James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Somewhere in the Past

The 7th Annual of the Year’s Best S‑F  (The Year’s Best S‑F, volume 7)

Edited by Judith Merril 

5 Sep, 2023

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


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

1962’s The 7th Annual of the Year’s Best S‑F is the seventh volume in Judith Merril’s Best of Sci-Fi anthology series. The anthology was also published under the counter-intuitive title The Best of Sci-Fi — Two.

Annuals generally limit themselves to the previous twelve months, which can be spread over two calendar years. Merril collected stories from as early as 1949, thirteen years before 1962. What other surprises wait within the covers of this surprisingly hefty tome?

The contents break down as follows:

2 pieces of credited interior artwork (by 2 men)

4 essays (2 by 1 woman, 2 by 2 men) 

5 poems (2 by 2 women, 3 by 3 men)

25 works of prose fiction (5 by 5 women and, thanks to a collaboration, 20 by 21 men)

That’s 36 items, 9 by women and 27 by men. Which by the standards of the early 1960s is probably pretty egalitarian, a claim that will no doubt send me on an ill-fated voyage into the land of Analog, Galaxy, and rival Best SF anthologies.

As for Merril’s sources, we’ve reached the intense regret portion of our program, in which something that was easy enough when the anthologies were slender has grown onerous as volume size has grown. I’ve only myself to blame! However, the detailed breakdown is fascinating because it makes it very clear that Merril did not limit herself to a few well-known genre magazines for material.

Analog Science Fact -> Fiction: 3

Amazing Stories: 1

Among the Dangs: 1

Atlantic Monthly: 2

Audit: 1

Dude: 1

Fantastic Stories of Imagination: 1

Galaxy Magazine: 3

Gent: 1

If: 1

Mademoiselle: 2

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: 4

New Worlds Science Fiction: 1

The New Yorker: 1

Rogue: 2

The Saturday Evening Post: 2

Science Fantasy: 1

Source unknown (possibly original to this volume): 4

University of Chicago Law Review: 1

Winter’s Tales 2: 1

Years Best 7: 3

The number of sources is slightly larger than the number of stories because Wyndham’s The Asteroids, 2194” appeared more or less simultaneously in New Worlds and Amazing Stories, and it didn’t seem fair not to mention both.

At least twenty of the works in this volume have been reprinted. This may undercount reprints, as I am not sure how closely ISFDB tracks poetry and mainstream reprints. I also note that both The Tunnel Ahead” and The Beat Cluster” garnered honorable mentions for the Hugo, which I think is analogous to today’s finalist category. A Planet Named Shayol won a 1995 Seiun.

Volume seven is a disappointment, if not nearly as great a disappointment as volume six. Were the early 1960s just not a very good time for speculative fiction of any source? Or is it just that Merril’s tastes at this time were incompatible with mine at this time? Many of the stories in this volume are eminently forgettable and some, like the Rome and Wyndham, are outright duds.

Never the less, here and there, there are bright moments like The Quaker Cannon and Judas Bomb.” They are enough to keep me hoping that Volume Eight will be better. I just hope that the Merril volumes don’t go downhill as did Orbit in its latter years.

As for the contents, here they are. Many but not all of the pieces are accompanied by commentary from Merril.

Oneiromachia • (1961) • poem by Conrad Aiken

Pretty sure this is about love.

A Passage from the Stars” • (1961) • short story by Kaatje Hurlbut

A retiree, having found a community at long last, is faced with a dilemma: provide newcomers with refuge or give into his suspicion about their true motives?

Hurlbut is cited as having eighteen years writing experience prior to this, her first SF story. Anyone know the details of her career?

Among the Dangs” (excerpt) • short fiction by George P. Elliott

An African-American is recruited by anthropologists to live amongst and study the Andean Dang. He enjoys considerable professional success but is he prepared to play his role to its logical end?

While it is clear to the protagonists that he looks nothing like the Dang, this is a point difficult to convey to his white bosses. Elliott appears to be best known for a story in which the protagonist is too focused on his romantic life to notice the on-going genocide of African Americans.

Immediately Yours” • (1961) • short story by Robert Beverly Hale

An unworldly but greedy artist’s world is upended by a naïve, shape-shifting alien.

Parky” • (1961) • short story by David Rome

A carny boss is outbid for the services of a mediocre medium.

The Fastest Gun Dead” • [Dr. Hiram Pertwee] • (1961) • short story by Julian F. Grow

An alien weapon turns a cranky coot into the fastest gun in town … for a while.

How many conventional westerns livened up with some SFnal prop have I read? More than a few.

All the Tea in China” • (1961) • short story by Reginald Bretnor

A wise old lady reforms a slick young conman with the grim tale of the fate of the conman’s grandfather.

The antique vernacular almost distracted me from the flat ending.

The Portobello Road • (1956) • novelette by Muriel Spark

A dead woman cheerily tells the tale of how an old chum bent on bigamy murdered the dead woman to prevent her from revealing that her old chum is already married … to an African woman.

This did not age entirely well. Or perhaps it is that the characters are very much of their early 20th century time.

Ottmar Balleau X 2” • (1961) • short story by George Bamber

A television comedian is subjected to a fan’s increasingly deranged and menacing letters.

The Dandelion Girl” • (1961) • short story by Robert F. Young

A businessman’s holiday is enlivened by a charming girl who spins delightfully wild tales about being an illegal time traveler.

Nightmare in Time” • (1962) • short story by Fredric Brown 

A scientist fails to consider the full implications of time travel.

Looking Backwards • (196?) • interior artwork by Jules Feifer

Thanks to a confusion about chronology, praise for 20th century architecture is a rebuke. Seen in the correct order, the archaeological evidence shows rapid decline.

Three Prologues and an Epilogue • (1961) • poem by John Dos Passos

Musings on man’s place in the universe.

It Becomes Necessary” • (1961) • short story by Ward Moore

An American exile resists a clumsy attempt to tempt her into the employ of a murderous American dictatorship.

My Trial as a War Criminal” • (1949) • short story by Leo Szilard

The US having been defeated by the Soviet Union, certain persons are required to answer in court for the events leading up to Hiroshima.

Oddly, the results are not nearly the show trials one might expect from the Russians, although the Russians do not come off as entirely innocent. Or as it turns out, entirely competent.

A Prize for Edie” • (1961) • short story by J. F. Bone

The Nobel Award committee learns the value of due diligence … too late to avoid an embarrassing winner.

Freedom • (1961) • novelette by Mack Reynolds

The Soviet Union has delivered unprecedented prosperity to its people. Why then does it still face endless dissent?

On the one hand, Reynolds offered a unique economic perspective. On the other, his stories tend toward the dull and tedious. This should have had half its length cut.

High Barbary” • (1961) • short story by Lawrence Durrell

Musings on the complex world of international barbering.

Oh, national stereotypes: is there no field to which you cannot be applied?

The Quaker Cannon • (1961) • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl

A disgraced former POW is selected for a vital administrative task. Captured by the enemy, victory depends on how effectively he can resist torture … torture he failed to withstand before.

This wasn’t nearly as cynical and bitter as I expect from Kornbluth. Although that leaves plenty of room for bitter cynicism.

Quake, Quake, Quake (Excerpt) • (1961) • poem by Paul Dehn

Nuclear war: bad.

Quake, Quake, Quake • (1961) • interior artwork by Edward Gorey

What it says on the tin.

Judas Bomb” • (1961) • short story by Kit Reed

In an America dominated by juvenile delinquent gangs, the Judas gang somehow obtains a Bomb, something beyond the ability of savage teen criminals to build. The rival Hypos gang dispatches two members to steal the Bomb. Revelation ensures, although not a sufficiently timely one.

It’s odd how the antagonists in post-war Scary Kid stories always seem to be about the same age as Baby Boomers were at the time the story was written.

A Small Miracle of Fishhooks and Straight Pins” • (1961) • short story by David R. Bunch

A father determined to prepare his child for life in an unforgiving world is justly rewarded for his efforts.

The Tunnel Ahead” • (1961) • short story by Alice Glaser

A happy day at the beach is marred only by overpopulation-driven crowding and the small but measurable chance of being euthanized on the way home.

Tunnel” was included in Lisa Yaszek’s The Future Is Female!, which I reviewed in 2018. An America lacking all birth control but rich in lifespan curtailment options seems far more plausible than it did in 2018.

Extraterrestrial Trilogue on Terran Self-Destruction • (1961) • poem by Sheri S. Tepper [as by Sheri S. Eberhart]

Mars concludes Earth has life, just in time for terrestrials to snuff out themselves.

The Countdown” • (1961) • short story by John Haas

A down-and-out astronaut goes to humiliating extremes to relive the glory days of his early career.

This was curiously 1941 for a 1961 story. Rockets launching from circuses to entertain the rubes is something I’d expect from Heinlein, not a more recent author.

The Beat Cluster” • (1961) • short story by Fritz Leiber

Space beatniks struggle to keep the squares from exiling the beatniks to Earth. Can you dig it, daddy‑o?

As it happens, the beatniks have well concealed but genuine utility.

This may be in the same continuity as A Specter is Haunting Texas. If so, the squares won’t love the space beatniks in a century any more than they do now.

In Tomorrow’s Little Black Bag • (1962) • essay by James Blish

Blish draws on his professional pharmaceutical background to speculate about the limits of medicine. Having some knowledge of the field greatly limits his expectation in ways not suffered by G. Harry Stine (whose expectation that we would all be immortals by now is mentioned).

The part that caught my eye was this section:

The two oral contraceptives that are available now have just about every possible imaginable drawback: they require prescriptions, they are very expensive, they must be taken upon a regular schedule, they produce rebound pregnancy if they are neglected, and furthermore they must be taken by women, who probably won’t be able to find them in their pocketbooks much of the time. What is needed is something as simple as aspirin, which can be taken at need, by men. I think it will be found.

He does not address this question: could men be trusted to use it as needed?

The Ship Who Sang • [The Ship Who …] • (1961) • novelette by Anne McCaffrey

Transformed from pitiful cripple into a starship’s mind, a Ship struggles to come to terms with the fact that while she may be incredibly durable, her pilots are all too mortal.

By modern standards, this society is extremely ableist. Since this ensues a steady supply of potential Ship brains, this may be a deliberate choice, not mere prejudice.

A Planet Named Shayol • [The Instrumentality of Mankind] • (1961) • novelette by Cordwainer Smith

Condemned to prison world Shayol, most prisoners go mad to escape the body horror inflicted on them by local lifeforms. A few retain some shreds of sanity. It is on those few on whose shoulders falls the responsibility of alerting the Instrumentality to unacceptable injustice.

It only now occurs to me that of course Card was referencing this tale when he wrote A Planet Called Treason. It also occurs to me I really need to get around to reviewing The Best of Cordwainer Smith.

The Asteroids, 2194” • [Troons] • (1960) • short story by John Wyndham

A space explorer survives calamity at great personal cost.

Another antique-feeling story. No idea what merit Merril saw in it.

The Long Night” • [The Exploits of Argo • 2] • (1961) • short story by Ray Russell

Seeking escape, a dictator demands salvation from a former victim. This goes as well as one might expect.

See comments above.

To an Astronaut Dying Young • (1961) • poem by Maxine W. Kumin

A poem dedicated to a dead man fated to be perfectly preserved in space.

Summation: S‑F, 1961 • (1962) • essay by Judith Merril

Merril examines SF in brief, and finds a genre increasingly assimilated by a mainstream curiously unwilling to admit that what they are writing is SF.

Books (The 7th Annual of the Year’s Best S‑F) • (1962) • essay by Anthony Boucher

Boucher examines SF and finds a genre consistently disappointing his hopes for SF. Boucher is particularly scathing about fix-ups and Heinlein’s latest offering:

the year’s major disappointment was Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, in which Heinlein regrettably abandoned storytelling for sermonizing. 

Nevertheless, he finds some bright spots, some unfamiliar to me that I will have to track down.

Honorable Mentions (The 7th Annual of the Year’s Best S‑F) • (1962) • essay by Judith Merril

A list of stories not quite good enough to make it into this volume.