Book Review: Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Fourth Annual Collection, ed. Lester del Rey (1975) (R. A. Lafferty, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Vonda N. McIntyre, et al.)

3/5 (collated rating: Average)

Lester del Rey’s Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Fourth Annual Collection (1975) is a mystifying read. For an anthology series claiming to contain the best stories of 1974, del Rey completely misidentifies all the hard-hitters of the year. For example, it does not include a single Hugo– or Nebula-nominated story.

My advice: Ignore the title. Instead, if you have an unnatural obsession with anthologies like myself, then contemplate picking up a copy for the Vonda N. McIntyre, F. M. Busby, John Brunner, and Gordon R. Dickson stories. The rest are average to poor.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“If This Is Winnetka, You Must Be Judy” (1974), F. M. Busby, 4/5 (Good): Until I read this story, I assumed F. M. Busby’s SF from the 70s was as blunt and imprecise as Cage a Man (1973) and “Tell Me All About Yourself” (1973). With the emotional strokes reminiscent of Silverberg’s masterpiece Dying Inside (1972), Busby spins an ingenious time-travel tale about a man who lives his live in non-sequential sections.

Larry Garth awakes and must place himself at the correct time in his life. He has lived fragments of varying lengths before. Some near his death. Some near his birth. Has his marriage collapsed yet? The turbulent chaos of the 70s allows himself to place himself in a timeline. In his “early-time years the skips were small, a day or two, and his young consciousness took them for bad dreams” (17). He has no idea how much of his life he has lived. He no longer attempts to piece it all together for the true end of it all would be even closer–and he destroys the records he had made. Unable to make firm connections with those he meets, he fumbles through life. But then one day he meets Elaine. And she too jumps through time…

This premise allows Busby to explore fears experienced by the passing of time–of the choices we make, of the decisions we didn’t take, of the projects never started, and the loves we lost. A deeply moving tale, and one of only a handful of time-travel stories to resonate with me.

“Sleeping Dogs” (1974), Harlan Ellison, 3/5 (Average): In a war between the Terrans and the Kyben, Lynn Ferraro serves as a “Friend of the Enemy” onboard a Terran dreadnought to “prevent atrocities, to attempt any kind of rapprochement with the Kyben” (41). Unfortunately, the Terran warlord Drabix is content torching Kyban cities “like Sodom and Gomorrah” (41). Ferraro despises Drabix. And he punches her in the face after she attempts to do her job and accuses her of being a spy of the enemy (44). Everything gets more complicated by the presence of strange alien cubes that litter the alien planet’s surface. “Where were the original natives of this world?” Ferraro ruminates…

Like Harry Harrison’s “Ad Astra” (1974) in this anthology and many stories in the post-Vietnam era, war is depicted in all its brutality and horror. Lyn Ferraro’s role as a mediator attempting to diffuse the situation is a fascinating one. But like some beleaguered UN attempt to condemn the violence, she can only play the role of spectator to humanity’s sins and cataclysmic mistakes.

“The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” (1974), Vonda N. McIntyre, 4/5 (Good): Previously reviewed here.

“Earth Mother” (1974), Carolyn Gloeckner, 3/5 (Average): Discovering authors I’ve never heard of remains one of the major reasons I buy so many anthologies. Little is known about Gloeckner other than she wrote four short stories between 1972-1975. She does not have a complete Internet Speculative Fiction Database entry.

As with so many SF authors, the futuristic reproductive technology (babies in bottles) in Brave New World (1932) holds relentless allure. The story’s disturbed narrator Alix, the widow of powerful senator, laments the end of the “Eugenics Council” and the large number of “solid, tubby, unattractive creatures” who now can apply for parenthood (69). Alix discovers her husband’s ex-lover Margo, the director of the parenthood organization, has used the senator’s sperm for her own project of revenge! This is a sinister tale set in a dystopic (or post-dystopic) world with two unscrupulous people attempting to get the better of each other.

I’m willing to track down her other three stories.

“Dream Gone Green” (variant title: “Dream Done Green”) (1974), 2.5/5 (Bad): Previously reviewed here.

“The Night Is Cold, the Stars Are Far Away” (1974), Mildred Downey Broxon, 3/5 (Average): I’d previously enjoyed Broxon’s “The Stones Have Name” (1974) and eagerly wanted to explore more of her fiction. “The Night Is Cold” is a conceptual-breakthrough in a technologically-repressed world tale. An aging eccentric named Inar lives in a “gray dead-earth tower” (94). His neighbors believe that he had wasted his life watching the stars. His own children had forsaken him and his work and leave him with memories of his mother and her words to “watch the sky” (95). One day a youth arrives at his door and proclaims that he does not sound like a madman–and perhaps there is truth in Inar’s words (97).

Unlike many stories of this nature where the society actively persecutes heretical views, this society continues to financially support Inar despite widespread disagreement with him. His society’s views are based on what can be observed–not on some irrational position. Inar must rely on his faith in the stories told by his ancestors of the nature of their world and hope that the technology will eventually exist to prove his views. A fun twist to the formula!

“Ad Astra” (1974), Harry Harrison, 3/5 (Average): In a brutal warscape of “flame and deadly gas and electronic destruction” in which the “earth had ben roiled and heaved again and again” soaked in poison rain, a single soldier named Ellem-13 wages a campaign against a brutal occupier of earth. Humans cannot face the brutal weapons of the Nakri. Instead, they use the Nakri weapons against them (109). The remaining forces prepare for the final confrontation.

Like Ellison’s “Sleeping Dogs” (1974), it’s hard not to read “Ad Astra” as a reaction of the United States’ brutal campaign in Vietnam. Here Earth is charred by napalm-esque style warfare, and the last remnants of humanity wage conduct guerilla warfare from underground sanctuaries. To be clear, Harrison does not equate humanity with the Viet Cong but it couldn’t have been far from his mind. There’s a visceral grunginess to the proceedings. Perhaps fans of military SF will find this one more appealing than I did.

And Name My Name” (1974), R. A. Lafferty, 3/5 (Average): Seven representatives of apes–“two from the Indies, two from Greater Africa, two from Smaller Africa (sometimes called Europe, one from Little Asia” (123)–arrive at a strange meeting. There have been other meetings. The “Day of the Hyenas” and another day that led to the “present ruler (so like and yet so unlike ourselves” (126) whose time will now end. They represent the few who “of all the members of their several species remaining on Earth, still retained speech and the abstracting thought” (128). Seven humans also arrive at the meeting, propelled by some deep psychological urge, along with other animals (132). The humans speculate a transcendent moment could occur–“this is perhaps the ‘Childhood’s End’ as foretold by the Clarke in the century past” (132). But ruling entity proclaims to humanity: “go back to your hive cities and decay in their decay. Your speech now becomes gibberish and you begin your swift decline” (139).

All the Lafferty touches are here–its fable-like quality, the surreal future feel, the intriguing details. I enjoy the idea that there are cycles of intelligences and perhaps intelligences operating at other levels that humans cannot perceive. That said, this is minor Lafferty.

“What Friends Are For” (1974), John Brunner, 4/5 (Good): Previously reviewed here.

“Mute Inglorious Tam” (1974), C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, 2/5 (Bad): Considering Kornbluth died in 1958, I’d wonder where this story actually came from–was it something they worked on together and then abandoned which Pohl resurrected? Regardless, this is the least-satisfying collaborations between the illustrious pair I’ve read.

Tam of Wealdway is a 13th century medieval peasant of “pure Saxon blood” who lives a sad life of drudgery. The Normans exert their power arbitrarily and Tam takes pride in his heritage. There are endless medieval clichés (the myth of Droit du seigneur, etc.) and lengthy descriptions of the town (the church, the castle, the street). Tam dreams primordial visions and beer keeps him from beating his family… A mood piece without much point.

“The Man Who Came Back” (1961), Robert Silverberg, 2.5/5 (Bad): Of all the older Silverberg short stories to resurrect for an anthology, why dredge up this clunker? John Burkhardt is the only man to “buy up his indenture and return from a colony-world” (174). For the first time ever, a colony-seeding ship returns from the “outer reaches of the galaxy” with “an Earth-bound passenger” (174). John becomes a celebrity! The system is designed to encourage human colonists to leave Earth–work for a while on a hardscrabble planet and gain one’s freedom. But the raise the funds to return his downright prohibitive. Why did he do it? The answer is simple: A woman. And not just any woman, a woman married and divorced innumerable times. A woman described by all her ex-husbands as manipulative and a “witch” (181). He’s offered job after job on Earth as he’s famous. But he refuses–he just wants Lily Leigh. “Nobody stays in love that long” (185) they caution. But… John might have an advantage over her other husbands. He might be able to control her.

The manipulative wife and the one man who can force her to be the submissive partner society expects of her… No thanks. There are far better Silverberg short stories out there to track down.

“Dress Rehearsal” (1974), Harvey Jacobs, 2/5 (Bad): I’d previously enjoyed Jacob’s subversive tale of the American “cult of the astronaut” “Gravity” (1969) and was pleased to see one of his stories in this collection. Disappointment quickly set in. An old actor from a legendary Yiddish theater teaches aliens, bent on conquering earth because “it’s there” (183), to blend in with humans. Of course, the ways of Yiddish theater might not mesh with the American mainstream… Maybe I missed the point of this one?

“Enter a Pilgrim” (1974), Gordon R. Dickson, 3.25/5 (Above Average): The Aalaag have conquered earth and conceive of the human population as little more than servile cattle. Like the insects they’ve exterminated in the cities, they demonstrate their arbitrary power by tossing humans on spikes whenever they please. Shane dreams of “a human outlaw whom no Aalaag could catch or conquer” (197). He dreams of a “human who went around the world anonymously” while “exacting vengeance” (197). Shane is a pilgrim, i.e. the “household cattle” who serve the Aalaag, able to wander between their world and the cities of humans (205). Shane imagines himself as the hero his people need. An instance of self-defense against human thieves who must scrounge to survive brings his illusion crashing down… humanity has been driven into the dust by the occupiers. He must play his new role carefully with small acts of resistance first.

“The Postponed Cure” (1974), Stan Nodvik, 1/5 (Bad): Was Nodvik a personal friend of del Rey? Did he own him a large sum of money? Those are the only explanations I can invent for why “The Postponed Cure” would be included in a Best of the Year anthology. Nodvik’s only short story (for good reason) is a three-page joke about a man with six months to live. He takes an experimental “postponed cure” that will preserve him until a real cure is found (216). His wife promises to wait. I’m not sure the point of this story. And the strange “reveal” suggests nothing in particular beyond a bad historical metaphor (that misinterprets the past) about the dangers of waiting for the future…

“The Birch Clump Cylinder” (1974), Clifford D. Simak, 2/5 (Bad): This one feels like it was grabbed from the a list of the blandest time-travel foibles of the 1950s. Charles, “booted out of Time Research,” returns to Cramden Hall and notices a strange sequence of off events that suggest a time-related mystery (219). Old Prather tells him that a “time machine has fallen into a clump of birth just above the little pond back of the machine shops” (22). Cue lengthy lectures about “divorcing time from space” (222)… Did not finish this one.

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29 thoughts on “Book Review: Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Fourth Annual Collection, ed. Lester del Rey (1975) (R. A. Lafferty, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Vonda N. McIntyre, et al.)

  1. There’s a reason Gardner Dozois soon took over the Del Rey Best of the Year!

    Yes, I found his choices downright strange. I’d only say that while I wouldn’t have put “Mute Inglorious Tam” in my Best of the Year volume, I think it’s better than you do … the basic idea is “What if a potentially great SF writer (or writer period) was born in a milieu where he couldn’t possibly become a writer (or, specifcally, write SF). I thought it made that point nicely enough. (The title, of course, is from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”.)

    I think the great bulk of the Pohl/Kornbluth posthumous collaborations were written 95% by Pohl, based not on rough-drafted or half-written Kornbluth pieces, but rather on ideas Kornbluth had written down. There are probably some exceptions. (And this is my interpretation, not necessarily based on hard evidence.)

    • I had a visceral disgust with “Mute Inglorious Tam” in part due to my professional background as a medievalist and the story’s weird fetishization of pure “Saxon” blood nonsense. If I decided to publish an article about medievalism in SF I’d return to it. I am a bit perturbed by the idea that the “potentially great SF writer” who couldn’t become a writer would then beat his family if he doesn’t have some outlet…. It’s an example of a story that I couldn’t be bothered to investigate or break down. Not for me.

      Yeah, your comments about Pohl/Kornbluth are in line with what I imagined. Vague ideas that Pohl resurrected when he needed to publish something or fill a magazine. I have the Critical Mass collection that contains a bunch of his other posthumous collaborations.

      • Rich H.: ‘I think the great bulk of the Pohl/Kornbluth posthumous collaborations were written 95% by Pohl, based not on rough-drafted or half-written Kornbluth pieces, but rather on ideas Kornbluth had written down …Vague ideas that Pohl resurrected when he needed to publish something or fill a magazine. ‘

        No, actually. They were mainstream literary stories, or fragments thereof, written by Kornbluth in the 1950s that Pohl repurposed in the 1960s and 70s by levering in SF elements. With the permission of Kornbluth’s widow, apparently, after these stories and fragments hadn’t sold to any mainstream lit publications.

        Results vary. ‘The Meeting’ works pretty well. ‘Mute, Inglorious Tam,’ Pohl’s effort to forcibly turn what was presumably a sketch for a medieval historic scene into some kind of SF story, not so much.

        • Thanks, Mark! I had not heard that before. It does make sense — especially about “The Meeting”, which reads very much like a mainstream story until the schock twist … (I always did think that last twist might have been Pohl’s idea.)

    • Dozois editing del Rey Best Ofs for Ace caused a certain level of confusion over on the Young People Slack.

      I think teen me collected the del Rey del Rey Best Ofs for Ace, and the Carr annual Best of for Del Rey but not, for some reason, the DAW Best of for DAW.

    • It’s no surprise that del Rey didn’t include the “hard-hitters” of 1974. He was a loudly avowed reactionary who proclaimed his dislike of the direction of SF from the mid-’60s on. Though, looking at the TOCs of his other volumes, this one was probably the most lackluster.

      • Despite that dislike, he included a wonderful generation ship story by the feminist voice of Vonda N. McIntyre — albeit, that particular story is much more the “sense of wonder” that del Rey was looking to include in his anthology. And John Brunner’s satire is also solid — and goes at society from his normal leftist viewpoint… but yeah, no exemplar stories of the New Wave appear in this anthology.

  2. I wonder if del Rey’s odd choices were due to the fact that he was competing with Wollheim, Carr, and Harrison/Aldiss annual anthologies? Maybe he tried to give readers something different from what they were.

    Our reading group read the Wollheim, Carr, Pohl, and Harrison/Aldiss anthologies for 1971 and each made some rather unique choices.

    • As John Boston and others have pointed out, del Rey emphasizes a return to older SF forms. He’s pretty anti-New Wave in his stance without directly stating it in the intro. As a result, that definitely colors what he includes. Ellison but a standard alien artifacts do bad things story vs. New Wave nightmare, McIntyre but not her directly feminist stories but an alien generation ship tale (which is great), Silverberg but not one of his early 70s stories but some bland trifle from the previous decade, etc.

      • BEST SCIENCE FICTION FOR 1972, from Ace, included stories first published in 1971. Pohl’s most radical choice was probably including a story translated from the Japanese.

        The following year, Pohl having left Ace for Bantam (after ushering out the Ace Doubles!) the anthology was edited by of all horrifying choices Forrest J. Ackerman.

        • The Ackerman book has good to great stories by Norman Spinrad and Fred Pohl, OK stories by Silverberg, and some forgettable stuff, including (of course) a late Van Vogt, and a Milton Rothman story (huh?) …

          Ace abandoned their best of the year series after that.

          • I wonder how many of these editors back then tried to survey the year’s output, and how many just bought the stories they happened to read and like? Sometimes I wondered if the editors weren’t buying stories from their friends to give them a few dollars. When the group read the books covering 1971 quite often we were puzzled by the selections.

            • Ackerman was an agent. (By some accounts, not a very ethical one.) (In case anyone is wondering, I think Ackerman was a malign figure in the field’s history, and I think that even while ignoring the accusations of inappropriate behavior …)

              Anyway, one of Ackerman’s clients was A. E. van Vogt. And I wouldn’t be surprised (but I don’t know!) if Milton Rothman was another client. So, maybe …

            • And in this anthology Stan Nodvik — who wrote the dismal “The Postponed Cure” (1974) which should be in a worst of the year volume — must have been del Rey’s friend!

            • And I have never heard of Stan Nodvik! Indeed, that’s the only story I can find by a man of that name. It appeared first in Vertex, a decidely uneven — in fact, often downright terrible — magazine.

              A very curious choice indeed!

            • I am sucker for some of the Vertex covers, interior art, and graphic design choices — but I haven’t delved much into the stories contained within them. But this one was not a good sign! hah.

          • I had to go look at ISFDB for the Forrest J. Ackerman anthology because I hadn’t heard of it before. I noticed it reprinted a speech by Fred Pohl called “The Shape of Science Fiction to Come.” With such a title I had to go read it. Luckily, it was reprinted in The Alien Critic (Nov. 1973). It’s quite interesting and somewhat relates to our discussion here. After the speech, there is a discussion that includes Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, James Blish, John Brunner, and Peter Nicholls’s opinions. Pohl comes off strongly against the New Wave. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see the next 50 years of SF. You can read the speech and discussion here:

    • I think that’s a fair point but as John and Joachim have pointed out, the direction in which Del Rey chose to be “unique” was different. The choice of a Silverberg that was a REPRINT, from before Silverberg got good even, is particularly odd. Wollheim was similarly old-fashioned in his choices but his taste seemed better (or Saha’s taste, if it was Saha). Harrison/Aldiss would choose some real left-field stuff, sometimes pretty marginal, but at least those stories were very different.

  3. Damn ! Some 1-star, 2-star, 2.5-star, and even some 3-star reviews for entries in an anthology that showcases the seeming best of 1970s New Wave and Speculative Fiction content ?!

    Say it isn’t so, Joachim !

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