1959’s SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume (also published as SF:’59: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy) is the fourth volume in Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best SF anthology series. It collects the best short fiction, essays and associated poetry from 1958.
There are fifteen stories, six essays, and one poem. Of the fifteen stories, one is by a woman. Of the essays, four are by women or more exactly “woman,” that is, Merril herself. The lone poem? Not written by a woman. It would be nice to think that diversity at the masthead leads to diversity in the table of contents. This is not the case for this anthology, at least where gender is concerned.
On the other hand, Merril certainly cast her net widely. No single publication accounts for an undue fraction of the stories. Sources for her stories are:
Astounding Science Fiction – 2
If – 1
Fantastic Universe – 1
Galaxy – 1
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – 3
Nebula Science Fiction – 1
Playboy – 2
The Saturday Evening Post – 1
Science Fantasy – 1
Star Science Fiction Stories – 1
Venture Science Fiction Magazine – 1
Essays by Merril not original to the anthology were first published in:
Future Science Fiction – 1
The New Yorker – 1
The poem was published in Future Science Fiction.
Merril had a keen eye for works that would continue to appeal to readers. Of the stories included, only two (“Satellite Passage” and “The Beautiful Things”) do not appear to have been reprinted after their inclusion in this volume. Mind you, “Ten-Story Jigsaw” languished until what seems to have been a completist Aldiss project.
This volume’s unexpected discovery: perusing the ISFDB for story sources, I discovered that Fred Pohl’s Star Science Fiction series, which consisted of six volumes of short stories, one volume of novellas, and a best-of retrospective, used Star Fourteen as a variant title for Star of Stars, the best-of. How many pre-ISFDB completists were inspired by Star Fourteen to search for Star Science Fiction volumes Seven through Thirteen?
SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume is out of print.
“Introduction” (SF:’59: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy) • (1959) • essay by Judith Merril
A short whimsical introduction.
“Pelt” • (1958) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
A faithful dog is witness to the problems of her fur-hunter owner as he discovers the degree to which he has misjudged an alien world.
“Triggerman” • (1958) • short story by J. F. Bone
When Washington is suddenly destroyed, one American must determine if the cause is pesky Reds or an extraordinary but natural event.
The crisis management has overtones of Stanislav Petrov, particularly the focus on whether it makes any sense for the other side to annihilate a single target.
“The Prize of Peril” • (1958) • short story by Robert Sheckley
A hapless loser is forced by the inexorable pressures of capitalism to risk his life to entertain the masses.
“Hickory, Dickory, Kerouac” • (1958) • short story by Richard Gehman
A Beatnik retelling of a famous fairy tale, daddio.
“The Yellow Pill” • (1958) • short story by Rog Phillips
One man believes himself to be a psychiatrist treating a violent madman. The other believes himself to be an astronaut captured by a space-mad colleague. One of them is correct but which one?
This went on a bit long for the joke.
“River of Riches” • (1958) • short story by Gerald Kersh
A glib scallywag spins an extraordinary tale of his quest for riches in the tropics. No doubt wealth is to be had … provided only the stranger he is targeting can be swayed to provide seed money.
This could easily have been an Escape episode.
“Satellite Passage” • (1958) • short story by Theodore L. Thomas
As a Soviet and American space stations head towards collision, the inhabitants play cosmic chicken. Survival is on the line! But so is national prestige.
“Casey Agonistes” • (1958) • short story by Richard McKenna
Patients in a terminal ward are comforted by a supernatural companion only they can see.
McKenna first got published at the comparatively advanced age of forty-four. Merril quotes him:
“Hope to live to 100 and write something every day of it …”
McKenna died November 1, 1964, aged fifty-one.
Space-Time for Springers • [Gummitch the Cat] • (1958) • short story by Fritz Leiber
An adorable kitten fights an unseen war against evil, one for which the kitten will pay a terrible price.
The kitten lives.
“Or All the Seas with Oysters” • (1958) • short story by Avram Davidson
Two unlikable men ponder one of life’s curious mysteries. Revelation ensues, with unfortunate consequences.
“Ten-Story Jigsaw” • (1958) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss
An atomic-war salvage-crew member makes a tragic discovery about his own forgotten past.
“Fresh Guy” • (1958) • short story by E. C. Tubb
A new vampire wakes from years of torpor to find the world depopulated by atomic war. Food for creatures like him is hard to find. There is a solution but not one from which he will benefit.
“The Beautiful Things” • (1958) • short story by Arthur Zirul
Man is overthrown by the Bears, facing certain doom. A visionary Bear sees a use for Man, if only he can properly convey to the wretches what he wants from them.
These Bears are surprisingly reminiscent of the Bears in British author Paul McAuley’s 2022 Beyond the Burn Line. Since McAuley was three years old when the story was published, which was only republished in this anthology, which itself does not seem to have had a UK edition, I will attribute the similarities to parallel development.
The Comedian’s Children • (1958) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
What dreadful secret prevents a cure for a debilitating, disfiguring children’s disease?
This appears to be a hate-letter to Jerry Lewis’s Muscular dystrophy fund-raising efforts, written prior to the telethons and well before public sentiment turned against Lewis’ methods.
“The Short-Short Story of Mankind” • (1957) • short story by John Steinbeck
Humans will embrace progress once they try all possible alternatives.
I was briefly surprised that Steinbeck had published a new story in 1957 because I momentarily confused him with Mark Twain . The joke is in how predictable the events are. At least the joke does not overstay its welcome.
From Science Fiction to Science Fact: The Universe • (1959) • essay by Judith Merril
The person on the street must now deal with issues long explored in SF.
Man in Space • (1958) • essay by Daniel Lang
A study of the challenges inherent in keeping humans alive and sane in space.
“Rockets to Where?” • (1959) • essay by Judith Merril
Musings on the evolution of space flight in the public mind.
“The Thunder-Thieves” • (1958) • poem by Isaac Asimov
Reality purloins ideas from SF.
“The Thunder-Thieves (afterword)” • [Asimov’s Essays: Own Work] • essay by Isaac Asimov
Musings on the realization of science fiction ideas.
“The Year’s S‑F, Summation and Honorable Mentions” (SF: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume) • (1959) • essay by Judith Merril
A report on the state of science fiction in the late fifties, as well as a reading list of works almost good enough for inclusion.
1: Although my favourite Steinbeck is The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck’s collected letters are worth a glance, if only for the one in which, if memory serves, he expresses mild surprise that his current wife dislikes being cheated on as much as had his previous wife.