James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Burn So Bright

SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume  (The Year’s Best S‑F, volume 2)

Edited by Judith Merril 

4 Apr, 2023

Judith Merril’s The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy

1 comment

Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

1957’s SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume (also published as SF:’57: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy) is the second volume in Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best S‑F series of science fiction anthologies.

As one might guess from the title, the book contains Merril’s selection of the best science fiction and fantasy. I note that while one version of the book’s cover was emblazoned with great big 1957, the stories within are from 1956. Which might be confusing.

As I read through this series, I am increasingly convinced that del Rey and Dozois copied Merril’s model for their own Best SF annual series. The model includes features like commentary about the authors, a summation of the previous year in publishing’s events, and a recommended list. It’s a functional model and I wish it were more widely copied,

Speaking of commentary from Merril, hers is delivered in an informal, chatty style. At one point Merril tosses off the phrase The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism,” later reused as a book title. This theory is:

(Any) story I can’t enjoy as much the second — or fourth — time as the first does not deserve to be printed more than once. 

That seems reasonable enough. It suggests an interesting test: of the eighteen stories in the anthology, how many were subsequently reprinted? It is easily to list the handful that only saw original print and then inclusion in this anthology: The Doorstop,” All About The Thing,” and Take a Deep Breath.” The other fifteen stories garnered at least one reprint following their appearance here. Merril clearly had great editor-fu.

The stories are an assortment of familiar faces (The Cosmic Charge Account, Stranger Station, Each an Explorer”) and works new to me. I was delighted to see Digging the Weans.” I’d heard good things about this story without ever actual encountering the original short story or Nathan’s later expanded version. While there are a couple of selections that make me scratch my head wondering what merit Merril saw in them (“When Grandfather Flew to the Moon”), for the most part these are enjoyable tales. As expected, Merril casts her net outside conventional SF borders, thus the appearance of stories from Harper’s and Esquire. There’s a Garson Kanin story; Kanin is far better known for his film and theatre career.

The bad news is that the anthology is out of print. The good news is that affordable copies can still be had. It is a testament to the durability of paper, the utility of massive print runs, and survivorship bias.

And now for the stories themselves.

The Man Who Liked Lions” • (1956) • short story by John Bernard Daley

A criminal from the distant past seeks refuge amongst puny humans. 

It’s not clear what our murderer is, aside from telepathic” and not human.” Oh, and off-handedly murderous for the LULZ.”

The Cosmic Charge Account • (1956) • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth

An overrated pundit and a greedy publisher’s representative stand between America — and perhaps the world! — and the stultifying constraints imposed by a single well-meaning, deluded woman.

Humans in general don’t come off well in Kornbluth’s stories and this is no exception. Merril’s introduction has this astonishing passage: Now, at the age of 34, after nearly twenty years of writing (…).” Kornbluth unfortunately didn’t get much more than that twenty years as he died in 1958.

The Far Look • (1956) • novelette by Theodore L. Thomas

What about life on the Moon transforms the men who return from that satellite?

This is a variation of the Overview Effect known as repeated brushes with death in an incredibly hostile alien environment.”

When Grandfather Flew to the Moon” • (1955) • short story by E. L. Malpass

Participating in the first Moon mission on a lark, a man is disgruntled to discover that in his absence his wife took up with the neighborhood time traveler.

The joke seems to be that that everyone involved is Welsh.

The Doorstop” • (1956) • short story by Reginald Bretnor

First contact via discarded or lost trash.

Silent Brother” • (1956) • short story by Algis Budrys

What secret did humanity’s first star farers learn? They’re happy to share.

Stranger Station • (1956) • novelette by Damon Knight

Dependent on alien elixir, humans reluctantly submit to a peculiar trade arrangement. Humans get extended lifespans. What the aliens get is much less clear.

The human protagonist thinks he knows: it is a bid for conquest by applied niceness. There’s no reason to think the increasingly deranged fellow is correct.

Odd that Merril would pick two stories with similar themes and odder yet that she’d put them back to back as she did with Silent Brother” and Stranger Station.

Each an Explorer” • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov

Bold human star explorers encounter a superior life form. Too bad for them.

This recalls a thought I have had about Star Trek. There are two broad categories of civilization in ST: cultures content to stick to their own worlds, who can survive for millions of years, and cultures who explore until they find something that eats them.

All About The Thing’” • [Parodies Tossed] • (1956) • poem by Randall Garrett

A short poem about a famous space monster, the Thing.

Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” • (1956) • short story by Ray Russell

A B‑movie parody in which the monster is a misunderstood glob of intelligent petroleum jelly.

I guess Merril liked to group thematically-related stories?

Digging the Weans” • (1956) • short story by Robert Nathan

Archaeologists struggle to make sense of ancient American ruins.

Take a Deep Breath” • (1956) • short story by Roger Thorne

For what untoward purpose has a would-be demagogue honed a flawless, irresistible advertising technique?

Madison Avenue: threat or menace? stories were pretty common back in the 1950s. This would be one.

Grandma’s Lie Soap” • (1956) • short story by Robert Abernathy

A simple chemical transforms the world in happy ways … save for the possibility that the transformation may have doomed us all.

Did John Brunner read this before writing The Stone That Never Came Down? Although that novel played the conceit straight, whereas this has the classic what if the good thing was in fact a bad thing” twist.

Compounded Interest” • (1956) • short story by Mack Reynolds

What dark purpose drove a man to manipulate six centuries of history?

The joke goes on a bit long.

Prima Belladonna” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1956) • short story by J. G. Ballard

Ambition unbridled by common sense results in disaster.

The Other Man • (1956) • novella by Theodore Sturgeon

A therapist gives in to an ex-lover’s plea to treat the ex-lover’s abusive husband. The client proves more complex than expected.

People interested in mental health-related professional ethics may find this interesting as an example of their total absence.

The Damnedest Thing” • (1956) • short story by Garson Kanin

Undertakers face many challenges but losing an argument to one of their subjects generally isn’t one of them.

Anything Box” • (1956) • short story by Zenna Henderson

A well-meaning teacher’s attempt to rescue a student from fantasy proves based in a profound misapprehension of the nature of reality.

The Year’s S‑F, Summation and Honorable Mentions (SF:’57: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy) • (1957) • essay by Judith Merril

A fascinating tour of a year in SF that (unlike years covered by del Rey and Dozois) I didn’t live through. An honorable mentions list is appended, featuring many titles unfamiliar to me. More material to track down!