My copy of this volume is without it’s dust-jacket and is in a relatively sorry state, but it’s absolutely readable, and I’m starting to read it now! (Jan 2023)
Edited just by Ted Dikty, his lengthy review of The Science-Fiction Year is an intriguing read – if you read it after a few beers of glasses of wine you might be confused into thinking you were reading a Dozois annual summation.
Tom Godwin. The Cold Equations.
One of *the* classic SF stories of the 1950s, which I’ve read several times over the decades. My enjoyment of the story is now tempered by a bit of web research I did a couple of years ago when I read his You Created Us in the Dikty volume for the year after this one in hand, which had less of an impact, and found that Godwin’s ‘Cold Equations’ went to and from with editor John W. Campbell, (infamous for being very hands on in editorial input and rewriting) three times, leading Algis Budrys to note that ‘Cold Equations’ was the best story that Godwin never wrote. Anyhoo, the story must have been very impactful at the time, as it remains so now. [20th Jan 2023]
Chad Oliver. Of Course.
The heads of state of goverments and communities across the world are on tenterhooks, as the aliens who have suddenly arrived above the United Nations building have let it be known that they intend to choose a representative from Earth’s most civilised community to take back with them to their home planet. Just which country will be the one chosen? In the end it’s not one of those that see themselves as being the obvious candidate – it’s an ‘Eskimo’. It’s not the most subtle of stories, and the characterisation of the ‘Eskimo’ who travels in the spaceship eating fish from a bucket must have been crude even for the 1950s! [20th Jan 2023]
Ward Moore. Dominions Beyond.
A very droll, satirical recounting of the story of The First Man on Mars. He is one Humphrey Beachy-Cumberland, a man of good character, family and wealth, who is funding the building of a spaceship to travel to Mars. Due to an unfortunate incident when he is inspecting the vessel, he is unceremoniously sent alone on a one way trip to the Red Planet. He meets with the locals, and like countless of his forebears over the centuries, he has the British wherewithal to stand proud and bring civilisation to them, and he very much creates a new dominion for the Empire in the name of Her Majesty the Queen and very much a replica of everything that makes The Empire great. What what. Future visitors from Earth are very much bemused….. [20th Jan 2023]
Arthur Porges. Guilty as Charged.
A team of scientists have made an amazing breakthrough – their invention projects images from the future onto a monitor! The view they have is from the inside of a law court, and they avidly watch the courtroom drama unfold on the screen. They can only watch, because a- that is all their equipment enables them to do and b- if they could hear what was happening, that would spoil the story! They try to work out what the female defendant might be charged with from the gestures of the witnesses in the dock, and ponder (there is quite a bit of pondering) on the nature of this future legal system, and what crimes and punishments are common in the future. There’s a chilling ending SPOILER! as the woman is found guilty and quickly removed to an adjacent room which can be viewed through a window, and, before their eyes and those in the court, summarily zapped out of existence. The camera then pulls back to reveal a notice on the wall indicating the day’s court business and we find out that the charge was …. witchcraft. The story is a little clunky TBH. [31st Jan 2023]
Albert C. Friborg. Careless Love.
Friborg has fun with AI (although it’s not called that in the story) and psychology, both human psychology and robotic AI, the US military and policos, and the psyche of those therein. The Cold War has escalated into full out war, and both sides are lobbing nuclear bombs over the pole at each other. Bombs aimed by their own supercomputer, which also attempts to intercept the incoming missiles. The protagonist is one Enoch R. Odell, Director in Chief of Cybernetics, who is in charge of the American supercomputer, a massive, subterranean, multi-floor affair, which has the wherewithal to be busy expanding itself below ground to meet the increasing demand on it’s resources. We very much get into Odell’s mind, as the story is interspersed on his observations and commentary on what it happening. What is happening is that the computer is tasked to find a solution to the dwindling public morale, and this opens a big can of worms. [17th Feb 2023]
Walter M. Miller, Jr. Memento Homo.
A well told story of a old spacer spending his final days, and hours, at home on Earth, receiving palliative care, who reviews his time in space. It veers towards sentimentality, but stays this side of the line, and I enjoyed it – a good character study, with a strong supporting cast (the wife struggling with his imminent departure), and the ending is a tad cliched – he dies moments after hearing the latest rocket take off from the nearby space station. [31st January 2023]
Andre Norton. Mousetrap.
Norton is one of those authors who I haven’t come across very much at all in my half century of reading SF. Here she spins a yarn, partly set in a Martian bar, about an old-timer who regrets letting a chancer in on his big secret : he knows where there is one of the very delicate ‘sculptures’ of the indigenous but extinct Martians. Said ‘sculptures’ are not only passing rare, but crumble to dust when touched. The chancer does indeed touch and ruin the old-timer’s treasured secret, but he pays the price… [31st January 2023]
Raymond E. Banks. Christmas Trombone.
A helpfully titled story, as whenever you come across it you will recall it’s the story about the guy with the trombone at Christmas. Not an obvious SFnal premise, I’ll admit. We’re in the relatively near future, and we’ve explored Venus and brought back some natural structures that are able to record sound, and play it back. Not only that (it does stretch credibility a bit and perhaps a technological means of achieving this end might have been better) but they are able to compare different versions of the same tune and create one master tune that takes the best bits from each. The protagonist is a guy who was well known, and loved, from his tromboning, especially at Christmas. But since the advent of these Venusian devices, he’s under strict orders (from the police no less) to keep his trombone under wraps. This Christmas he is fed up to his back teeth, so takes his trombone into the woods and plays such a beautiful rendition of Silent Night that a nearby Venusian thingie records it, and does not editing whatsoever – it is indeed a perfect rendition that can never be improved. And as a result his tromboning becomes a thing of legend. [31st January 2023]
Frank M. Robinson. One Thousand Miles Up.
Robinson posits an International Space Station, manned (it is just men) by four scientists from different countries, and this being a 1950s story, that means Cold War Tensions!! The station offers an existential threat, as it controls the nuclear missons that each country owns! The US scientist aboard has just died, and his replacement is not a normal scientist, but an agent whose mission it is to take over the station and preventing those from the other side of the Iron Curtain taking it over. Robinson uses this structure to consider whether individual humans working closely together might take a different view to the politicians and military back down on Earth. SPOILER : they do! And huzzah! for humanity. The story doesn’t quite work for me – it’s not a subtle set up and once it’s clear what the story is set up to do it’s just a bit obvious. [31st January 2023]
Clifford D. Simak. How-2.
An entertaining robot story, very much in the Asimov tradition. Simak sets his story in a wonderful future : a world with lots of leisure time (mind you, the protagonist complains that he doesn’t actually have enough leisure time, on account of having to work a full *15* hours a week!!). And the How-2 corporation helps out by supplying DIY kits that help a man to take on any hobby or craft that takes his fancy – house building, dentistry, you name it. (Women also – there is painting and curtain-making and pottery you know). The protagonist sends off for a robot dog, fancying putting together a Best Friend for himself. However, he is supplied with a full blown robot – something so very far out of his price range. What should he do? Return it? Or… have a go and assemble it? The assembly, as with all How-2 kits, is a doddle (provided you follow the instructions) but it becomes clear that this robot isn’t a production model, and is perhaps a faulty experimental model, for things begin to get increasingly complicated… The story moves into a longer-than-I-would-have-liked courtroom drama, where the issue of the status of robots is reviewed. [31st January 2023]
Robert Abernathy. Heirs Apparent.
After a promising start, this one trailed off for me. It’s set near-future, in a world devastated by nuclear war. The protagonist is Colonel Nikolai Bogomazov, one time member of the Red Army and Hero of the Soviet Union. He happens upon a small community living in huts by a river, and decides that his military background and Communist Party membership put him in prime position to take control of matters. However, there is a fly in the ointment, as the community is in thrall to a charismatic American soldier, who has a range of skills suited to this back to basics life. There then follows a length debate over capitalism vs communism, and when the village is threatened by a nomadic tribe, by the issue of nomadism v civilization (not a debate that I was aware of actually being a thing). [6th Feb 2023]
Winston K. Marks. John’s Other Practice.
Entertaining story revolving around medical technology. A handsome young gynaecologist finds his career is on the slide – things are no longer looking up. (Or should that be down?) His solution : create slot-machines machines that dispense medical advice. The medical establishment is up in arms about this, and the protagonist is an investigator who intends to get to the bottom of the case. However, he is outwitted. Quite racy for the mid-1950s! [8th Feb 2023]
William Morrison. The Inner Worlds.
Quite an intriguing setup. Humans arrive on a planet and think the local bear-like creatures are their primary threat. Turns out that it is the highly advanced and microscopic ‘endos’ living in their bodies that are the biggest threat. More than half the story is from the ‘endo’ perspective, which is quite entertaining, although these tiny creatures are quite human in their communication. (I’ve just read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ‘Children of Time’ which features humans having to deal with uplifted spiders on another planet, which was *very* successful in creating intelligent spiders that came across as intelligent spiders, rather than spiders who talked an acted like humans). [8th Feb 2023]
Walter M. Miller, Jr. The Will.
A second story by Miller in this volume, and, like the first, a strong emotional punch to it. The story is told by the foster-father of a fourteen-year old boy who has terminal cancer. We go through the diagnosis and the awful weeks following, and the desperate hope for a cure. But it turns out the boy, thanks to TV’s Captain Chronos, has the wherewithal to help himself…. SPOILER …. he has a simple plan : bury some treasure (stamps, that will become valuable over the centuries the treasure lies hidden) and ask the finder to use the money from the treasure to build a time machine and come back to find him and to take him to the future, when a cure for cancer will surely be available. Miller steers clear of being too sentimental and mawkish, and it’s a good read. [13th Feb 2023]
James Causey. Felony.
Vogel is gaunt and ruthless, and has been all his life. As Production Manager at Sachs Fixtures, he has absolute power over hiring and firing. When Amenth is put forward by HR, he is far from impressed at interview and with his sketchy resume. However, turns out that Amenth is a very quicky study. So much so, that Vogel becomes suspicious and he finds out that there is much, much more to Amenth than meets the eye. Turns out he’s from another planet, and is working on the shop floor to create a device to return him to his oh so beautiful planet, for which he was been banished for damaging beauty. Vogel determines to take his place and to travel to this beautiful planet, and is successful. But be careful what you wish for….. A rather unpleasant protagonist, so his come uppance at the end is somewhat welcomed! [14th Feb 2023]
Raymond E. Banks. The Littlest People.
A second story in the volume from Banks.
Young John is always keen to visit Old Mott when he arrives on the asteroid with his cargo of little people. Old Mott is working for an employment agency, delivering low skilled workers and would-be housewives (!) – and due to the distances involved in travelling between locations, this cargo has been shrunkified and put into suspended animation, to save on storage space, fuel and the like. Once the pick of the doll-sized candidates is made, they are revivified and returned to normal size. This trip, John takes a shine to a female little person who has dropped off the shelf, and by mistake ends up taking her home. She does in fact revivify, but not resize, and he struggles to keep her secret – especially as she is willing to fight for the right to be resized. He decides to take on a Henry Higgins role and skill her up, and we follow them as their relationship builds. It’s a difficult conceit to engage with, but the characterisation works well. [14th Feb 2023]
Jerome Bixby. One Way Street.
A story that very much reads like a TV script and stands up well to the test of time (e.g. the recent no-Beatles movie ‘Yesterday’). Pete Innes is lucky to escape an automobile accident with his life. But it turns out that whilst his life has been saved, he is in a world that is subtly different to the one he was in before the crash. Same wife, albeit more affectionate in this world. Same son but different name, different hair. Different pet. Different neighbours. Different job. And a host of other differences. He is very reluctant to accept that the memories he has of his old world are as a result of trauma from the accident, and finally, his is proven right and he has the chance to return to his old world. There’s a neat ending – his wife in this world chooses to come back with him, and when they return to his Earth, it turns out that is but another Earth that is subtly different.
As an aside, Bixby also wrote, late in his life, the screen play for ‘The Man from Earth’, the film of which I sat through recently with teeth on edge, as it felt so much like a stage play that had been filmed, and not rewritten for the screen. [14th Feb 2023]
Robert Abernathy. Axolotl.
A second story from Abernathy, with a very human angle, as per ‘Heirs Apparent’. The title and the introduction rather spoil what would otherwise be a surprising twist. The protagonist is going to be the first human in orbit, and we see his steely determination, and his motivation, that goes right back to childhood. He’s willing to jeopardise his relationship with the love of his life, who doesn’t want him to go for fear of the damage the cosmic rays in space will do to his spermatazoa. For most of the story it’s a tense drama about this first flight in space, but the rocket is given a bit of focus that emphasises the leaving behind of Earth, and after lift-off enclosed in an amniotic fluid to resist the g-forces, he emerges and becomes much, much more. Touches of the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he is able to reach back down to the surface of the Earth and we find that he might not have lost his humanity or his wife after all. [21st Feb 2023]
Everett B. Cole. Exile.
By far the longest story in any of the Bleiler/Dikty volumes to date, and I do wonder why this particular story was chosen over so many others. It starts off well, feeling very much like contemporary SF (particularly TV and movie, i.e. Star Wars) with an offworld visitor with advanced mental and technological wherewithal exploring a less advanced planet, incognito. However, a mugging and a head injury leave him without any of his kit, and also without his memory. It’s a strange world, slightly feudal, with a class hierarchy, and he has to start work at the bottom of that hierarchy. We follow him through his early days working at a factory, and then it gets a bit uneven as he gets his memory back, and there are a few jumps (not highlighted by breaks in the text) as he becomes a successful novelist, then recalls his engineering training and builds ever-advanced racing cars, which he uses to power a beacon to call for assisance from back home. It’s a bit clunky, and takes up a lot of space, which could have been used to much better effect. [21st Feb 2023]
Frank Herbert. Nightmare Blues.
I’d been looking forward to reading an early Frank Herbert story from the moment I saw it in the contents listing, but sadly, the story didn’t live up to my expectations. It’s set on Earth, in the relatively near future. Herbert does forecast some neat technological and consumer technology. The story features a psychologist who realises that the cause of the Scramble Syndrome which has been causing mass psychiatric disturbances in cities is a piece of electronic/telepathic ‘musikron’ machine which a blues duo are using on their tour. He falls in love with the female singer of the duo, and has to persuade her to leave the male ‘musikron’ player, whilst working out how to put right the problems the equipment has caused. There’s a fair bit of info dumping and the story just doesn’t grab. [22nd Feb 2023]
There are some good stories in the volume, without there being any real standout one’s for me. Many of the big names of SF from this period are missing from this volume, and I do wonder the extent to which this volume is a good attempt at being the best stories of the year, particularly as the following year sees Dikty and Merril each producing a Year’s Best and without a single story appearing in both volumes!
The volume concludes with a list of *all* the SF books published in the USA/Canada and UK, and it’s not a massive list, but there are some absolutely cracking novels : Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Caves of Steel’, Alfred Bester’s ‘The Demolished Man’, Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and ‘The Illustrated Man’, Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Childhood’s End’, Hal Clement’s ‘Mission of Gravity’, Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. Wowzers.