Saturday, September 19, 2015

Book Review: The 1980 Annual World's Best SF

Book Review: 'The 1980 Annual World's Best SF' edited by Donald A. Wolheim

1 / 5 Stars

‘The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF’ (284 pp) is DAW Book N0. 384, and was published in May, 1980. The cover artist is Jack Gaughan.

All of the entries in this anthology were published in 1979.

Traditionally I approach these DAW ‘World’s Best’ anthologies with modest expectations. However, ‘The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF’ is one of the worst I have yet read.

Maybe this is because the pickings of quality sf stories in 1979 were slim. Or maybe it’s because Donald A. Wolheim simply wasn’t a very good editor. Or maybe it’s both. But the truth is, sf at the end of the 70s was a genre in profound creative decline, still clinging to the passé prose stylings of the New Wave movement, mainly because there was nothing else around to take its place.

Here are my brief summaries of the stories in ‘The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF’:

The Way of Cross and Dragon, by George R. R. Martin: Inquisitor Damien Har Veris travels to the planet Arion, where a heretical sect is winning followers and posing a threat to the Church Eternal. But what Har Veris learns about the sect’s true beliefs shakes his own convictions. Here, Martin attempts to use sf themes to address larger philosophical issues, but the ending is underwhelming, rather than revelatory.

The Thirteenth Utopia, by Somtow Sucharitkul: Another tale featuring an Inquisitor investigating a heresy; this time it’s a seeming utopia on the planet Shtoma. The utopia, it turns out, is real…….. I won’t disclose any spoilers, save to say that the agency nurturing the utopia is more than a little contrived.

Options, by John Varley: No late-70s sf anthology was complete without at least one entry from John Varley. Here, it’s a novelette, set in a socially progressive colony on the Moon. Sex-change is a relatively simple, affordable, and reversible procedure; bored housewife Cleo decides to explore assuming the male gender. I’m sure that this story is a powerful, insightful, humanistic examination of gender roles and the nature of self-identity, but it’s not really sf. Just how bad was it in 1979, that this story was selected as one of the ‘Year’s Best’ ?!

Unaccompanied Sonata, by Orson Scot Card: in the near future, a musical prodigy is persecuted by the minions of a regimented and unyielding world government. This labored allegory also has little ‘genuine’ sf content.

The Story Writer, by Richard Wilson: William Ross, a retired pulp fiction writer, is hired by a man named Street – who may or may not be in fact a member of the alien race of the Uxu – to write the alien’s story. Strangely, whatever Ross writes, actually happens – or will happen – or has happened.

This is the worst story in the anthology; not only is the plot utterly contrived, but the excessively chatty and self-indulgent prose style – which seeks to examine the Life of A Writer – makes reading it an exercise in self-flagellation.

Daisy in the Sun, by Connie Willis: incoherent tale of a young girl who experiences the end of the world (by the Sun gone Nova) as a series of particularly vivid hallucinations. This premise is as unconvincing as it sounds.

The Locusts, by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes: After a 25-year journey through deep space, the starship Orion establishes Earth’s very first extraterrestrial colony on the seemingly idyllic planet of Ridgeback. But even the most idyllic planet has its risks……this novelette is the best entry in the anthology. It served as the basis for the 1987 novel The Legacy of Heorot by Niven, Barnes, and Jerry Pournelle.

The Thaw, by Tanith Lee: in 2193, Tracy Brice, who earns a modest living writing about flying saucers, discovers that her distant relative Carla Brice, who was cryogenically preserved in 1993, is in fact being thawed out as part of a government-sponsored study. Tracy reluctantly agrees to be friend and mentor to Carla……but Carla, as it turns out, is hardly the distressed soul everyone expects her to be………… veering unconvincingly between satire and mild horror, this story never really gels.

Out There Where the Big Ships Go, by Richard Cowper: vacationing at an exclusive resort in the near-future Mediterranean, a young boy named Roger discovers that the alien religion that has swept the Earth - and brought with it an all-encompassing change in humanity – is not without its drawbacks. While this story is a good example of Cowper’s well-crafted and thoughtful prose, it really is more of a treatment of metaphysics, than science fiction.

Can These Bones Live ?, by Ted Reynolds: a young woman awakes from being dead to discover she has been reborn as the sole human on an idyllic Earth. The race of omnipotent aliens who have arranged for her rebirth have given her one opportunity to ask that the rest of humanity be reborn to join her; there is much psychological angst. This story, meant to be a Profound Allegory about Humanism, is instead…. Profoundly Boring.

The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand, by Joanna Russ: according to Editor Wolheim, this story is not included as one of the Year’s Best, but rather, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jules Verne, which took place in 1978 and was otherwise ignored in the US. It’s a mild pastiche about a French housewife who discovers a portal in time and space, and proceeds to have some adventures.

Summing up…….how bad is the content of ‘The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF’ ? 

It’s this bad: take any first-generation cyberpunk short story: ‘The Belonging Kind’ (1981), ‘Burning Chrome’ (1982), '400 Boys' (1983), ‘Dogfight’ (1985), ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’ (1985), and it is far, far superior to anything in this anthology.

‘The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF’ is for DAW completists only.

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