Saturday, April 22, 2017

Book Review: The 7th Annual Best SF

Book Review: 'The 7th Annual Best SF 73' 
edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss

2 / 5 Stars

‘The 7th Annual Best SF 73’ (255 pp) was published by Berkley Books in June, 1974. The cover artist is Paul Lehr.

Some of the entries in this volume first were published in digests and magazines, while others appeared in literary journals, or in other sf anthologies (like Orbit).

Reading ‘7th Annual’ is like diving into the deepest depths of the New Wave movement in sf. That said, there are a few worthwhile stories in this collection.

The anthology opens with a Introduction from Editor Harrison, in which he surveys sf in 1973: the growth of the genre as a classroom subject; the increasing commercial viability of sf films, like Soylent Green; and the momentous decision by Esquire magazine to print its first-ever sf story (William Harrison’s 'Roller Ball Murder'). 

Unfortunately, most of the Introduction is a belabored exposition on what, exactly, sf is; here Harrison resorts to a Venn diagram, and some contrived mathematical expressions, to make his point…..whatever it is.

As far as the stories, well…………Harrison and his co-editor Brian Aldiss were no different than Damon Knight when it came to eagerly co-opting ‘literary’ works and presenting them as sf, a tactic whose earnest purpose was to convince the Literary World that sf – or rather, ‘speculative fiction’ – was no longer a puerile exercise in writing, but a matured Art Form of its own. 

Thus, ‘7th Annual’ contains ‘Ten Years Ago…’, a short-short story by the English writer Max Beerbohm that apparently was recovered from the back panel of a framed print (?!). Also included is ‘Sister Francetta and the Pig Baby’, a two-page sketch by a San Francisco playwright named Kenneth Barnard. And rounding things out are five poems, one by W. H. Auden, that in very faint ways, have some dim relevance to sf……….

The other entries:

Roller Ball Murder, by William Harrison: Harrison (1933 – 2013) was a well-regarded young novelist when, in 1973, Esquire published Roller Ball Murder, which of course was made into a memorable 1975 feature film. Despite the passage of 44 years, this short story retains its imaginative appeal, which many New Wave works have failed to do.

Mason’s Life, by Kingsley Amis: Harrison makes much of having an entry from Amis, who in the early 70s had considerable cache as a mainstream novelist. This is a slight tale of a man and his dreams.

Welcome to the Standard Nightmare, by Robert Sheckley: a Terran lout named Johnny Bezique confronts a seemingly perfect, invincible alien society. Like most of Sheckley's stories, this one relies on satirical humor.

Serpent Burning on an Altar, by Brian Aldiss: Less a short story, than a passage from what would be Aldiss’s 1976 novel The Malacia Tapestry. Aldiss reworks Renaissance-era Italy into a quasi-fantasy landscape; the characters spend their time flirting, and making grand pronouncements about life, death, and love. I can't say I was all that impressed with 'Serpent', but M. Porcius loved the novel.

We Are Very Happy Here, by Joe W. Haldeman: like Aldiss’s entry, this is another ‘chapter from a novel in progress’, in this case, 1975’s The Forever War.

The Birds, by Thomas M. Disch: two talking ducks (?!) confront eco-disaster. Its downbeat tenor keeps it from being trite.

The Wind and the Rain, by Robert Silverberg: a tale of eco-disaster; in the far future, people from the Federation return to the ravaged husk of Earth to attempt a reclamation. Its New Wave affectations – such as devoting an entire page to a listing of synonyms for the word ‘destruction’ – undermines its impact.

Parthen, by R. A. Lafferty: satire about Earth invaded by cunning aliens.

The Man Who Collected the First of September 1973, by Tor Age Bringsvaerd: while it was thoughtful of Harrison to bring stories written by non-U.S. or British authors into his anthologies, showcasing stories such as this one - about a man gripped by existential anomie – means that these efforts to acknowledge sf’s international appeal often were sub-par.

Captain Nemo’s Last Adventure, by Josef Nesvadba: originally published in 1964 by Nesvadba, a Czech author, this is a novelette about a man consumed with the desire to be a hero. It might be a clever satire of communism…….or socialism……..but it’s rather lame, even by the standards of early 60s sf.

La Befana, by Gene Wolfe: standard-issue oblique tale from Wolfe. It’s about humans condemned to servility on a hostile alien world.

The Window in Dante’s Hell, by Michael Bishop: in a future Atlanta, the deceased inhabitant of an apartment in a conapt is investigated by city bureaucrats. Bishop uses the sf element to frame a humanistic exploration of the loss of self-identity, and looming depersonalization………. very ‘in’ themes for the New Wave era.

Escape, by Ilya Vershavsky: on a gulag planet, Arp Zumbi is offered a chance to escape…..but if he’s caught, he will be tortured to death. Originally published in Cyrillic in 'No Alarming Symptoms' (
Тревожных симптомов нет), a 1972 anthology of Vershavsky's short stories. The best entry in the anthology, sharpened by the less-than-overt allusions to the totalitarian nature of modern Russia.

Early Bird, by Theodore R. Cogswell and Theodore L. Thomas: a Terran fighter-pilot find himself stranded on a hostile planet. Another of the better entries in the anthology.

The collection closes with an Afterword by Aldiss, which starts as a tribute to the sf artist Karel Thole, but then veers into a self-indulgent philosophical treatise on ‘Wizards’ and ‘Plumbers’……..before returning again to Thole. The main value of this afterword is in reminding us that Thole was a gifted artist (looking over his works available at online portals is recommended).

Summing up, ‘The 7th Annual Best SF 73’ is a mixed bag. The entries from Harrison, Haldeman, Disch, Vershavsky, and Cogswell and Thomas are enough to justify picking it up if you’re a fan of the New Wave era. But I suspect younger readers (i.e. those under 40) will not find much here to engage them.

No comments: