Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: The 1979 Annual World's Best SF

Book Review: 'The 1979 Annual World's Best SF' edited by Donald A. Wollheim

3 / 5 Stars

‘The 1979 Annual World’s Best SF’ (268 pp) was published by DAW Books (DAW Book No. 337) in May, 1979. The cover artwork is by Jack Gaughan.

All of the stories in this anthology first saw print in 1978, mostly in sf digests and magazines.

In his Introduction, editor Wollheim notes that, for sf, 1978 was a ‘terrific and unprecedented’ year, a year which saw the genre experience the greatest commercial success, and popularity, in its history. He notes the central role of film and TV properties like Star Wars, as well as Battlestar Galactica and Superman, in fueling the boom, but also notes that the genre, away from its more commercialized pop culture manifestations, is entering a period of ‘uncertainty’.

I believe that what Wollheim was trying to say was that the New Wave movement – which gets no mention in his Introduction – was, by 1979, losing steam. However, there was nothing to replace it, and the genre would sputter along, offering up the dregs of the New Wave approach, until something came along to revitalize sf. We now know this was, of course, Cyberpunk; but in ’79, Neuromancer was a good five years in the future.

What then, do we get in the 1979 'World’s Best' ?

‘Come to the Party’ by Frank Herbert and F. M. Busby: variation on the theme of Ignorant Terrans Interefere with an Alien Planet’s Ecocystem and Mayhem Ensues. The forced effort at imparting ironic humor to the story, and the use of cutesy terminology – ‘warpling’, ‘Hoojies’, ‘squishes’ – makes this entry seem like a hangover from an issue of Analog magazine
(with an Ed Emshwiller cover) ca. 1960.

‘Creator’ by David Lake: labored allegory in which an omnipotent alien experiments with a virtual reality simulator (somewhat like a very sophisticated version of Microsoft’s ‘Civilization’ PC game), that recapitulates the rise of life on Earth.

‘Dance Band on the Titanic’ by Jack Chalker: underwhelming allegory about a ferryboat upon which people from parallel universes can co-mingle for the duration of the voyage. The alienated first-person narrator regains his lost belief in the worth and goodness of humanity.

‘Casandra’ by C. J. Cherryh: a woman has disturbing visions of her city in flames. Is she insane, or precongnitive ? A competent, if not particularly original, story.

‘In Alien Flesh’ by Gregory Benford: Reginri the farmhand makes a fateful decision to participate in an unusual experiment involving a whale-like alien species.

‘SQ’ by Ursula K. Le Guin: labored satire about a scientist who cons the entire planet into adopting a new psychological test of dubious validity.

‘The Persistence of Vision’ by John Varley: in the late 1990s, in a US wracked by economic and social turmoil, the alienated first-person narrator wanders from one commune to another across the Southwest. Then he comes upon a commune operated by the Kellerites: people who were left blind and deaf by the German Measles outbreak of the mid-60s. The Kellerites communicate via touch, an action they feel is best mediated through orgies (!) The narrator comes to the realization that the Kellerites have founded a new way of living, in which so-called ‘handicaps’ in fact allow for a Transcendence not available to the non-disabled.

‘Perisistence’ won both Hugo and Nebula awards for 1979. While it’s competently written, whether it is a classic work of sf is doubtful. I suspect that it was so well received at the time because its humanistic message, however overbearing, provided an optimistic note that countered the pessimism of the late 70s.

‘We Who Stole the Dream’ by James Tiptree, Jr: Diminutive, but brave, aliens conspire to escape their brutal Terran overseers. With some crisp action sequences and a downbeat tenor, this is the best story in the anthology.

‘Scattershot’ by Greg Bear: a young woman must cope with the unusual side-effect of an alien attack on her starship: it is reassembled as a hodge-podge of similar ships existing in parallel universes. The concept is interesting, but the narrative gets too bogged down in introspective interludes designed to force-feed the reader empathy and insight into the personality of the main character.

‘Carruther’s Last Stand’ by Dan Henderson: variation on the theme of A Crusty Misanthrope Is the Only Person in the World Who can Telepathically Communicate with Distant Aliens. The big revelation that comes at the story’s end is confusingly handled. 

Summing up, ‘The 1979 Annual World’s Best SF’ is yet another middle-of-the-road anthology. At least the dialed-in entries from ‘name’ authors, that tended to seep the vigor out of many of Wolheim’s ‘World’s Best’ anthologies, are reduced here, giving something of a promising note to the this decade's final entry in the series.

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