Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review: 'The 1973 Annual World's Best SF', edited by Donald A. Wollheim


2 / 5 Stars

‘The 1973 Annual World’s Best SF’ (1973) is DAW Book No. 53. The cover art is by Jack Gaughan.
Somewhat confusingly, this volume is a continuation of the ‘World’s Best Science Fiction’ series published by Ace books, and edited by Wollheim, from 1965 to 1971. [After a dispute with the management of Ace books, Wollheim left the company in 1971 to found DAW Books. The 'Annual World's Best' incarnation started up at DAW with the 1972 edition].

All the stories in this anthology saw print in 1972, mainly in the pages of mainstream digest publications such as Analogue and Fantasy and Science Fiction.
In his Introduction Wollheim displays a surprising amount of rancor towards the New Wave movement, which by 1973 was at its apogee; a body of literature that, as far as Wollheim was concerned, was “…laden with snide, open-ended, implausible, and sometimes plotless writing- and occasionally works that are offensively and pointlessly obscene.”  Wollheim was particularly angered by the disparaging attitude on the part of many New Wave practitioners towards the ‘Old Hands’, i.e., established SF writers like Asimov, Clark, Anderson, Pohl, etc.
He has little praise for Damon Knight’s  ‘Orbit’ anthology series (which expressly showcased New Wave content), and is less than impressed with Harlan Ellison’s second major New Wave anthology, ‘Again, Dangerous Visions’.
With his ‘1973 Annual World’s Best SF’ Wollheim clearly hoped to give heightened exposure to previously published tales by the ‘Old Hands’ and select newcomers. So how well does a seemingly anti-New Wave anthology, released at the height of the New Wave era, come across nearly 40 years later ?
Ironically, the first entry, Poul Anderson’s ‘Goat Song’, is a determined effort by an Old Hand to write something with a New Wave flavor. The plot takes the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and transplants it into an SF milieu; the first –person narrator, a Harpist, asks an omnipotent computer to revive his dead wife. The story suffers from Anderson’s exertions to be Profound; the prose style is clumsy and overwrought, there are too many stanzas of archaic poetry, and the computer, called ‘SUM’, too clearly derived from Harlan Ellison’s ‘AM’ in ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’. 
James Tiptree, Jr (i.e., Alice Sheldon) provides ‘The Man Who Walked Home’, about a recurring apparition that may represent a man trapped in a time portal of some kind. The story focuses on the reactions of various people as, over the centuries, they convene at the location in Idaho where the apparition manifests itself on a yearly basis. The story’s time travel element is unconvincing, and overall, ‘Man’ didn’t impress me as a ‘year’s best’ candidate.
Michael Coney contributes ‘Oh, Valinda !’, a tale set in the polar regions of the planet Cantek. Some profit-minded Earthmen have enlisted a Cantek native to help them transport an iceberg through the ocean to a port where fresh water is badly needed. The story is meant to be a reflection on the pollution of the Earth’s polar regions and the effect of encroaching civilization upon the Eskimos living there. Featuring some rather unusual but well thought-out alien biology, it’s one of the better entries in the anthology.
Wollheim introduces Frederik Pohl’s novella ‘The Gold at the Starbow’s End’ as  “…probably the best single piece that this very talented writer has produced in the last few years.” The story alternates between the observations of the crew of the first starship to Alpha Centauri, and the politicians and scientists back on Earth who are anxious to trumpet its accomplishments as a Cold War triumph. It’s not a bad story, but whether it’s one of Pohl’s best efforts at short fiction is open to debate.
Clifford Simak provides ‘To Walk A City’s Street’s’, in which a man with unusual abilities is forced by government agents to wander the seedier district of a city. There is a surprise ending.
T. J. Bass contributes ‘Rorqual Maru’, an entry in his ‘Hive’ series of stories and novels. In a far-future Earth depleted of most of its resources, genetic engineering and severe overpopulation have resulted in the advent of the Nebish, a species of Homo sapiens of small size and hesitant bearing. When a genetically engineered great blue whale – the Rorqual Maru- chances on abundant supplies of plankton, the Nebishes find themselves in competition with a race of long-forgotten, genetically engineered aquatic humans to lay claim to the harvest. This story served as the basis for Bass’s 1974 novel ‘The Godwhale’.
W. Macfarlane (a Google search for more info about the author was unsuccessful) provides ‘Changing Woman’, about an American Indian woman who takes a job as a cartographer for a mysterious project operating from a secure redoubt in northern California. The story’s prose suffers from too self-conscious an effort by the author to be arty and stylish; witness this example of dialogue:
“Birdeena Ora Oza Yadon, sweetie…” her boss was hesitant.
“Are you using your forked or unforked tongue ?”
‘Willie’s Blues’, by Robert J. Tilley, takes the trope of the White Boy Who Worships Jazz and A Special Negro Jazzman in Particular, and melds it with a conclusion about the moral implications of time travel. I have to admit I hate Jazz, and I also can’t stand white urban liberal hipsters who swoon over Jazz, but even so, this story came across reasonably well.
Vernor Vinge contributes ‘Long Shot’, the most ‘hard’ SF tale in the anthology. It’s about an AI that is chosen to direct a lengthy journey to a distant star. Vinge does a good job of giving the reader a sense of the challenges confronting an interstellar mission.
Phyllis MacLennon provides ‘Thus Love Betrays Us’, in which a Terran biologist is marooned on a dismal, fog-shrouded planet. His efforts to befriend a member of the native population have unforseen consequences.
All in all, 'The 1973 Annual World's Best SF' is a middling example of an anthology. There are three or four memorable stories, but too many other entries are rather lackluster and indicate that, at least as far as 1972 was concerned, the Old Guard was still trying - with only mixed success- to deal with the challenge posed by the advent of the New Wave.

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