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The Year’s Best S‑F: 5th Annual Edition  (The Year’s Best S‑F, volume 5)

Edited by Judith Merril 

4 Jul, 2023

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


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1960’s The Year's Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition (also published as The 5th Annual of the Year's Best S-F and as The Best of Sci-Fi 5) is the fifth volume in Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best SF anthology series. This volume draws on science fiction published in 1959 and 1960.

Conspicuous by its absence: “the controversial special non-fiction section.” Why the special non-fiction section was controversial is left unexplained. However, a Campbell editorial is included. Presumably this means the editorial was as non-fictional as Fox News is news.

The contributors include two women (one if Merril’s ancillary essays do not count) and twenty men.

Randall Garrett gets in twice. Merril comments on her unhappiness that selecting Leiber’s “Mariana” meant rejecting his almost as good “Silver Eggheads,” this suggests that she was not aware that “Darrell T. Langart” was a Garrett penname.

Almost every story in this anthology was subsequently reprinted. Aside from Merril’s volume-specific essays, the only works for which I could not find reprints were Dighton’s Sierra Sam, Price’s “An Inquiry Concerning the Curvature of the Earth's Surface and Divers Investigations of a Metaphysical Nature,” and most surprisingly (because for some reason I thought he’d had a comprehensive short works project) Davidson’s “No Fire Burns.”

In contrast to the one-sided gender balance, Merril seems to have done her best to draw from a wide range of sources, which were as follows.

Associated Press: 1

Astounding: 2

Fantastic Science Fiction Stories: 1

Galaxy Magazine: 1

The Gent: 1

If: 1

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: 7

A Medicine for Melancholy (collection): 1

Monocle Magazine: 1

Rogue: 1

The Saturday Evening Post: 1

Science Fantasy: 1

Science Fiction Stories: 1

Star Science Fiction: 1

Playboy: 1

Merril heaps praise on John W. Campbell, but her table of contents makes it clear that her tastes were far better aligned with those of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction editor Robert P. Mills. Even more evident: her loathing of Kingsley Amis, described by Merril as the author of “a recent volume of considerable arrogance, ill-considered opinion, and unconsidering slovenliness of research.” Merril spends more time snarling at Amis than she does lavishing unearned praise on Campbell.

While there are some duds in here, this volume rewards reading. This collection may best be remembered for including Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, but there are other works in here that may not be as well known, but are as good or close to being so.

In more detail:

Introduction (The 5th Annual of the Year's Best S-F) • (1960) • essay by Judith Merril

A thumbnail description of human progress leads Merril to her definition of science fiction: “trained wonderment.”

“The Handler” • (1960) • short story by Damon Knight

The star enjoys popularity. The man behind the man is quite obscure.

Note to self: do a Tor piece on SF stories in which reality is stage-managed.

“The Other Wife” • (1960) • short story by Jack Finney

A man trapped in a boring marriage finds relief in alternate histories.

If he is walking from world to world (as opposed to occasionally rewriting history), presumably his alternates are also world-walking. Do his various wives enjoy their respite from him as much as he enjoys his respite from them?

A essay re “five classic sf stories arguing for no-fault divorce” would also be easy to do.

“No Fire Burns” • (1959) • short story by Avram Davidson

To what purpose, precisely, is Mr. Melchior putting Doctor Colles’ psychopath test?

I will admit, the twist surprised me.

“No, No, Not Rogov!” • [The Instrumentality of Mankind] • (1959) • short story by Cordwainer Smith

Soviet psionics research ends very badly indeed.

“The Shoreline at Sunset” • (1959) • short story by Ray Bradbury

Two lay-about lotharios have an encounter with wonder.

“The Dreamsman” • (1959) • short story by Gordon R. Dickson

The world is exactly as it should be and thanks to the hard-working Mr. Wilier, it will remain that way.

“Multum in Parvo” • (1959) • short story by Jack Sharkey

A series of terrible puns and dad jokes.

Flowers for Algernon • (1959) • novelette by Daniel Keyes

Amplified intelligence delivers terrible consequences for a kind-hearted simpleton transformed into an alienated, doomed, genius.

“What Do You Mean … Human?" • [Editorial (Astounding)] • (1959) • essay by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Exploration of the limits of the idea of personhood.

Sierra Sam • (1960) • essay by Ralph Dighton

A foray into the exciting world of high-tech test dummies.

A Death in the House • (1959) • novelette by Clifford D. Simak

A recluse does his best for a badly injured, inarticulate alien.

This was an extremely Simak-esque story.

“Mariana” • (1960) • short story by Fritz Leiber

Unhappy Mariana learns the unbearable truth about the world in which she lives.

“An Inquiry Concerning the Curvature of the Earth's Surface and Divers Investigations of a Metaphysical Nature” • (1958) • short story by Roger Price

A zany exploration of flat-earthism.

“Day at the Beach” • (1959) • short story by Carol Emshwiller

Nuclear war may have reduced the world to a bandit-ridden radiation-soaked nightmare, but a husband, wife, and their odd child can still enjoy a day at the beach.

Hot Argument • [Poor Willie] • (1960) • poem by Randall Garrett

A mercifully brief poem/lame pun.

What the Left Hand Was Doing • (1960) • novelette by Randall Garrett [as by Darrell T. Langart]

A psionic agent must rescue a genius from the Red Chinese without the genius figuring out the means by which he was rescued.

I could swear I reread this recently, but none of the places it was reprinted look familiar. Readers looking for examples of crap written to appeal to Campbell’s hobby horses need look no further.

The Sound Sweep • (1960) • novelette by J. G. Ballard

A speechless man assists a diva to get vengeance on a world whose technological progress consigned her to the ash heap.

I found this Singing in the Rain meets Sunset Boulevard tale overlong, but its themes have aged well. I suppose someone is always being put out of work by progress.

“Plenitude” • (1959) • short story by Will Mohler [as by Will Worthington]

To best explain to his son why the family lives in rustic poverty, a father takes his son on his first and only trip to the big city. The boy will see at first hand the terrors of modern life.

This isn’t a million miles from “and people spend all their time looking at smart phones.”

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” • (1959) • short story by Theodore Sturgeon

Reflections on his life lead a man to come to terms with his current circumstances, which are, to be frank, not ideal.

“Make a Prison” • (1959) • short story by Lawrence Block

The prison is without flaw. The world view of those who built it, on the other hand….

What Now, Little Man? • (1959) • novelette by Mark Clifton

Docile and tasty alien goonies provide human colonists with slaves, food, and much needed social inferiors. What secret explains their placid docility?

This was far too long, but not without points of interest, such as the question of whether tests designed for humans would be able to recognize alien intelligence.

I wondered at first why this was published in F&SF rather than Astounding. I suspect it’s the conclusion that goonies are better than humans, and the thinly veiled commentary on American racism, particularly this passage:

“No matter how low down a man is, he’s got to have something he thinks is still lower before he can be happy. The more inferior he is, the more he needs it. Take it away from him and you’ve started something.”

The main element of the plot involves a mob trying to lynch a goonie for being too visibly intelligent.

“Me” • (1959) • poem by Hilbert Schenck [as by Hilbert Schenck, Jr.]

AI may simulate intelligence but it will never produce a person.

Each one of these volumes has a surprise. Volume Five’s is that Schenk’s career was much longer than I expected. He is another example of an author who debuted in the 1950s only to take a several decades-long hiatus before resuming his career.

The Year's S-F, Summary and Honorable Mentions • (1960) • essay by Judith Merril

A glimpse into the alarming but hopeful state of SF publishing in 1959. Will the mass market paperback eclipse magazines?

Spoiler: yes.