James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Just Soothes My Soul

The 9th Annual of the Year’s Best SF  (The Year’s Best S‑F, volume 9)

Edited by Judith Merril 

7 Nov, 2023

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


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

The 9th Annual of the Year’s Best SF is, as one might guess, the ninth volume in Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best S‑F Series. The anthology was also published as 9th Annual Edition: The Year’s Best S‑F, 9th Annual S‑F, and The Best of Science Fiction 9. Merril’s anthology collects outstanding short works of science fiction from the previous year, which in this case stretched from 1959 to 1963.

Included are five essays (three by one woman, Merril, and two by men) and twenty-three stories. Officially twenty-two and a half of the stories were written by men, although I am profoundly skeptical that Walt Richmond contributed anything (beyond his signature cashing the cheque) to Leigh Richmond’s work. There are also one poem and three cartoons (all by men).

Readers got an impressive amount of material for their $0.75. Even the microscopic font size doesn’t keep this from being a hefty text (somewhat unusual in that era).

Have I ever mentioned how much I regret my decision to track reprints and sources? So much work…

Leaving aside essays written for this volume, the sources were as follows: [1]

Amazing – 2

Analog Science Fact -> Science Fiction – 3

Argosy – 1

The Atlantic Monthly – 1

Deux fragments d’une histoire universelle 1992 – 1

The Dude – 1

Galaxy – 4

Gamma 11 (Not a typo: the title is Gamma 1)

If – 2

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – 5

The Paris Review – 1

Playboy – 2

The Reporter – 1

Saturday Evening Post – 2

Saturday Review of Literature 1

Undocumented – 1

As far as I can tell, almost all of the contents, volume-specific essays aside, were later reprinted. I found only three exceptions, all of which may not be properly tracked by the ISFDB due to their origin outside the genre. While none of the stories appear to have been nominated for awards, there were a lot fewer awards back then. Even the coveted Balrog award had yet to be founded. The fact that so many of the stories remained in print testifies to Merril’s keen eye.

The contents fall very nicely into three sets: minor works I’d not encountered before and will soon forget (the Clement being a perfect example), minor works I had read and subsequently forgotten (“237 Talking Statues, Etc.”) and a handful of classics that long ago seared themselves into my brain, works like Bernie the Faust, The Great Nebraska Sea,” and Drunkboat. This volume may not be quite up to the standards of earlier volumes — we do not speak of volumes six and seven — but it’s worth the reader’s time. Or would be, if The 9th Annual of the Year’s Best SF were not long out of print.

Bernie the Faust • (1963) • novelette by William Tenn

An amoral alien tries to bilk a human. The equally amoral human returns the favor.

Hmmm. I could do a conning-the-conman essay for Tor Dot Com.

Fortress Ship” • [Berserker] • (1963) • short story by Fred Saberhagen

Humans resort to a match-box-based cunning ruse to outwit an alien killing machine.

I am pretty sure Saberhagen lifted his cunning ruse directly from Donald Michie’s MENACE.

Mr. Waterman” • (1961) • short story by Peter Redgrove

An ornamental pool takes on a life of its own.

Mrs. Pigafetta Swims Well” • (1959) • short story by Reginald Bretnor

An unfortunate man falls afoul of a determined mermaid.

They just don’t make comic broken-English dialect the way they used to.

Cartoon: Tree Trunks • (1963) • interior artwork by John Gallagher 

Drivers encounter unusually diverse trees.

This car-eating tree is clearly akin to a DnD mimic. If you don’t know what that is, WOTC will happily sell you the relevant texts.

They Don’t Make Life Like They Used to • (1963) • novelette by Alfred Bester

The lone survivors of the great war, a man and a woman, find themselves poorly matched. Having no better options, they endure.

A minor background detail is that the empty buildings are in no sense durable. Strangely enough, the sound of skyscrapers spontaneously collapsing isn’t enough to convince our protagonists to move on.

This is one of the final stories from Bester’s early prolific days; it’s better than what was to come.

The Great Nebraska Sea” • (1963) • short story by Allan Danzig

A dispassionate discussion of a 1973 seismic calamity that killed millions of Americans. Because the author writes from the perspective of 2073, by which time the USA had learned to benefit from the new normal, the narrator accepts the tragedy as beneficial in the long run.

I have no idea where I first encountered this. I know I read it before 1980, but none of the anthologies listed look likely. Danzig was not prolific but this work at least is memorable.

The Faces Outside” • (1963) • short story by Bruce McAllister

Malevolent aliens spare only a few humans, but even those prove too many.

A Slight Case of Limbo” • (1963) • short story by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

An ailing human saves an alien from certain death. The alien returns the favor … in a sense.

237 Talking Statues, Etc.” • (1963) • short story by Fritz Leiber

A famous actor’s son works on his daddy issues.

Knowing that Fritz Leiber was actually Fritz Leiber, Jr. and that his father was an actor suggests the protagonist is not the only one working on daddy issues.

The Jazz Machine • (1962) • poem by Richard Matheson

An African American musician rebukes a would-be archivist.

Take that, Alan Lomax!

Mourning Song” • (1963) • short story by Charles Beaumont

An angry man does his best to survive the local psychopomp, having apparently never encountered the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies.

The downside of reading a Beaumont is remembering how he died. You’re best off not looking that up.

Dog Eat Dog (cartoon) • (1963) • interior artwork by Jules Feiffer

Condescendingly dismissing the oppressed invites violent escalation.

This is an allegory. An unsubtle one.

The Jewbird • (1963) • short story by Bernard Malamud

A request for assistance begins well enough but ends in homicidal violence.

This is also an allegory.

On the Fourth Planet” • (1963) • short story by J. F. Bone

A seemingly insurmountable barrier grants one of the few survivors of a once-great race with the impetus to better itself.

Poppa Needs Shorts” • (1964) • short story by Leigh Richmond and Walt Richmond

A small boy’s excessively broad generalization leads him to save his father’s life.

Re the authors: Walt Richmond telepathically beamed his contributions to his wife Leigh, being so confident in their psychic bond that he reportedly didn’t even proof the stories. Was this a tax dodge, folie à deux, Walt conning Leigh, Leigh conning Walt, a joke by the couple, or something else? That said, I have never encountered a Richmond that rose above forgettable and this is no exception.

Double Standard” • (1963) • short story by Fredric Brown

A character in a TV show is horrified to discover what viewers get up to.

Interview” • (1963) • short story by Frank A. Javor

An entertainer exploits a woman’s misery for the benefit of his audience.

Eight O’Clock in the Morning” • (1963) • short story by Ray Nelson

Humanity is oppressed by aliens whose existence is methodically concealed. This proves insufficient to save the humans.

There is a recent Doctor Who episode very similar to this. I wonder if there’s a connection? Perhaps the nuWho author was just riffing on They Live (which was inspired by the Nelson story).

Where Is Everybody? • (1963) • essay by Ben Bova

Bova tackles the Fermi Paradox.

Bova tackles the Fermi Paradox unsatisfactorily.

The Earth Dwellers • (1963) • novelette by André Maurois

First contact between aliens and humans goes very badly because the aliens are monumentally arrogant scientists too blinkered to understand that humans are sentient, sapient beings.

The Nobel Prize Winners • (1963) • short story by W.J.J. Gordon

Big Science ruins actual science by hoovering up all the funding.

The protagonist wonders if it’s a Red Commie Plot against America. He might take comfort from a Dyson essay in which Dyson talks about the tendency of governments, given the choice of picking 

  • big projects unlikely to succeed but with a huge payout if they do, 
  • or picking less ambitious projects more likely to succeed but that might have only modest success …

the governments tend to opt for option A. Some of the examples used are Soviet.

Hot Planet” • (1963) • short story by Hal Clement

Astronauts struggle to survive the perils of Mercury.

This is a very, very minor Clement. So minor, in fact, it seems to have been omitted from Clement’s collections.

IBM (cartoon) • (1963) • interior artwork by Mort Gerberg

The perky receptionist is less human than she appears.

Confessions of the First Number” • (1963) • short story by Cliff Owsley

Reduced to a number, the protagonist abandons responsibility for their life.

It is probably not a coincidence that American ZIP codes were first introduced in 1963.

The Ming Vase • (1963) • novelette by E. C. Tubb

Why would a clairvoyant abandon his Cold War duty to the American state in order to engage in a crime spree?

A Bargain with Cashel” • (1963) • short story by Gerald Kersh

A grasping author inspires a desperate editor. This is not entirely to the editor’s benefit.

Drunkboat • [The Instrumentality of Mankind] • (1963) • novelette by Cordwainer Smith

An ambitious oligarch orchestrates a technological breakthrough by exploiting the power of true love. It is a remarkable achievement for which his peers will reward him appropriately.

Summation: SF, 1963 • (1964) • essay by Judith Merril

Comments on the SF of 1963, and its context.

Books (The 9th Annual of the Year’s Best SF) • (1964) • essay by Anthony Boucher

A rather grumpy discussion of 1963’s SF, featuring a classic example of things were better when I was younger!” Although to be fair, 1953 was a pretty good year for science fiction.

Honorable Mentions (The 9th Annual of the Year’s Best SF) • (1964) • essay by Judith Merril

What it says on the tin. I’ve read a surprising number of these.

1: Brown’s Double Standard” appeared in both Argosy and Playboy, so the total is off by one. Well, at least one. Perhaps I lost track of where I was? I am not redoing this if I did. You are welcome to supply corrections in comments.