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SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Third Annual Volume  (The Year’s Best SF, volume 3)

Edited by Judith Merril 

2 May, 2023

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


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1958’s SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Third Annual Volume is the third volume in Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best SF anthology series. The previous two volumes were reviewed here and here. You may note that Merril was not entirely consistent with her naming conventions. In fact, I have for reasons of clarity taken liberties with the title because, as discerning readers will have noticed, the paperback in hand does not mention that this is the third anthology in this series. Also missing is any hint as to the year for which this is the best. 1957, which as it happens was somewhat of a turning point in American history.

This volume contains eleven stories. A single story is credited to a woman, Zenna Henderson, although the story credited to Kuttner alone is said by the ISFDB to have been by Moore and Kuttner. Sources are duly credited in the text and more diverse than the gender ratio:

The Atlantic — 1

If — 1

Not Specified — 1

Playboy — 1

Infinity Science Fiction — 1 

Mademoiselle — 1

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – 2

Science fantasy — 1

Venture — 2

The Kuttner/Moore seems to be original to this volume. It is also, as Merril notes, Kuttner’s final story, due to his then-recent death.

As far as I can tell, all but one of the stories included in this volume were later reprinted elsewhere, the lone exception being Eugène Ionesco’s Flying High.” That suggests that Merril had a talented eye for stories that would survive the test of time. But then we knew that.

I am somewhat astonished at the absence of anything from Galaxy Magazine but less astounded by the absence of Astounding, whose editor had reacted to rise of legitimate rivals by embracing his worst tendencies.

This volume is particularly essay-rich, with eight essays. Five are by an assortment of men. Three of the essays are by a woman, the same woman: Judith Merril. As with the stories, the sources are credited (not merely in the copyright but also in the table of contents. I approve):

Original to this volume: — 4

Boys Life — 1

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — 1

The Making of a Moon — 1

The New York Times Magazine — 1

The reason there are so many essays in this volume is because Merril felt the need to address recent events that shocked America: the Soviets had managed to launch a functioning satellite before the United States did. This was a tremendous affront to American self image as the best and most technologically advanced nation. Space travel (crewed or robotic) is of course a subject intimately connected to science fiction. It is not surprising SF authors were so keenly interested in Sputnik and its implications.

The stories are of their time (some assumptions and opinions may grate), but a couple of exceptions aside, they are still worth reading. The commentary Merril provides is illuminating. It was of particular interest to me to see documentation of the contemporary American reaction to Sputnik, something of which I know only from essays written well after the fact.

SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Third Annual Volume is out of print.

Introduction” (SF:’58: The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy) • essay by Judith Merril

Musing on the world in which the people of 1958 find themselves; concluding that the most important element is the human one.

Let’s Be Frank” • (1957) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss

A short but unpleasant tale. One person with a genetically transmitted psychic talent to inhabit many bodies at once becomes the world (or at least its entire population).

The Fly • (1957) • novelette by George Langelaan (French original: La mouche)

An experiment in teleportation goes horribly awry, leaving the inventor no alternative but assisted suicide.

The goal of his suicide was to conceal the nature of the mishap — why? — but the cost is leaving his doting wife behind to face a murder charge. I think his priorities were very very wrong. The movie adaptations tossed that element of the plot.

Let’s Get Together” • (1957) • short story by Isaac Asimov

American intelligence operatives are astounded to discover that the opponents (They) have more advanced robotics than We do. The operatives fear that these advances might be put to destructive purposes.

This was reprinted in The Rest of the Robots, which I think of as the robot stories not good enough for I, Robot.” It isn’t really clear why They think a contrived plan to terrorize Us with a total conversion bomb won’t simply inspire a rapid escalation of hostilities.

They = the Reds, and Us (not US) = America and its allies. This Cold War has lingered for more than a century and people have adopted vague euphemisms for the two sides.

The Wonder Horse” • (1957) • short story by George Byram

Equestrian breeding is upended by a mutation that renders betting on horse racing an exercise in futility. How to manage the ensuing crisis?

You Know Willie • (1957) • short story by Theodore R. Cogswell

A cruel racist is subjected to a thematically appropriate fate.

Near Miss • (1958) • short story by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore [as by Henry Kuttner]

A scheme to nobble a rival by means of magic goes humorously awry.

In her introduction, Merril comes very close to acknowledging Moore had a hand in this, without quite doing so.

Game Preserve” • (1957) • short story by Rog Phillips

A new race of mentally deficient humans is kept on a special reservation. Individuals who demonstrate too much intelligence are summarily murdered by their wardens.

I suspect that there’s a subtext here that I am better off not examining. Arguably the worst story in the lot. No idea how it made the cut.

Now Let Us Sleep” • (1957) • short story by Avram Davidson

A social reformer strives to save doomed aliens from horrific human exploitation, only to expose them to even more appalling abuse in the name of science. Death is the only escape.

This was more rape‑y than I expected. However, the story is pretty firmly against rape, not always a given at the time the story was written. It’s also an example of an SF story featuring racial death due to group malaise, specifically the demise of the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Davidson ignored the continued existence of Tasmanians.

Wilderness • [The People] • (1957) • novelette by Zenna Henderson

An unusual human finds the kinship they crave in an unexpected place; a secret community of refugee aliens.

The People are by and large very pleasant individuals, which highlights just how awful many of Henderson’s humans are. In this, attempts to mitigate bullying are seen as more alarming than bullying because bullying is normal, whereas objecting to it or worse, trying to stop it, is a deviant behavior.

Flying High” • (1957) • short story by Eugène Ionesco

Attempts to conceal the moldering corpse of a man murdered a decade ago take an unexpectedly surreal turn.

The murder didn’t spark complicated legal issues; the coverup did.

The Edge of the Sea” • (1958) • short story by Algis Budrys

A determined man struggles to retrieve a mysterious spacecraft from the sea.

If he had been much older, I would have summed up this story as The Old Man and the Sea and the Alien Spacecraft. I don’t know why so few Hemingway stories had aliens.

How Near Is the Moon? • essay by Judith Merril

Commentary on then-recent popular treatments of space exploration, in light of America’s loss of the Space Race.

Transition-from Fantasy to Science • (1957) • essay by Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke discusses the path from proposed satellites to the very real one in orbit.

Sputnik: One Reason Why We Lost • (1958) • essay by G. Harry Stine

Stine discusses the four elements of American character that led the Russians to prevail. Stine hopes the defeat will have salutatory effects on the American psyche.

I cannot help but notice that one and four are very different numbers. Perhaps someone other than Stine titled the essay. Although arguably innumeracy is part of one of the issues Stine sees (what Asimov called the cult of ignorance).

Going Up! • (1957) • essay by Dennis Driscoll

Comments on the challenges to surviving in space.

Where Do We Go from Here? • essay by Willy Ley

This essay somehow finds its way from a discussion of space to the possible utility of plants for concentrating minerals.

Ley is surprisingly cool on the suggestion that we build nuclear thermal rockets, which he thinks would both underperform chemical rockets and contaminate the environment with radioactive effluent. 

Science Fiction Still Leads Science Fact • (1957) • essay by Anthony Boucher

Exactly what it says on the tin.

The Year’s S‑F, Summation and Honorable Mentions” • essay by Judith Merril

Again what it says on the tin. Recommended to everyone interested in vintage SF. It’s a pity this volume has no ebook edition, because I am far too lazy to type out the list of suggested works.