The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy 3rd Annual Volume ed Judith Merril 1958

Clearly a momentous time for the SF community, as the cover proudly proclaims ‘Special Section : Science-Fiction becomes Science-Fact – Sputnik and Beyond’.

This volume, unlike this first two, contains a number of articles (focussing on Sputnik and it’s implications for SF) alongside the fiction, which is a shame as it isn’t a particular big volume, so there is much less by way of fiction. The volume I’ve got, some 60 years after publication, is pristine : it clearly hasn’t been read. Until now.

Merril’s short intro notes that until this point, SF had often concentrated on the sciences necessary to reach out to the stars, but in this volume the science is “not primarily physics or chemistr. It is but biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, politics, economics … people”.

Brian. W. Aldiss. Let’s be Frank.
Originally in : Science Fantasy

Merril clearly had an eye for picking a promising author. Here young Aldiss (an few years of writing under his belt and he had just published his first SF book, the anthology ‘Space, Time and Nathaniel’) takes us back to Tudor times in England, when one Sir Frank Gladwebb finds that his first born is not just a chip off the old block, but is in fact another instance of his own intelligence, with which he is linked. And furthermore, once his sone sires another son, a third Frank is brough into the world. And on and on, until such time as the world is almost, almost, one globe spanning linked intelligence. Where next?? To the stars! Hmm. Interesting in a volume that sees humanity standing on the cusp of reaching out to the stars, we are taken back to Tudor England with no science, and only a mention in the final paragraph of space travel and it’s consquences. [1st Sept 2023]

George Langelaan. The Fly.
Originally in : Playboy

Yup, the horror story that led to the films. I’m not sure I’ve seen the Cronenberg film, but the original film, shortly after the publication of the story, was quite close to this orginal story. So not much SF so far… [1st Sept 2023]

Isaac Asimov. Let’s Get Together.
Originally in : Infinity Science Fiction

A hundred years Post-Cold War, and suddenly the temperature is rising as it appears that the Russians have sent over a dozen robots which, if they get together, could cause a nuclear catastrophe. Asimov, as was his wont, tells rather than shows, so we have an awful lot of dialog before matters are resolved. [5th September 2023]

George Byram. The Wonder Horse.
Originally in : The Atlantic Monthly

Merril does introduce the story by wondering where there was enough of a fantastical element to warrant it’s inclusion in this volume. Sadly, she got it wrong. A horse-breeder lucks upon a genetic mutation in a foal that looks very much to be a world-beater, in terms of speed. And it goes on to prove so. And that’s it, a horse racing story. [5th September 2023]

Theodore R. Cogswell. You Know Willie.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction

Another strange selection from Merril. It’s another horror story. And not a particularly good one tbh. And indeed, for the reader in 2023, there is more horror in reading a story replete with the use of the n-word and featuring a Klan member who gets his come-uppance after getting off on the murder charge of a black Vietnam vet (his come-uppance is that he turns into a black man himself whilst having sex with his pretty blonde wife). [5th September 2023]

Henry Kuttner. Near Miss.

Kuttner’s last, unpublished story before his recent death. It’s nice enough, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far sfnally. The protagonist runs into some Mexicans with obstinate traditions that prevent his business plan taking off, so he calls in a village elder reputed to have magic powers. [6th September 2023]

Rog Phillips. Game Reserve.
Originally in : If Magazine

Now, this is more like it. The protagonist is a young boy who is part of a tribe of non-verbal males travelling around carrying a large object. Some kind of totem? Are they a pre-neolithic band of humans carrying a totem, or some kind of sarsen stone. The boy is aware that he can make more sounds than his fellows, and he can make more sounds than they. But he doesn’t have the vocab to share what the It is that the men are carrying, or the smaller Its that dot the landscape, that they value. But we find out, courtesy of a group of game wardens (the story title is a bit of a giveaway) who are out to cull the more intelligent of the humans on the savannah. And it turns out the males are carrying around a rusty old automobile, and the smaller Its are discarded cans of Coca Cola (other carbonated drinks are available). Worth noting the story was written 5 years before Boulle wrote ‘Monkey Planet’ aka Planet of the Apes. We don’t find out as to exactly who the wandering tribe are or were, but we do find out that the culling of intelligent ones amongst them is not good news for the protagonist, although he remains blissfully unaware of this. [6th September 2023]

Avram Davidson. Never Let us Sleep.
Originally in : Venture Science Fiction

Grim reading from Davidson. Humanity has spread across the galaxy, but woe betide the weak and the unprotected. One one planet which is used as a stopping-off point by spaceships on one particularly long interplanetary trip, the indigenous race, possibly of human descent, are cruelly used for sport, and for worse. They look to be headed the way of many Earth species that we have sent to extinction. One crew member on a vessel who is appalled by their treatment, struggles to apparently save the few surviving members of the race. But sadly that is not the case. [9th September 2023]

Zenna Henderson. Wilderness.
Originally in : Fantasy & Science Fiction

Another in Henderson’s ‘The People’ series. It’s a strong story. The protagonist, a teacher, feels alienated and unsure of who she is. She has the mind-reading and empathic and other powers of The People but does not feel part of them. When she comes across a neighbour who is of The People and who has lost contact with them, the pair of them, through helping a child with behavioural problems, and finally with help from others of The People, they are able to come to resolutions to their issues. It seems she is not in fact one of the aliens who have come to Earth, but one of a few humans now beginning to evolve the same abilities. It’s a good story, getting nicely into the teacher’s mind and character, and doesn’t feel like a story from the 50s, where characterisation is often simple and stereotyped. [9th September 2023]

Eugene Ionesco. Flying High.
Originally in : Mademoiselle

Translated from the French, and a very strange little tale, that reminded me, if anything, of a Hayao Miyazaki film. A dilettante husband is berated by his wife for not removing the dead body in the spare room. It’s been there 10 years, and it’s beginning to smell. In fact, that’s not the worst of it, for, having to date just continued growing it’s hair and it’s fingernails, the body is now beginning to grow. And quickly. In to time at all it’s head has broken through the door and into the corridor, and the husband has no alternative but to struggle with the enormous body, getting out of the apartment and to throw it into the river. But before he can do that, it gets weirder still! An unsettling story, and one that will stick in the mind long after many of the stories in the volume. [29th September 2023]

Algis Budrys. The Edge of the Sea.
Originally in : Venture Science Fiction

The anthology closes with a strong story, which you could see inspiring Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The protagonist, Dan Henry, is a strong, silent and determined man, and he has to draw on every last ounce of his physical and mental resources, to prevent a strange rocket that a hurricane has dislodged from the ocean bed and which is currently being crashed about in the breakwater, from being returned to the depths of the sea. Battling the hurricane and the waves and the wind, Dan manages to lodge the vessel between some rocks, to ensure it stays put, and he is determined to claim the salvage rights and to find out what it is. However, the rocket sends a beam of light skyward, and before long the mothership returns, and a tractor beam starts to lift the vessel to retrieve it. Is Dan the kind of guy to stand there and watch this happen, or is he going to a Dreyfuss/Neary?? An exciting character-driven drama. [30th Sept 2023]


A volume which I have some issues with viz the inclusion of non-SF stories. It starts weakly, but ends strongly with a half dozen good reads.

The Honorable Mentions listing at the back of the volume has lots of stories by some big names in SF. One which brought a wry smile to my face was Harry Harrison’s, whose ‘The Stainless Steel Rat’, the story which research shows formed the first three chapters of the book of the same title I bought in the mid70s in my midteens and thoroughly enjoyed. I subsequently sought out all the others in that series, and his Deathworld series, and other volumes by him over those teen years. Fond memories. I even bought a gaming magazine in the late 70s that had a solo boardgame about the Stainless Steel Rat as a freebie. That game had a ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ score, and you had to complete the game before that reached a certain number. Never did that.

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