Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Review: 'World's Best Science Fiction 1970' by Donald A. Wolheim and Terry Carr

2 / 5 Stars

‘The World’s Best Science Fiction 1970’ (Ace Books, 1970, 349 pp) is edited by Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr, and features a cover with an abstract design by John Schoenherr superimposed on a rather garish, but attention-getting, pink color scheme. There are interior line drawings by Jack Gaughan. 

All of the stories in this chunky (349 pp., 9 pt type) anthology were published in 1969, many in magazines such as ‘Analog’, ‘Galaxy’, and ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’.

As one might expect for stories seeing print in the late 60s, the influence of the New Wave movement is strong. The majority of the stories eschew ‘traditional’ SF topics, and instead focus on issues of psychology, anthropology, and sociology, with attendant focus on characterization and mood, rather than descriptive passages centered on technology or hard science. Most of the authors display a conscious effort to adopt a New Wave diction, using figurative, often obtuse, prose styles. Sometimes, this works, but more often, it doesn’t.

My capsule reviews of the contents:

Richard Wilson’s ‘A Man Spekith’: the Last Man on Earth is a hippy DJ aboard a space station. A boring tale that hasn’t aged well.

‘After the Myths Went Home’ by Robert Silverberg: less SF than mythic-inspired ‘speculative fiction’, but the ending gives the story enough of a jolt to be rewarding.

‘Death by Ecstasy’, by Larry Niven: a ponderous effort to meld a police procedural with SF elements. Too long and too dull.

Alexei Panshin’s ‘One Sunday in Neptune’: disaffected spacemen decide to explore Neptune. Tries to say something Profound about the Human Condition, but ends up being Boring.

‘For the Sake of Grace’, by Suzette Haden Elgin: one of the better stories in the anthology; on a planet where women are subjected to appalling social customs, a befuddled patriarch confronts a rebellious daughter. The references to Islam are unsubtle and effective.

James Tiptree, Jr, ‘Your Haploid Heart’: some knowledge of High School genetics required; but in essence a competent adventure story dealing with alien societies, strange approaches to reproduction, and racial conflict.

‘Therapy 2000’ by Keith Roberts: in a near-future, overcrowded society, a man is slowly going insane due to the constant bombardment of noise. The prose is too dense, and the story too slow-moving, to be very memorable.

‘Sixth Sense’ by Michael Coney: in a near-future world in which everyone is telepathic, a bed and breakfast owner on the English coast hosts bickering couples. Well written, although the SF content is light.

Harlan Ellison’s ‘A Boy and His Dog’: still politically incorrect, still mordantly amusing, 40 years after first seeing print.

‘And So Say All of Us’, by Bruce McAllister: A schizophrenic displays esp powers that catch the interest of the Defense Department. A pedestrian story.

‘Shadow Ship’ by Fritz Lieber: an amnesiac, elderly bartender prone to hallucinations encounters intrigue aboard a decrepit spaceship peopled by drug addicts. Lieber’s earnest effort to write prose that’s very arty, and very ‘New Wave’, is in reality clumsy and obtuse.

Ursula LeGuin contributes ‘Nine Lives’, about two irascible miners on an earthquake-prone planet who discover their new work mates are a ‘clone’ consisting of five males and five females. LeGuin’s intent is to explore the psychology of alienation, very New Wave-y; as a straightforward SF tale, the story does work.

The concluding entry is Norman Spinrad’s much-anthologized ‘The Big Flash’, which cynically mixes atom bombs, group psychology, and the power of rock music. Of all the entries, it best represents the New Wave ethos, without sliding too far into self-indulgence or excessive artiness.

Taken all in all, ‘World’s Best SF 1970’ displays the effects of the New Wave movement on the genre and its more salient authors. Some coped with the changes to writing and publishing brought by the New Wave era better than others. There are only three or four genuinely notable stories in this anthology, so I really can’t recommend it, save to those readers with a particular interest in late 60s SF.


Todd Mason said...

The Fritz Leiber is "Ship of Shadows." I have a feeling you might've read it too fast or too long ago, but de gustibus.

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