(This is me having speaks in Feb 2023) I made a start reading this in 2019, then got into buying and reading the Bleiler/Dikty Year’s Bests from the previous years. I’ve picked this up again and will read this and the matching Dikty volume for the same year immediately after.
(Two 2019 reviews)
John Bernard Daley. The Man Who Liked Lions.
Originally in Infinity Science Fiction, October 1956.
Mr. Kemper has been on Earth for millenia and finds little to differentiate the creatures in cages at the zoo from those staring in at them. Full Best SF Review here.
C.M. Kornbluth The Cosmic Expense Account
Cited as being from : The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sixth Series. Originally in Fantasy and Science Fiction January 1956, with the title ‘The Cosmic Charge Account’.
A story that would sit nicely in today’s F&SF with only a few changes – blackly comic and satirical, it features two men setting out into zombie-infested territory. Full Best SF Review here.
(It’s 2023 again…)
Theodore L. Thomas. The Far Look.
Originally in Astounding Science Fiction August 1956
A good story from an author new to me – he did in fact have a 30-year career, mostly short SF, but mostly written 56-66. He looks at how the men who have been to the moon come back with ‘The Far Look’ : something about being the only two members of humanity on the moon for several weeks evidently does something to a man. We find out about a couple of previous missions to the moon, and then the story follows the current pair, who have to overcome a couple of obstacles – at one point very similar to ‘The Martian’. And they do make it home, and they do indeed return with ‘The Far Look’. Worth remembering that this was written a decade and a half before the first moon landing! [23rd Feb 2023]
E.L. Malpas. When Grandfather Flew to the Moon.
Originally in : A.D. 2500: The Observer Prize Stories 1954
Another story from an author new to me, and he’ll be new to much everyone I reckon, as he only ever had two stories published (according to ISFDB). Merril mentions the unusual provenance of the story – a winner in a story competition on the theme 2500A.D. run by the national UK newspaper The Observer (and possibly having been in a bank’s in-house magazine prior to that). And it’s an absolutely delightful little story, that was a real pleasure to read. True enough, it’s set in the specified year, and the story opens with a remote Welsh farmhouse finally being connected to The Electric. But whilst they’re only just being connected, the locals include Uncle ‘Spaceship -Repairs’ Jones and Llewellyn ‘Time Machine’, so it’s not that it’s a backward society they’re living in. And when a spaceship headed for the moon has to make a dramatic landing outside their farm, Unce ‘Spaceship-Repairs’ Jones is summoned, and he fixes the ship, and Grandfather takes the place of the one crewmember who decides he’s had enough of spaceflight and takes the train home. Grandmother is bereft at his loss, and nightly climbs the nearby mountain to be as close to possible to him, bemoaning the waning moon, for when it’s no longer there, he’s bound to fall off it. But Grandfather does return home, only to find Grandmother has married and run off back in time with Llewellyn Time Machine! It’s a story that deserves to be much more widely known. I wonder whether the fact that it wasn’t in fact written by an SF writer was a factor in that! But for whatever reason, Malpas very much epitomises being a One Hit Wonder. [24th Feb 2023]
R. Bretnor. The Doorstop.
Originally in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1956
Merril notes that is a serious, straight SF story, possibly Bretnor’s first ever. She also notes that he had another story, published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, that was the best story in any SFF magazine published this year, but which wasn’t SF or F and so she couldn’t consider it for this volume. It’s a simple story, no plot, simply the reflections and responses of a man who realises that there is much, much more to the odd-shaped doorstop his wife has bought from a flea market. Much, much more. It’s a good complement to ‘The Far Look’ in looking at the human response to the reality of just how big a universe it is in which we live, and just how small we are. And much more to my taste than his ‘The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out’ which appeared in a Bleiler/Dikty anthology earlier inthe decade. [25th Feb 2023]
Algis Budrys Silent Brother.
Originally in Astounding Science Fiction, February 1956 (attributed to Paul Janvier)
A thoughtful piece about ‘aliens’ from Budrys, and somewhat different to many stories of this ilk due to the very benign, nay, positive impact of the aliens on humanity. The first starship, Endeavour, arrives home on Earth. It has been a successful mission, finding inhabitable planets in the Alpha Centaurus system. Watching the crew step back on the soil of Earth and walking into history, Harvey Cable struggles not to be bitter and jealous. He could have been one of them, and indeed was instrumental in developing part of the technology that made the mission possible. But he was badly injured when testing a previous version of the rocket, and is missing his legs, has damaged sight, and much more. But he soon has to turn his mind to a more pressing matter : just who is fiddling with the electronics behind his television set each night?? It’s a bit of a locked room mystery, as there is no sign of entry into his flat, even after he bars and locks all ways in. And after further testing, he realises that despite him not having the technological knowhow to do the work on the set, it has to be himself. And also, his missing teeth appear to growing back, as well as…. It transpires that the starship crew have brought back something to Earth – something that appears to be happy to help humans and humanity, and to reach further for the stars. It’s a good read, although it’s best not to think too much about some of the mechanics of what is happening.
As an aside, I still have a strong memory of, in the late 70s, happening upon a film on TV called ‘Who?’ and being thoroughly engrossed (the critics were evidently not impressed) and going out and buying the paperback of the original Budrys novel. It’s on my shelves still, as part of my initial SF collection (which only amounted to about 100 volumes – the collection is somewhat larger now, once I resumed by book buying after a bit of a gap after that initial collection). [27th Feb 2023]
Damon Knight. Stranger Station.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1956
A very strong story from Knight, one that feels very contemporary and quite, quite different to a lot of stories from this period (I’m feeling, halfway through this Merril volume, that the stories she has chosed are in fact quite different to those that I’ve been reading in the preceding year’s anthologies from Bleiler/Dikty). A taut psychological drama played out on a space station in distant Earth orbit, where every 20 years one representative from humanity and one from an alien race rendezvous. The aliens are quite, quite alien, and the two races never meet or speak, and the human protagonist is very much aware that his six month visit may well be a poisoned chalice. And indeed, as the weeks pass, the psychology pressure from the immense ‘other’ so nearby begins to take it’s toll. There’s a ship’s robotic brain (i.e an A.I.) to offer help, but which has limits on what it can do, and we follow his descent into madness as he ponders the nature of the relationship between the species and the individuals. [1st March 2023]
Isaac Asimov. Each an Explorer.
Originally in : Future Science Fiction #30.
I will have read this story before, in the anthology ‘Buy Jupiter’. But that was in the mid-70s, and there are onlh a couple of standout stories I remember from that time. It’s classic Asimov – he thinks of an idea, plonks a couple of characters in it, and uses the story to explore the idea, with the two characters helpfully having lengthy discussions to explain the ramifications of the idea. The idea : what if there was an alien plant species which could telepathically control other ‘more intelligent’ species and have them take on the role of pollinating the plants (this to include make them do so on trips between different planets). And as with many of Asimovs stories, the two spacemen head back to Earth, without a chance to communicate with Earth at any point and thus alerting humanity to the package that they are unknowingly carrying. The story suffers from being read straight after Knight’s much more complex and satisfying story. [1st March 2023]
Randall Garrett. All About ‘The Thing’.
Originally in : Science Fiction Stories
A short parody in verse looking at John W. Campbell’s story which inspired the original movie version of ‘The Thing’.
Ray Russell. Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster.
Originally in : Playboy
Following on from the previous poem, a wry look at the rise of monster movies, cumulating in an invasion by creatures made not from carbon but from …. Vaseline. The story forecasts a Hollywood actor becoming President (Johnny Weismuller Jr.), and features Marilyn Monroe, initially wearing just the protagonist’s pajama top, and then here wearing just his pajama bottoms. Saucy saucy. [2nd March 223]
Robert Nathan. Digging the Weans.
Originally in : Harper’s Magazine
A far-future archaeologist ponders the small number of finds from the northern continent which is now referred as the and of The Weans, aka The We or The US, and what this tells us of the society and the peoples that lived there. Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair…. [2nd March 2023]
Roger Thorne. Take a Deep Breath.
Originally in : Tiger
Another wry take on a current issue of the day – the perils of advertising. A copy writer starts writing for the ad agency who is providing hypnotic adverts for a truly awful cigarette (the threat of cancer is mentioned) but only in order to perfect techniques to support a run for PoTUS. [24th April 2023]
Robert Abernathy Grandma’s Lie Soap.
Originally in : Fantastic Universe
The protagonist relates how he decided take the recipe from the special soap of his grandma, which, as you might expect from the title of the story, is effective in treating lying, and puts it into a toothpaste, thus changing the world. There’s a lot of telling, and not much showing, which prevents it being a real page-turner. [25th April 2023]
Mack Reynolds. Compounded Interest.
Originally in : The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
A time travel yarn, in which the benefits of compound interest are illustrated by investments made several centuries agao by a time travellers. Not only does he amass immense wealth thanks to his visits back in time, a century apart each time, but by offering advice based on the knowledge of the future, he amassases influence that affect the very course of history/the future. And the stinger in the tale?? He is only going back in time to amass the fortune he needs to build the equipment and the power to travel back in time. [4th May 2023]
J. G. Ballard. Prima Belladonna.
Originally in : Science Fantasy
I had been looking forward to reading this story since seeing it in the table contents, and had been a little suprised to see his name there, very much seeing him as a writer from the 60s onwards, part of the New Wave, especially as the opening of the story identifies this as one in his ‘Vermillion Sands’ series, which I very much see as a 60s series. And, indeed, my anticipation was well placed (I still remember reading his ‘Billenium’ in Edmund Crispin’s sf anthology ‘The Stars and Under’, which, rather amazingly, was a set book for study at school in my teenage years in the mid70s). It’s a story that leaps out of the collection, and does very much feel out of place in a book published in 1957, especially as it sits alongside a lot of stories that do feel very much rooted in the 1950s.
It opens : “I first met Jane Ciracylides during The Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully through ten unforgettable years, and I suppose that may have had a lot to do with what went on between us.” It’s a classy opening, and the story oozes ennui – the characters are so laid back that they even play a *slowed down* version of chess . The protagonist runs a shop selling ‘choro-flora’ – mutated plants that are able to play music (classical obvs) across a wide range of octaves. Jane is herself is a singer, a prima donna, beautiful but possibly a mutant human herself, and she in entranced by the plants, especially one pollinated by a Prima Belladone spider, as the protagonist is by her. There’s a slow courtship, and as befitting the ennui, is doesn’t last, but hearts aren’t broken, the characters simply go their different ways.
To use a Ballardian word, I was very much enervated by reading the story (reading it again as doubtless I’d read it back in the day) and it is very much a story that will repay closer study (lots of Ballard’s work has of course been studied thus) whereas most of the stories I’ve read in this sequence of late 40s/early to mid 50s are very much simple stories, that, once read, pass into SF history rather than having a link to the future of SF, as this one does. [4th May 2023]
Theodore Sturgeon. The Other Man.
Originally in : Galaxy
I made a couple of attempts to get into this story, but found it just a bit too dull and unengaging. There’s a lot of dialogue between a pyschiatrist and a patient, the new lover of the psychiatrist’s ex-wife.
Garson Kanin. The Damnedst Thing.
Originally in : Esquire
A nice enough little story, but not really sf. An undertaker is somewhat surprised to find one of the bodies in his care come back to life, briefly, to instruct him quite clearly not to go ahead with his expensive funeral. The undertaker and his wife mull this over, but decide that business in business, and their income from providing an expensive funeral trumps the dead guy’s wishes. After all, he is dead.
Zenna Henderson. Anything Box.
Originally in : Fantasy House.
A lovely, heart-warming story to close the anthology. A teacher is worried about one of the young girls in her class, who appears to spend most of her time staring into her ‘anything box’, which is invisible to everyone else, but which enables to see her heart’s desire. Turns out the girl (as does the teacher) does have something to yearn for, and after the teacher inadvertently causes the girl to lose the box, she has to decide, when she ‘finds’ the box, whether it would be the better not to give it back to the girl, so stop the girl from day dreaming and to live in the real world. (Reader, she gives the girl the box back – it’s a happy ending!)
Merril’s closing summation outlines what she sees as a promising future for SF, naysaying the doom mongers who forecast it’s death. She reflects that after the previous volume’s focus on man and machines, and man and the environment, that this one had much more of a introspective focus, and often looked at issues around communiction.