Book Review: The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF, ed. Arthur W. Saha and Donald A. Wollheim (1977)

(Richard Corben’s cover for the 1977 edition)

4.25/5 (collated rating: Very Good)

The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF, ed. Donald A. Wolheim and Arthur S. Saha (1977) is a glorious anthology of SF published from the year before containing rousing works by the established masters (Isaac Asimov and Brian W. Aldiss), philosophical gems from New Wave icons (Barrington J. Bayley), and gritty and disturbing commentaries on masculinity by the newer voices (James Tiptree, Jr.). While Richard Cowper and Lester del Rey misfire, the overall quality is high for a large anthology of this nature.

Highly recommended–especially those interested in a cross-section of the SF published in the mid-1970s. A marked improvement over the 1972 installment and a notch above the solid 1967 volume.

Analysis/Plot Summaries

“Appearance of Life,” Brian W. Aldiss, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): On the planet Norma, “less than a thousand light years from Earth,” a vast architectural mass, created by the mysterious and extinct Korlevalulaw, straddles the planet’s equator: “the construction neatly divides the planet into a northern land hemisphere and a southern oceanic hemisphere” (7). A micro-section of the building, its original purpose unknown, serves as a vast museum—staffed by twenty human women and a legion of robots—of humanity’s expansion across the stars. Specialized Seekers—who can piece together a “gestalt view of the [museum’s] contents” (9)—travel to the museum to undertake research for universities. Normal visitors access the spectacular collection via remote projections.

The story follows a Seeker investigating whether “human voices [over the millennia] were gradually generating fewer phons or, in other words, becoming quieter” (9). The theme of loss of connection, via speech or decreasing contact between humans, runs throughout the story. The Seeker himself reflects: “I hardly met with another human for one year’s end to the next, except on my visits to the Breeding Centre” (7).  Within the museum the Seeker finds two featureless cubes, which at the sound of the correct voice a “head appeared three-dimensionally inside them” (13). These cubes, created by a brain-scan, are able to respond to set words and voices. In this case, the cubes were exchanged hundreds of years in the past by estranged lovers caught up in a forgotten war. However, the cubes were recorded at different times in the lovers’ lives–the cubes repeat their explanations of separation and declarations of love without “understanding” each other. The Seeker, filled with despair at their inability to communicate as a microcosm of a greater affliction plaguing man, flees to a desolate world promising to communicate with no one.

Aldiss, in such a short story, pairs “vastness” (the expanse of the building itself, mankind’s galactic expansion, the Korlevalulaw and their mysteries) with the “intimate” (the relationship between the husband and wife, trapped in their bobbles, trapped in the past, trapped in an unknown conflict). It is powerful and mysterious. Aldiss at the height of his powers.

“Overdrawn at the Memory Bank,” John Varley, 4.75/5 (Very Good): My first John Varley story is a winner! Fingal, fresh off a vacation at the Kenya disneyland underneath the surface of Mars—where he hunted prey and got his food stolen as a female lion low on the lion hierarchy—accidentally gets his mind placed in a computer after the vacation company loses his body. While a company agent attempts to find the missing body, Fingal after grappling with the terror of his situation, figures out he can recreate whatever environment he chooses. At the prompting of the agent, he continues to go about his daily life as if he were back at work. Fingal experiences time at a different rate than those on the outside…. and his ordeal stretches into years.

As the months pass by, Fingal’s sanity and willingness to go about the life as if he were back at work wears thin: “What was getting to him was the growing disgust with his job. It was bad enough where he merely sat in a real office with two hundred real people shoveling slightly unreal data into a much-less-than-real-to-his senses computer. How much worse now, when he knew that the data he handled had no meaning to anyone but himself, was nothing but occupational therapy created by his mind and a computer program to keep him busy while Joachim searched for his body?” (37).

Varley’s mind-stuck-in-a-computer premise is not the most original scenario—but he tells it with such vigor, off-handed horror, and touches of comedy that I couldn’t help but be pulled in. Highly recommended.

Tangent: This story was turned into a horrific TV movie in 1983.

“Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel,” Michael G. Coney, 4.5/5 (Very Good): An another impressive coming of age tale from Coney, the wizard of writing nostalgia and childhood angst in a stirring way…. Like his novel Hello Summer, Goodbye (variant title: Rax) (1975), Coney creates a reflective vision of childhood that doesn’t slip into the melodramatic saccharine but rather explores the power of nostalgia and memory as an anchor in an ever changing world.

Sagar returns to a vast launch site in Pacific Northwest where “obsolete liquid-fuel ships […] doomed for the breaker’s yard” used to make voyages into space (54). Now anti-grav orbit shuttles operate out of small decentralized spacesports. Sagar, with his friends and enemies, spent his youth in an abandoned shelter on the vast airfield, watching spaceship arrivals and departures. He remembers the dangerous competitions and swings of power among the children who spent their free time in the shelter, the cataloging different ships, the arrival of girls into their ranks….

Coney traces a lovely and raw vision as Sagar wanders the ruins, his memories initially shadows: “I was vaguely dissatisfied with the place. The memories were there, somewhere, but they would no come to life. They were lost in decay and growth and the strange indescribable way a landscape will rot, when not frequently revisited” (66). When Sagar sees the wreckage of a particular spaceship, his memories really come alive.

“The Hertford Manuscript,” Richard Cowper, 3/5 (Average): For my thoughts, see my earlier review of Richard Cowper’s short story collection The Custodians (1976).

“Natural Advantage,” Lester del Rey, 2/5 (Bad): The Star captain Anthor Sef and his crew are ordered to take a fifteen year detour to instigate first contact with an alien species in order to warn them about an exploding sun that will destroy their planet. After contact, which goes far too smoothly, differences in human vs. alien ability perceive objects makes conveying the nature of the impending disaster difficult. While the aliens appear to have advanced technology, humans have the real drive to innovate and adapt in difficult situations…..

This weak story would be a home in a bland volume of a 1950s SF magazine. Wollheim mentions in the intro that Del Rey deliberately “recreat[ed] the gold old-time premise of Man the Unbeatable” (109). Avoid.

“The Bicentennial Man,” Isaac Asimov, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Won the 1977 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Award for best novelette. Asimov’s stirring tale follows the life of an android, who wants to be human, over hundreds of years. What gives the story power is its longue durée, which gives Asimov the lens to highlight evolving views of humankind towards robots. The anti-android prejudices do not fade. The legal fight is ongoing and relies on proactive, often symbolic, victories for real progress to be made.

I did not expect to like Asimov’s classic story. I can confidently state that it’s a classic for a reason.

“The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor,” Barrington J. Bayley, 4.5/5 (Very Good): A compelling and bewildering story filled with metaphysical implications…. Humanity wanders the solar system in small personal spaceships. Oliver Naylor, ensconced with a mysterious passenger in his spaceship, invents the  thespitron: a TV able to absorb persona, and then replay/create endless cinematic variations involving versions of himself in a world of film noir, Humphrey Bogart, and Barbara Stanwyck. The narrative itself spins off, as a film noir would, in paranoid directions as Naylor’s passenger reveals himself as a secret agent attempting to track down a woman-abusing criminal.

Bayley, perhaps commenting on fiction’s constant reworking of tropes, parallels the seemingly random and entropic creations of the thespitron with Naylor’s own story that appears as recombinant fragments pasted together.

“My Boat,” Joanna Russ, 4.5/5 (Very Good): The second of Joanna Russ’ Cthuhlu mythos stories, “My Boat” is a dreamlike tale, reworking elements from H. P. Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, of a cynical Hollywood agent telling the story of his youth–desegregation in an all-white high school theater department. The placement of Lovecraftian dreams into the realm of America’s racial tensions is genius.

I will confess, I read Lovecraft in my days as an undergrad in college around a decade ago and cannot speak on the details of her references. However, “My Boat” is a fascinating and multi-layered story. I cannot do justice to it. If you are intrigued, check out this discussion on Tor.com and this review.

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” James Tiptree, Jr., 5/5 (Masterpiece): Won the 1977 Hugo and Nebula Award for best short novella. A fever vision of a story reworking standard SF tropes in terrifying ways—in this case, three male astronauts emerge from a mission around the sun into a transformed and alien future with only (cloned) women. Will the men be allowed to enter female society? Or, are men even needed? An uncomfortable and hallucinatory condemnation of male impulses (heightened by the influence of drugs) and misogyny….

Highly recommended.

“I See You,” Damon Knight, 3.5/5 (Good): Nominated for the 1977 Hugo Award for best shot story. The invention of an “image intensification device” transforms society. Smith, the inventor whose family died in a past accident, spends his time in a lab creating a device that allows the viewer to peer anywhere into the past. You can view the assassination of JFK (a must have historical reference in a 70s time-travel short story!), the room and moment when you were conceived, the important events in the lives of your children…. Knight, in a series of voyeuristic vignettes, strangely suggests that the image intensification device will be a positive invention: “In a house in Cleveland, a man watches his brother-in-law in the next room, who is watching his wife getting out of a taxi [.] She rings the bell beside the door marked 410. The door opens; a dark-haired man takes her in his arms; they kiss. The brother-in-law meets him in the hall. ‘Don’t do it Charlie” (275). Violent confrontation averted. Divorce initiated.

The devices changes how humankind views the past. Old movies with  their infantile half-nudity no longer intrigues, but rather how the characters look at each other in a world where so much remains hidden, “the coyness, the side-long glances, smiles, grimaces, hinting at things that will never be shown on screen” (276). Careful moments and observations like this elevate Knight’s societal observations.  An odd but intelligent speculation told in a detached manner. I am not as optimistic as Knight is about such a surveillance state even in its democratized form (each individual has access to the same power).

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1977 edition)

For more book revies consult the INDEX.

26 thoughts on “Book Review: The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF, ed. Arthur W. Saha and Donald A. Wollheim (1977)”

        1. But Aldiss’ story is SF as allegory (which you have told me on numerous occasions you dislike)! The two cubes, mental imprints from different stages in the lives of the couples, speak towards each other but unable to really communicate left in a dark corner of a huge unknown superstructure to repeat the same phrases over and over and over again. Which, of course, is a metaphor for larger societal transformations — in a far future where humanity turns inward and the mysteries remain mysteries. All of this I thought you shied away from. Or, your rigorous protestations of like vs. dislike are far more porous than you thought….

          1. Joachim, your memory is so much better than mine. I don’t remember our previous conversations, but I’ve often said I’m not fond of allegorical stories. You must be younger to remember so well. But how could I not want to read the Aldiss story when you rated it 5/5 and called it a near-masterpiece? You’ve reviewed many an anthology and collection and rarely find stories you like this much, so I tend to try them out.

            Anyway, I got out my copy of The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF to read “Appearance of Life.” The story started so well that I craved to hear it. So I bought Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss on Audible.com and listened to it. I’m quite sure I’ve read this story before, or read an extensive description of it. I hate that my memory is failing me. But that’s another story. I looked at its publication history. I was quite fond of the Wollheim anthologies back in the 1960s and 1970s, so I probably read it then.

            “Appearance of Life” isn’t allegorical, at least in the way I judge such things. Actually, it was quite specific. It is a beautiful tale and a masterpiece of science fiction. Thanks for turning me on to it. And now I have the whole collection of Aldiss on audio to listen to.

            Today as been a good short story day. I started with “The Two Shadows” by William F. Temple for my 1951 reading project, then “Tumithak of the Corridors by Charles R. Tanner from 1932 for the Classic short SF group, and then this 1976 story by Aldiss for you.

  1. “I See You” reminds me of David Brin’s proposal (The Transparent Society) for “sousveillance” in addition to surveillance. Those under the masters can look up on equal terms to their down.

        1. Hah. I have a new board game about that very subject and my wife makes me play as Nixon (so she can be the journalists)…. and the entire time I’m thinking what he was doing was far less awful than our current president’s actions.

          1. …there’s a board game of it…holy goddesses below us…

            Speaking of board games, I actually liked one (never a big game player, me) called US Patent 001. Time travel adventure to be the first back to the moment the Patent Office opened in order to patent a working time machine.

  2. Replying to a thread above. I had no memory of making those comments, but as soon as I reread them it all came back to me.

    I think M. John Harrison is one of your favorites, so you’re still irked at me for not wanting to read The Centauri Device. Okay, if I ever see a copy cheap at the used bookstore I’ll get it and try it. But even in your review, you quote Harrison as saying it was the crappiest novel he ever wrote. But I still stand by what I said in 2014, the ideas in the story sound unpleasant.

    By the way, I was talking about satire in this instance, not about allegory. I’m not fond of satire either. You must remember another comment about allegory.

    I was a teenager in the 1960s and grew up liking 1950s science fiction. You must have been a teenager in the 2000s. How did you learn to like 1970s SF? It makes you sound older than you are.

    1. I’m a historian with a PhD (albeit, medieval history). It has little to do with nostalgia or what I read as a kid (I am possessed by other childhood nostalgias of course: gardening, rural life, cats, backpacking)– rather, I have favorite topics in US history (Civil Rights, Cold War, etc.) and thus like the literature from the era. If someone likes Victorian lit they certainly weren’t alive in the era… it’s a fallacy to assume a correlate.

      At that point Harrison wasn’t a favorite — that was the first book of his I had read! And I care little about what an author might say about their fiction — it’s all in retrospect and we all love to think our newer works are “better.” He won’t republish my favorite novel of his anyway because he thinks it’s not that great — The Committed Men (1971): https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2016/10/09/book-review-the-committed-men-m-john-harrison-1971/. Figures like Burgess disavowed their masterpiece: A Clockwork Orange….

      I lay out what I like about and look for in 50s-70s SF in a relatively recent article you might have missed here — https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2018/06/15/fragment-s-why-i-read-and-review-50s-70s-science-fiction/

      1. I did miss that. And it’s a good explanation for what you’re doing here. By any chance have you read The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal? It’s a do-over of the 1950s. Technically, it would be an alternate history, but I get the feeling Kowal is coming at it differently than most working this sub-genre, but then I haven’t read much alternate history SF. I think it’s both commentary on social history, as well as science fiction history. It certainly deserves all the awards it’s winning, but there’s a kind of sadness to it too. I don’t know if you will understand this connection, but it feels like this scene from On the Waterfront.

        1. I definitely know On the Waterfront!

          The Calculating Stars sounds intriguing. I avoid newer SF. I prefer, as the title says, 50s-70s (and early 80s) science fiction…. Doesn’t mean I don’t sneak in a few newer works every now and then.

          1. Since you said in the essay you linked me to, “I have favorite historical periods and themes. For example, cracks in 50s visions of suburban existence, demystifying the space race, the Civil Rights movement” I thought The Calculating Stars might be of particular interest to you.

            1. Absolutely! But, I like 50s-70s visions of those topics…. not necessarily modern ones.

              I have more than a thousand SF books to read on my selves already… hah.

  3. I knew I had read the Aldiss story before. I was just about to write a review of it when I discovered:

    https://auxiliarymemory.com/2009/10/13/appearance-of-life-by-brian-w-aldiss/

    I wrote a review of it back in 2009. This blows my mind – or what’s left of it. Evidently, I had read The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF for my book club. Didn’t remember that either.

    I’m glad you reviewed this book, Joachim because it led me to remember something I had forgotten.

    1. 10 years ago is a long time!

      Note: I too frequently forget books. One reason I have this site…. I can always give my memory a refresh — and the act of writing also facilitates memory.

      1. Yes, I have liked it much better the second time around. I need to explore why. I’m working on a new review. I still understand my original criticism, and I’m impressed with the details I observed. But I think this time I had a different reaction to the story.

        I do know my mind in 2009 had an easier time reading and writing that review than I’m having now. I can see the difference between being 57 and 67. Which also suggests that the age in which we read a story, the particular time in our life, or even current historical events influence our reaction to a story.

        I’ve been researching this story and there’s been little written about it. And it also appears that Aldiss’ legacy is fading.

  4. Read most of these stories when they were first published. Always a sucker for Corbin’s artwork. Hated “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” so badly it took forty years for me to work up enough interest to read any of her stuff, except when I absolutely had to. MZBradley commented in one of the fanzines of the day that she knew it was written by a woman because of it’s venomous attitudes towards men. She also pointed out that it had the feel of the anti-Jewish propaganda issued by the Nazi’s. Maybe a little harsh, as I said, it’s been forty years. Still, my literary life has not been any poorer for not having Tiptree on my reading lists, and I can safely say I won’t miss her stuff in the upcoming years.

    I remember the big splash Varley made when his first stories appeared.

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