harrison: Human soldiers enact a last-ditch plan against technologically superior alien invaders. It's meant to be gritty and dramatic, but, frankly, it goes a bit over the top. And the dialog is kind of awful. Too bad, because the basic concept of what the humans are up to had at least some potential to be interesting.

"And Name My Name" by R.A. Lafferty: I have no idea what the hell I just read. Something about humanity being firmly and humiliatingly put in its place. More than that, I really cannot tell. I suspect the "R.A." in R.A. Lafferty's name stands for something like "Ridiculously Abstruse."

"What Friends Are For" by John Brunner: A horrible little kid with sociopathic tendencies is put under the care of an alien robot teddy bear nanny. Mildly amusing, I suppose, but it reads a bit too much like Brunner had to spend a day putting up with other people's bratty children and dashed home at the end of it to work out his feelings with a wish-fulfilment fantasy about what would happen if only he were allowed to discipline said kids and how gosh-darned good it would feel to make the awful parents realize how awful they are.

"Mute Inglorious Tam" by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Cornbluth: A portrait of the squalid, limited lot of a fourteenth-century serf. It's pretty good, but, as the editor acknowledges, it's not remotely science fiction. Maybe it is a sort of meta-science fiction, though, as the main character struggles to form ideas, and even to tell stories, about a better future that might be, before he has it all beaten out of him by the oppressive grind of his life.

"The Man Who Came Back" by Robert Silverberg: A man saves for fifteen years to return to Earth from the space colony he's emigrated to, determined to marry the woman he's been carrying a torch for all this time. A sharp, nasty little look at how what's presented to the world as romantic can in fact be deeply, deeply creepy.

"Dress Rehearsal" by Harvey Jacobs: Short, goofy piece about an elderly Jewish comedian who is abducted by aliens and put to work teaching classes about how to blend in on Earth. It's basically a long, kind of stupid joke, but I admit it, I laughed.

"Enter a Pilgrim" by Gordon R. Dickson: This one gives us a look at an Earth ruled by ruthless aliens and one man who is dreaming of -- or perhaps, despite himself, becoming -- a hero who will resist them. There's nothing terribly new here, even for 1974, but it's well written, with believable characterization. Even if the story's central image does rest on an unfortunately implausible detail.

"The Postponed Cure" by Stan Nodvik. So, you have a horrible disease. But that's OK, we can put you into suspended animation until there's a cure! Just be aware it might take a while... Another stupid joke that made me laugh.

"The Birch Clump Cylinder" by Clifford D. Simak: A time machine crashes in a clump of birches on the campus of a small rural college. Or something like a time machine, anyway, something that could achieve amazing things if its energy could be harnessed. An interesting little story, and not without a certain low-key charm. The science is pretty terrible, though. ( )
1 vote bragan | Dec 27, 2013 |
The end piece of this anthology is "The Science Fiction Yearbook," where Del Rey discuses the state of the field. It's an interesting snapshot of what is now a long ago time (1973), but fascinating to read at the time.

This contains "The Man Who Walked Home" by James Tiptree Jr, and a fascinating introduction to it, written by Lester Del Rey, from a time before it was known that Tiptree was really Alice Sheldon. ( )
  Lyndatrue | Nov 28, 2013 |
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This series from publisher E.P. Dutton would run to ten annual volumes (1972-81); #1-5 were edited by Lester del Rey, #6-10 were edited by Gardner Dozois. These last five volumes of the Dutton "Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year" series should not be confused with the similarly-named "The Year's Best Science Fiction" annual series that Dozois would later edit for Bluejay/St.Martin's.
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