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A Glass or Two

The Best Science Fiction Novellas of The Year 1  (The Best Science Fiction Novellas of The Year, volume 1)

Edited by Terry Carr 

18 Feb, 2024

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Terry Carr’s 1979 The Best Science Fiction Novellas of The Year 1 is the first volume in his The Best Science Fiction Novellas of The Year anthology series.

Frustrated that page count limits precluded including many noteworthy novellas in his Best Science Fiction of the Year anthologies, Carr resolved to provide novellas with their own anthology series.

I’ve been wanting to revisit this book since I reviewed Judy-Lynn del Rey’s 1976 Stellar Short Novels. It does not help my powers of resistance that Carr’s volume is more or less in line of sight at eye level if I sit in my bedroom chair to pull on my socks. What finally inspired me to take the volume off the shelves was the recent demise of two contributors, Michael Bishop and Christopher Priest. (Please do not assassinate authors in a bid to get me to read their works.)

The Best Science Fiction Novellas of the Year series only extended to two years and two volumes. For decades, I assumed that this was because novella-focused anthologies didn’t sell. Later I learned that after the second novella-focused volume came out, del Rey dropped Carr’s Best Science Fiction series (of which Best Novellas was a spin off). Maybe Carr Best SF anthologies in general didn’t sell well1? Too bad, as Carr’s tastes in short fiction generally aligned with mine.

If sales were the issue, it’s hard to see why. Most of the stories in this collection were award nominees, something the anthology takes pains to draw to readers’ attention.

Nebula Award: Best Novella of 1978
The Persistence of Vision, by John Varley
Hugo Award: Best Novella of 1978*
The Persistence of Vision, by John Varley 
The Watched, by Christopher Priest 
Fireship, by Joan D. Vinge 
Seven American Nights, by Gene Wolfe
*The winner of this award was announced in August, 1979, after this book went to press

Varley’s novella subsequently won the Hugo.

Perusing the ISFDB does reveal a possible reason for ending the series, which is that by the time I purchased this anthology, I’d already encountered reprints of four of the novellas (specifically in Catacomb Years by Michael Bishop, Fireship by Joan D. Vinge, An Infinite Summer by Christopher Priest, and The Persistence of Vision by John Varley). Only the Kingsbury and the Wolfe were as yet uncollected.

Carr’s sources were Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact (twice), The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (also twice), Orbit 20, and Universe 8. I am a bit surprised at Asimovs and Galaxys absence, but I see Galaxy published a single novella in 1978 (To Go Not Gently by Syd Logsdon) while Asimov’s had just two (Singularity by Mildred Downey Broxon and Farside Station by Jack Williamson). I have fond memories of the Logsdon (the novel it became is reviewed here) but I don’t remember either the Broxon or the Williamson2.

Although the anthology would hold up better if I had not so recently encountered its content, I enjoyed this walk down memory lane. I’d recommend the anthology were it only still in print. Inexplicably, there does not seem to be a reprint of this nearly half-century old anthology3.

As to the contents themselves…

Reprising the central problem with the anthology back in 1979, I’ve already reviewed a number of the stories. As I am a dedicated SF fan, I reread them. Being dead lazy, I am going to cut and paste my old reviews, with commentary if it seems necessary.

Introduction (The Best Science Fiction Novellas of the Year #1) • essay by Terry Carr

Terry Carr expresses his love of short fiction and lauds novellas in particular.

The Persistence of Vision • (1978) • novella by John Varley

I previously said: 

The 1964 rubella outbreak left thousands of newborn children blind and deaf. Their deficits might have doomed them to lives in institutions, but a handful of visionaries within their community refused to settle for this. As the world around them spirals towards final economic collapse and inevitable nuclear war, the deaf and blind fumble their way to a new way of life. As a visitor to their isolated community discovers, while the new way of life is strange and alien, it is also better than the alternatives. If he can manage to adapt to it in time, that is. 

Nothing says Heinlein-inspired Disco-era SF like a love interest who is in junior high. At least she’s older than the eleven-year-old seductress who appears in Varley’s In the Bowl.

To be honest, I don’t know what Carr saw in this work. The story begins unremarkably and devolves into vague mysticism.

Old Folks at Home • [Urban Nucleus] • (1978) • novella by Michael Bishop

The good people of Atlanta having retreated into a cramped, sealed dome, living space is at a premium. A pregnant Lannie and her husband Sanders believe they have little hope for a larger domicile. Therefore, Lannie’s mother Zoe needs to go. Fortunately for Zoe, she is not destined for the Soylent Green factory but rather a daring project in which the old lady will be matched with an astonishing number of spouses from a diversity of backgrounds.

Generally speaking, SF is not much interested in Methuselahs of thirty or more. Zoe and her spouses fall very firmly into the or more category. This is not a dramatic story — it borders on slice of life — but it is effectively told. Might be time for me to pull Catacomb Years off the shelf…

Shipwright • [Courtship Rite Universe] • (1978) • novelette by Donald Kingsbury

Ambitious shipwright Lager accepts a commission from the planet Akira. His goal is to build a starship five times faster than is possible under the current state of the art. However, there is a reason the current state of the art is what it is. By the time Lager has spent his immediate funds, he realizes that conventional methods will not suffice. This leaves unconventional; methods and great sacrifice — but not Lager’s sacrifice.

Clearly, Carr and ISFDB use divergent definitions of novella.

As you know, Bob, this story inspired this exchange in Analogs letter column:

Dear Ben,
Just finished I Put My Blue Genes On” by Orson Scott Card. Good story. But it reminded me that all your stories have one major fault. They are racist by implication and by supposition. They ignore the possibility that Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Ethiopians etc. might found civilizations in the stars. Card at least mentioned the Chinese (only to explain briefly that they had all been wiped out) to concentrate on the real world beaters of 2810 A.D. — the Americans (granted they came from Hawaii), the Russians, and the Brazilians. Western civilization all. Most of your stories just ignore the existence of Earth’s other races. Even a story about a planet peopled with the descendants of Japanese space explorers (Donald Kingsbury’s excellent Shipwright”) feels it necessary to explain that this is an out-of-the-way, backward planet and that real interstellar civilization is white. Hope that in the future your writers will come to accept the fact that Nigerians as well as WASPs are star bound.
Gordon Heseltine
Canandaigua, NY 14424
Why is there no science fiction written by Eastern authors? (Assuming Russia and Japan are Western nations.) Because Eastern cultures are a‑scientific. They will get to the stars aboard Western ships — no matter who builds them. 

Mr. Heseltine might also have mentioned that Kingsbury’s Japanese people are pure stereotypes. As well, Kingsbury’s attempt to imagine a society in which the gender roles of old time America are turned on their heads is unconvincing. Ah well, at least I liked the cover of that issue of Analog.

The ancillary material left me with the impression that Kingsbury’s related novel, The Finger Pointing Solward, was imminent. Cue anticipation! Alas, not only has the novel not come out, Kingsbury has been working on it since the 1950s. In a sense, I have been waiting for it longer than I have been alive.

Seven American Nights • (1978) • novella by Gene Wolfe

I said:

A naïve Iranian man touring the polluted wasteland formerly known as America makes the dreadful mistake of falling in love with an American genetic degenerate. 

This is the third time I’ve encountered this story in less than two years! Repetition underlines the degree to which the protagonist refuses to apply what he has learned about America to the woman with whom he is smitten.

Fireship • (1978) • novella by Joan D. Vinge

I said more than I care to reprint here. In short, an enhanced American is pressured to undertake a caper he’d have preferred to avoid.

This is an interesting example of proto-cyberpunk that’s not often mentioned in the discussions of cyberpunk I’ve seen.

The Watched • [Dream Archipelago] • (1978) • novella by Christopher Priest

The Qataari treasure their privacy. When outsiders attempt to spy on them, the Qataari decide to wait passively until the foreigners get bored and leave. Ordier’s ingenious surveillance robots, the tiny scintillae, appear to offer a solution. Ordier and his fellow non-Qataari can spy on the Qataari without the recluses being any the wiser. As Ordier discovers, he has underestimated the Qataari and misunderstands his role in the affair.

While the end is perhaps inevitable, the path to it was engaging, which makes me wonder why I don’t own either of the Priest collections that include this story.

1: As far as I can tell, Del Rey published volumes one through nine, Timescape published volumes ten to twelve, Baen published volume thirteen, and Tor published volumes fourteen through sixteen. Jumping from publisher to publisher suggests weak sales to me.

2: I remember the shared world project of which it was a part, because despite being helmed by Harlan Ellison, the final anthology was wildly late. I can imagine a world in which Ellison’s efforts were not timely, but that seems a dangerous vision indeed.

3: I am also at a loss to explain why a page has fallen out of this not all that old book (only forty-five years old!). What kind of glue was Del Rey using?