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SF 12  (The Year’s Best S‑F, volume 12)

Edited by Judith Merril 

6 Feb, 2024

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


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SF 12 is the 12th and final1 volume in Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best S‑F anthology series. It was first published in 1968. A slightly shorter version appeared as The Best of Sci-Fi 12. My Dell edition does not proclaim itself a Best SF anthology. It also makes no pretense of limiting itself to the previous year.

There is a single essay by a woman, by Merril herself; she also wrote all the (abundant) commentary for the volume. While the collection is dominated by men, there are seven pieces by women, including the essay. That might be a high-water mark of inclusion for the series. Just one reason I am sad that the series ended with this volume, as I’d like to have seen what Merril would have made of authors like Tiptree and McIntyre.

I cannot express how much I regret committing to tracking down all the sources at the beginning of this series of review. Learn from my fail!


Analog Science Fiction -> Science Fact – 2

Argosy – 1

The Antioch Review – 1

Cavalier – 1

East Side Review – 3

Galaxy Magazine – 2

Gleisdreieck – 1

Gogol’s Wife and Other Stories – 1

Journal from Ellipsia – 1

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – 4

New Worlds – 6

The New Yorker – 1

Orbit 2 – 1

Punch – 1

Selected Writings – 1

Transatlantic Review – 1

Worlds of Tomorrow – 1

Yes, Let’s: New and Selected Poems – 1

The vast majority of the contents were later reprinted by other editors. I found only seven works that I could not be sure were reprinted, most of them material that fall outside the concerns of the ISFDB.

There are many award-finalist stories here. Light of Other Days” was a finalist for both Hugo and Nebula, as was An Ornament to His Profession. When I Was Miss Dow” was a Nebula finalist and later an Otherwise (formerly the Tiptree) retrospective finalist. The Star Pit was a Hugo finalist (but oddly not a Nebula finalist). Camiroi” was a recent Prometheus Hall of Fame finalist. I confess to being surprised that the Delany was a Hugo finalist but wasn’t noticed by Nebula. I am also puzzled in retrospect that The Star Pit did not appear in Asimov’s The Hugo Winners, Volume Two, which covers the period in question. It’s not that Asimov was snubbing Delany; Time Considered As a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones did make it into Volume Two.

Merril makes clear her preference for pretentious twaddle New Wave. Merril is quite fond of British New Wave works, but acknowledges the US New Wave somewhat dismissively. It seems that for Merril, the UK is where the interesting work is being done; US SF is of lesser status. No surprise that Merril would publish England Swings SF in 1968, the same year as this collection, or that her disenchantment with the US would soon inspire her to move to Toronto2, a city that was not as dreary and joyless as one might reasonably expect from one run for so long by the Orange Order3.

There is one small mystery. There are certain stories, like Harness’ Ornament, and Lafferty’s Narrow Valley,” that I know I’ve read recently. However, I cannot for the life of me remember where. ISFDB and my own site are of no help in this matter. Clearly, this is a significant problem for Biden’s reelection hopes. [**Editor’s note: political snark]

Despite her fondness for the New Wave, Merril offers a diverse assortment of (mostly) late 1960s speculative fiction. SF 12 is a solid entry, arguably the best of the twelve volumes. It’s too bad that the series ended, but at least 12 was a strong note on which to end.

SF 12 is out of print.

Now for a closer look.

Introduction: Fish Out of Water, Man Beside Himself • (1968) • essay by Judith Merril

An enthusiastic if rambling introduction.

At times, Merril’s overcaffeinated style grates. Everyone was doing it back then, so I really should not single her out.

The Cinemagicians • (1966) • poem by Tuli Kupferberg

A cynical poem about illusions becoming reality.

In Seclusion • (1966) • novelette by Harvey Jacobs

Sent into seclusion to enhance their romantic appeal to the public, actors very nearly get to know each other too well. Fortuitously, they are distracted by a ravening monster.

Is there no problem that kaiju cannot solve?

The Food Farm” • (1967) • short story by Kit Reed

Consigned to a fat farm, the protagonist works a wonderous revenge.

This may be the Reed story I have encountered most frequently.

Gogol’s Wife” • (1963) • short story by Tommaso Landolfi (translation of La moglie di Gogol” 1944)

Musing on Gogol’s bizarre taste in partners.

The Balloon” • (1966) • short story by Donald Barthelme

Lives are changed by the appearance of a vast balloon.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” • [Vermilion Sands] • (1967) • short story by J. G. Ballard

An egotistical woman’s bid for artistic immortality ends in a memorable calamity.

When I reread such stories, I find myself hoping that I have misremembered the story and that characters will have learned their lesson this time. Alas, they never do.

Luana” • (1966) • short story by Gilbert Thomas

Dalliance with a novel fungus ends with a tragic revelation.

W‑a-v-e‑r • (1966) • poem by Tuli Kupferberg

A snarky poem about radio pablum.

Readers are correct to believe Kupferberg’s poetry is more comprehensible to me than most poetry.

During the Jurassic” • (1966) • short story by John Updike

In which dinosaurs prove curiously human in their habits.

The Fall of Frenchy Steiner • (1964) • novelette by Hilary Bailey

A young woman living in Nazi-occupied Britain recruits a British ne’er-do-well in her bid to escape her role in Nazi triumph. Fate is kind, offering her a chance to undo her past crimes.

Bailey paints the Nazis and their enablers as corrupt fuckwits, a pleasing change from the paragons of martial efficiency featured in other SFF. Unfortunately, that did not prevent the Nazis from winning… at least for the moment.

Light of Other Days” • [Slow Glass] • (1966) • short story by Bob Shaw

An unlikable couple intrudes into a farmer’s domestic tragedy.

Beyond the Weeds” • (1966) • short story by Peter Tate

An energetic participant in organ reclamation is graced with the opportunity to play a more central role in the process.

It’s an interesting quirk that Welsh-born Tate offers a private-enterprise model of organ procurement, whereas Edward L. Doheny’s grandson Niven opted for a state-run approach. Shouldn’t that have been the other way round?

Crab-Apple Crisis”• (1966) • short story by George MacBeth 

A trivial dispute between neighbors escalates, just as depicted in Herman Kahn’s ladder of nuclear escalation.

The Primary Education of the Camiroi”• [Camiroi] • (1968) • short story by R. A. Lafferty

An examination of an alien, and superior, approach to children’s education.

When I Was Miss Dow” • (1966) • short story by Sonya Dorman

A shapeshifting alien plays an integral and unsuspected role in human bureaucracy.

As with the Reed story, Merril selects the Dorman that may be the Dorman story I’ve most often encountered.

A Vacation on Earth” • (1966) • poem by Thomas M. Disch

In an astonishing twist for Disch, a visitor to Earth concludes Earth is a terrible place. [**Editor’s note: irony]

Confluence” • (1967) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss

A short lexicon for an alien language.

Each anthology has to have a piece whose appeal escapes me. What did Merril see in this that I missed?

Journal from Ellipsia (excerpt) • (1965) • short fiction by Hortense Calisher

An extraterrestrial visitor has a transformative experience on Earth.

An Ornament to His Profession • [Conrad Patrick] • (1966) • novelette by Charles L. Harness

A hard-working patent lawyer juggles several perplexing cases.

Narrow Valley” • (1966) • short story by R. A. Lafferty

Would-be homesteaders discover why all previous attempts to claim a particular patch of land failed.

They Do Not Always Remember” • (1966) • short story by William S. Burroughs [as by William Burroughs]

A police procedural is complicated by curiously common cognitive issues.

I wonder if Tor would accept a piece about five authors who killed their spouses? Probably not…

The Winter Flies” • (1967) • short story by Fritz Leiber

A family man conducts a psychic struggle entirely invisible to his kin.

When I First Read … • (1966) • poem by Dick Allen

A poet finds astronomy enticing but the result disappointing.

You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe” • (1966) • short story by J. G. Ballard

Exploration of a man’s obsession with a woman.

And More Changes Still” • (1968) • short story by Henri Michaux (translation of Encore des changements” 1929)

A protean being’s abilities are impressive yet still incapable of delivering what it wants: escape.

The Other” • (1966) • short story by Katherine MacLean

Some problems may be insurmountable, even with the help of an invisible friend.

A MacLean I have not read! It has been decades since I encountered an unfamiliar MacLean.

Chicken Icarus” • (1966) • short story by Carol Emshwiller 

An amnesiac struggles with (or perhaps embraces is a better word) sex obsession.

In the Egg • (1966) • poem by Günter Grass (trans. of Im Ei 1958)

Reject comfortable conformity for something better!

The Star Pit • (1967) • novella by Samuel R. Delany

An alcoholic mechanic yearns to be as free as intergalactic pilots, little suspecting that the pilots themselves feel trapped by circumstance.

Personal” • (1966) • short story by Tuli Kupferberg

A nuclear weapon chafes at its designated role, preferring an equally violent role more in line with its preferences.

1: Unless you count the Best of the Best, in which case 12 is the second last. Third last if you count the edition that published BoB as two volumes.

2: Toronto is located in Canada, somewhere between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

3: Technically not a terrorist organization.