Welcome to 1978. 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 #8, and Stellar #4, edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey.
But first, what was 1978 like? Well, Jimmy Carter was the president of the United States. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall won the Best Picture Award at the Oscars. Ted Bundy, one of the most famous serial killers of all time, was captured in Pensacola, Florida. Charon, a satellite of Pluto, was discovered. Actor Ashton Kutcher was born. There were no personal computers yet, except for build-them-yourself kits for electronic enthusiasts. And you bought music on cassettes or 8-track tapes.
Here’s some of the finest science fiction available in 1978, compliments of The Best Science Fiction of the Year #8, Terry Carr’s annual anthology.
The Barbie Murders — by John Varley: Lieutenant Anna-Louise Bach, a detective for the Lunar police force, has been handed a murder to solve. The murder was witnessed by dozens of people, and even recorded on video. It should be an easy case to solve … except for the fact that the victim, the murderer and the witnesses all look exactly the same. They’re all “barbies,” members of a religious community that eradicates physical differences between its members. It’s a fascinating story, at turns bizarre, perverse, relentlessly logical and eminently satisfying. An excellent story and, even better, it’s a member of that rare breed, the SF crime story.
A Hiss of Dragon — by Gregory Benford and Marc Laidlaw: Drake is a flyer for a thistleberry harvesting outfit on the low-gravity, metal-poor planet of Lex. Harvesting involves surreptitiously stealing the valuable berries from the lairs of dragons, which are large predatory, gene-engineered, blimp-like creatures possessed of a generally bad attitude. Mix in a rivalry with another harvesting outfit, and you’ve got a unique and interesting adventure/crime drama set on an alien world. I liked it a lot. I’d love to see this expanded into a more comprehensive novel.
Black Glass — by Fritz Lieber: A man walking the streets of New York City is drawn into a future era in which mysterious, cowled figures fight to tear down humanity’s last bastions of freedom, the few remaining skyscrapers of the city. In some respects, I thought this story was overlong, slow to get moving and tedious in some areas. But yet, it has some of the strangest and strongest imagery in the entire volume.
To Bring in the Steel — by Donald Kingsbury: Meddrick Kell is the ultimate problem solver, but he’s cold and unforgiving when it comes to handling people. His technical skills make him invaluable to an asteroid mining conglomerate that is moving an asteroid to Earth, one that will possess vast amounts of refined steel by the time it eventually arrives. When his ex-wife dies on Earth, he decides to bring his young daughter out to live on the asteroid.
Feeling that he’ll make an inadequate father, his fellow miners refuse to allow this, unless he finds a woman to help take care of the child. So he imports a high-priced call girl that he once saw at a party on Earth to help him. We’re in romantic drama/comedy territory here, but with a hard SF background. The only jarring note is that it mentions “typewriters” at the beginning, which is amusing because this story was published just before the advent of the personal computer.
It’s a very satisfying story. I would have liked to have seen this story expanded into a novel. Likewise, I also think the story could form the kernel of an excellent movie.
The Very Slow Time Machine — by Ian Watson: An impenetrable device with an old decrepit man inside appears within a university laboratory. Scientists feverishly study the device for years, while inside the old man gradually grows younger. The world comes to believe that revelations will ensue when the backwards-traveling time machine finally reaches its origin. I have only one thing to say: I didn’t get it.
Devil You Don’t Know — by Dean Ing: Valerie Clarke was born looking like she was mentally handicapped, even though she’s not. She leverages her appearance to work undercover, entering mental institutions as a patient so that she can expose bad conditions, malpractice and other breaches of trust. She finds a lot more than she was expecting when she’s checked into the Gulfview Home. It’s a solid, engaging story with, of course, an SF twist.
Count the Clock That Tells the Time — by Harlan Ellison: This is a fascinating and surreal story. A man who has wasted his life and who has managed to leave no impact on anybody, is drawn into some strange limbo, a gray plain sparsely populated only by other people like himself. This limbo is where the universe stores “unused time” until it’s needed. The man endeavors to escape, but tragically finds more than he expected. This is Ellison at the top of his form.
View from a Height — by Joan D. Vinge: Emmylou Harris was born with a compromised immune system. Because of her condition, she volunteered to be a space explorer on a one-way mission to another star, so she could do something she felt useful with her life. Decades into her journey, she must deal with a personal crisis. This is a very effective story that deals brilliantly with Emmylou’s personal issues, yet remains undeniably an SF story.
The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck — by Hilbert Schenck: Schenck gives us two stories in one. The first is about the Coskata Life Saving Crew, led by Walter Chase, and their 1892 attempt to rescue the sailors of the H.P. Kirkham, a ship that has run aground on a shoal during a bad storm. The second layers on an SF theme, namely that the probabilities of timeline events are being altered to make the rescue more likely. My problem is that I liked the first story, even though it wasn’t an SF story; the second layer seemed like an intrusion and interfered in my enjoyment of the story I wanted to read. My verdict: a mish-mash that doesn’t quite hold together for me.
Vermeer’s Window — by Gordon Eklund: A young and exceedingly rich artist undergoes a technical process to transform his mind, as closely as possible, into the mind of the famous painter, Jan Vermeer. He eventually begins to produce the same works that Vermeer did in his long-ago lifetime. Some angst about the origin of the artistic instinct ensues.
Taking into account chaos theory, I failed to believe that any person could be so utterly and perfectly transformed into a long-dead painter, or that the modern artist’s life would so perfectly parallel the original painter. For me, the story didn’t really achieve the necessary suspension of belief that it needed.
The Man Who Had No Idea — by Thomas M. Disch: Barry Riordan is trying to get his license to engage in free speech. When he only qualifies for a provisional license, he goes on a quest to achieve the three endorsements necessary to promote his provisional license to a full license. I was prepared to dislike this story because I’m not particularly a fan of satires. But Disch’s cleverly conceived story pulled me in. The scene where the hero, who supposedly has no ideas of his own, engages in a “high-stakes” wager with a poet is absolutely priceless.
Death Therapy — by James Patrick Kelly: How do you “cure” a serial killer? One solution is to develop a state-mandated form of mental torture that is more severe in a negative sense than the positive high that a killer achieves from his violent acts, thus allowing the torture to function effectively as a deterrent. What could possibly go wrong? It’s a powerful and disturbing story. Interestingly, it was also Kelly’s first published story.
This was a very strong anthology from Terry Carr. Stand-outs for me were “The Barbie Murders” by John Varley; “A Hiss of Dragon” by Gregory Benford and Marc Laidlaw; “To Bring in the Steel” by Donald Kingsbury; and “Count the Clock That Tells the Time” by Harlan Ellison. Strong stories included “View From a Height” by Joan D. Vinge; “The Devil You Don’t Know” by Dean Ing; “The Man Who Had No Idea” by Thomas M. Disch; and the brutally effective “Death Therapy” by James Patrick Kelly.
Our next anthology, Stellar #4, edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey, is special to me. I read it when it first came out, and I remember really liking it. This volume contains only six stories, so they’re all what would typically be considered novelettes (except for Stephen R. Donaldson’s story, which is long enough to qualify as a novella). I think this was my first real exposure to novelettes and novellas, instead of novels. Because of this volume, I ended up collecting the entire Stellar series, all eight volumes.
Although I’ve had this volume for years, for some reason I’ve never re-read it until now. So, with some trepidation, let’s crack open this anthology and see how the stories hold up.
We Who Stole the Dream — by James Tiptree, Jr.: A group of Joilani, a humanoid alien species, have been enslaved on a human colony world. They plan and execute an audacious scheme to escape their oppressors by stealing a starship and finding their own kind. But they don’t find what they expected to find. A solid story by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon, a fact that was discovered in 1977).
Animal Lover — by Stephen R. Donaldson: Special Agent Sam Browne, a cyborg investigative officer, goes undercover as a hunter to discover why a Hunting Preserve seems to be more effective at producing dead hunters than dead animals. It’s an enjoyable action story, but nothing overly special.
Snake Eyes — by Alan Dean Foster: This adventure story ties into Foster’s long-running Flinx and Pip series. Flinx, of course, is an orphan raised on the planet Moth, who was adopted by an Alaspin minidrag, Pip, at an early age. Pip is a flying, venomous, empathically sensitive, and moderately intelligent flying snake (the kind of pet every young kid wants to have). They end up helping a prospector defend his mine against some would-be claim jumpers. It’s a pleasant and moderately entertaining story.
The Last Decision — by Ben Bova: The Emperor of the Hundred Worlds must make a decision about the fate of Earth. Studies have shown that in about 500 years the Sun will undergo a bout of turbulence that will devastate the Earth, turning it into a charred, lifeless rock. A woman from one of the frontier worlds has a plan that could save the world, but at an almost incalculable cost. Ben Bova has crafted an excellent tale about the pressures of leadership.
The Deimos Plague — by Charles Sheffield: A former lawyer, now on the run from bad elements, poses as a shaven-headed member of a made-up religious sect to evade those who are after him. He wrangles a working berth on a high-priority, Mars-bound cargo ship, but gets far more than he bargained for. Slight, but amusing.
Assassin — by James P. Hogan: Mars and the outer system colonies are at odds with Earth, but the technological edge goes to the Martian Federation. An assassin is dispatched to kill a prominent Martian scientist who has defected to Earth. Needless to say, the operation doesn’t go as planned. The story is an interesting exploration of the potential ramifications of some future technologies. Not ground-breaking, but fun and thought-provoking.
So Stellar #4 has held up reasonably well. I probably liked it better as a young teen than I do now, but my tastes have gotten more sophisticated since then. The Bova and Tiptree stories are the best of the batch. The other stories are engaging but not exceptional. This time around, I think the edge goes to Terry Carr’s anthology for quality.