1972’s Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year is the first of five Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year volumes edited by Lester del Rey for Ace1.
Technically Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year was published before the cut-off dates for my Tears reviews (March 18, 1974, to March 18, 1981). However, as I purchased it used, I must have read it after 1974. Indeed, I think I re-read it several times. That’s good enough for government work.
The year for which this was the best science fiction is not specified on the cover, although the text makes it clear the year in question was 1971. Del Rey draws from a diverse array of sources for his selection, as follows (in order of frequency, sorted alphabetically)
Galaxy Magazine: 3
Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact: 2
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: 2
New Dimensions 1: 2
Universe 1: 1
The Many Worlds of Science Fiction: 1
Orbit is noticeably missing from this list no doubt because the only Orbitpublished in 1971 was the comparatively disappointing Orbit 9.
While it was not technically illegal to be a woman in the US in 1971, it was not encouraged. It is not entirely surprising that there is only one woman author in the book (James Tiptree, Jr.), and Tiptree wasn’t known to be a woman at the time.
Award voters appear not to have agreed with del Rey’s taste. Of the stories included, one whose title and author escapes me won a Nebula, while Ellison and van Vogt’s tale was nominated for a Hugo. However, even discounting this anthology, the reprint record for the stories del Rey selected was pretty good: eleven of the fifteen stories were reprinted somewhere other than their original publication and this volume.
How does it compare to the Dozois anthology that inspired me to re-read Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year? In many ways, this anthology uses the same template as the Dozois books: the brief commentaries on authors, the annual state of the field summary at the end. However, if this is in a sense an ancestor of the Dozois, it’s a very rudimentary one: the bios are less informative, the summary less detailed, and most important, the stories are more forgettable than the classics.
Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year is out of print.
More about the stories:
Foreword: Alternate Possibilities • (1972) • essay by Lester del Rey
Del Rey provides a vague definition of science fiction and details the criteria by which he selected these stories: these are the 1971 stories he most enjoyed.
Interestingly, despite having been initially opposed to New Wave, he now appears to believe that SF has room for many schools. I had not considered that some of the vitriol sprayed towards New Wave was a perception that the SF market was a zero-sum game in which the rise of new forms meant the eclipse of old forms.
“The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” • [Dayworld] • (1971) • short story by Philip José Farmer
In a world where overpopulation has forced time rationing—each person is allowed to wake from cold sleep one day in seven—one man’s infatuation with a slumbering beauty he has never met leads him to consider the unthinkable: emigrating from Tuesday to Wednesday!
This is an example of that time-honored SF genre, extremely stupid solutions to global issues. Only a pure knucklehead would not see where the protagonist’s quest would lead him (aside from Wednesday, I mean). This story was later expanded into not just one but three novels: Dayworld, Dayworld Rebel, and Dayworld Breakup.
“Good News from the Vatican” • (1971) • short story by Robert Silverberg
This is a short story by Robert Silverberg.
“I'll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool Is Empty” • (1971) • short story by James Tiptree, Jr.
A hip and with-it space liberal descends on a placid, contented barbarian world, where despite his proclaimed respect for all cultures, he insists they do things his way. The consequences take longer to play out than his attention span can encompass.
Except for all the deaths, this was pretty upbeat for a Tiptree.
“The Power of the Sentence” • (1971) • short story by David M. Locke
A professor discourses on the sentence, unaware that within his lecture a bitter struggle between two opposed entities is playing out.
ISFDB and Contento assure me this was published only twice, in F&SF and this volume. Either the story was so memorable that it stuck with me for half a century or there were some undocumented publications. It seems to have been Locke’s only publication.
“The Wicked Flee” • (1971) • short story by Harry Harrison
Determined to capture a heretic who fled into the past, a holy inquisitor finds himself confounded by a previously undocumented quirk of time travel.
Given how time travel seems to work, it’s not clear how the inquisitor could find the heretic at all, let alone stay long enough to hear some alarming exposition.
“When You Hear the Tone” • (1971) • short story by Thomas N. Scortia
A bitter old man finds the possibility of companionship thanks to a misconnected phone call … if only he can circumvent the decades between the year from which he is calling and the year in which the woman with whom he is increasingly taken picks up.
Occam's Scalpel • (1971) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon
Determined to steer an implacable billionaire onto the path of world salvation, two brothers spin a convincing hoax. There is, of course, a catch.
The catch being “what if our lie is actually true,” which would be a total mind-bender if the twist had not been used roughly a million zillion times before.
“Hot Potato” • (1971) • short story by Burt K. Filer
Intercontinuum travel turns the East-West Cold War into an interdimensional conflict, with a hapless secret agent caught in the middle.
This was legitimately awful. Points for the author’s noteworthy depiction of the Chinese, research for which may have involved skimming a Fu Manchu comic or perhaps seeing a Chinese take-out menu at a distance.
The Human Operators • (1971) • novelette by Harlan Ellison and A. E. van Vogt
Tired of war, the robot star fighters murdered their crews and fled the human galaxy years ago. However, the need for nimble-fingered repair persons mandated the preservation of a few living human slaves, a weakness that would ultimately doom the rebels.
The lesson here is “do not mistreat your work force.”
“Autumntime” • (1971) • short story by A. Lentini
A naïve child in over-populated Boston is taken by their parents to see the last living tree in the city. It is to be cut down to make room for an insurance office. The tree is doomed but perhaps something can be salvaged.
A Little Knowledge • [Technic History] • (1971) • novelette by Poul Anderson
An effete, artistically inclined, very mannered alien is shanghaied by humans who mistake gentleness for weakness.
Ah, if only the alien didn’t toss “effeminate” around as an insult near the end.
I appreciate the subtle artistry with which Anderson slaps the reader in the face with several pages of planetary science before moving on to the actual narrative. If you don’t like that sort of thing, why are you reading Anderson?
“To Make a New Neanderthal” • (1971) • short story by W. Macfarlane
Tree-hugging hippies are a vexing lot but perhaps some use can be found for them.
“The Man Underneath” • (1971) • short story by R. A. Lafferty
A talented magician struggles to overcome personal flaws.
A Lafferty that did not turn into white noise for me by the end…
“Ornithanthropus” • (1971) • short story by B. Alan Burhoe
A primitive man shaped by evolution contends against men lacking adaptations to the local environment. The newcomers’ technology is vastly superior, but their senses are more limited and they are woefully lacking in situational awareness.
Rammer • [State] • (1971) • novelette by Larry Niven
Programmed with the mind of a long-dead man, a political prisoner is saddled with an onerous task by a state that fails to comprehend that the same tools needed for the task will also facilitate escape.
This was expanded in A World Out of Time, perhaps the last readable solo Niven effort.
The Science Fiction Yearbook (1971) • (1972) • essay by Lester del Rey
A short discourse on the state of the field in 1971, which del Rey feels is in fine shape (for the most part). Del Rey is struck by the replacement of magazines by anthologies (although ten stories are from magazines while only five are from anthologies of original fiction). However, what caught my eye was how many SF books were published in 1971:
Publishers Weekly, in its annual report, listed 195 new s-f books and 109 reprints for 1971, for a total of 304 books labelled and marketed as science fiction.
No wonder it was so easy to keep up with the field back then….
[**Editor’s note: only if you read close to a book a day.]
1: Not to be confused with Terry Carr’s Best Science Fiction of the Year series, published in the US by Del Rey, among others. A partial summary of the publishers would include Ballantine (1972–1976), Del Rey (1977–1980), Timescape (1981–1983), Baen (1984) and Tor (1985–1987).