Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The 1977 Annual World's Best SF: A Long Review


“The 1977 Annual World's Best SF” is an anthology of short stories from 1975-1976 edited and published by Donald A Wollheim (1914 - 1990) in, quite naturally, 1977.

It begins with a forward by Wollheim himself, discussing the then-current state of science fiction in the year 1976 and applauding how the genre has finally “achieved its rightful place as a branch of the world stream of literature.” His words, not mine. This is a phrase I've read and heard repeatedly over the years in various SF anthologies and articles, so either someone is talking out of their ass, or REAL science fiction hasn't been tried yet. After crowing about how science fiction can finally be taken seriously now, the rest of the introduction discusses the struggling state of a lot of science fiction magazines at the time. Circulation wasn't growing and several startups died only after a couple of issues. Given the selection of stories chosen to represent the “World's Best SF” in this volume, its not a surprise, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Wollheim discusses how the state of the genre was both optimistic (because as an editor and publisher the genre had achieved the form he'd worked so hard to shape ever since he delivered the Futurians' “Mutation or Death!” speech at the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention in 1937) and pessimistic at the same time (because the readership was, somehow, mysteriously, not interested in the thinly veiled Communist propaganda that the Futurians wanted to see take over the genre, but more on that at the very end).

The first story, "Appearance of Life" by British New Wave author Brian W. Aldiss (1925 – 2017) concerns itself with an unnamed academic identified as a “Seeker” who travels to a world with a curious geography. The Northern hemisphere is all land and the Southern is all sea. Belting the entire planet is a massive structure, part wall and part underground tunnel that circumnavigates the equator. It was built by a precursor race about whom nothing is known except for their ruins and their name: Korlevalulaw.

Finding it empty, Galactic Humanity, which has “matured” past much of its past into an allegedly enlightened, intellectual society, has decided to use that free real estate as a museum and started filling the space with artifacts of human space exploration history and whatnot. The Seeker has been sent to the planet archive because while anyone can access the archive remotely for research, a Seeker has the incredibly rare talent of being able to put two-and-two together to find four. He is able to contextualize information in an atomized society losing the capability to do so.

Rooting through preserved spaceships that were destroyed by various disasters, he finds a wedding ring and is baffled by it. Then he finds a holocube that is keyed to only play its message for the woman who recorded it's husband. Soon after he finds her husband's holocube to her, which is also the result of her living on a planet whose population was destroyed by a virus bombardment from a warship that her (ex) husband was stationed on. The two recordings register the spouses' faces and play their messages while Seeker watches.

The marriage broke up. He drove her away, she had an affair, and ultimately he left her to pursue a career in the stars. He returned 15 years later as a mercenary fighting for one navy, negotiations broke down, and then everyone on the planet as well as the fleet died because the disease that virus bombed the planet was super virulent and spread to the fleet. They would have all been dead anyway by the time the story takes place, since the events happened some 60 thousand years prior. It's easily the best part of the story, and the most clever.

The little twist is that the recordings were done 15 years apart. The wife's is from when the husband left her and he took it with him as a memory of her. In it, she is talking about how much she loves him and wants the marriage to last. The other recording is from when he returns, hoping to get a message to her. Its full of regret at his actions driving her away, bitterness at the affair, and so on. The sense is that that this was a slice of two people who loved each other but were separated by miscommunication and later regret, and then they were all snuffed out by war because mankind had not “matured” past it.

Seeker finishes watching and reflects that he joked with a fellow seeker that he wanted to find the “secret of the universe.” Except instead of love, which is what the two hologram recordings were about, he comes to the conclusion that humanity is just like those recordings: a projection. A projection created by the Korlevalulaw, and just like those recordings, humanity itself was fading away. His conclusion causes him to despair to such a level that he abandons his work, abandons the museum, and flies off to some uninhabited planet to live out the rest of his life as a hermit lest he talk to someone and spread this theory, which could somehow spread and destroy human civilization.

The entire last page of the story feels rushed and forced. This “enlightened” product of an already atomized society, where love and marriage are replaced by the “Breeding Centre” himself states that he barely sees another human being on his home planet for most of the year. Solitude is the natural state of this supposedly mature and evolved form of humanity. Him freaking out and turning into a recluse is barely a stretch beyond his default bugman existence. He has to come to this conclusion, because the alternative would lead to the beginning of a longer, and, frankly, much more exciting story. But then he remembers he abandoned the museum in such a hurry that he left the recordings playing. Another seeker could potentially find it and come to the same conclusion and humanity would be doomed. More than it already is.

Or the androids cleaning the place would find the recordings and put them away. This is not mentioned in the story, but since I too can put two-and-two together, this is another possible second order outcome.

The human elements of the story are strong, and the most interesting SF elements are the archive planet with the weird empty structure precursor structure turned into a museum. The other sci-fi elements, like glimpses of far future society, are just that, glimpses. Hints. Not much happens besides a smug future nerd experiencing an existential crisis because he saw recording of two more “primitive” humans trying to come to terms with each other across the void of time with more emotion than he's capable of understanding.

An interesting central nugget wrapped between a mildly interesting setup and a slapdash ending. 5/10

John Varley was born in 1947 and as of this writing, is the only writer in this anthology still alive. He's perhaps most notable for writing the novel “Millennium,” and later the scrip for the 1989 movie of the same name.

Perhaps more famous now, thanks to MST3K, as an American-Canadian public television co-production from 1984 starring the late, great Raul Julia called “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” which appears here.

Earth was made uninhabitable, and humanity lives underground on the Moon. Despite this, boring data entry jobs still exist, and Fingal is one such office schlub. He's about to embark on a vacation in Disneyland Kenya, which is a domed nature preserve under the Moon's surface where Fingal's brain is transferred to a lioness to experience a weekend of being a Great Cat. That part works out fine, but Fingal's body gets misplaced thanks to an annoying kid messing with the tags on his body, and after his time in the lioness, his mind is placed into a computer system to keep him alive while the staff try to find where the hell his body went.

Fingal's only contact with the outside world is Appolonia Joachim, a troubleshooter for a data company that specializes in these kinds of accidents. She tells him to stay calm and to ride it out. Fingal tries, and finds he's able to affect the simulated world like a lucid dream. Cloning replacement bodies is a common thing in this future, and most people keep backups of their memories in insurance vaults, so if the body can't be found in time before the simulation world burns out, Fingal's backup memory could be uploaded to his current or a replacement body. It's very Cyberpunk several years before Cyberpunk existed.

But that's cold comfort to this Fingal. That backup would have none of the experiences since being backed up, including this weird adventure.

Time passes and he tries to occupy himself, eventually deciding to improve himself by taking computer programming courses, eventually passing. He's also grown quite attached to Appolonia, and she's able to pull him back to the real world. Except there's one little wrinkle, which I won't spoil because you should actually read the story, but it ends on an up note, which is rare for critically lauded science fiction of the 70s.

The story is incredibly charming, with a lot of well-executed humor, likable characters, and immediate stakes that put the main character in peril, which is not common with a lot of SF stories from this era, or in this anthology, for that matter. Moreover, the advanced tech and science-fiction concepts about the meaning of consciousness and digitizing minds isn't just window dressing. They're integral parts of the setup, complications, and resolution. If you've seen the movie, a surprising amount of the short story was directly translated to it. The Casablanca plot, however, was not. I think that was added to give the movie an actual runtime. Highly recommended and easily the best story in the anthology, 9/10

Michael G. Coney (1932 – 2005), was another British science fiction author, wrote “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” which is a reflection on nostalgia through the lens of the very British pastime of trainspotting. Only instead of trains, it's rockets. And instead of England, its the Pacific Northwest.

The narrator, Sagar, returns to his boyhood stomping grounds on business as a middle-aged man and learns that the old derelict rockets that he watched land as a youth at the local spaceport will finally be broken down for scrap. With time to kill before his business requirements, he drives down to reflect on his childhood, and the events that led to the dissolution of his closest friendship.

Sagar is an unhappy narrator. He rears animals called slithes for their skins on “an impoverished farm.” He is surrounded by the technological marvel of antigravity engines, but considers them soulless compared to the old liquid-fueled rockets. His disdain for the technological wonders of his day bleeds over to the reader. It's all mundane for him, and so it is for us. What's a slithe? Don't know. Don't care. It's never explained. Might as well be cows for the effect they have on the story.

Sagar was evidently an unimpressive student, and in his own words the type to knock a girl down during a brawl, so he was kind of an asshole from the start. But he loved watching the rockets come in. A bunch of the lads did, including Charlesworth, his best friend. Even then, the narrator noted differences in their enjoyment of the hobby. Charlesworth became obsessed with spotting the ships and then marking them down in his book, organizing all of the ships he's seen. Sagar, meanwhile, just did it for the love of the sport, maaaan. This somehow makes him a better person than Charlesworth. This is also assuming Sagar's assessment of Charlesworth is correct.

Anyway, one summer, Charlesworth discovers girls, specifically a rich bitch named Antonette, and drifts apart from his loser friend. This pisses Sagar off because he's got an unspoken crush on Charlesworth, though later in the story he says he likes girls with big boobs so he's totally not gay, guys. Antonette has a psionic cat that's a luxury pet, but they're only psionic with their own kind, which is kind of useless. Eventually, the last rocket on Charlesworth's list comes in for a landing, and the girl's dad bought a female psionic cat to breed with the one they already have, only it senses the incoming mate, breaks its leash, and runs into the landing pit where it promptly dies in the only element of science-fiction that isn't window dressing. Sagar left the scene without finding out what happened to the arguing couple, and that was it for decades.

The story ends with Sagar on his way back to town and he sees the contractors arrive to begin the scrapping of the ships. He recognizes his old friend Charlesworth as the owner of said contracting company, and thinks about reconnecting, but then chooses not to because they're so different now. The end. Sagar is obviously seething that Charlesworth made a successful life for himself while he himself is a bitter loser, though the story doesn't admit it.

An ending like that serves two purposes. It saves the author from having to write any more, and a vague, inconsequential ending is suitably “literary” for genre authors trying to be taken seriously by people who already hate genre fiction.

Charlesworth is the protagonist because he's the one who actually undergoes a character arc and grows as a person. He's also the one who actually has tough decisions to make. Sagar's just an unlikable narrator and the rockets could be replaced by trains and nothing at all would change. 2/10. Very dull, Ewan MacGregor doesn't climb out of a toilet.

Richard Cowper was the pen name of John Middleton Murry Jr. (1926 – 2002), yet another Englishman in the anthology, and the son of John Middleton Murry, a prominent publisher, essayist, and author moving in the Modernist circles of the early 20th Century.

“The Hertford Manuscript” concerns an unnamed narrator discussing the death of his Great-Aunt, a formidable intellectual woman of the early 20th Century who lost her husband in World War I, became a book antiquarian, and had a brief fling with H. G. Wells. This last little namedrop feeds into what this story's actually about. After a reasonably charming but meandering portrait of the old dame, she croaks and leaves the narrator a very curious book, one that she insisted was used by Wells as a primary source, of sorts. Skeptical, the narrator reads it, and the actual plot begins.

It's a sequel to “The Time Machine.” After the events of Wells' book, the protagonist, here named Robert James Pensley, finds himself stuck in 1665 England, with one of the crystals powering his time machine broken. He sets out for London to find a lens grinder who can carve a replica. Only, he realizes that its the same year as the Great Plague of London. Nevertheless, he is determined to return to the 1800s and finds one such craftsman in the city, but it will take some time.

While waiting, Pensley contracts the plague and dies after the completed replacement crystal is delivered to him.

That's it.

All of the science fiction elements happen offscreen and if you wanted to know what happened to the hero of the Time Machine, he gets the plague after interacting with a dying, infected man in the street, doesn't realize it for a few days, and he dies in some London flophouse.

The sentences are competently written and imitate the Victorian style, but they all serve a meandering, nihilistic, and ultimately pointless plot. The section describing the old spinster was more interesting. Dreadfully boring. 2/10.

Lester Del Rey (1915 – 1993) was a prolific author during the 50s and 60s before turning to editing and publishing. Ever ready anything put out by Del Rey Books? That was founded by him and his wife, fellow editor Judy-Lynn del Rey.

“Natural Advantage” concerns itself with three aliens on a ship who travel to our solar system because radio signals were detected and they were morally obligated to warn the locals of an impending anti-matter cloud that would wipe out all life in the system in ten years. After some hesitancy, the aliens make peaceful contact with the humans, and despite their obvious physical and language differences, they get to know each other, and like each other. After delivering the bad news, the aliens decide to share their technical manuals with the humans in exchange for a trove of history, literature, and other such books because 1) It will take them 10 years to get back to their home system and 2) if the human race is doomed, the aliens want at least some kind of record of their existence to survive.

There's a fun little twist at the end that these aliens who've grown rather fond of humanity and are sad that they died out reach their homeworld around the time the anti-matter cloud should have destroyed Earth, and find humans waiting for them. They managed to reverse-engineer the space travel technology to such a degree that not only could they travel faster than the aliens, but they've also moved the entire Solar System out of harm's way. It's a funny little ending, but not what the core of the story is.

The core is the inherent “humanity” (for lack of a better word) of the alien protagonists. They're good guys. And likable, despite having weird physiology. You feel bad alongside them when they ruminate on mankind's fate, and for a story with no antagonist besides an unthinking cosmic phenomenon, likable characters are crucial to hang the audience's perspective on. Wollheim implies its a throwback to the old fashioned style SF stories of the 50s with its “Mankind Overcomes All Challenges” message.

but honestly, its an entertaining story that well told, which puts it head and shoulders against the majority of the stories in this collection. There's a reason why it's the cover story on my hardcover copy. 7/10

Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) is the biggest name in the anthology, and if you're aware of the genre, you're aware of him. Asimov was involved in too much stuff to list here, although the most important for our purposes is that he was Futurian in the 30s and 40s, and ideological fellow-traveler with Wollheim.

“The Bicentennial Man” is a far too clever title for the story that you actually get. It was turned into a Robin Williams movie in 1999 which was a significant flop.

Andrew Martin is a robot: a robot in the service of a family that has somehow become self-aware. This starts by displaying a curious aptitude at woodworking. Encouraged by the family, Andrew makes a lot of money as an artist, and the Martins set up a bank account for his earnings and let him keep a substantial chunk of it for himself. After a while, he decides he wants to be free, and offers to buy his freedom. While hesitant at first, the patriarch of the house generally goes through the legal proceedings to grant Andrew his freedom.

Now a free robot, Andrew starts wearing clothes like a human , because at this point it's obvious he wants to be a real boy like Pinocchio. Bored with art, he decides to write a history of robotics, written by a robot. It too is successful, and while the Martin family members in his existence age and die, they all like him and go through the court system to grant him special privileges and rights, since he is the only self-aware robot in history; and it will stay that way since he's an embarrassment to the company that built him and has set up safeguards to prevent any further standalone complexes like this from happening. He does, however, eventually use corporate loopholes to get the company to upgrade his body to make it more human-like, including giving him facial expressions.

This repeats. Andrew keeps using lawfare to get himself more rights, he feels a vague bit of sadness when the human family members in his life die of old age, but he's more focused on his transhuman journey to become human.

Over time it gets weird. He upgrades to literal skinsuit made of synthetic materials. He installs a simulacra of a digestive system that allows him to “eat.” He discusses installing genitalia, though thankfully, it's never confirmed whether he goes through with that or not.

Eventually he pushes for the big one: to be legally recognized as a human being. The court drags their feet and Andrew determines that the last stepping block to being declared legally human is the ability to die. So he goes to a robot surgeon and gets a procedure done that is never explained, but gives his body a ticking time clock that will shut down in a year, conveniently timed with his 200th “birthday.” The World Court is impressed by this and grant him his legal humanity in a ceremony on that very special day, dubbing him the Bicentennial Man.

He gets to enjoy this legal equality for at most 12 hours and then he dies. The end.

As a science-fiction story, the technological elements are all hand-waved. It does start off with a recap of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which lays out the themes early on, but the nitty-gritty is glossed over. As is Andrew's desire to be human, and even the reason why he becomes self-aware in the first place. It could be random chance. It could be a woman in a sparkling dress touched his head with a magic wand while a cricket in a top hat sang a song. Don't know.

There is virtually no conflict in the story. The Martins all love and accept Andrew for what he is. The law firm partners he spends over a century using all like him. The government functionaries he interacts with all like him. He has a very smooth journey towards equal rights.

The only part where he's ever in any kind of danger is when he decides to walk to a library to do some research, and this supposedly very intelligent robot gets lost.

While standing stupidly in a field, Andrew is accosted and bullied by two cartoonishly racist caricatures of rednecks who are racist to him because a robot ain't shouldn't be wearin' no human clothes.

Before something interesting has a chance of happening that could actually set Andrew back, one of his human “relatives” rescues him and it's back to the repetition.

As a civil rights allegory, it falls flat on it's face. Andrew isn't fighting for the rights of all of his kind. He's the only one of his kind. As he becomes more and more human in appearance, he bosses the other robots around just as much as the real humans. He bosses the humans around too, as he's become an expert in robotics and would outlive all his human underlings.

Andrew's obsession with fabricating a skin suit is just missing “Goodbye Horses” playing in the background. For all of his striving, for all of his making lawyers do the work for him, Andrew goes through all that effort to become a human legally on paper and then he dies. There's a nice little touch at the end where Andrew is fiercely clinging on to his pride at finally being a human in his final moments, only for his last words to be “Little Miss,” the name he referred to the youngest Martin daughter when he became active. That single, final moment of nostalgia being the first actual human behavior in the life of an otherwise selfish, insane robot.

There are some fun touches. Andrew's continued disapproval of society's increasingly silly fashion trends while he wears the same style suit he wore were worth a chuckle. The sentences are competently constructed. But it's boring. Oh so boring and repetitive. 3/10

Barrington J. Bayley (1937 – 2008) was yet another British New Wave author, and a friend of Michael Moorcock. In 1999 he wrote “Eye of Terror” for the Warhammer 40,000 franchise among a couple other stories. I bring that up because all the kids like the Warhams these days.

“The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” is...trippy. It begins with a film noir pastiche that turns out to be the procedurally generated workings of a device called a thespitron which can generate new content, characters and stories by drawing from all human fiction...somehow. So credit where it's due to Bayley for conceptualizing Chat GPT 40+ years ahead of time.

It's inventor, Oliver Naylor, is like many Englishmen of his era, traveling through space at incredibly high speeds with entire galaxies whizzing by because he wants some alone time to think. Naylor is a character who would rather think and contemplate on the nature of identity than actually do anything. He has, however, picked up a passenger named Watson-Smythe, a polite young man who is obviously a cop but Naylor is too blind or dumb to realize it. Watson-Smythe (hereafter called Space Cop for brevity) wants to find a reclusive artist named Corngold.

Instead of a plot where things happen, the majority of the story is concerned with showing off that it knows a lot about 19th and 20th century philosophers, as well as pages and pages of absurdly advanced technology with names that sound like they belong in third-rate steampunk, like the “Harkham Velocitator.” There's very little room for plot because most of the page count is the spent with the story's head up it's own ass.

Anyway, they reach Corngold's habitat on the edge of a “matterless lake” which a huge patch of the cosmos without anything in it. For reasons. Ships that go in there too far get too disconnected from known space and get lost permanently. So there's likely a little bit of matter stuck in there.

Whatever, Corngold is a fat, disgusting pervert who has stolen a piece of jewelry and a maid who's a solid six whom he physically and sexually abuses. You know he's a rebel because he says “fuck.” Space Cop reveals himself to be a space cop with a warrant for Corngold's arrest. Corngold refuses to comply and instead of shooting him with the very stun gun in his hands, Space Cop decides to chill out until dinner.

Because God forbid anything exciting like a shootout should happen when a character's got a future gun in his hands.

Instead, Corngold uses his own hand to do something obscene to humiliate the poor girl he's kidnapped even further. It's brief, but it's very explicit and jarring enough to knock me out of the story with how vile the moment is. I get that it's a deliberate choice by the author to showcase Corngold's abusive cruelty, but a lot of sensible editors would axe that entire segment as being too much. Very bad taste, and honestly, it doesn't belong, especially in an anthology that appears to be aimed at “all audiences.”

Anyway, Watson-Smythe is teleported to his death because he's stupid, and Naylor flees back to his ship to escape, only to be sent into the matterless lake to die slowly because he's also stupid. The thespitron makes a final appearance for the themes of identity before it shuts down because it's too far from any signals.

There is a very good reason why you've heard of Moorcock and not Bayley. Despite Moorcock's deliberate subversions to create an Anti-Conan with Elric, he still had enough of an adventurous sense to tell exciting stories in interesting settings with likable characters despite himself. “The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” has none of these. Pages are devoted to showing off how well-read the author is and navel gazing about the nature of identity until the plot intrudes, leading to the main character's eventual off-screen death, rendering the philosophical discussion of identity moot. Isn't it all just so pointless?

While “The Hertford Manuscript” suffers from a dearth of science fiction in this science fiction collection, “Cabinet” suffers from a surfeit of it. It's overstuffed with sci-fi concepts and tech names for things that, at best, vaguely explain why the tech level is so very advanced, and yet fails to sufficiently explain why all of the people using it are so, so boring. There's some implication that the thespitron is an obsession for Naylor, since he uses all of his free time watching it, but like everything else in the story, that too goes nowhere. 1/10. Offensively bad.

(Yes, two of the stories appeared in the same magazine)

Joanna Russ (1937 – 2011) was an American author noted for being a Socialist, Feminist, Lesbian. The themes she wrote about should be self-evident.

“My Boat” is called a “Lovecraftian” story because it goes out of its way to namedrop several of his books as well as the Necronomicon, Kadath and some other words found in his stories. The tone and themes, however, are nothing like the cosmic dread and horror found in Lovecraftian fiction.

The story takes the form of one half of a conversation, where a fast talking narrator does all the talking and there are pauses for implied replies that are never recorded. It's annoying, but whatever. The narrator is speaking to a literary or talent agent and recollecting something that happened in 1952 when their school was integrated. The narrator and a pal, a manlet named Al who was big into Lovecraft stories, befriend one of the black girls integrated into their school. The girl's very shy, which is explained as having witnessed her father get gunned down by, presumably, white people because this is thick with social commentary, and she became very withdrawn after the shooting. Yet she is also incredibly smart and the most talented member of the theater kids.

So anyway, this weird, withdrawn, mousey girl that everybody likes because she's the best at acting brings Al and the narrator to a boat that she and her cousin own down by the docks, imaginatively named “My Boat” which is where actual weird things happen in this alleged weird tale.

Once they get on the boat, parts begins shifting between glances. It starts as row boat, then turns into a yacht, then gets fancier and fancier, with Al and the girl both getting more and more elaborate costumes. Remember those Old Spice “Look at your man, now look at me” ads? Yeah, it plays out like that.

The girl, Cissie, turns into some kind of Abyssinian princess type and Al turns into Francis Drake and both age up to adulthood and they talk about all the strange places they go to and sights that they see, like going to Atlantis or the Queen of Saba (not Sheba, that's the wrong pronunciation, she'll have you know).

At risk of having to deliver on all of these potential interesting scenarios, the narrator jumps out to untie the boat from the dock, is interrupted by some hick cop, who is almost certainly racist, even though he does nothing, and the boat vanishes, bewildering them both.

Some 20 years later, the narrator (Jim), runs into Al, who hasn't aged a day since school who's come back to get the Necronomicon from his house, which is the same as it was 20 years ago. Of course, after he gets the book, the house completely vanishes also.

First off, there's no science fiction in this story whatsoever. Pure fantasy, only of the magical realism kind where its ambiguous whether it's really real or not, because that's like, really deep, man. Curious for a science fiction anthology, isn't it? But of course, Russ' activism and politics are why she was chosen for the anthology. Not a Futurian, but most definitely a political fellow traveler of Wollheim's.

Like so many other stories in this, the plot threatens me with a good time, then backs down in cowardice. The writing style is annoying, and the narrator's voice sounded like a female writing instead of the “Jim” it was supposed to be.

The only Lovecraft elements are the various name drops of his works or words of places and things that were in his stories. There's zero horror, existential, cosmic or otherwise. Cissie as this weird timeless traveler of strange places seducing Al into being her traveling companion who never ages, like some kind of Lost Boy from Neverland could be horrific. It should be horrific, like the stories of faeries stealing people away for decades only for them to return suddenly, but the prose never does that. Of course, a proud liberal like Russ wouldn't really say something as absurd as “Black People are eldritch fey creatures” but that's how Cissie comes across in the story.

It's boring. It's preachy. It doesn't have any science fiction in it. It's not Lovecraftian horror. It's not good fantasy. It is a painfully dull relic of the 1970s and of an author with aspirations being taken seriously by the Serious Literature crowd slumming it in the science fiction scene. The lesson of the story is "don't trust theater kids" 2/10.

James Tiptree Jr. was the pen name for Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915 – 1987). She didn't use a man's name because of sexism in the industry, but because she was an academic and an intelligence officer for the US government and wanted to protect her professional reputation. She and her second husband, Huntington D. Sheldon would join the CIA in the 50s. She began publishing science fiction stories in 1967, in a career that would last until 1987 when she shot her husband and then herself what was either a murder/suicide or a suicide pact with her ailing husband. Quite sad.

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” begins with a male scientist deliriously waking up in a spaceship cabin flashing back to a time in junior high school where he was in the girl's room with his dick in his hand.

The review could stop right there and be sufficient enough to tell you whether it's worth reading or not. Unfortunately, there are 53 pages of story.

The three-man crew of the Sunbird, an American spaceship with a three-man crew on a shot around the sun head back to Earth, but something went wrong and it turns out they passed through a solar flare and they got shot three hundred years into the future. Lost, but not realizing it, they eventually get picked up by a spaceship from Earth called the Gloria which is crewed entirely by women and one androgynous “boy” creatively named “Andy.”

The crew of the Sunbird are: pilot Bud Geirr, who is a cartoonish stereotype of a cad who talks about nothing but sex, constantly; Mission Commander Norman “Dave” Davis, who is a serious, mission-oriented man who is quietly but firmly Christian; and Science Officer Orren Lorimer, our viewpoint character. With the flashback to his dick in his hand. Lorimer has a bad case of impostor syndrome where he doesn't feel like he's a legitimate scientists. This spills over into him being insecure, indecisive, and subconsciously jealous of his “manly-man” crewmates. When the Sunbird gets lost, he's completely useless. Oh, and he's also incredibly repressed and has rape fantasies about the women, because of course he does.

The structure of the story bounces from the current time to flashbacks of how three American astronauts were stuck on their spaceship, which is deliberate because the astronauts' food was drugged by their supposed rescuers. The rescuers are all pretty women (and Andy) and Earth gave them an order that they have to be quarantined for a year before they can reach Earth because there's no idea what kind of diseases could transfer to or from the men.

Oh, and aside from the jumpy structure, which makes sense, it's also written in the present-tense. “Bud says” instead of “Bud said.” It's VERY annoying.

“But this review has been written in present tense!”

Yes. It's a review/essay. The structure is different because the writing is different. Environment dictates.

Anyway, after very long and very drawn-out dialogues between Lorimer and various women on the Gloria it's ultimately revealed that there was an epidemic that created a mass-sterility situation among humanity and the Y chromosome (men) died off. The surviving 11,000 women developed cloning and that's how humanity continues now. Society has progressed to a non-hierarchical structure. There's no leader. There are five industries that they work: food production, communications, transport, space, factories, and producing/raising children. Yes, that's six things. The clone strains are separated out into these industries according to their abilities, but its totally not Communism because they can go and do other things if they want. Dave is particularly shocked when he learns that the society has no religion or faith, but the women say they “have faith in themselves.” which is a deeply Gnostic notion. There's no war, no conflict. As Lorimer explains:

"It's a form of loose social credit system run by consensus," he says to Dave. "Somewhat like a permanent:' frontier period. They're building up slowly. Of course they don't need an army or air force. I'm not sure if they even use cash money or recognize private ownership of land. I did notice one favorable reference to early Chinese communalism,"

That's where Tiptree shows too much of her hand, revealing the propaganda angle of the story. Very interesting that a former CIA agent wrote a story about a feminist future built obliquely off of Communist principles. Very interesting indeed.

The story eventually decides to go somewhere: Rape. Bud, who's been horny on main the entire story, forces himself on one of the girls in a scene that can best be described as awkwardly pornographic. Lorimer watches in horror, but as usual, he's useless and does nothing, and ultimately Dave puts a stop to it and separates him from the group.

Dave, who has been 100% correct in his suspicions that the women were lying and hiding things from the astronauts while cozying up to them, now starts trying to reassert the patriarchy and starts quoting Bible verses. He brandishes a pistol and a crucifix and attempts to commandeer the ship. This is presented as a bad thing instead of based, and the first time Lorimer does something of his own initiative, is to stop Dave. The self-described beta male sides with the women and the androgyne. Before passing out from a sedative, Dave calls Lorimer a Judas, continuing his streak of being correct.

The women decide that the men cannot be reintroduced to Earth because they are too dangerous to society and must be killed. Even the traitor Lorimer, who was “most like the women.” Lorimer volunteers to take an “antidote”, which is implied to be a poison, but if they die it happens after everything fades to black.

It's meandering and full of bloviating preachiness surrounding a story that, at its heart is “girls rule, boys drool.” The worst, direct crime is that it's very long and very boring. Nothing happens for long stretches of time. The science fiction elements are vague set dressing for what is, functionally, a play taking place on a single stage. The men are absurd caricatures and the females all sound exactly the same no matter who they are aside from some attempts at accents during initial radio chatter. The sex stuff is awkward and unpleasant. The whole thing reads like the kind of thing a bitter old woman who would go on to shoot her husband and herself a decade later would write. It's the kind of story that has been winning science fiction awards for the last 50 years.

Dave did nothing wrong. 1/10

Damon Knight (1922 – 2002) was a short story writer and critic from Oregon who was yet another member of the Futurians who moved into a position of influence after the 1940s. His most famous story is “To Serve Man” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode, but he's more significant for his actions in the “fandom” scene. He was the founder of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) which hosts the Hugo awards and he co-founded the the Milford Writer's Workshop and Clarion Writers Workshop. As a critic, Knight is probably most famous for savagely tainting the reputation of the highly talented A. E. Van Vogt with a string of viciously negative reviews, probably because Van Vogt expressed criticism of Communism and was at least somewhat favorable to monarchy. A Futurian like Knight would have despised that kind of “reactionary” thought. Later, better, authors than Knight, such as Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison have cited Van Vogt as a major influence on their own work. But enough about my distaste for Knight, how's his story?

“I See You” is a mercifully short story to cap off the anthology. Structurally, it bounces back and forth between normal third-person, past-tense and second-person, present-tense, which is even more annoying than the previous story structure. It concerns itself with an old inventor who develops a machine that allows the viewer to see across space and time (only looking to the past) for some...reason. Then retires from his other business, assembles and sells a slightly more limited version to the masses for...some reason. Naturally, a device that allows people to voyeuristically watch their own past and that of their neighbors leads to initial resistance, but soon everybody has them. Somehow, everyone being able to watch their own parents have sex and conceive them leads to a peaceful, Utopian society where everyone ends up understanding each other instead of using it to discover new and exciting ways to invent grudges with the neighbors. Knight must not have known many Eastern Europeans. The second-person moments are sprinkled in as bits of flavor and/or wonder, but come across as just being clever for the sake of high literature bona fides. The inventor used the device to solve the JFK assassination, but that thread goes nowhere, either in the plot or for the ramifications. Either would have led to a more interesting story.

It's dumb fluff, but it's at least short. 3/10

Two good and one okay story out of ten does not indicate a “year's best” of quality within this anthology. Sturgeon's Law might indicate that, but Wollheim was a veteran editor and publisher by 1977 and no dummy. His work at Avon and Ace and got a lot of reprints of legitimate pulp titans like Lovecraft, Merritt and Brackett made as readily available paperbacks. He published the first paperback version Lord of the Rings in the United States, which, while ultimately not legal, did help that book become a smash hit. As an editor, Wollheim was a tastemaker and curator of what got put out on market, and you might ask why these stories? Some of them won Hugo and Nebula awards. Why this cavalcade of mostly garbage? These were all deliberately chosen.

In 1937, Wollheim gave a speech on behalf of the Futurians at the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention that was written by co-founder John B. Michel. Known as the “Mutation or Death!” speech, it was a stentorian declaration that science fiction had a moral imperative to promote progressive causes, international democracy (such as supporting the Communists in Spain), and other Far Left Wing talking points. Science Fiction was at a terminal crossroads, and needed to mutate or die. There was only one way for it to thrive: their way. Everything else should be destroyed.

It's fiery and bold, but also reads like an over-dramatic villain speech from a bad fanfiction. I suppose it is, in a way. You can read it here.

The other members of the convention voted the proposal down, but the Futurians were undeterred. The group disintegrated due to infighting in 1945, but they kept at it. They worked their way into the publishing industry, securing editorial positions, then buying stories from Futurian writers and slowly but surely, conducted a mini Long March through Science Fiction to shape it into their vision. This 1977 anthology reads like an apotheosis of that speech made 40 years prior in 1937. The stories oppose militaristic ideologies, promote a unified world, and a Utopian peace. The good stories manage to sneak in by checking the boxes. The speculative science has been largely pushed to the background in favor of messaging, so it lacks the educational aspirations of John W. Campbell's “men with screwdrivers” solving problems vision of science fiction, and the antiseptic lack of adventure flies in the face of the pulp stories like “A Princess of Mars” and “Skylark of Space” that actually built the damn genre. There's sex in the anthology, some of it quite graphic (and the Futurians were also big into sexual liberation because of course they would be), but only “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” has an honest-to-God love story. It and Del Rey's “Natural Advantage” are the only two that end on hopeful, optimistic notes, and its not a coincidence that they're the best stories in the anthology.

Of course, 1977 was the same year that a certain retro-inspired space opera throwback blew the doors off of the stultifying ennui which had taken over the field. Star Wars reclaimed Science Fiction from the dorks that championed these kinds of anthologies and shoved them back into the lockers where they belonged. At least temporarily.

Do I recommend “The 1977 Annual World's Best SF?” Hell no. Not for two good stories. Lester Del Rey's “Natural Advantage” is great fun and John Varley's “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” is a charming and funny proto-Cyberpunk story that is highly recommended and worth tracking down.

Just not in this anthology.


JD Cowan said...

Wollheim, for all his faults, was a very good editor. So that this turned out as bad as this is probably not so much a fault of his choosing, but that this really is what Fandom considered the best of the year. Cross-referencing it with Lundwall's opinions at the time make that doubly obvious.

If it wasn't for the space battle movie this entire scene would have caved in on itself decades ago, just like it's doing right now.

Best just stick to NewPub instead. Leave this crowd to the fate they chose for themselves.

Benjamin I. Espen said...

I'm still fascinated by the way in which Wollheim could publish genuinely good and interesting authors, and then turn around and put things like this out with an adjective like "best" on the cover. 1977 was the same year that Ender's Game was published as a short story, and it crushes anything in this volume. I can't quite get inside the man's head and figure out how he reconciled this to himself.