Welcome to 1974. In these Time Warp blog entries, I explore some of the best short fiction of yesteryear using key anthologies of the time (kind of like short fiction time capsules) to highlight what were perceived back then to be some of the best stories of the year. Our time capsules for this exploration will be Terry Carr’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4, and Stellar #1, edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey.
First up, let’s take a look at The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4, Terry Carr’s annual anthology.
We Purchased People — by Frederick Pohl: This is a love story between two criminals, a man and a woman; for punishment, their bodies have been sold to aliens so that they can be used via a sort of interstellar telepresence. The two lovers thus only have hours, sometimes only minutes, to be together when their bodies aren’t being used by the aliens. It’s disturbing, and not for everybody, but I liked it. In its own twisted way, it’s an SF crime story.
Pale Roses — by Michael Moorcock: It’s a far future story loosely associated with Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels. It’s a baroque SF fantasy about bored immortals who want to experience various aspects of “real life,” and a plan to allow one of these dilettantes to do so. It’s well done, but not my cup of tea at all. I like Moorcock’s work in general, but he’s quite capable of venturing into territory that doesn’t thrill me, as he does here.
The Hole Man — by Larry Niven: This unique story combines murder, quantum black holes and Mars exploration. A crew of Mars explorers investigates a long-abandoned but still functional alien base, until a fractured team dynamic brings things to a logical, but disturbing, conclusion. It’s hard SF. It’s a crime story. It was the 1975 Hugo winner for Best Short Story. An excellent story.
Born With the Dead — by Robert Silverberg: Jorge Klein has lost his wife, Sybille, at a young age. Her will specifies that she is to be “rekindled” after her funeral, which entails subjecting her body to a scientific process that brings her back to life as a “dead.” The rekindled are different after being brought to life, and live mostly sequestered with their own kind in “cold towns.” Jorge becomes obsessed with reuniting with Sybille despite her changed status. In the process, he reveals things about both himself and the rekindled, leading one to wonder what impact the rekindled may have on the future of mankind.
It’s engrossing, yet unsettling in diverse ways. It’s a story that’s hard to stop thinking about, which is a common feature of Silverberg’s best stories. It won the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novella, and was nominated for the 1975 Hugo for Best Novella.
The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics — by Ursula K. Le Guin: I sometimes think of short stories (which are much shorter than novelettes and novellas) as being like gourmet jelly beans, which invoke a single, sometimes deceptively complicated, flavor. For short stories, the “flavor” might be a particular emotion, a nuanced characterization or a particular idea. This is an idea story, in which the author explores whether creatures and things not generally thought of as intelligent might have their own languages and limited thoughts, if only we could understand them.
It’s not my favorite story, but it does make you think. And that, in many ways, is the mark of a successful short story.
Dark Icarus — by Bob Shaw: This story is a nifty SF crime drama. With the advent of the gravity belt, personal flight is now accessible to everyone, but the world still needs traffic cops. A solid story, followed up by a novel, Vertigo, featuring the same main character.
A Little Something for Us Tempunauts — by Philip K. Dick: Dick is one of those revered writers who, for some reason, I’ve mostly missed. I believe I’ve only ever read one book by him (which I liked) and none of his shorter work. Unfortunately, as an introduction to his short fiction, this story didn’t work terribly well for me. Some time travelers sent to the future discover that 1) they will die in a time-machine-related explosion when they return to their own time, and 2) that one of their own has sabotaged the mission. Time travel stories are old hat nowadays — I need something more than a paradox. Sorry, but this story just did not connect with me.
On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi — by William Tenn The First Interstellar Neozionist Conference is being held on Venus, attended by Jewish delegates from everywhere…including interstellar colonies. The trouble occurs when a group of giant, alien cockroaches from Rigel claim to be Jewish. On the one hand, the story includes some interesting views on religion, on humanity, and on what it means to be part of a community — all told in the first-person voice of a stereotypical, aging, cranky old man. But it seemed long to me, and voice of the protagonist grated after a while. Not Tenn’s strongest work.
The Engine at Heartspring’s Center — by Roger Zelazny: A hero has come to a “euthanasia resort” to get in the right frame of mind to end his life. While there, he meets a woman who’s present for the same reason, but who wants to change her mind. I liked it, short as it was. It was nominated for the 1975 Best Novelette Nebula.
If the Stars Are Gods — by Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford: Aliens have arrived at Earth and they have (gasp) more advanced technologies than we do. Authorities want to gain insights into that technology, but the aliens only want to talk about the Sun, starting with the aging astronaut turned astronomer that knows the most about the subject. You see, the aliens believe the sun is alive, and can deliberately influence the real world. It’s engaging and thought-provoking. It won the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novelette (and was later expanded into a novel).
Frankly, this wasn’t one of Terry Carr’s better “Best of…” anthologies. To me, the stand-outs were Robert Silverberg’s “Born With the Dead” and Larry Niven’s “The Hole Man.” Bob Shaw’s “Dark Icarus” also resonated with me because I’m partial to SF crime stories, as did “We Purchased People” to a lesser degree.
The Birch Clump Cylinder — by Clifford D. Simak: Simak provides an intriguing take on a time travel story. Charlie Spencer has returned to Coon Creek Institute, the unobtrusive and unorthodox college where he was educated, to help them investigate what they believe is an out-of-control time machine that has landed in a birch clump on their grounds. Simak brings a sense of humanity and emotional resonance to what, in other hands, might have been simply an ordinary time travel story.
I liked the story a lot. It’s bittersweet in a way, though, because Simak’s work seems to be gradually disappearing from view. Ask a newer SF fan about him, and they’ve probably never heard of him. He was never a flamboyant writer, but it’ll be a shame if his work just keeps fading away.
Fusion — by Milton A. Rothman: This is a fairly minor work, but is still entertaining. An aging physicist wants to achieve controlled fusion for just one second before he retires, which will accomplish something worthwhile for humanity, as well as putting him in the history books. The story does a good job of capturing both the fellowship and competitiveness of the scientific community — your fellow scientists may be your rivals, but they are also the ones who can best understand your achievements. A solid story.
A Miracle of Small Fishes — by Alan Dean Foster: Alan Dean Foster is known mostly for his novels, but he provided a novelette called “A Miracle of Small Fishes” for this anthology. Josefa Flores is a young girl growing up in San Quintin, a former fishing town on the coast, but now the fish are all being caught each year by the big factory ships further up the coast. Her grandfather is a laughingstock because he still goes out fishing every day. When she finds out that he’s sick, and probably dying, she goes to the local church and spends all day praying for him to find one last great catch. OK, everybody knows where this story is going. It’s eminently predictable. On the other hand, it seriously manages to pull your heart strings. A solid, emotionally resonant story, albeit not an innovative one.
The Whirligig of Time — by Vernor Vinge: Vinge is another author more known for his novel-length work. He provides “The Whirligig of Time,” which has become his most successful and widely anthologized short story. In the future, the Emperor rules Earth; all opposition was totally crushed long ago. What if you could change everything? What would you do? It’s a classic story.
Schwartz Between the Galaxies — by Robert Silverberg: Schwartz is an anthropologist who travels around the world speaking about how to add diversity back into Earth’s totally homogenized, global culture while becoming ever more disenchanted with the dreary sameness of society everywhere. In his mind, he fantasizes about being an anthropologist in the distant future, traveling on a space-liner with aliens on whom he can actually exercise his anthropological talents. It’s an interesting idea, but the conclusion doesn’t really resonate with me.
Mr. Hamadryad — by R. A. Lafferty: This seems to be a sort of fantasy about the changing ages of the world. It’s hard to summarize, but it brings in fancy drinks, levitation, invisible creatures, and Easter Island all into a single mash-up…that doesn’t work for me at all.
Singularities Make Me Nervous — by Larry Niven: This is what happens when Niven mixes a black hole and time travel together into a crime story. George Cox is a space explorer who secretly arrives back on Earth before he left due to an errant brush with a singularity. He resolves to use his advance knowledge of the future to play the stock market while ensuring that his younger self goes off on the mission that will take him to the singularity. Naturally, things don’t go as planned. A solid outing from Niven.
The Logical Life — by Hal Clement: Hal Clement is one of the few authors who regularly sets his stories on non-oxygen worlds. In this story, a would-be human explorer goes sailing on a cold ammonia ocean to learn more about an alien world, accompanied only by a native sailor. Of course, they find more than they bargained for. Although not particularly ground-breaking, it’s a good adventure story.
Twig — by Gordon R. Dickson: A young, orphaned girl is raised by a plant-based consciousness on an alien world after her colonist parents succumbed to fever. Eventually, the “slash-and-burn” farming tactics of other colonists bring her and the plant consciousness into conflict with the other colonists. It’s a solid coming-of-age story from a master craftsman. Note that it’s central concept also pre-dates James Cameron’s film, Avatar, by 35 years.
This year, I actually liked Stellar #1 better than Terry Carr’s anthology. Stand-outs for me were Vernor Vinge’s “The Whirligig of Time,” and Clifford D. Simak’s “The Birch Clump Cylinder.” Just about everything else is worth reading, though.
On another note, Harlan Ellison’s SF screenplay about a generation starship, “Phoenix Without Ashes,” also surfaced in 1974, winning the 1974 Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay. For more information about this story, see my Classic Corner blog entry.