Years Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy 4th Annual Volume. ed Judith Merril. Dell, 1959

I read the Emshwiller through Phillips stories a couple or more years ago, and have picked up the volume again in October 2023 as part of my refreshed reviewing, as I work my way chronologically through my Year’s Best SF collection. My extensive Year’s Best SF collection. My complete Year’s Best SF collection!

Carol Emshwiller. Pelt.

The POV character is the hunting dog of a human who is currently on an ice planet, hunting for hides to take back to Earth. When the human kills one tiger-striped beast, but finds it has signs of being of a higher intelligence, the trip turns sour.

J.F. Bone. Triggerman.

Cold War Paranoia! Deep in a bunker in the US of A, the senior officer in charge of the button which will dispense retribution to the Soviet Union, sees Washington DC levelled by an incoming strike. However, something is not quite right, he resists demands for instant retaliation, and is exonerated when it transpires that it was a meteorite and not a missile which did the damage.

Robert Sheckley. The Prize of Peril.

From 1959 a story which looks at the future of tv game shows – Raeder is playing for high stakes : he has to stay alive for a week, with professional hitmen after him, every move captured and beamed out on live.

Richard Gehman. Hickory, Dickory, Kerouac.

A 1950s piece which doesn’t really travel the 45 years well (a la Austin Powers from the 1960s)- a mouse which is so cool that it’s a hep cat, man. Probably best read with a goatee and a beret.

Rog Phillips. The Yellow Pill.

A neat little story. A psychiatrists has a visit from the cops from someone who has just committed a murder, but who is obviously insane. The man spins a tale which is unbelievable – those he killed were Venusian lizardmen, and he is on a spaceship, and it is the psychiatrist who is hallucinating. The psychiatrist is bemused, then increasingly worried as the evidence that the murderer may be right begins to mount.

Gerald Kersh. River of Riches.
The Saturday Evening Post, March 8, 1958 & Argosy August 1958.

Hmm, bit of a head scratcher this one. An English conman, a bar, and then a trip up the Amazon to meet various indigenous people (as we call them now, the story refers to natives and cannibals) and there’s some mumbo jumbo magic and that’s it. One of the best dozen SF&F stories of the year??????? Mind you, give Kersh his due, he had been publishing professionally for almost 20 years by the time he wrote this, which was about his 82nd published story. [6th Oct 2023]

Theodore L. Thomas. Satellite Passage.
Originally in : IF Science Fiction, October 1958. And available online on Project Gutenberg

Thomas also appeared in Merril’s 2nd Annual Volume, with ‘The Far Look‘ which was a great story, as is this one, which also stands the test of time well. It’s quite similar in feel to an episode of ‘For All Mankind’. He puts three American astronauts on a spaceship (not a satellite!) in Earth orbit, who are surprised, and concerned, to find that there is a Russian ship in orbit, and that the two are headed, if not for a collision, then mightily close to one. The hard-nosed crew, adventurers to the core, resist the idea of changing *their* course to avoid a collision, and in fact decide to actually get suited up and outside, to look at the Russians, and, in fact, to arm themselves with projectiles, should they need to defend themselves from such an assault from the Russians.

There’s a neat twist in the tail : rather than lobbing missiles at the Russians, one of the Russians, who are also outside their ship, comes adrift and only by quick thinking action by the Americans is her returned safely to his ship. And the double twist : the Americans are in fact somewhat peeved, as going toe to toe with the enemy was their preferred course of action. Interestingly, the intro by Judith Merril ponders some issues that really haven’t been explored in SF very much at all – that is humanity, particularly in the shape of ‘restless men, dissatisfied men’ has a long track record of exploration, colonisation and empire building that (particularly so in the 2020s) we can now look back on with shame, and can only ponder whether our getting out amongst the stars will be any different. [18th Oct 2023]

R. M. McKenna. Casey Agonistes.

Editor Merril notes that this first published story by Richard McKenna, who was in his forties, is a promising one from a new author, and she notes that he states that he hopes to live to a hundred, writing every day. Sadly he only just made it past fifty, and his promise was limited to a posthumous Nebula Award for a story which was only found after his death, and a naval novel which was subsequently filmed starring Steve McQueen.

This is an unsettling story, which had me waiting for the SFnal reveal, but there isn’t really one there. The protagonist is an ex-Navy type (McKenna’s background) in a TB ward, which feels rather more like a ward a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The various doctors, nurses and orderlies are enmasked, and the patients, one by one, learn the knack of conjuring up the titular Casey Agonistes, a capering apelike creature, who evidently represents their antagonism to their ultimate fate and to the medical staff. At the end of the story one of the patients dies, with Casey having a literal, and losing, battle with the darkness descending upon the patient in his bed. [18th Oct 2023]

Fritz Leiber. Space Time for Springers.

An interesting protagonist – a kitten. A kitten, mind you who has pretensions of grandeur, and sees his current feline status as one that is only the first phase of his life, and that he too will soon be sitting at the kitchen table talking with the others who currently sit around it. I was tootling around the web and came across a good review of the story by William H. Stoddard, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll direct you over to Torynovant to read his insightful review [20th Oct 2023]

Avram Davidson. Or All the Seas with Oysters
Originally in Galaxy Magazine May 1958 – and available online on the >Internet Archive

Ferd and Oscar run a bike shop, and the former is always worrying about things, whereas the latter is primarily interesting in beer and women. Turns out that Ferd is right to worry, as there is indeed a link between safety pins, coat hangers, and the red racing bike he’s working in. You see, you can never find safety pins when you want them, but conversely there always seems to be more coat hangers than there should be, and as far the number of unclaimed bikes at the police pound are concerned…. Could there be some connection, or indeed, something even weirder?? Lightweight fun. [23rd Oct 2023]

Brian W. Aldiss. Ten Story Jigsaw.

In her introduction to this story from new British writer Aldiss, Merril notes that whilst previous volumes could have had stories classified as space travel, time travel, planetary adventure etc., whereas this volume would be Whither Civilization or Inside Man. However, whilst we would now imagine Aldiss embracing these topics, she sees this story as being in the Atom Doom category of the earlier volumes, and indeed it is quite similar to many stories from earlier in the 1950s, in terms of a slightly clunky narrative elements (the guy with the amnesia, who has a job with the protagonist salvaging things from buildings destroyed by atom bombs in Sydney, is indeed the very same politician who start off the war), although the story does have the feels of stories that appeared in Interzone for many decades to come in terms of the post-acopalyptic setting and a focus on individuals and the environment. [25th Oct 2023]

E.C Tubb. Fresh Guy.

A wry little take on the post-apocalyptic theme. Mankind has indeed pushed the button and the remnants of the race have been hiding in deep, concrete-covered tombs for decades. But what about those left behind?? Not radiation-mutated humans though, as the protagonist is a ghoul, who comes across a newly minted vampire, freed from his grave by an earthslide and now ready (after finally coming to terms with his status) for some human blood. The new vampire prides himself on being a modern kind of guy, especially after a third party turns up – none other than the very same vampire who, posing as a doctor, gave him a bite rather than treating his illness, which led to his becoming a vampire – who can shake things up a little. And then a fourth person turns up – a werewolf, who, like them, bemoans the lack of humans on which to feed. Turns out that in straightened times, needs must, and the freshly minted vampire finds out, to his cost, that the gentleman’s agreement that ghouls, vampires and werewolves have not to feast upon each other, can indeed be temporarily suspended…. [22nd November 2023]

Arthur Zirul. The Beautiful Things.

Imagine the frabulous joi of the editor when deciding to include this story as well as an Asimov story, so that the volume covers SF from Asimov to Zirul.

It’s a short satire – imagine Planet of the Apes/Bears Discover Fire viz : humanity has indeed finally really done it, and post-apocalypse bears are now the dominant species. One bear has a penchant for the Beautiful Things that his pet human can make, and indeed he sets up a colony of more humans to make more Beautiful Things, and leaves them to it. Imagine his horror when he returns to find that they have created paintings and literature!! That’s not what he wanted – he wanted more Beautiful Things, those short sharp implements for stabbing with, which bears paws are incapable of creating! [23rd November 2023]

Theodore Sturgeon. The Comedian’s Children.

A much longer story than you tend to get in Wilhelm’s thin volumes, and it’s worth the space. The story starts out well with a few pages by way of a prologue in which we are told, documentary style, of the ill-fated return to Earth, from the Saturnian moonlet Iapetus, of a Fafnir spaceship piloted by Captain Avery Swope, and the desperate struggle he makes to manually land the crippled spaceship which seems, until the final few hundred metres, to have been a successful struggle. It’s a taut beginning, and then Sturgeon explains how one news photographer arranged to get a beautiful young girl snapped in front of the wreckage, a photograph that was to echo around the world.

The girl evidently catches a disfiguring disease from the wreckage, and the story revolves around a global entertainer who puts his resources into setting up hospitals for all the children subsequently infected with the disease, using his famous telethon to raise money for the hospitals and research into the treatment. A simpler story, typical of this age, would describe his struggle to find the cure, and indeed when he sets up a secret flight to send a small crew to Iapetus to this end, the reader is led to believe that this is the way the story is headed. But then Sturgeon uses a quite radical means of taking the story to another conclusion : we are presented with a transcript of his last telethon, as he sits through the screening immediately after the event has finished, as is his wont. We find out it’s his last telethon, and why. Now then, now then, it turns out he has a few guilty secrets, and his setting up of hospitals to treat the infected children is something else entirely (SPOILER ALERT) – for the crew who set off to Iapetus have returned (unknown to him, and much against his expectation as he had rigged the spaceship to kill them all), and they, with the telethon producer, did in fact pull the broadcast of his telethon, and whilst he continued to perform his telethon to untransmitting cameras, the producer used his show to explain to the world just what he was up to. He was in fact using his visits to the hospitals to further infect the children (all of them pretty) with a virus, not of Iapetan origin, but of his own making….

It’s a good read, with Sturgeon looking well into the future and making a few correct guesses about technology and society. And the evil men do. It’s the story of the volume. [28th Nov 2023]

John Steinbeck. The Short story of Mankind.

Goodness, a close run with Sturgeon for the story of the volume. Steinbeck’s devastating short satire of the stupidity of humankind (mostly men) looks at how we struggle to accept the other, and change, and build people up only to knock them down, and then to idolise them, through generations of inbreeding cave dwellers, a bit like ‘Quest for Fire’ only quite quite dark. It’s sadly still relevant today, and feels, tbh, like an insight into the minds and lives of the red-hatted MAGA tribe of the Americas. [28th Nov 2023]

Conclusion

Some good stories in here, with a definite feel of change from the stories of the early years of the decade.

One thought on “Years Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy 4th Annual Volume. ed Judith Merril. Dell, 1959

  1. Space Time for Springers is a wonderful story from the viewpoint of a kitten, who knows that when he grows up he will obviously become a human, and clearly those pink crying things are nowhere near as smart as he is.

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