I picked this one up in 2017, but have dated it 2003 so that it files in date order with other volumes in this series. The book was read and this review created in the second half of 2018.
If you know your way around the Best SF site you’ll know I have amassed a collection of annual Year’s Best SF volumes going back to when they first appeared, that is -almost- complete. I’ve got just a couple of the Bleiler/Dikty volumes that started the whole thing way back in the 1950s, and am missing a couple of other volumes here and there. (If you don’t know you’re way around the site, use the category listing!).
As I’m not at the moment buying new SF other than the Dozois/Clarke annual SF volumes (eschewing the SFF anthologies), I decided to splash out and fill one of those gaps – namely the first in Merril’s series of Year’s Bests. You can browse the other ones in her series that I have here.
This Dell First Edition was published in 1956, and got delivered from a bookseller in Germany, and doesn’t look like it’s been read. It’s four years older than me – a little fragile, frayed around the edges, and with a slightly dodgy lower spine, but what’s inside is still drop-dead gorgeous. But that’s enough about me, what about the book?
The volume has an introduction by no less than Orson Welles, who opines that SF is often at its worst at book length, with good novels ‘about as rare as ambergris’, and his advice for all but the most ‘bug-eyed addict’ is to abstain from novels and to stick to short stories, which ‘come off much better than the long ones’.
Merril has 18 short stories in the collection, all published in 1955, although several are from a 1955 collection of The Best of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, some stories of which are therefore a year or two older. She notes that there is a word limit of 20,000 words, so that excludes longer length short SF. I’m going to read through and review stories individually, and append the reviews here, so keep checking back.
R.R. Merliss. The Stutterer.
Originally in : Astounding, 1955.
The anthology opens with a story, the theme of which holds up well some fifty years later. Interestingly the illustrator of a German translation (‘The War Robot’) was prescient in his drawing of a Terminator-like android. Full Best SF Review here.
Avram Davidson. The Golem.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1955.
A sweet little story in which an elderly, retired Jewish couple sitting on their porch are paid a visit by a Golem hell-bent on world domination. Full Best SF Review here.
Robert Abernathy. Junior.
Originally in : Galaxy Magazine, January 1956.
As with the preceding story, a short, gentle amusing tale. A troublesome teen decides that he wants more from life than putting roots down with a nice girl. (Oh, and he’s an alien). Full Best SF Review here.
James E. Gunn. The Cave of Night.
Originally in : Galaxy Magazine, February 1955.
After two shorter stories, lighter in tone, an altogether more serious tone, as Gunn foreshadows the drama of Apollo 13 and the ‘fake Moon landing’ conspiracy theorists with a story that holds up well. Full Best SF Review here.
Walter M. Miller Jr. The Hoofer.
Originally in : Fantastic Universe, September 1955.
A spacer is back on Earth, having completed a seventh, and final mission, supposedly to turn his back on space and to settle with his wife and child. A sobering tale, with some great writing. Full Best SF Review here.
Theodore Sturgeon. Bulkhead.
Originally in : Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1955 (titled ‘Who?’)
The two titles, ‘Who?’ and ‘Bulkhead’ get to the crux of the story. The protagonist is a space cadet who wants to be a starship captain, and this requires him to go on a solo Long Haul space trip to prove his mettle. An intense story with a doozy of an ending. Full Best SF Review here.
Mark Clifton. Sense From Thought Divide.
Astounding Science Fiction, March 1955.
A mildly amusing tale of psi, swamis, scientific frameworks and anti-gravity. Rather longer than it really needed to be, and probably made more sense back in the 50s when psychic abilities had evidently not yet been fully debunked. (No Full Best SF Review, that’s it..)
Zenna Henderson. Pottage.
Originally in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1955.
One of a series of stories in Henderson’s ‘The People’ series, featuring an alien race, indistinguishable from humans and living amongst us, typically in small remote communities, hiding their special abilities and remaining incognito. Full Best SF Review here.
Algis Budrys. Nobody Bothers Gus.
Originally in Astounding November 1955
One of a trio of stories about Gussie Kusevic, one of a breed of humans that have developed beyond homo sapien. Full Best SF Review here. The same theme as Henderson’s preceding story in the volume (the alien living amongst us) but a story I engaged with much more. The story was nominated for a Hugo in the Short Story category.
E.C. Tubb. The Last Day of Summer.
Originally in : Science Fantasy #12 1955.
After three rejuves, old age comes apace, and John Melhuey wishes to avoid decrepitude. Full Best SF Review here.
Shirley Jackson. One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1955.
Nice little story featuring the awfully nice Mr. Johnson, who spends his day in New York being rather helpful to people who cross his path. Full Best SF Review here.
Willard Marsh. The Ethicators.
Worlds of If Magazine, August 1955.
Bewhiskered missionaries from the Antarean region arrive on Earth and are horrified by what they find. Full Best SF Review here.
Mildred Clingerman. Birds Can’t Count.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1955.
A touch of sauciness for the 1950s! Hungover Maggie suspects an invisible other-worldly voyeur is in the room…. Full Best SF Review here.
Jack Finney. Of Missing Persons.
Originally in : Good Housekeeping, March 1955.
A travel agent can get you a one-way ticket to somewhere very different and very special. It’s one-way and a one-off chance. Full Best SF Review here.
Isaac Asimov. Dreaming Is A Private Thing.
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1955.
Asimov posits a new technology, ‘dreamies’, a form of immersive VR, but instead of being digitally coded, the dreamies are created by capturing and editing the dreams of the small percentage of the population who dream vivid dreams. Full Best SF Review here.
Damon Knight. The Country of the Kind.
The Magazine of Fantasy of Science Fiction, February 1956.
A rather dark, disturbing story from Knight, somewhat at odds with the rest of the volume (and possibly the majority of SF in the mid-50s). Somewhat frustrating that a Feb 1956 story appears in a 1955 year review! Full Best SF Review here.
Steve Allen. The Public Hating.
Originally in The Blue Book Magazine, January 1955.
Imagine – a sports stadium full of hateful citizens, encouraged to be hateful by the government. Sheer fantasy of course. Full Best SF Review here.
Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Home There’s No Returning.
Originally published in : No Boundaries, 1955.
‘Mr. & Mrs. Henry Kuttner’ ponder whether flesh & blood, despite their inherent weaknesses, are superior to computers in an action story similar to scenes from Terminator/Robocop/Alien movies. Full Best SF Review here. The story was nominated for a Hugo in the Best Novelette category.
The stories finished, Merril provides a summation of the year at the back of the volume, in which she bemoans the end of the boom in SF, following the mushrooming in recent years (which was partly due to paper becoming much more available after a post-war shortage!).
And finally a list of ‘Honorable Mentions’ which include many of the Big Names of SF not included in this volume (potentially for stories beyond the 20,000 word limit). Notable amongst these is Walter M. Miller Jr., whose short story ‘A Canticle for Liebowitz’ appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1955 and was subsequently followed by a couple of linked stories, which were ‘fixed-up’ to become the novel of the same name which won a Hugo for Best Novel in 1961. And Miller’s ‘The Darfsteller’ won the 1955 Hugo for best Novelette. Also in this list is Eric Frank Russell’s short story ‘Allamagoosa’, which won the 1955 Hugo for Best Short Story.
(Footnote : in the following year’s volume, Merril looks back at this first volume and notes “..Last year the stories showed such a pronounced paranoid streak that I made several hasty changes at the last moment, to avoid the irksome effect of story after story in which a persecuted protagonist stood alone against a hostile world”.)
In terms of the best short SF published in 1955 (and a few months each side of ’55) in addition to this volume and the first in The Hugo Winners series, also check out T.E. Dikty’s ‘The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels 1956, which has an entirely different set of stories to this volume!
You can head over to the SF Awards database entry for the Hugo Awards 1956 to see the winners and nominees, and cross-ref with the contents herein.