Jim Baen’s 1976 The Best from If, Volume III is the third volume in the Best from If series of science fiction anthologies. It collects the best stories from If magazine, a fact you may have deduced from the title.
If was an American science fiction magazine. Launched in March 1952 by Quinn Publications, it was a successful second-tier SF magazine. It won three Hugo Awards under the editorship of Fred Pohl. He was replaced by Ejler Jakobsson, then by Jim Baen. At the end of 1974 If merged with Galaxy Science Fiction, which was also edited by Baen. Baen left for greener fields in 1977 (Ace, then Tor, and then another company whose name escapes me). Galaxystopped publication in 1980.
I did not pick up this collection because it had Baen’s name on the cover. This volume was my first exposure to Jim Baen. In fact, I forgot or did not notice he had edited it1. I thought my first exposure to his work was the Galaxy for April 1977. I picked it up because it had a Rick Sternbach cover. That cover stuck in my memory for forty-five years, so go Rich Sternbach. The cover and Leiber’s story are the standouts in this anthology.
The Best from If, Volume III is out of print. If is gone, Galaxy is gone, editor Jim Baen is dead, as are at least five of the authors. The company that published the collection seems to have disappeared in 1977. It is hard to be more out of print than The Best of If, Volume III. However, used copies are surprisingly easy to come by.
Now for story teasers.
“Midnight by the Morphy Watch” • (1974) • short story by Fritz Leiber
Avid chess player Stirf Ritter-Rebil happens across what appears to be chess legend Paul Morphy’s pocket watch in a mysterious curio shop (the kind that is encountered by apparent happenstance and once exited will never be found again). The watch appears to have marvelous properties, of the sort that could propel Ritter to chess mastery … at a cost.
This story was a Hugo finalist. There are a number of things that distinguish it from other stories of this sort, but the one that most caught my eye is that Ritter, having acquired a miraculous artifact, sets aside the temptation of chess success long enough to carry out a background investigation into the watch and the shop from which he purchased it. A precaution that most protagonists in such stories eschew.
“Plaything” • (1974) • short story by Larry Niven
A human space probe falls afoul of playful alien children. Soon, no doubt, so will human spacefarers themselves.
This is very, very minor but also very short. The intro seems to suggest it is a Known Space story. If it is set in Known Space, which I doubt, then Brennan carried out his act of genocide in Protectoron the basis of the actions of poorly disciplined children.
“A Little Night Flying” • (1974) • short story by Bob Shaw
Contragravity gave humans the sky. It did not grant freedom from consequences, as much as flying daredevils would like to believe contragravity does. One bitter sky cop sets out to track down the aerial criminal who murdered a fellow policeman.
This is set in the same universe as Shaw’s novel Vertigo, reviewed here.
“Half-Baked Publisher’s Delight” • (1974) • short story by Isaac Asimov and Jeffrey S. Hudson
A contest to determine whether Asimov or Silverberg was the more prolific author dooms humanity.
There is no conceivable world in which this was among If’s best stories.
Mephisto and the Ion Explorer • (1974) • novelette by Colin Kapp
An explorer fearful that he is too old for field work struggles to save co-workers with vigorously applied pseudoscience and 99 percent pure bafflegab.
This is very minor and not short enough.
Following Yonder Star • [®evolution] • (1974) • essay by Richard C. Hoagland
A pre-crankification Hoagland uses fiction to illustrate the potential of the Large Space Telescope, then intended to reach orbit in the early 1980s.
The LST became the Hubble. What with one thing and another the HST did not reach orbit until 1990, at which point it was discovered that the mirror had been ground improperly. Despite this and other technical issues, Hubble has delivered a lot of useful data over the decades.
Reading old Hoagland makes me sad about the career path he chose to follow.
“Gut in Peril” • (1974) • short story by Arsen Darnay
A gourmand overcomes humorous challenges.
Short and yet still far too long.
“Time Deer” • (1974) • short story by Craig Strete
An elderly Native American man nearing the end of his life communes with nature.
This was a Nebula nominee. Strete is a Native American author whose work I previously overlooked2. Imagine my delight on discovering he has made a number of his works free to download.
“The Alien Viewpoint” • (1974) • essay by Richard E. Geis
Geis discusses his hopes for the SF field and his frustrations with its limitations in the mid-1970s. He also disses the movie Zardoz.
“The Descent of Man” • (1974) • short story by J. A. Lawrence
A visionary effort to take humanity to the next step in evolution has unexpected results.
Angel Fix • (1974) • novelette by James Tiptree, Jr. [as by Raccoona Sheldon]
A charming alien befriends perfectly admirable humans. Just as it intended.
It’s a Tiptree so of course it is no coincidence the humans the alien encounters are extraordinarily nice, nor should it be a surprise why the alien would deem it useful to give them the gift that it does.
“Reading Room” (1974) • essay by Lester del Rey
Lester del Rey bids If goodbye.
1: Also totally erased from memory until rereading: the publisher that put out The Best from If, Volume III, Award Books. This name renders the publishing company invisible to research engines (which will happily give you thousands of entries on book awards and award-winning books and nothing about the publishing company). As far as I can tell from its ISFDB entry, The Best from If, Volume III is the only book published by Award that I have ever encountered. Perhaps this is because their output seems to have been, with few exceptions, lurid and unpromising. However, examples of books from equally unpromising publishers can be found on my bookshelves. The likely explanation is that books from this publisher were not effectively distributed in Canada.
2: Unless what’s happening here is that I rediscover Strete from time to time and then forget about him. Which is worse.