James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

The Air of Mystique

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Edited by Spider Robinson 

5 Nov, 2023

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Spider Robinson’s 1980 The Best of All Possible Worlds is a science fiction and fantasy anthology. It is, I believe one of just two anthologies1 edited by Robinson and the only such work for which he has a solo editor credit2.

The anthology has a rather cunning conceit.

Robinson lamented to Jim Baen that 

Some of the best damn stories in the world are consistently neglected by the anthologists, Jim — or just forgotten. And I can’t review them until somebody finds them.”

Baen commissioned an anthology of such stories. To make the deal more attractive to readers, each story was accompanied by an introduction. To sweeten the deal further, Robinson contacted the authors Robinson had selected and asked each of them to select one story each, then write an introduction for that story [3]. Result: a chunky anthology of stories that most readers would not have encountered.

How many of the stories had I read before I bought this? Six out of ten: Inconstant Moon, The Princess Bride, Seventh Victim,” Portions of This Program, and The Man Who Traveled in Elephants.” But I’m an outlier. I should add that of course the introductions were new to me.

Rereading it after a forty-three-year hiatus, I found Robinson’s turned-up-to-eleven boosterism a bit much. Still, it’s fun to watch someone be so enthusiastic about stories he enjoyed and do his best to convince readers to join in on the fun. I expect many of my older readers will remember the anthology fondly.

The anthology was clearly intended to be the first of a series. As far as I know, there were no subsequent volumes. Oddly, the ISFDB lists only one review … by Spider Robinson. The review credits the anthology as being exactly as Robinson would have done it and is really more of a coming attraction” than a review. Robinson mentions he was at work of volume two, which makes me wonder what it would have contained … and if copies of the MS survive.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is out of print. Of the ten stories in this volume, eight appear to be in print in one form or another.

Now for the nitty gritty.

I’ve omitted any review of the introductions. In all cases save one, the person who selected the story wrote the introduction. The exception is the story Heinlein selected, for which Robinson wrote the essay.

Foreword (The Best of All Possible Worlds)” • essay by Spider Robinson

A short, energetic tale about the genesis of this anthology, filled with bombast and superlatives.

Inconstant Moon • (1971) • novelette by Larry Niven

Date night is complicated by indirect evidence that the sun has exploded. With doom converging on all sides towards nighttime California, how best to spend one’s final night?

I know of at least one European reader who was a bit put out by the happy ending: only Eurasia and Africa were scoured clean of life. Shouldn’t that reader have been happy that the American author had actually heard of Eurasia and Africa?

Spud and Cochise • (1936) • novelette by Oliver La Farge

Spud, a kindly wanderer, resolves to help a distressed lady of negotiable virtue. The only problem is that the man pestering her cannot be killed save by the bullet he keeps on his person. Only a specific Native American can help Spud and there is no reason for a such a person to care which white man prevails.

Wikipedia says La Farge was an advocate for Native American rights. The Native Americans in this story aren’t exactly keen on helping Spud. The story is about how Spud convinces the Native Americans that in this specific matter, their interests align. 

Need • (1960) • novella by Theodore Sturgeon

An off-putting man is haunted by an ability to sense when his neighbours are in desperate need.

Hop-Friend” • (1962) • short story by Terry Carr

Thus far, the Marshies have seemingly been indifferent to the humans settling on Mars. Now, one Marshie seems interested in the humans. The reasons for this are not flattering.

Duel Scene” (from The Princess Bride) • (1973) • short fiction by William Goldman

Having been assigned the task of killing the mysterious man in black, Inigo Montoya must first relive his backstory. Only then may he engage his opponent.

We’re all familiar with this scene, right? Some of you are muttering My name is Inigo Montoya! You murdered my father! Prepare to die!” under your breath.

(The man in black did not murder Montoya’s father.)

Seventh Victim” • (1953) • short story by Robert Sheckley

A bored man participates in legalized human hunting. Surprised to discover that his quarry is a harmless-looking girl, he decides to get to know her before completing his contract.

This being a Sheckley, the question is not is this a terrible decision?” It is what kind of terrible decision is being made?”

This was the basis for the film The Tenth Victim, for which I hope Sheckley was well paid.

Portions of This Program … • (1977) • novelette by Dean Ing

The curious nature of one little girl’s autism makes her a treasure worthing killing to possess.

The introduction for this has one of those and it turned out the SF author knew more about medicine than the doctor!” anecdotes. It also contains a bit of history about Ing I’d forgotten: he stopped writing for twenty years, not because of the American News meltdown, but because his early stories were not well received.

They Bite” • (1943) • short story by Anthony Boucher

A ruthless killer, clearly unaware he is starring in an Anthony Boucher story, decides to make use of local myths to further his murder plot. As the killer belatedly discovers, the myths are more factual than he believed.

This is a classic story of the sort where, having been warned to avoid the moors after dark, our hero sets up camp in the middle of the moors and then slathers himself in barbeque sauce.

The Man Who Traveled in Elephants” • (1957) • short story by Robert A. Heinlein

A lonely widower enjoys an unexpected reunion.

As I recall, the Young People in my Young People series didn’t care for this Heinlein but did enjoy The Menace from Earth.” Quite the opposite of what I expected.

Our Lady’s Juggler” • short story by Anatole France (translation of Le jongleur de Notre-Dame,” 1892)

A humble juggler finds an unexpected but accepted way to praise God.

Or at least praise a minor god in the Christian pantheon.

1: Collections and anthologies are not synonyms.

2: The other Robinson-edited anthology was Tesseracts Twenty: Compostela, which was co-edited by James Alan Gardner.

3: Heinlein didn’t provide an introduction for the story he selected. Robinson supplied one.