Book Review: The Best SF Stories From New Worlds, ed. Michael Moorcock (1967)


(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1968 edition)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Fresh off of Langdon Jones’ wonderful New Wave collection The Eye of the Lens (1972) I decided to see if any of my unread anthologies contained his work—queue The Best SF Stories From New Worlds (1967).  Unfortunately, Jones’ contribution is far from the best in this absolutely stellar collection.

This 1967 volume was the first in a series of eight Best Of New Worlds anthologies edited by Michael Moorcock between 1967-1974.  I reviewed The Best SF Stories From New Worlds 3 (1968)—i.e. the one with Pamela Zoline’s must-read “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967)—a while back.

The takeaway: The majority of stories in are required reading for fans of New Wave SF and New Worlds magazine.  Find a copy of the anthology with its fantastic Paul Lehr cover or track down the stories in other collections/anthologies.

Brief Summary/Analysis

“The Small Betraying Detail” (1965), short story by Brian W. Aldiss, 3.25/5 (Average):  Over the years I’ve reviewed four Aldiss collections (Galaxies Like Grains of SandNo Time Like TomorrowStarswarm, and Who Can Replace a Man?) and count him among my favorite authors—however, this is a rather slight story that neither frustrates nor inspires but does generate an uncanny aura.

Richmond and Walter, while taking their friend Arthur to a TB sanatorium, decide to stop along the way at a series of neolithic flint mines.  Walter, an amateur archaeologist uses the jaunt as an excuse to demonstrate his pseudo-intellectualism, Richmond, more kindly, worries about Arthur’s exertions…  Walter espouses theories that humankind had become, for a while in “his early career, an aquatic creature living mostly in the sea” before returning to land (17).  And down in the mine concavities, certain properties appear to transpire indicating “the small betraying detail” that the world might be another.  And Arthur descends into delusions, are they symptoms of TB?  Or, a shift into a world where Walter’s proclamations might really be true?

“The Keys to December” (1966), novelette by Roger Zelazny, 4/5 (Good):  Nominated for the 1968 Nebula for best Novelette.  The death of a world parallels the creation of another.  Within this poetic cyclicality, Zelazny weaves a poignant love story between two individuals desperate to create a life for both themselves and their people with cataclysmic ramifications.  Jarry Dark was born of “man and woman” (23) but genetically modified (“Catform Y7” + “Coldworld Class”) for life on a cold planet that no longer exists after an encounter with a nova.  Wards of General Mining, Jarry grows up alone in a tank connected via interlink to others of his kind—and he falls in love with Sanza.  They decide to acquire and transform a new world… Terraforming devices are purchased, cold sleep pods deployed, and wake intervals decided upon.  As their new world slowly dies thus creating an environment the Catforms can live in, they trigger sentience in beings beyond the walls of their enclosure that holds their cold sleep pods.  Jarry, remembering his own suffering, proclaims their actions a crime!

Zelazny’s story is possessed by poeticism and beauty as the cat forms observe the death (transformation) of the world around them…  Their plight, trapped in their tanks, generates palpable emotion, as does the slow transformation of their new world.

“The Assassination Weapon” (1966), shortstory by J. G. Ballard, 4/5 (Good) is the second in The Atrocity Exhibition sequence of linked short stories.  Written soon after the death of Ballard’s wife and filled with the resulting trauma and pain, this story is the second in the sequence that later became The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).  Dense and condensed, a series of personas manifested as historical figures (JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Jacky Kennedy, etc) weave in and out of the stories with the sequence.  A chaotic, seemingly disconnected, cacophony of images—a H-bomber pilot named Traven, attempts reconcile his traumatic (PTSD?) state with the rest of the universe.  The scenes emphasize the fractured nature of his mental state: “Dr. Lancaster was watching him in the sunlight, the sculpture beside him reflecting a dozen fragments of his head and arms” (58).  The mental turmoil of a mind reaching and flailing and desperately attempting to create meaning from images and fragments and tangents and historical events seeps from every page.

If you are new to Ballard’s work, I recommend reading The Drowned World (1962) or the stories in Billenium (1962) first.  This one will require multiple re-readings to uncover the how and why between the association of images and scenes.

“Nobody Axed You” (1965), novelette by John Brunner, 5/5 (Masterpiece):  I love Brunner.  Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is my favorite SF novel.  He also wrote one of my least favorite novels—The Dramaturges of Yan (1982).  Although I do not torture myself as frequently as Mike over at The Potpourri of SF Literature does with Brunner’s absolutely atrocious “written-to-pay-the-bills” pulp, I have been know to review them occasionally—for example, the straight from the B-movies pile-of-crap, Double, Double (1969).

Thankfully, “Nobody Axed You” is an entirely different beast and joins Kate Wilhelm’s “Baby, You Were Great” (1967) and Kit Reed’s  “At Central” (1967) as one of my favorite stories about the dangers of media…  A satirical story in an overpopulated world and how gruesome TV shows compel the masses to kill each other—but suicide is forbidden!  The horrors of Brunner’s world are implied with  uncomfortable nursery rhymes: “What is the F on your cheek pretty maid / My pretty maid, my pretty maid? / The F stands for frigid, sir she said, / Sir she said, sir she said / The F stands for fri-g-id, sir she said!” (71).

Gene Gardner is the main actor and in charge of the scenarios for his  TV show while his wife plays the main victim: “I felt so detached and critical it was almost as though I were watching someone else chopping open Denise’s head” (61) he ruminates…. The dislocation from the world, the obsession with the TV show and its gruesome vignettes, the metafictional implications of wife and husband as actors, indicates the power of the program, but not in the ways intended by its creator…

“A Two-Timer” (1966), novelette by David I. Masson, 3/5 (Average):  I have yet to read any of Masson’s stories (he wrote only ten but they were recently collected for the Gollancz Masterwork sequence)—the praise abounds for them on the inter webs.  The appeal for “A Two-Timer” seems to be focused on the linguistic elements of the story.  Told entirely in in  17th century English dialect (Masson was a rare books librarian), the narrator encounters a time machine and transports himself to 1964.  Playing with the tropes of a time traveller encountering a marvelous new world, he ends up committing adultery.  Be prepared for a lot of “I crouch’d me down in my Sorcerer’s Chair and commended my Soul to Almighty God, for I though, that some fearful Disaster was nigh” (96)—the fearful “Disaster” was my attention span…

“The Music Makers” (1965), short story by Langdon Jones, 3/5 (Average):  As I indicated above, fresh off of The Eye of the Lens (1972), I browsed around for a collection with another Langdon story…  There are some intriguing elements to this one but it ended up being rather bland.  David performs the Berg Violin Concerto for the nouveau riche on Mars who, desperate to show their pretensions at culture, do not appear to truly understand the music and its meaning..  David wanders off across the landscape with his violin, and encounters a rather more alien music.

Jones’ passion for music, he was a trained musician, shows in this story—the yearning for audiences to understand what is performed, what the performer puts into a performance is heartfelt and realized.  I guess the way the conclusion is reached is not compelling….

“The Squirrel Cage” (1966), short story by Thomas M. Disch, 4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece):  The best Thomas M. Disch short story I’ve read yet!  The parallel, a man (an author, Disch), sits in an empty room with a typewriter and learns about deep ocean pogonophores, who never leave their self-created shells…. Is the author’s entrapment an experiment?  Or, some self-imposed exile?  Perhaps the author has forgotten the reason for his entrapment.

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(Uncredited cover for the 1967 edition)

16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Best SF Stories From New Worlds, ed. Michael Moorcock (1967)

  1. I had the 67 Panther edition – all I can say is just looking at the cover gives me goosebumps – this was my ‘Golden Age of SF’ right there

    • As that cover is so bland, the contents of the collection must be giving you the “goosebumps” — hah.

      But yes, it’s a great collection — perhaps you should track down another copy? Relive a little of the joy it must have brought you 🙂

      • The Panther ‘Foundation Trilogy’ looked great to me, the glossy black finish, NEL seemed to have a bit less pzazz in their presentation somehow, Panther were like Darth Vader and NEL more like old Ben – at least between about 65 to 68 or so when I was haunting Smiths looking at all the new SF. But yes, that’s not one of their best, I guess it just takes me back. SF was really fizzing in those days

  2. I’ve read the Ballard story in “The Atrocity Exhibition”,but don’t remember anything about it.That book is the most confusing and frustrating single work by him I think,but I suppose it was meant to be challenging.He still remains on the top tier reserved for the best SF authors for me though.

    I’m sorry I haven’t read more of Zelazny’s shorter pieces.That one sounds really good.

    Have you read Disch’s “Downtown”? I thought that was better than the novels I’ve read by him.

    • The stories in the “The Atrocity Exhibition” are confusing and frustrating. That said, if you think about his incredible personal trauma and the ways in which one recovers from a traumatic experience (and how difficult understanding the changing world around you) — and Ballard’s other main themes I think it is possible to slowly work through them.

      Zelazny’s collection The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories (1971) has “The Keys to December” and should be hard to find!

      I have not read a lot of Disch. I’ve read Camp Concentration (1968) (never reviewed it), “5 Eggs” (1966), and a few more short stories here and there which don’t immediately come to mind.

      • Yes,I’m quite aware of his personal trauma,and that it did drastically alter his already radical stuff.”The Crystal World” was the first fruit of those chances.It’s very many years since I read “The Atrocity Exhibition” though,so a second reading could see me emerge with a different attitude to it,even though it’s narrative style is different to TCW.

        I’ve read “The Doors of his Face,the Lamps of his Mouth” in an anthology,and thought it was quite nicely written,even though there didn’t seem to be much substance in terms of content.

        I didn’t care much for “On Wings of Song”,and “Camp Concentration” from the onset,looked like it would be a five star book,but much later in it’s pages,it started to degenerate I thought.I can’t remember now exactly what went wrong,but felt dissapointed for what had been a very good book.

  3. I really love the “abstract” Panther SF covers from this era – there’s a nice sense of “The Contents of this Book are so Mind-Blowing we cannot offer you a Meaningful Pictorial Representation”… and and if the stories/novels don’t consistently live up to that promise, they probably do so more frequently than any other publisher’s SF roster. Panther ran a pretty great imprint between the mid-60s and mid-70s, not just SF but also experimental fiction, crime and and pulpy exploitative stuff. Definite envy for Peter Middleton’s memories (above) of buying them new!

    As to the book, it’s been a while since I read it but this was my “gateway drug” into new wave SF – I was already into Ballard, and the TV series Out of the Unknown, and some of the spacier music of the time (retrospectively), and some contemporary music that heavily referenced this era of British culture (eg the Ghost Box label) – and when I discovered New Worlds it was like the hidden nexus point of all these obsessions was revealed.

    Despite living in Australia I’ve managed to amass a pretty good collection of all the Panther anthologies, the Sphere quarterlies, a fair number of the Compact volumes and even half a dozen of the beautiful magazine format issues with their fantastic design and sense that the genre is slipping its boundaries and mixing freely with other radical currents of the time.

    It’s an area I’m still exploring – latest discovery (many thanks to this blog!) is Josephine Saxton, who does feature in one of the Panther anthologies but didn’t really register on my radar until I read your review of The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith – loved it, and am now grabbing her work whenever I see it. Curious that despite being an English author her early novels were never published in the UK, one would have thought they were just the ticket for that era.

    • I too enjoy the abstract covers that sort of imply the wonder you will experience rather than directly illustrate it in a “realistic” manner. My main complaint with recent SF art is that it has (generally) abandoned any attempt to imply meaning, rather, queue “GIANT EPIC SPACE BATTLE WITH AMAZING NEBULA LOOKING COOL AND EXPLOSIONS.”

      Thank you for the kind words in regards to discovering Josephine Saxton. She needs a masterwork volume! I have not ready any of her other work unfortunately—I have Vector for Seven on my shelf. I really want some of her short stories though—have not been in a novel mood in a while.

  4. I read the Roger Zelazny collection,”The Doors of His Face,the Lamps of His Mouth”,but I have to honest and say my overall reaction was somewhat negative.”The Keys to December” I will admit was well composed stylistically,as you would expect of Zelazny,but I thought it was conceptually vague and lacking substance.I have say the same for most of them,which already I don’t find very memorable.

    The best one by far,was “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”,which was not unexpected,from my knowledge about it.Even this one I thought was a bit thin and fell short of even a near masterpiece,but it’s themes were displayed in a lucid manner that lacked the opacity of the other pieces.

    I was expecting that he was going to be a better author of short stories than novels,but I am dissapointed.His novels have a much clearer definition.

    Don’t totally misunderstand,I know his short stories,such as ARFE,were important to the development of “new wave SF”,but now that their stylistic freshness has become stale,their overall weakness beneath,is noticable.Despite this,his position as a maverick reminds me of P.J.Farmer,except that he’s a much better writer than him.

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