Welcome to 1979. 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 capsule for this exploration will be Donald Wollheim’s The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF (which collected stories that first appeared in 1979).
But first, what was 1979 like? Jimmy Carter’s presidency becomes embroiled in The Iran Hostage Crisis. Margaret Thatcher becomes the first female prime minister of Britain. Philips demonstrates the CD publicly for the first time. Among genre films, Star Trek: The Motion Picture premieres to mixed reviews but strong box office, while Alien, a much better film, is released by director Ridley Scott. Meanwhile, Kramer vs. Kramer dominates at the box office and the Oscars, becoming both the top-grossing film of the year in the US and winning Best Picture. Michael Jackson and the BeeGees dominate the music scene, the first with his Off the Wall album and the second with their smash hit “Tragedy.” McDonald’s introduces the Happy Meal. And iconic Hollywood actor John Wayne dies.
Here’s some of the finest science fiction available in 1979, compliments of The 1980 Annual Worlds’s Best SF, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Arthur W. Saha.
The Way of Cross and Dragon — by George R.R. Martin: Damien Har Veris is an Inquisitor of the Order Militant of the Knights of Jesus Christ. He works for an alien archbishop and his job is to root out and eliminate heresy within an interstellar empire. His work has left him disillusioned, so that he craves time off to help him restore his faith. Instead, he is sent to the planet Arion, to disprove a new religious variant from an unexpected source. The story mixes questions of faith with humor and pathos to excellent effect. It also won the 1980 Short Story Hugo Award.
The Thirteenth Utopia — by Somtow Sucharitkul: Inquestor Davaryush Ton has been sent to the planet Shtoma to investigate the claim that it is a utopia. Davaryush has previously disproved twelve other planets claiming utopian status. He finds much more than he expects on Shtoma. An excellent story.
Options — by John Varley: What if you could just casually change your sex? What impact would that have on society? On relationships, marriages and families? These are the questions that Varley explores in this story, as Cleo, a wife and mother, decides to explore her options. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, sincere and sweet. It was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette in 1980.
Unaccompanied Sonata — by Orson Scott Card: Christian Haroldsen is a musical prodigy in a highly regimented future society that strictly controls people’s lives based on their aptitudes. As a child prodigy, Christian is isolated so that he can pursue his genuis without any contamination from other influences. When he learns that there is an outside world, and that there are other types of music, his life journey takes a turn that is horrifying and heart-breaking in equal measures. A very moving story, which was also nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Short Story in 1980.
The Story Writer — by Richard Wilson: William Wylie Ross is an old-school pulp writer. He sits at a table at a flea market with a typewriter and a ream of paper, offering to write a story about you for $1 a page. A cloaked stranger takes him up on his offer, stating that Ross has been chosen, and that anything he writes will come true. A strange story ensues, involving a semi-parallel world and a possible invasion of Earth. At first, it’s all amusing, but then it goes on and on and on. The story simply did not work for me.
Daisy, In the Sun — by Connie Willis: Daisy is a young girl living in a house with her family. Something is wrong, though. Nobody wants to talk about what’s outside the house. In fact, there seem to be some subjects that it’s very difficult to even think about. Daisy is determined to remember things so she can figure out what’s going on. Horrifying and thought-provoking. The story was nominated for the 1980 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
The Locusts — by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes: There’s a colony on Tau Ceti IV, but something seems to be going wrong with the colony’s newborn children. The colonists desperately try to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. It’s a good story, both fascinating and horrifying. It was nominated for the 1980 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
The Thaw — by Tanith Lee: For years, critically ill people have had themselves frozen in the hope that they could be revived and cured in the future. Humanitarians in the future, having developed the necessary technologies, decide to begin reviving these people, beginning with the radiant Carla Brice. We experience this revival through the eyes of Tacey Brice, a distant descendant selected to help the long-frozen Carla adjust to the future. Let’s just say that the revival and adjustment doesn’t quite go as planned. A good, yet horrifying, story, undermined slightly because the two main characters are both so unsympathetic.
Out There Where the Big Ships Go — by Richard Cowper: Roger Herzheim is a 12-year-old boy at loose ends. He and his mother are in town because she’s participating in the Thirty-Third World Kalire Championship, featuring a deeply complicated game created by aliens. Coincidentally, Roger has chance encounters with the two leading players, the Master, a man named Peter Henderson who first learned the game from the aliens, introduced it to Earth, and has never been beaten; and the leading contender, Guilio Romano Amato. It’s a hard story to describe, being part coming-of-age story, part philosophical discussion, with maybe even a little touch of mysticism. It’s an excellent story; highly recommended.
Can These Bones Live? — by Ted Reynolds: A woman wakes up alone in the wilderness, having been resurrected by aliens known as the Roanei. She is the only human in existence; humanity has long been extinct. She is provided with a limited means of communication with the Roanei, though dreams. The aliens want her to convince them that humanity should be resurrected as a species, although they have never, ever been convinced to do so by a representative of any other extinct species. The story is simplistic, maybe a little didactic, but strangely powerful and uplifting.
The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand — by Joanna Russ: A French writer encounters some sort of mysterious gateway to parallel worlds within a tunnel in a train station. It was written as an homage to Jules Verne, in honor of what would have been his one hundred and fiftieth birthday, but it didn’t particularly resonate with me.
This was a pretty awesome Best Of collection. Standouts for me included “The Way of Cross and Dragon,” “Options,” and “Out There Where the Big Ships Go.” Other recommended stories include “The Thirteenth Utopia,” “Unaccompanied Sonata,” “Daisy, In the Sun,” “The Locusts,” and “Can These Bones Live?” This is the most recommendations I’ve yet listed for one of these Best Of collections. I think 1979 was a good year for short fiction.